Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon. Part 1: 17th century gems.

In my last blog I looked at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon and talked about its founder Calouste Gulbenkian. In my next couple of blogs, I want to talk about my favourite paintings I saw in the Founders Collection of the museum. I have to admit when I entered the building and followed the path you had to take it was all about ancient pieces of porcelain, furniture and jewellery – all good, but not what I was interested in, and I was starting to wonder if there were any paintings but I finally came across the rooms where they hung.

View from the Coast of Norway or A Stormy Sea Near the Coast by Jacob van Ruisdael

My first painting I want you to see is one by Jacob van Ruisdael. I have always loved the works by this seventeenth century Dutch painter especially his rural landscape paintings. The one on show at this gallery was a seascape entitled View from the Coast of Norway or sometimes referred to as  A Stormy Sea Near the Coast, which he completed around 1660. It was a painting that Gulbenkian acquired in 1914. I had not realised that Ruisdael had actually completed forty to fifty seascapes. Once again he has adhered to his successful formula of having two-thirds of the work occupied by the threatening sky and by doing so, he has added a palpable melodramatic energy to the work. In the mid-ground we see boats struggling against the force of nature as they are pounded by ferocious seas and bent over by gale-force winds. Oddly shaped rocks, which have been eroded by past storms, lie in wait and we cannot help but wonder about the fate of the boats. Ruisdael’s inclusion of the rocks further adds to the atmospheric ferocity of the depiction.

Dutch Landscape by Jan van der Heyden

Another painting by a seventeenth century Dutch artist which I liked was simply entitled Dutch Landscape, a work by Jan van der Heyden. Van der Heyden, the third of eight children, was born on March 5th 1637 in Gorinchem, a city and municipality in the western Netherlands. His father was by turns an oil mill owner, a grain merchant and a broker. The family moved to Amsterdam in 1646 and van der Heyden’s father acquired local citizenship. Jan van der Heyden himself would never acquire Amsterdam citizenship. Initially his painting genre was still-lifes but later this changed and he became known for his townscapes featuring groups of buildings. . Van der Heyden, although a talented artist, was better known in his own day as an inventor and engineer. One of his most famous accomplishments was that he designed and implemented a complex system of lighting for the streets of Amsterdam, which was utilised from 1669 until 1840 and which was also adopted by other Dutch cities and even used abroad.

Van Heyden would travel extensively in Flanders and Holland as well as the Rhineland towns of Germany close to the Dutch border constantly looking for inspiration for his cityscapes.  In his early seventeenth century work, Dutch Landscape, we see depicted the Dutch town of Zuylen which lies on the banks of the River Vecht, close to the city of Utrecht. One can see in this work, like many of his other cityscapes, that his main interest is not one of nature but on architecture and his painstakingly accurate way in which he depicts the facades of buildings, especially when we look at the Gothic church on the left of the painting. There is nothing flash about this depiction. It is not ablaze with colour. It is a simple yet sober interpretation of everyday life. It is thought that another artist executed the figures in the painting.

Portrait of San Andriedr. Hessix by Frans Hals

Among Gulbenkian’s seventeenth century paintings on show at the Founder’s Collection there were a number of portraits. I particularly liked Portrait of San Andriedr. Hessix by Frans Hals. It is an oil on canvas depiction of Sara Andriesdr (daughter of Andries) Hessix who was married to Michael Jansz. Van Middelhoven, a pastor from the city of Voorschoten, near Leiden, and another of Frans Hals’ sitters.

Michiel Jansz van Middelhoven, aged 64 in 1626, by Hals (confiscated during WWII and whereabouts unknown)

Both portraits formed a pair which were completed around 1626 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the couples wedding which took place on 1586. Unfortunately, the portrait of the pastor was confiscated by the Germans during World War II and has never been recovered. Frans Hals methodology regarding the portrait of the woman would be repeated in many of his works.

It is an accurate resemblance of the sixty-year-old woman. She has a serious expression on her face. There has been no attempt by the artist to “beautify” the lady. The way we see her, turned in three-quarters and against a plain dark background, is in the finest Dutch tradition of portraiture.

Portrait of an Old Man by Rembrandt (1645)

Another portrait which caught my eye was one by the Dutch Master, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. It was his 1645 painting entitled Portrait of an Old Man. The portrait which was once owned by Catherine the Great came into the possession of Gulbenkian in 1930. Nobody knows for certain the identity of the sitter although many theories abound. The man is dressed in expensive clothes but this does not necessarily indicate his wealth, occupation or social status as they could well be props belonging to the artist’s studio and simply used as a decorative effect. Rembrandt is known for his penchant for portraits of people in their old age and has appeared as an old man in a number of his self-portraits. It is a beautifully crafted work. Look at the skin texture of the man’s hands as he holds on to his walking cane. It is both a complex and emotional depiction. Rembrandt has concentrated on a palette of browns with the odd flash of gold and the painting is enhanced by the artist’s use of chiaroscuro. The light homes in on the man’s hands and face and in some way elicits a feeling of tragedy – the tragedy of ageing.

Portrait of a Man by Anthony van Dyck (1621)

My final look at the seventeenth century paintings I saw in the Founders Collection in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian was another portrait painting, this time one by Anton van Dyck. The title given to this 1621 work was simply, Portrait of a Man and so like the previous painting we are unaware of the identity of the sitter. But maybe we do, as when it was purchased for Gulbenkian in 1923 at Christies, it had the title Portrait of Anton Triest.

He is mentioned in documents as being the Burgomaster of Ghent and is also referred to as Nicolas, but this theory is contested by many art historians. His social status has been set due to the absence of a sword which would suggest that the sitter in question is a member of the bourgeoisie.  The man sits on a leather chair with Spanish style nail-work which was often used by van Dyck in his early works.

In the next blog I will showcase some of my favourite 18th century paintings which can be discovered in the Founder’s Collection at Lisbon’s Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.

A Merry Company at Table by Hendrick Pot

A Merry Company at Table by Hendrick Pot (c.1630)

Two paintings today; one by the artist and one of the artist himself.  One of the pleasures I get from my blog is that besides discovering new artists and their paintings, I acquire an insight with regards the history and traditions of various countries , most of which I had little previous knowledge.  Maybe I should have concentrated more during my history lessons at school.   Recently I have featured Flemish artists and I looked briefly at Dutch and Flemish history during the time of Spanish occupation and rule.  Today, I am looking at a painting by the Dutch painter Hendrick Pot and exploring the world of the schutterij.  Don’t you know what the shutterij is or are?   Neither did I until I researched a painting by Pot but before I reveal the answer let me give you a brief biography of the artist himself.

Hendrick Gerritsz Pot was born in Haarlem around 1585.  His early artistic training was with Karl van Mander.  We probably know Karl van Mander not so much as an artist but for his writings.  He has often been termed the Dutch Vasari for his book entitled Schilderboek, published in 1604, which to this day, remains the main source for information on Northern European painters of the 1400s and 1500s and contains valuable original material about his Italian contemporaries.  He had arrived in Haarlem in 1583 and set up an informal academy with the Dutch engraver and painter, Hendrick Goltzius.  At this Academy, van Mander taught and developed the Haarlem Mannerist style.   Other artists who were trained by van Mander at his studio included Frans Hals.
In 1620 he was commissioned to do two paintings relating to William I of Orange, often referred to as William the Silent, who was one of the key leaders of the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule.  He was assassinated in 1584.  One of the paintings, entitled the Glorification of Willem I, was acquired by the city of Haarlem whilst the other entitled the Deathbed of Willem I was housed in the town hall of Delft.   In1630 Pot became Dean of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke.   He travelled to the court of Charles I in London in 1632 where he was employed as the court portraitist and during his one year sojourn at the court completed portraits of Charles I and his wife Queen Henrietta Maria.

In 1633 he returned he returned to Holland.  Many of Pot’s lucrative commissions were to paint group portraits of the local militias, known as schutterij.  So now you know – schutterij is the Dutch term for militia.  They were a voluntary city guard whose prime objective was to protect their town or city from attack and also to act in case of a fire breaking out within the town.   They were simply a defensive military support system for the local civic authority. The officers of the schutterij came from wealthy backgrounds and were appointed by the city magistrates. The captain of each group was normally a very wealthy inhabitant of the district, and the group’s ensign was a wealthy young bachelor and he could be recognised in the group portraits as the man wearing exceptionally fine clothes.   There was a special kudos to being a member of the schutterij as it often led to one being appointed to an important position within the town council.

At the time when the leaders of an individual schutterij stepped down or passed away and their replacements were sworn in, a local artist was commissioned to paint a new group portrait of the members. These group portraits were known as schuttersstukken and they often had the setting of a banquet which was held to welcome in the new leaders.     The artist commissioned to carry out the painting had a complex job on his hands.  This is not as it would be now when a photographer would get the group to stand as one and after a few minor adjustments shoot the film.  In the case of schuttersstukken the artist would paint each member separately so that each individual portrait within the group was as accurate as possible.  As a member of this militia, if one wanted to be included in the group portrait, one had to pay for the privilege and how much you paid the artist and your rank within the militia, would depend on where he positioned you within the group!  As I said before it was a very lucrative commission and there was a lot of competition for the right to carry out the group portrait.  Probably one of the most famous of the schuttersstukken was Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.   One thing that would help an aspiring artist to gain the painting commission was if he was a member of a schutterij.   Hendrick Pot was a lieutenant in a schutterij and that was the advantage he had over many of the other applicants.

The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company by Frans Hals

This leads me to my second painting of the day which is entitled The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company which Frans Hals painted around 1639 and included in the work is none other than Hendrick Pot with his militia sash who is seated at a table on the far right of the gathering, reading a book.

In 1648 Pot moved from Haarlem and went to live in Amsterdam.  In his later years he concentrated on small single figure portraiture.  He died in Amsterdam in 1657, aged 72.

My main featured painting is one Hendrick Pot completed around1630 and is entitled A Merry Company at a Table.   It is now housed in the Wallace Collection in London.   It is a genre piece.  The definition of a genre piece is a work of art  which affords a pictorial representation, painted  in any of the various media and one that represent scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes. Some of the genre pieces are realistic, some imagined, whilst others are romanticized by the artist. This type of painting was particularly popular in seventeenth century Netherlands, but the term “genre” was not applied at the time;  instead, paintings were divided into more specific categories, such as ‘merry company’ scenes (conversatie), ‘little fire’ scenes (brandje) or ‘bordello scenes’ (bordeeltje).   My featured painting today falls into the latter category, a bordeeltje.  So why do we believe what we are looking at is a bordello?  Although the painting is not littered by scantily dressed females and lusting men the artist has given us some subtle hints as to what we are looking at.  On the floor there is a discarded rapier, lute and in the foreground, a dog.  These symbolise the disarming power of love and carnal desire.  Look to the left of the painting and in the doorway one sees an old woman carefully watching her girls as they enchant and flirt with the soldiers.  The men and women seated around the table make music together which is a common euphemism for making love and they play cards and smoke which were looked upon as the two great vices of the time.

Look to the extreme right of the painting.  Look at the cavalier with his back to the chimney breast, who stares out at us.  He gives us a knowing look as if to say “you know what is going on here, don’t you?”  The background solely consist of a drab muted coloured wall broken up only by the presence of a mirror.  Why do you think Pot added a mirror to this scene?  Could he be asking us to look into it, see our own reflection and examine our own behaviour, before we audaciously condemn the women and the men we see before us in the brothel?

I have always liked these Dutch and Flemish genre pieces.  There is often a moralistic tale being told.  The scene is often up for interpretation and we look carefully for any signs of symbolism.  I enjoy looking closely at the individuals and try to guess what is going on in their minds.  Fortunately there are so many of them in our art galleries and museums and I am never disappointed by what I see.

Enjoy !

Young Man with a Skull (Vanitas) by Frans Hals

Young Man with a Skull (Vanitas) by Frans Hals (c.1628)

Frans Hals was born in Antwerp around 1582.  His family were forced to leave their home and flee to Haarlem during the siege of Antwerp by Spanish troops.  Hals studied under the Mannerist painter, Karel van Mander.  In 1609 he became a member of the city’s painter’s union and society, the Haarlem Guild of St Luke and began to earn a living by working for the town council as an art restorer.  Hals married twice.  His first wife Annetje Hamensdochter Abeel died in 1616 during childbirth.  A year later he married Lysbeth Reyniers, the young daughter of a fishmonger, who he had employed to look after his children from his first marriage.  Hals and his second wife went on to have a further eight children.  Unlike his fellow artists of the time he demanded that his patrons came to him rather than for him to leave his family and travel the country to seek out patronage and make his fortune.   Frans Hals died in Haarlem in 1666, aged 84 with very little to show financially for his artistic career.  He had been penniless on many occasions and had often been taken to court by his creditors.  Left destitute, the municipality had little choice but to subsidise him for the last two years of his life. 

My Daily Art Display today is the oil on canvas painting entitled Young Man Handling a Skull (Vanitas) painted by Frans Hals between 1626 and 1628.  On first sight we immediately think of the scene from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet when Hamlet was seen contemplating the skull of Yorick in the graveyard of Elsinore.  For many actors and playgoers this scene is a lasting favourite and remains one of the most memorable images of the melancholy Prince.  The play was first performed in 1600 so maybe Hals based his painting on that very scene.  However art historians would have us believe otherwise, and believe it is much more likely to be a Dutch Vanitas allegory.  Vanitas paintings feature an object (or objects) which symbolises our own mortality and the fact that life is short and reminds us of the transient nature of all our earthly pleasures and achievements.  The Vanitas paintings are meant as a warning and ask us, the viewers, notwithstanding our age, to think about death .  The inclusion of a skull  in a painting was a  typical motif of a Vanitas painting. 

However this is more than just a Vanitas painting.  In front of us we have a boy holding a skull.  His rosy cheeks, similar in colour to his lips, give him a youthful appearance.  His right hand reaches towards us as he gestures. See how the artist has skilfully foreshortened his hand in such a way that it seems to be bursting out of the canvas towards us.   In his left hand is the skull, glowing in comparison to the darkness of the boy’s palm and clothes.  The light comes from the left hand side of the painting causing a dark shadow on one side of the boy’s face.

The painter was famous for his style.  He worked quickly, often painting “wet on wet”.  Wet-on-wet is a painting technique in which layers of wet paint are applied to previous layers of wet paint. This technique requires a fast way of working, because the art work has to be finished before the first layers have dried.   This technique results in vibrant swirls of semi-blended colour.  Van Gogh admired this technique and wrote:

….eyes, nose, mouth done with a single stroke of the brush without any retouching whatever,,,,, To paint in one rush, as much as possible in one rush…..I think a great lesson taught by the old Dutch masters is the following:  to consider drawing and colour [as one]….”

This is an interesting portrait.  There is a beautiful simplicity about it but let us not overlook the skill of the artist who has given us such a work of art.