My blog today is somewhat shorter than usual as I decided to concentrate solely on the life and works of Hendrik Mesdag’s wife Sientje van Houten, an artist in her own right and not just “Mrs Mesdag, wife of the marine painter Hendrik Mesdag”.
Hendrik Willem Mesdag married Sientje van Houten in April 1856 and seven years later in September 1863 their only child, Klaas was born. In June 1864, her father Derk, a wealthy Groningen timber merchant, died and left her a substantial inheritance which she realised in 1866. This change in her financial situation allowed Hendrik to leave his father’s bank where he had been working for sixteen years and concentrate on his painting and eventually become a professional artist. He even managed to have one of his paintings, which had been accepted at the 1870 Salon, awarded a gold medal.
Sientje had accompanied her husband when he went to stay in Brussels to study under Willem Roelofs. Their house in Rue Van de Weyer was often the focal point for Dutch and Belgian painters, and it could well have been the conversations on art at these soirées that stimulated Sientje’s mind and enhanced her artistic talent. She, like her husband, not only received instruction from Roelofs but also from Hendrik’s cousin the professional artist, Laurens Alma-Tadema.
She accompanied her husband when he spent the summer of 1866 at the Oosterbeek artist colony and again in the summer of 1868 on the island of Nordeney where she, like Hendrik, spent time painting and sketching seascapes. The couple moved to The Hague in 1869, where they lived in a house on Anna Paulownastraat and later in a house on Laan van Meerdervoort. Her husband, who wanted to concentrate on seascapes, later hired a studio room facing the sea at the Villa Elba in Scheveningen where he and Sientje would spend hours painting and sketching. In order to improve her artistic proficiency, Sientje took drawing lessons from their family friend and painter Christian d’Arnaud Gerkens.
Life could not have been better for Hendrick Mesdag and his wife Sientje and yet fate would play a fateful trick on the couple. On September 24th 1871, tragedy struck when their beloved eight-year-old son Klaas, died of diphtheria. It must have been a devastating time for Hendrik and Sientje. Who knows whether Sientje wanted to totally immerse herself into something which would deaden the pain of loss but following the death of Klaas, she devoted all her time painting. She had been in contact with art from an early age through both her father, who had a modest art collection, which she and her siblings would have seen and of course she had lived with her husband and watched him paint.
At first, Sientje concentrated on landscape painting and would often leave home and go on painting trips in the Scheveningen dunes with her friend and artist, Harriet Lido who was constantly giving her artistic advice. Sientje Mesdag-van Houten initially focused on landscape painting and travelled to areas such as Drenthe, Overijssel and the Veluwe region in Gelderland. Besides her love of landscape painting she also liked to paint still lifes. Over the years, she became increasingly accomplished as an artist and her self-confidence grew to such an extent that she began to submit her paintings to national exhibitions in Europe and America and was happy to partake in group exhibitions held by the Dutch Drawing Society and the Pulchri Studio. Her husband was also a member of the Pulchri Studio and on a number of occasions both husband and wife exhibited together. She was also the president of Our Club, a meeting place for cultured women. Mesdag-van Houten kept in touch with other women painters and dedicated herself to the cause of the ‘poor female artist’ and became the leading light and mentor for many young aspiring female artists who would gather at her studio for advice on their artwork
She was in close contact with many art dealers and her paintings were sought after by their clients, especially her still lifes. In 1881 she helped her husband paint the amazing 1680 square metres panoramic painting of Scheveningen which has become known as Panorama Mesdag, but more about this work in the next blog. Her painting entitled Cottages at Sunset and Heath near Ede was well received at the 1889 Paris Exposition and was awarded a bronze medal.
Sientje, like her husband Henrik, were avid collectors of art and eventually amassed almost three hundred and fifty works of art as well as objet d’arts, porcelain and artefacts from Holland and Asia. Their favourites were works by the French Barbizon School artists. This massive collection dated back to the time she had gone to live with her husband in Brussels whilst he was receiving artistic instruction from Willem Roelofs. Their joint collection grew to such a size that in 1887 they had a museum built next to their house in Laan van Meerdervoort in The Hague. In 1903 Sientje and Hendrik donated the collection and the museum to the Dutch state, since which time it has been called The Mesdag Collection and having visited it a few weeks ago I can assure you it is well worth a visit.
In 1904, Sientje Mesdag-van Houten celebrated her seventieth birthday at the art society, Pictura, and during the celebration they announced that they would name a room in their new building after her. The Pulchri Studio also mounted a retrospective exhibition of her work. For many years Sientje had been simply referred to as Hendrik Mesdag’s wife but in an interview she was very forthright about how she should be remembered, as noted by the interviewer who stated:
“…Despite her marriage to a renowned marine painter, she does not wish to go down in art history as Mesdag’s wife, but as an independent “heroine of art” who follows her own path and seeks recognition for her original artistic convictions…”
Sientje van Houten continued to paint all her life. She died on March 20th 1909, aged 74 and she was buried at the Oud Eik and Duinen Cemetery in The Hague, where later her husband Hendrik and her brother the liberal politician Samuel van Houten would also be interred. There is no doubt that in her day, she was one of the best known and well regarded female artist. Sadly, despite her protestations, soon after she died her standing in the art world declined and she was once again viewed as “the wife of Hendrik Mesdag, the marine painter”. There was however a renewed interest in her life and oeuvre in 1989 when art historians discovered more information regarding her life and artwork.
In my final blog about Hendrik Mesdag I will be focusing on his seascapes and his love of Scheveningen.
If you are a young aspiring artist I wonder what your dreams are. You obviously hope that your painterly skills will improve over the following years. Maybe you dream that your love of painting could become your main livelihood but for that to happen maybe it needs some sort of financial breakthrough. Perhaps you hope that one day you could also afford to build up a collection of paintings created by well-known artists and that your collection grows to such an extent that you house them in your own museum. An impossible dream? The artist I am looking at today achieved all this, so sometimes what you wish for does come true.
Hendrik Willem Mesdag was born in Groningen on February 23rd 1831. His father Klaas, who originally was a grain merchant, later became a very successful stockbroker and banker, and was also active in politics, but maybe more importantly, for the future path of his sons Hendrick and Taco, he was an art collector, amateur painter and draughtsman. Hendrick’s mother was Johanna Wilhelmina van Giffen, who came from a wealthy family of silversmiths. Sadly, she died at the age of 35, when Hendrik was just four years old. Hendrik had an elder brother Taco who was born in 1829, a younger brother Gilles, born in 1832 and a sister, Ellegonda, who was born in 1827. His cousin was the renowned painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the two men and their wives would remain friends throughout their lives. As schoolchildren, both Hendrick and his older brother Taco showed and early artistic talent and their father decided to send them for some artistic training. They both received drawing lessons from the Dutch painter, Cornelis Bernardus Buys who had also tutored Jozef Israels and later received drawing tuition from the Dutch painter and photographer, Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger. However, for Hendrik, once he left school at the age of nineteen, art became just an enjoyable pastime, as he believed that his future, like that of his father, lay in banking. Hendrik Mesdag joined his father’s bank where he remained for the next sixteen years.
On April 23rd 1856, when Hendrik was twenty-five years old, he married Sina (often known as Sientja) van Houten, who was three years his junior. Her father, Derk van Houten, was a wealthy timber merchant who owned a large sawmill just outside Groningen. She was the eldest of seven children brought up by a wealthy family, and she, like her husband, would become a painter later in life. Hendrik’s love of art during his days as a banker did not diminish, in fact in August 1861 he enrolled as a pupil at the Academie Minerva, a Dutch art school based in Groningen. On September 25th 1863 Sientje gave birth to their son Nicolaas, who was called Klaas.
In 1864, a year after she gave birth to her son, her father died and left her an inheritance which she finally received in 1866, the size of which was enough to allow her husband Hendrik to give up his job in his father’s bank and concentrate on his painting. You may wonder what Hendrik’s father thought of his son’s decision to quit the world of banking and take up a more hazardous life as an artist. Maybe that can be answered by a passage in a letter he wrote to his son on October 9th 1868:
“…Keep up the good work and fulfil if possible my hope that you will someday become a true artist…”
In the Spring of 1866, Hendrik wrote to his cousin Laurence Tadema-Alma asking for some help with his desire to become a professional artist:
“…‘I’m 35 years old. I’ve a wife and child. I’ve been trained for business, but am not cut out for it. I’m a painter; help me…”
Tadema-Alma arranged a tutor for Mesdag. He was Willem Roelofs, the Dutch painter, water-colourist, etcher, lithographer, and draughtsman and was one of the forerunners of the Dutch Revival art and one of the founders of the art society known as The Hague Pulchri Studio. Roelofs agreed to train Mesdag but he didn’t come cheaply. Roelofs wrote of his tuition agreement saying:
“…‘In the autumn (September) I’m expecting a new pupil, a cousin of Tadema, Mr Mesdag from Groningen. The 1,200 francs His Honour gives me is nothing to sniff…”
Roelofs wrote from Brussels to Mesdag on May 27th 1866 to tell him he looked forward to tutoring him:
“…As I’ve already told Alma-Tadema, nothing would give me greater pleasure than helping you with your study of landscape, and I hope to be able to stimulate you to make progress in our art…”
Before starting his tuition, Hendrik Mesdag took his wife Sientja on a short break to Oosterbeek, a small village on the outskirts of Veluwe in eastern Netherlands which was famed for its beautiful landscapes. At that time, Oosterbeek was the site of one of the first Dutch artist’s colonies. The artists there were followers of the French Barbizon naturalist tradition, and it attracted painters, such as landscape painter Johannes Warnardus Bilders, who was one of the the first to settle there and they were inspired by the open air and were able to capture the fluctuations of light. Bilders soon became an inspiration to many other painters who flocked to the region. This would have been an ideal place for Mesdag to practice his en plein air painting. Mesdag wrote Roelofs in May 1866, to tell him about his Oosterbeek plans. Roelofs heartily approved of Mesdag’s plan to spend the summer making sketches directly from nature, and replied to his letter:
“…since, if you were here, I could advise you to do nothing better…”
After his summer sojourn in Oosterbeek, Mesdag and his wife and child move to Brussels in September 1866 where he began his three-year studies under Roelofs.
We know a little of the initial training and advice Mesdag was given by Roelofs as in the 1996 edition of the Van Gogh Museum Journal there is a quote from the van Houten archives of the dbnl (digitale bibliotheek de Nederlandse lettern) in which Roelofs advice to Mesdag is quoted:
“…Try and rid yourself of all so-called manner and, in a word, try and imitate nature with feeling, but without thinking about others’ work. Paint studies of parts, a bit of land for instance, a stand of trees or something of the kind, but always in such a way that it can be grasped in connection with the entire landscape […]. – These studies [are] in order to become acquainted with nature bit by bit. – Further studies of a whole, preferably very simple subjects. – A meadow with the horizon and a bit of sky […]. Paint all these studies not so you can bring home something beautiful […] but for yourself…”
Willem Roelofs was a great follower of the Barbizon School and the Barbizon artists whose paintings faithfully reproduced nature in their depictions. Roelofs wanted Mesdag to go away and paint depictions of his own surroundings. There was nothing to be fanciful about the depictions. Roelof just wanted Mesdag to paint realistic depictions of his everyday life and what was happening around him. One example was his 1868 painting Interior with Staircase.
Another early work by Mesdag was entitled Interior with Wife and Child which was also completed in 1868.
Fate again played a hand in the course of the artistic life of Mesdag for in the summer of 1868 he and his family went to Norderney for a holiday. Norderney is one of the German East Frisian islands off the North Sea coast. For Mesdag it was a veritable epiphany, for it was here that Mesdag discovered his love of the sea and seascapes and when he returned to Brussels he began to collect paintings which depicted the sea and it was from this time that he decided that he wanted to become a seascape artist. Mesdag became fascinated by the sea itself. He was enthralled by the constantly changing shape of the waves and his sketches of the sea were testament to the realism of his art. He constantly strived to improve his depictions of the sea and the waves and how they were constantly changing and in an interview for the De Nieuwste Courant in March 1901 he was quoted as saying:
“…at home I had spent an entire winter fumbling at a work; it was a coastline, but very naively painted. Then I said to myself: “You have to have the sea in front of you, everyday, to live with it, otherwise all this will come to nothing…”
It was probably then that he knew that he had to live by the sea. Mesdag completed his three-year study course with Roelofs in Brussels in 1869 and the family moved to The Hague where he knew that there would be an abundance of sea views at the nearby coastal village of Scheveningen. Hendrik also gained admission to The Hague’s Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society. The society had been formed in 1847 because of mounting dissatisfaction among the young artists in The Hague who complained about there being little or no opportunities for training in art and developing their artistic skills and so the Pulchri Studio was established. It was also to be an artistic talking-shop where artists could exchange views and ideas.
Mesdag had completed some seascapes but felt they were not good enough to exhibit and so spent hour after hour trying to perfect his depiction of the sea and elements of landscape paintings. In another letter, dated June 1869, to his friend Verwée he talked about the pleasure it had brought him to be near to the coast, despite the sometime inclement weather:
“…Nature is so beautiful here, but the weather has been awful so far…”
For an aspiring artist, the one thing which would enhance their reputation was to have one of their paintings exhibited at the Paris Salon. Mesdag failed to get any work exhibited at the 1869 Salon and so was very hesitant in deciding to try again the following year. It was only in March 1870 that he made up his mind to exhibit two paintings, one of which was to be ‘la grande marine’ entitled Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord and the other was Journée d’hiver à Schéveningue. He sent both entries to the Paris Salon via Brussels, where his friend, Verwée saw them at a local art dealer’s gallery. Verwée was unconvinced by the Journée d’hiver à Schéveningue, but thought the large seascape, Les Brisant, was excellent and this approbation pleased Mesdag.
Mesdag not only had his two paintings accepted but, to the surprise of many, was later awarded the gold medla for Les Brisant. The painting marked the start of Hendrik’s illustrious career as a seascape painter and this work is now considered as the first masterworks of The Hague School. Mesdag started on this beautiful work in November 1869 as he mentioned in a letter to his good friend Alfred Jacques Verwée, a Belgian painter who was known for his depictions of animals, landscapes, and seascapes. In the letter, dated November 15th 1869, Hendrik wrote to Verwée, as quoted in the 1989 book by Johan Poort, Hendrik Willem Mesdag (1831-1915): Oeuvrecatalogus:
“…Impressed by one of those bad days, I have painted over that large marine painting you saw. It is now much improved…”
The inspiration for this work was the North Sea at Scheveningen which was a short distance from The Hague where he lived. So that he could spend an unlimited time at the coast, he rented a room in the Villa Elba which had a view of the sea. Later he would move to the Hotel Rauch, located at the Scheveningen beach. Until his death in 1915, Mesdag visited the sea frequently to seek inspiration for his paintings. From his room he could observe the sea in every weather condition.
Les Brisant is a painting with a broad format, measuring 90cms x 181cms. It is painted from a low point of view as if the artist sat or stood on the beach at the waterline with their brushes and easel, albeit we see nothing of the shore and yet through the change in tone of the colour we can see the change in depth of the water. This low vista causes the horizon we see depicted just below the vertical centre of the work. The one thing these two aspects achieve is it allowed Mesdag to ensure that the breakers fully stood out in this seascape. In the midground, just below the horizon we see the crest of the waves being caught by the wind. We can tell that the depiction is during a period of adverse weather as the sky is both grey and stormy. There are no humans in the depiction and yet if we look closely at the central foreground we see a piece of driftwood being battered towards the shore by the ferocity of the sea. Look also to the central horizon and we can just make out a small ship battling the seas and struggling to survive. These two elements bring home the ferocity of nature and the brutal nature of the sea that claimed so many of the lives of the fishermen of Scheveningen.
One knows that Mesdag was seduced by the view of the sea but what made him choose this motif for his painting? Some believe that he was aware of the painting, The Stormy Sea (The Wave) by Gustave Courbet which the French painter completed whilst staying at Etreat and which he submitted to the Salon in September 1869 and received rave reviews around the world and maybe Mesdag realised that concentrating on the waves and sea would bring him similar acclaim, which we know was correct, as his submission gained a medal at the Salon.
In my next blog I will be looking at more of Hendrik Mesdag’s seascape works often featuring Scheveningen and their fishing folk. It was this genre that Mesdag was mainly known for. I will also look at the paintings done by his wife Sientje and look at the amazing and spectacular Scheveningen Panorama which Mesdag, with the help of his wife and a few friends completed and which measures an incredible 14 metres x 114 metres !!!!!
In my second blog on the seventeenth century Dutch artist, Adriaen van de Velde I want to look at his landscape and beachscape paintings.
Probably his best-known beachscape work is his 1658 painting entitled The Beach at Scheveningen which can be found in the Staatliche Museen, in Kassel, Germany and is looked upon as one of the outstanding works of the Dutch Golden Age. Scheveningen is a district of The Hague. It was a fishing village at the time of the painting and it was not until the early nineteenth century that it became a seaside bathing resort.
Of the painting and Adriaen van de Velde, the eminent Dutch art historian Horst Gerson wrote in a 1953 article in the Burlington Magazine, quoting from the eighteenth century German art historian Gustav Waagen’s 1860 book, Handbook of painting. The German, Flemish and Dutch Schools:
…At the age of nineteen he was already in this department one of the greatest masters that ever lived; the picture dated 1658, in the Kassel Gallery, displaying a tender feeling for nature, a mastery of drawing and a delicacy of chiaroscuro and harmony which are truly astonishing…”
The setting is a bright but windy summers day on a wide sandy beach which is populated by several visitors who have come to take in the bracing sea air. In the centre foreground, we see a well-dressed young couple, who are probably on a day trip to the seaside. To their right we see a group of children playing in a large puddle of water, the remnants of the previous high water. To the left perched on a hill is a church with its tall steeple, beneath which we see a rider on a horse galloping parallel to the line of dunes. A covered wagon slowly trundles along the tide line. Towards the right foreground, we see a group of fishermen, with their trouser legs rolled up, preparing to go into the water with their nets but the most unusual character is the one in the extreme right of the work. Take a look at him. His trouser legs are also rolled up. Is he yet another fisherman or somebody who just wants to paddle and feel the sea caressing his feet. His hands are clasped casually behind his back. He is lost in thought as he looks out to sea. Maybe he was once a seafarer and is now remembering those times.
Depictions of the Scheveningen beach were often seen in paintings by other Dutch artists such as one of Adriaen van de Velde’s tutors, Simon de Vlieger’s 1633 in his work The Beach at Scheveningen.
Another work entitled View of Scheveningen Sands painted by Hendrick van Anthonissen in 1641, featuring the same beach, has a very interesting story attached to it. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge has owned the work since it was bequeathed to them by amateur artist and clergyman Edward Kerrich in 1873. By chance, the painting came to the Hamilton Kerr Institute, a division of the museum, renowned for paintings research and conservation, because the Dutch Golden Age gallery of the museum was being renovated.
The varnish coating on the painting had yellowed and become unsightly. Initially, what appeared strange to the museum experts about the depiction was why were the people clustered at the sea edge and on the dunes above, on a cold wintry day staring at the tide line. What were they looking at? There then followed a long discussion among the experts of the museum about the potential risk of damaging the painting if and when they removed the varnish and some of the over-painting. However, it was agreed to let the conservator, Shan Kuang, proceed to remove the overpainting, using a scalpel and solvents, working on tiny areas at a time, under a microscope. She then discovered that there appeared to be a man standing in mid-air, next to what looked like a sail from a boat. After more of the over-painting was removed they realised the man was not standing in mid-air but on the back of an enormous whale which had beached in the shallows and what at first was thought to be a sail was in fact the whale’s large dorsal fin.
There is another Scheveningen beach painting by Adriaen van de Velde in the Louvre entitled Carriage on theBeach atScheveningen. This was completed in 1660 and is yet another of his works featuring the popular Dutch seaside resort. In the painting we can see an imposing carriage making its way along the beach at Scheveningen. The carriage is being directed by a man in a blue uniform, who sits astride the lead white horse, whilst the driver, who sits atop the carriage, is seen cracking his whip. There is a bit of humour added to this work as we see one of the valets, who is also bedecked in blue livery, running after two hunting dogs, which are happily playing on the sand. It is thought that the carriage was that of William, the young sovereign Prince of Orange, who would later become William III of England (William of Orange). The tide is out, and we see local villagers walking along the beach. Children are playing and, in the right foreground, we see a man carrying a large net, coming back from fishing. The composition, which is mainly made up of horizontals, is split by the vertical of the boat mast and the church steeple. Sunlight comes diagonally from the left of the depiction, illuminating the white horses and casting long shadows of the people and carriage on the sand . This soft golden light is probably due to the influence of the Dutch Italianate painters of the time such as Jan Both, Karel Dujardin and Nicolaes Berchem who had all stayed in Italy. They had travelled extensively around the country and had adopted the style of landscape painting that they found there, and then incorporated Italian models and motifs into their own works. Every detail in the painting has been meticulously drawn by the artist and it was his ability to draw characters that made him popular with other artists of the time who needed figures added to their landscapes or beachscapes – staffage!
However, Adriaen van de Velde is probably best known for his landscape paintings. His painting, Panoramic Summer Landscape with a Horseman and a Post Wagon, which he completed in 1661 was described by Wolfgang Stechow, the German American art critic, pianist, and violinist, as being:
“…a landscape of such serene beauty and golden softness that its comparison with a Mozart melody will not, the writer hopes, be dismissed as farfetched…”
The setting is a late summer afternoon. In the work, we see a man astride a horse being given directions. Man and horse are bathed in sunlight as is the field with its four sheaves of wheat. Cast in shadow, we also see a woman with child on her back and one by her side and a shepherd who is looking after his small flock of sheep. In the right middle ground, also in shadow, is a small village on the edge of an expanse of water, with its church and tall steeple.
This type of composition we see before us with a tall tree on one side was dubbed by Wolfgang Stechow as being of a “one-wing composition” pattern which had been favoured by Salomon van Ruysdael. It is a type of composition in which the large tree in some way acts as an introduction to the viewer to gaze at the panoramic view in the rest of the depiction. Ruysdael’s landscapes would often have a single tall tree or a group of them to one side of his landscape paintings. In this painting, van de Velde has counter-balanced the mass of leaves atop the tree on the left with the dense clouds on the right.
A painting by Adriaen van de Velde which has elements of a landscape painting but is populated by many figures is entitled Departure for the Hunt, which he completed in 1662. In all. there are sixteen human figures, eight horses and twenty-three dogs. However, most are hidden in shadow and only the couple on the left, the man astride the horse blowing the hunting horn and the groom tending the rider-less white horse are illuminated by sunlight. The painting was last publicly exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1952. One of the reviewers of the exhibition was Horst Gerson wrote about it in the Burlington Magazine. He remarked:
“…The well-to-do English collector of the eighteenth century loved to possess a good Adriaen van de Velde with his Wouwermans and Aert van der Neer. The brilliant colours and the refined technique of these artists appealed to the cultivated taste of the upper-class…”
It is a highly colourful depiction and we are prompted to look at the detail of the work with its many figures. We see beggars in the bottom left of the work trying to cajole the well-dressed couple into helping them financially. This combination of the two beggars and the wealthy beautifully adorned couple makes us aware of the “haves and the have nots”. To the right in the foreground we see the amusing scene of one of the dog handlers struggling manfully to control his charges. It seems he is losing the battle.
There are so many more paintings I could have included but I though this is just a “taster” to whet your appetite and persuade you to research more of his works. If you live in London the Dulwich Picture Gallery is exhibiting a collection of his works until January 15th 2017 and I hope to visit there before it closes. A book which accompanies the exhibition, Adriaen van de Velde, Dutch Master of Landscape was my main source for this blog.
Tomorrow I am off on a three day trip to The Hague to visit the Gemeentemuseum and the Alice Neel Exhibition and see the works of the American artist whom I extensively covered in six blogs a month or so ago and whilst in the Dutch city I hope to visit some other art galleries and feast my eyes on some beautiful Dutch and Flemish seventeenth century art.
The person I am featuring today was an artist of great talent, an avid art collector and an owner of a museum, which housed many of the works he had collected during his lifetime. I talked briefly about him in my previous blog which was dedicated to his friend Jozef Israels. Let me introduce you to the marine painter, Hendrik Willem Mesdag.
Mesdag was born in Groningen in February 1831. His father Klaas was a banker and was also active in politics and his mother was Johanna Wilhelmina van Giffen, who came from a wealthy family of silversmiths. She died when Hendrik was four years old. Hendrik had two brothers, Gilles and Taco and a sister, Ellegonda. As schoolchildren, both he and his older brother showed and early artistic talent and their father, who was also an amateur artists, decided to send them for some artistic training. They both received drawing lessons from Bernardus Buijs who had also taught Jozef Israels and later received drawing tuition from Hinderikus Egenberger. However, for Hendrik, once he left school at the age of nineteen, art became just an enjoyable pastime, and his future, like that of his father, lay in banking. Hendrik Mesdag joined his father’s bank where he remained for the next sixteen years.
In April 1856, when Hendrik was twenty-five years old, he married Sientja van Houten, who would later become an accomplished artist in her own right. She was one of seven children brought up by a wealthy family. Her father owned a large sawmill just outside Groningen. Her cousin was the renowned painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
Hendrik’s love of art during his days as a banker did not diminish, in fact in 1861 he enrolled as a pupil at the Academie Minerva, a Dutch art school based in Groningen. In 1863 Sientje gave birth to their son Nicolaas, who was called Klaas. Hendrik’s love of art and his desire to become a full-time professional artist came to a head in 1866 when he decided to give up his work as a banker and concentrate on his art. To give up a lucrative job took courage but it also required funding and for this he had to thank his wife who had received a sizeable inheritance when her father died and she was able to support him financially.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema advised Hendrik to go to Brussels to study art and in the autumn of 1866 he goes to the Brussels for three years and studied art under the tutorship of Willem Roelofs, the Dutch painter and watercolourist. Fate played a hand in the artistic life of Mesdag in 1868 when he and his family went to Norderney for a holiday. Norderney is one of the East Frisian islands off the North Sea coast. It is here that Mesdag realises his love of the sea and seascapes and when he returns to Brussels he starts collecting paintings which depict the sea and it is from this time that he decides he wants to be a seascape artist.
Once he completes his three year study course in Brussels in 1869, the family move to The Hague where the sea views at the nearby coastal village of Scheveningen, would be plentiful. Hendrik was admitted to The Hague’s Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society. The society was formed in 1847 and was a result of mounting dissatisfaction among the young artists in The Hague who complained about their being little or no opportunities for training in art and developing their artistic skills and so the Pulchri Studio was established. It was also to be an artistic talking-shop where artists could exchange views and ideas.
It was in 1869 that Mesdag worked on his painting Les Brisants de la Mere du Nord (Breakers of the North Sea) which, when it was exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1870, was awarded the gold medal. In September 1871, tragedy struck Hendrik and Sentije when their eight year old son Klaas, their only child, died. It was from that time onwards that Sientje took up painting.
Hendrik Mesdag’s collection of paintings had grown so large that it filled his house and in 1878 he decided to build a museum in the garden, next to his house, to accommodate his ever-growing collection. That same year, his father Klaas died aged 85. Although most of the works of art by Hendrik Mesdag were seascapes and paintings depicting bomschuiten (fishing boats) one of his most famous works came about in 1879 when he received a commission from a group of Belgian entrepreneurs to paint a panorama. A panorama or panoramic painting was a massive work of art, which depicts a wide and all-encompassing view of a particular subject. They could be depictions of a battle, historical event or a landscape and were very popular in the nineteenth century, a time before television or the cinema. The commission was simple – the group wanted Mesdag to complete a painting without any borders ! The Belgians gave Mesdag free rein on the subject of the panorama and he was allowed to pick his team of artists to complete the task. The commission intrigued Mesdag and he agreed to it and formed a team of artists which included Théophile de Bock and twenty-three-year-old George Hendrik Breitner, who was still a student at The Hague Academy , the artist, Bernard Blommers , as well as his wife Sientje.
Mesdag decided this was an opportunity to depict his beloved coastal village of Scheveningen.
In March 1881, Mesdag and his team of painters set to work on the panorama. They made numerous sketches of the town and the surrounding coast and slowly over the next four and a half months the panorama often referred to as Panorama Mesdag evolved. The work when completed was 14 metres high with a circumference of 120 metres, a square footage of 1600 square metres. The finished work was housed in a purpose-built museum in The Hague and could be viewed from an observation gallery in the centre of the room. When one stood at this central observation point, it was if one was standing on top of a high sand dune and one could observe the sea, the beaches and the coastal village of Scheveningen. The museum housing the panorama was opened to the public on August 1st 1881 but after five years it went bankrupt. Mesdag , who was concerned as to the fate of his panoramic painting, bought the museum and kept it open despite it losing money year on year.
It is still open to the public and it is still one of the The Hague’s greatest tourist attractions. Can you imagine what it would be like to stand on that central observation platform – take a look now at http://panorama-mesdag.nl/ and see this wonderful work, which is the largest circular canvas in Europe.
In his later years Mesdag received many honours. In 1889, he was elected chairman of Pulchri Studio Painters’ Society, the society he joined twenty years earlier, and remained in that post until 1907. He received the royal distinction of Officer in the Order of Oranje-Nassau in 1894. In February 1901 Mesdag is promoted to Commander of the Order of the Dutch Lion.
In March 1909 his beloved Sientje died, aged 74. Two years later in 1911, Hendrik Mesdag is taken seriously ill and although he recovers, his health slowly deteriorates. Hendrik Willem Mesdag died in The Hague in July 1915, aged 84.
One may compare the seascapes and depictions of fishing boats with the artist, Jozef Israels, whom I looked at in my last blog. Israels’ depictions were often full of angst and doom and gloom whereas Mesdag’s works were simply depictions of what he saw, without any need to have the works populated by people and all had a story behind them. I end with a quote from the author, Frederick W Morton who wrote an artcle in the May 1903 edition of the American art journal, Brush and Pencil . He wrote about Mesdag’s seascapes:
“…Other artists have painted more witchery into their canvases, more tenseness and terror. A Mesdag has not the glint of colour one finds in a Clays or the awful meaning one reads in Homer. On the contrary, many of his canvases are rather heavy in tone and are works calculated to inspire quiet contemplation rather than to excite nervous. But he is a great marine-painter because he thoroughly knows his subject – he has sat by it, brooded over it, studied it in its every phase – and by straightforward methods, without the trick of palette or adventitious accessories, has sought to make and has succeeded in making his canvases convey the same impression to the spectator that the ocean conveyed to him…”
I ended my last blog, which looked at the life of Jozef Israels, around 1856 when he was living in the small fishing town of Zandvoort and spent much of his time sketching and painting scenes involving the local fishing community.
Israels left the coastal area around 1858 and returned to Amsterdam where he remained until 1870. In 1860 he completed a work entitled De dag voor het schieden (The Day before the Parting), which can now be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It is a beautiful soulful depiction. It is a depiction of sadness. But why the sadness? Is it like the paintings depicting families waiting for their fisherman husbands and fathers to return from the hazards of the sea? Actually it is not, it is about death. The setting is the interior of a cottage. In the dimly lit background there is a coffin which lies across two chairs. The wooden coffin is covered with a pall and is barely illuminated by a solitary candle.
Light streams into the room from the left and illuminates the two characters featured in the work. The lighting of the foreground is in stark contrast to the background. It was the artist’s clever use of chiaroscuro (the strong contrast of light and dark), which in some ways was a contrast between life and death. In the foreground we have the mother leaning against the chimney breast as she sits on a chair, besides her in the fire hearth lies an empty overturned wicker log basket. Her face is red from all the tears she has wept. She leans forward and rests her face on her right hand whilst her left hand clutches hold of a book, probably the bible and her thumb keeps the place of the passage she was reading. On the floor, at her feet, sits a young girl. She leans against her mother to get comfort. Her right hand lies across her mother’s knee. She stares at the coffin. Her left hand lies in her lap, grasping the loop of the cord attached to her toy cradle which lies by her side. This painting is not only a depiction of sorrow it is a depiction of poverty. The mother and daughter do not wear shoes despite the coldness of the red-tiled floor. The fireplace, with its blue surround tiles, is empty and so too is the wicker log basket indicating that they have no fuel for the fire. The large black chain over the fireplace which would hold pots or a kettle for food and drink hangs idly. Have they food?
This wonderful work of art received the gold medal when it was exhibited in Rotterdam in 1862 and that same year it was shown at the International Exhibition in London. Israels himself, some forty years later, admitted that this painting made his reputation. In 1906 he commented on the work:
“…I painted it in 1860 – I know it was then because it was the year before I was engaged. It was made ‘pour la gloire’. It was exhibited in Rotterdam in 1862 and got the Gold medal, the last year the medal was given…………………….There is good colour in that picture; I could do no better – some people say I cannot do now so well…”
In May 1863 Jozef Israels married Aleida Schaap and the couple had two children, a daughter Mathilde Anna Israëls who was born in February 1864 and a son, Isaac Lazarus in February 1865. His son became a fine art painter and was associated with the Amsterdam Impressionism movement. At the time of his son’s birth Jozef Israel wrote about him saying:
“…With the help of the Lord, he will become a better painter than his father…”
Jozef Israels moved to The Hague in 1870 and here he began to associate himself with The Hague School of Painters. This group of artists were active between 1860 and 1890. For these artists reality was the key to their work, not idealised reality but depicting true reality, warts and all. The colours used by these artists was often gloomy and sombre and consisted mainly of various tints of grey, so much so they were often termed the Grey School. This only changed in the latter years of the School with the influence of the Barbizon painters and the early Impressionists who instilled a lighter and brighter palette.
In 1876, with a number of close artistic colleagues, Israels launched the Dutch Drawing Society (watercolours in those days were termed drawings)
During his lifetime, Jozef Israels was one of the most famous living Dutch artist and earned the nickname ‘the Dutch Millet.’ The two artists saw in the life of the poor and humble peasants a motive for expressing with peculiar intensity their wide human sympathy. Millet’s depictions of peasant life were much lighter in tone and were simply a look at peaceful rural life. For Israels it was different, his depictions of peasant life was very much more sombre and carried a message of hardship and despair. The French novelist and art critic, Louis Edmond Duranty who was a great supporter of the realist cause said Israels’ depiction of peasant life was painted with gloom and a sense of anguish.
Jozef Israëls primarily painted scenes from the lives of simple farm labourers or fishermen. Sometimes, as in my next painting, he singled out tragic moments in their lives. This next work of art really tugs at one’s heart strings. It is entitled Alone and can be found at the Mesdag Museum in The Hague. Hendrik Mesdag, a contemporary and great friend of Israels, was a leading artist of The Hague School and he and his wife, Sientje played an active role in The Hague art world. Hendrik Mesdeg was not just an artist, he was an avid art collector. His collection grew so much that, in 1877, he had a museum built to house it
The setting for the painting, Alone in the World, is the inside a sparsely furnished bedroom of a peasant’s cottage. There is an air of bleak despondency about the scene we see before us. A man sits on the side of a bed. His bony workman’s hands rest on his knees, his posture is unmoving. He is wracked by sadness as his wife has died despite all he had done for her. Her body lies in the half-light which streams in from the left of the painting on to the bed and also illuminates the table on which are a pitcher of water and an empty glass as well as the bed. The greyish colour of the dead woman’s skin makes her almost indistinguishable from that of her bedclothes.
It is interesting to note that Jozef Israels and Sientje Mesdeg talked about this work years after its completion and on a broader aspect of art. They considered the anecdotal aspect of art and whether genre paintings should tell a tale. They failed to agree. Sientje was adamant that there was never a need for art to tell a story, whereas Jozef Israels countered saying that a “felt” work is good even if badly delineated. There is no doubt that this work is a “felt” work as we, the observers, can understand the feelings of the man at a time of his great loss.
A painting I really like which combines the reality of illness and sentimentality is Israels 1871 work entitled Convalescent Mother and Child. In the painting we see a mother slumped in a chair, head lolled to one side, her knitting lies abandoned in her lap. Walking towards her is her barefooted young child struggling to carry a small table towards her. The child is trying to be a help to his sick mother. Look at the concentrated expression on the child as he makes a great effort to move the table towards her.
In later years his paintings were influenced by the works of Rembrandt and this next work of art, entitled The Jewish Wedding, is a fine example of this. Jozef Israels was a committed orthodox Jew and his mother had once hoped that he would become a Rabbi. He produced a number of paintings depicting Jewish ceremonies. Here before us we see bride and groom under the chupa in the ceremony of sanctification of the joining together of the couple in marriage, surrounded by family and wedding guests. The couple in the painting are depicted in bright sunlight which was a symbol of the happiness of the occasion.
Joseph Israels died in Scheveningen in August 1911. aged 87.
My previous three blogs looked at Russian landscape painters and although they were leading exponents of this 19th century genre they may have been unknown to many people nowadays. The artist I am looking at today is probably also not known by most people but he had a great influence of the early works of the Dutch master, Vincent van Gogh. Just before Christmas I went to Amsterdam to visit the newly refurbished Van Gogh Museum and I suggest that it is “must visit” museum for any travellers to the Dutch city.
The museum was awash with colour from Van Gogh’s landscape paintings but I was fascinated by his darker early works and his fascination with the hard-working peasants and I wanted to know more about what influenced him to spend so much of his early life concentrating on depictions of the peasant class. It was then I came across Jozef Israels and his 1882 painting entitled Peasant Family at the Table, a work of art which led to a similar depiction, by van Gogh, of peasants sitting around a table having a meal which is entitled The Potato Eaters and I featured this work of art in My Daly Art Display (Feb 7th 2012). However this blog is not about Van Gogh but the Dutch artist, Jozef Israels who influenced him. In this first blog about Jozef Israels I want to look at his paintings depicting the harsh life of fishermen and their families.
Josef Israels was a Dutch Jewish painter born in Groningen in January 1824. His father was to Hartog Abraham Israel, a professional broker and merchant who had married Mathilda Solomon Polack. Jozef was the third-born of ten children and he had six brothers and three sisters. As is the case of many young aspiring artists, Jozef’s father did not see his son’s future as an artist but wanted him to carry on the family business and it was only after a long struggle and great determination that Jozef persuaded his father to let him study art. It was a compromise, as during his artistic studies he worked as a stockbroker’s clerk in his father’s business. At the age of eleven he received his first drawing lessons from the landscape artist J. Bruggink who worked at Minerva Academy in Groningen and a year later became a pupil of Johan Joeke Gabriel van Wicheren. In 1838, aged fourteen he was tutored by the Groningen painter, Cornelis Bernudes Buys.
In 1842, shortly after his eighteenth birthday Jozef went to Amsterdam to study drawing under the tutelage of Jan Adam Kruseman and, in 1844, attended art classes at the Amsterdam Royal Academy of Art. Kruseman had made his name as a painter of historical, biblical and genre scenes but was probably more famous for his portraiture. In 1845 Jozef Israels left his native Netherlands and travelled to Paris where he worked in the studio of the neo-classical history painter, François-Édouard Picot. Picot was one of the artists who was favoured by the French rulers of the time. He was an esteemed artist who taught many of the aspiring artists of the time such as Alexandre Cabanel and William-Adolphe Bouguereau. His romantic historical paintings influenced Israels. The Romanticism genre of Louis Gallait and Ari Scheffer also left their mark on the twenty-two year old. During his stay in Paris he attended classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts presided over by such artistic luminaries as James Pradier, Horace Vernet and Paul Delaroche and he would spend time at the Louvre where he copied the works of the great Masters.
The Academies at the time pushed the genre of paysage historique, historical landscape painting depicting idealised landscape works of art with their historical connotations. This art genre went back to the 17th century Baroque era of Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain and aspiring landscape painters from the Academies made their way to Italy to paint their landscapes interspersed with historical monuments, the settings of which were favoured by the dazzling Mediterranean sunlight. This favourable Italian climate had given the artists the chance to paint en plein air.
However, Jozef Israels, whilst he was living in the French capital, delved into the alternate world of landscape painting, the world of Realism, and the works of the Barbizon painters some of whom he had the chance to meet. For them it was the landscape which was the beauty in itself and did not require the addition of mythological or biblical figures. If figures were to be added it should be those of hard working peasants whose inclusion added reality to the work and dispensed with romanticism. However Jozef Israels was not sold on their ideas for landscape painting and soon reverted to his painting which were more likely influenced by the painter Ari Scheffer (see My Daily Art Display May 15 2012 and Sept 30th 2014) depicting subjects from Romantic poetry or influenced by the work of the Belgian history painter, Louis Gallait and depicted figures from Dutch national history.
In 1847 Israels returned to Holland and his work concentrated on his portraiture and historical subjects, often with Jewish themes. The problem for Israels was that by the 1850’s, the genre of history paintings in the Netherlands was falling from favour and he realised that to sell his art he needed to think of a different painting genre. Fate took a hand as Jozef was taken ill and in 1855, as a cure for his health problems, he moved out of the city and went to live in the small fishing village of Zandvoort, where he believed the sea air would aid his recovery. He immersed himself in the local village life and became aware of the hard life endured by the village’s fishing community and he decided to record some of their sufferings in his works of art. His paintings depicted the hard life of the fishermen and their families and the unforgiving nature of the sea.
In 1856 he painted one of his most famous works featuring Zandvoort fishing folk. It was a life-size work measuring 224cms x 178cms entitled Passing Mother’s Grave. The painting depicts a fisherman passing his wife’s grave. He walks hand in hand with his son whilst carrying his baby daughter. The bare-footed trio alluded to the poverty of the fishing folk and for this trio life without the woman had added to their problems.The work is housed in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam.
Another work of art featuring the plight of fishermen and their families was Jozef Israels’ painting entitled Fishermen Carry a Drowned Man which is housed in the National Gallery in London. It is thought that this work was completed around 1861, sometime after Jozef returned to Amsterdam from Zandvoort but used sketches he had made whilst living in the fishing village. The work is all about suffering and the hard life experienced by fishermen and their families and it was this eking of sympathy from the observer which was so like that of Jean-François Millet and his peasant paintings. Let’s look at this sombre work with its dark grey skies. A line of fishermen and their family trudge up the dunes from the shore. A grief-stricken woman leads the way with her two children at her side. They too are aware of the loss. Maybe the woman is the widow of the dead fisherman. She is leading the line of mourners. Behind her the body of the dead fisherman is carried by two burly men whilst to the left of them is a weeping woman. The dead man’s companions follow on carrying the fishing equipment from their boat. The work of art was exhibited at the 1861 Salon and in 1862 at the London International Exhibition and was hailed a triumphant success.
The third painting by Jozef Israels with this fishing/sea-going motif is entitled Anxiously Waiting. Once again observers of this work can empathize with the woman we see sitting on the dunes looking out to sea. On her knee sits her baby child. She is bare-footed which tells us of her and her family’s financial state. The sky has an orange hue indicating an oncoming storm. We see the white crests of the waves which signify the wind is beginning to increase in its ferocity. Her husband has left home in the fishing boat and has yet to return and she anxiously awaits sight of his boat.
In his painting Unloading the Catch we see that fishing was not just about the men that went to sea but the wives, parents and children who needed to help, notwithstanding their age or their state of health. Look at the line of helpers. An elderly woman bent over supporting herself with her cane, a man with a basket over his shoulder holding the hand of his daughter, two mothers carrying their babies , all have to help with the unloading of the day’s catch from the beached fishing boat.
In a number of his paintings he liked to connect the wives of the fishermen and the sea, the workplace of their husbands and fathers. In most it was the about the wife, worried about the safety of her husband, and the prospect of him not returning home safely. A painting by Jozef Israels with a lighter mood was his work entitled Three Women Knitting by the Sea. In the background we see a fishingboat at sea ,whilst in the foreground, we have the three ladies happily chatting away as they knit.
In his work On the Dunes we see a familiar depiction of a woman sitting on the dunes looking out to sea. On her back is her empty basket which, once the boat has landed with its catch, will be filled with fish which she will have to carry back to the village. Her wait will not be long as on the horizon we catch sight of the returning fishing boat. The sky is light and the sea is calm and for this day her beloved will return home safely.
An insight into the domestic life of a fisherman’s wife can be seen in his painting Mending the Nets. The scene is the interior of a cottage. A mother sits before a tiled fireplace mending her husband’s fishing nets whilst her young child sits in a wooden forerunner to today’s baby buggy. The baby looks over the side at the cat which she tantalises with a strand of wool.
In my next blog I will look at some more of the paintings by Jozef Israels, in which he depicted peasant life and I will conclude his life story.
In my last blog I looked at the early life of Gabriel Metsu and had reached the year 1651, the year in which his mother died. Gabriel Metsu was twenty-one years of age and, as such, was still not looked upon as an adult. In the Netherlands at that time, adult status was only reached when a person became twenty-five years of age, and for that reason Gabriel came under the guardianship of Cornelis Jansz. and Jacob Jansz. de Haes. Around this time it is thought that he was advised by a fellow aspiring artist, Jan Steen, to seek employment as an apprentice with Nicolaus Knupfer, a painter from Utrecht. Metsu remained with Knupfer for a few years during which time he completed a number of religious paintings.
In 1654, his guardianship came to an end and his late mother’s estate was finally settled and Gabriel received an inheritance. With this newly found wealth, Metsu left Leiden and moved to Amsterdam where he had enough money to set up a workshop in a small house off the Prinsengracht. He remained there for a short time before moving to a canal-side residence. It is believed the reason he moved was that he had got into so many arguments with his neighbours for keeping chickens at the rear of his house.
His desire to move to Amsterdam was probably due to his search for artistic commissions as the city had far more opportunities for an artist than that of the smaller town of Leiden. The other thing that Metsu realised when he arrived in Amsterdam was that small-scale genre scenes were far more popular with art buyers than large scale religious works and so he made a conscious decision to change his painting style and for his inspiration into that art genre, he could study the works of the Leiden painter, Gerard Dou and the Deventer artist Ter Borch. Metsu’s favourite subjects became young women, often maids, drinking with clients and engaged in domestic work often in tavern settings.
In May 1658 Gabriel Metsu married Isabella de Wolff who came from Enkhuizen. Her father was a potter and her mother, Maria de Grebber, was a painter and came from a family of well-known artists. Metsu had probably met Isabella through his connection with the de Grebber family when he was a teenager. Anthonie de Grebber, who had given Metsu some early artistic training in those days, was a witness to Metsu and Isabella’s pre-wedding settlement. They married voor schepenen which means “before magistrates” which presumably meant that the couple did not belong to the Dutch Reformed Church and it is thought more likely that they were both Catholics. Isabella became one of Metsu’s favourite models and appeared in many of his works. In 1663 he completed a work featuring his wife, Isabella, as the model for Saint Cecilia. She is seated playing the viola da gamba. St Cecilia was a Catholic martyr who was revered for her faithfulness to her husband (note the lap dog) and it could be that Metsu by having his wife model for the martyr was his way of publicly recognising his wife’s fidelity. This would not have been the first time an artist had used his wife in a depiction of this Catholic saint as in 1633 Rubens completed a painting of St Cecilia in which he used his second wife, Hélène Fourmen,t as the model. It is entirely possible that Metsu had seen the Rubens’ painting and then decided to use Isabella for his depiction of the martyr.
Gabriel Metsu died in October 1667, just a few months before his thirty-eighth birthday and was buried in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam. Following the death of her husband Isabella moved back to Enkhuizen to live with her mother, where she died in her late eighties.
Another painting by Metsu, featuring his wife as an artist, was entitled A Woman Artist, (Le Corset Rouge) and is dated 1661-4. So is this just simply a painting of an artist for which his wife modeled? Maybe not, for one must remember that Isabella was actually an artist in her own right, having been trained as an artist by her mother, Maria de Grebber, who had come from a family of artists and so this painting by Metsu may just be a loving portrait of his wife, highlighting her talent as a painter.
Do you ever re-read a book or watch the same film more than once? Many people who do tell of how they saw things in the film or read things in the book the second or third time which they had not picked up the first time and that for them was the joy for re-visiting the work. Genre works have the same effect on me. The more times I study them, the more new things I discover which were not apparent during my initial viewing. I also like the fact that often one cannot take things depicted at face value as there is often a hint of symbolism with the iconography of some of the objects that are dotted around the work and this I find utterly fascinating. I read art historians’ views on such things and often wonder whether what the artist has added to the work is as symbolic as the historians would have us believe.
In my previous blog about Metsu I talked about certain iconography in the painting entitled Woman Reading a Letter, and was rather scornful with regards the supposed sexual connotation of the abandoned shoe which was prominently depicted lying on the floor. In my next two featured paintings there is more iconography that has a supposed sexual nuance. In the next two featured works we see a dead bird being offered to a woman. Just a mere offering of food? Maybe not for the Dutch word for bird is vogel and in the seventeenth century the word was synonymous with “phallus” and the Dutch word vogelen, which literally means “to bird”, was slang for “to have sexual intercourse with”. So when we look at the two paintings we should look at the offer of a bird not as a gift of food but an enticement to have sexual intercourse!
In the Wallace Collection in London there is a magnificent painting by Metsu entitled The Sleeping Sportsman which he completed between 1658 and 1661. It is a kind of “hunter’s scene” and it was in this painting that we need to think laterally in as much as the hunt is the gentleman’s hunt of a woman. In this painting by Metsu the setting is the outside of a tavern. A hunter has called in for a drink after a long day’s shooting. His gun is propped against a low wall and the two birds he has shot are on view, a pheasant atop the wall and another bird, probably a fowl, is seen hanging from the tree. Metsu has depicted a lady coming out of the inn with a glass and a jug of alcohol which has presumably been ordered by the hunter-sportsman. It would appear that the jug she brings him is not his first, as he has passed out from overindulging, and we observe an empty jug lying at his feet. After a day of hunting game he has decided to end it with a few drinks and search for the company of a female or as the French would say cherchez la femme, but, sadly for him, alcohol has won the day. Take a careful look at the stupefied hunter. It is supposedly a self-portrait of the artist. He lies slumped against the end of a bench, clay pipe in his lap lying loosely against his genitals which could be interpreted as the drunken state he is in has made him temporarily impotent. On the floor we see the remnants of another pipe which he must have dropped. Although finely dressed he looks a mess with one of his red gaiters sagging down his leg.
However, if we look again at the woman who is bringing the hunter’s refreshment, we notice that she is not looking at her “customer”, but her eyes are fixed on the man to the right of the painting who is hanging out of the window of the inn. He looks knowingly out at us. He is about to take the hunter’s bird from the tree and if we go back to the slang meaning of bird then he may also be also about to take the woman away from the comatose hunter. On the floor at the feet of the hunter is his hunting dog. He even looks meaningfully at us, its tail wagging, as if it too sees the funny side of the incident. It is a painting with a moral, warning us of the consequences of inebriation. Moralistic paintings were very fashionable and popular at the time in the Netherlands.
Gabriel Metsu painted a similar work around the same time entitled The Hunter’s Present. In this work we see a woman in a white dress with a red frock coat trimmed with ermine, again like the female in Woman Reading a Letter, ermine, being expensive, signified the wealth of the wearer. The lady is sitting demurely on a chair with a cushion on her lap as an aid to her sewing. She looks to her left at the dead bird the huntsman is offering her. In this depiction, the hunter is sober. Now that we know about the bird/vogelen/sexual intercourse implications then we are now also aware what the man maybe “hunting” for. If we look at the cupboard, behind the lady, we see the statue of Cupid, the God of Love, which gives us another hint that “love is in the air”. Standing by his master’s side, with its head faithfully on his lap, is a similar spaniel hunting dog we saw in the previous painting. There are also another couple of additional items of symbolism incorporated in the work, besides the bird offering, that I should draw to your attention. Look on the floor in front of the woman. Here again we have the abandoned shoe or slipper and although I was sceptical in my last blog as to its sexual meaning I am starting to believe that it has a symbolic sexual connotation. So is the woman, because of the abandoned slipper, to be looked upon as a sexually permissive female. Maybe to counter that argument we should look at her right arm which rests on the table and there, by it, we see a small lap dog, which is staring at the hunter’s dog. Lap dogs have always been looked upon as a symbol of faithfulness. So maybe the woman is not as wanton as we would first have believed. Maybe the hunter is not some unknown man, chancing his luck, but it is a man known to her, maybe her lover and so perhaps the bird symbolism in this case should be looked upon as just a prelude to lovers making love rather than a more sordid prelude – vogelen! .
The third and final painting by Gabriel Metsu I am featuring is by far one of his most sentimental and poignant. It is entitled The Sick Child and was completed in the early 1660’s. Netherlands, like most of Europe had been devastated by the bubonic plague. Amsterdam was ravaged in 1663–1664, with the death toll believed to be as many as 50,000, killing one in ten citizens and Metsu would have been well aware of the heartbreak and suffering felt by people who had lost their loved ones.
The painting has a dull grey background and the lack of background colour ensures that we are not distracted away from the two main characters. There is a religious feel about this work. The reasons for this assertion are threefold. Firstly the positioning of the mother and child is very evocative of the Pietà, the portrayal of the Virgin Mary holding her son’s lifeless body in her lap, as seen in Italian Renaissance art. Secondly, the mother is depicted wearing a grey shirt and, as a working woman with a child, one would also expect this but one would have expected her to be also wearing a plain coloured dress but in fact Metsu has depicted her in a royal blue skirt with a red undergarment and these are the colours of the clothes one associates with Italian Renaissance paintings depicting the Virgin Mary.
Finally on the wall we see Metsu has added a painting of the crucifixion. These three factors go to show that Metsu consciously asks us to compare the circumstances of the Virgin Mary and her dead son with that of this mother and very ill child. The child, who is drooped in her mother’s lap, looks very ill and this is further underlined by the way the artist has painted her face. It is pallid and has a deathly blue tinge to it. The child’s legs fall lifelessly over her mother’s knees.
Tragically, Metsu died very young, at the age of thirty-seven. He was one of the most popular painters of his era and his paintings fetched high prices. Many art historians believe Metsu was one of the greatest of the Dutch Golden Age genre artists and that a number of his paintings were the best of their time. As I said earlier, although Vermeer is now one of the best loved seventeenth century Dutch painters, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Metsu was far more popular than him, and often Vermeer’s works were attributed to Metsu so that they would sell. Through Metsu’s works we can get a feel for everyday Dutch seventeenth life. His earlier genre works focused on the common man and woman but in the 1660’s he concentrated on scenes featuring the better-off Dutch folk, like the letter writer and his beau, and these are the paintings I have focused on in my two blogs featuring Gabriel Metsu.
In A Hunter Getting Dressed after Bathing (above), Gabriel Metsu depicted himself as a nobleman and hunter, but of course the unusual twist to the depiction was the fact that he depicted himself in an a full-length, un-idealized, naturalistic nude pose.
If I was asked who was my favourite artist or what was my favourite artistic era, I would probably choose one of the 17th century Dutch Golden Age painters. To be more precise, I would almost certainly choose an artists who painted genre scenes, all of which I find quite fascinating. Nowadays the most well known and most popular Dutch Golden Age painter is almost certainly, Johannes Vermeer. However, for the next two blogs, I am going to feature some of my favourite works by a contemporary of Vermeer, and who during their lifetime was by far the more popular. Let me introduce you to Gabriel Metsu.
Gabriel Metsu was the son of the Flemish painter Jacques Metsu, and Jacomijntje Garniers. Jacques Metsu besides being a painter was also believed to be a tapestry designer or cartoon painter. A cartoon being a full size drawing made for the purpose of transferring a design to a painting or tapestry or other large work. Records show that Jacques came from “Belle in Flanders” which is now Bailleul, a small town in French Flanders close to the France-Belgium border. Jacques Metsu married his first wife, Maeyken, who died in 1619 without giving him any children. He married his second wife, Machtelt Dircx the following year and the couple went on to have four children, but only the first child, Jacob, survived childhood, the others probably succumbed to the plague which swept through the region in 1624 and which also claimed the life of Machtelt.
Jacomijntje Garnier’s family came from Ypres but by 1608 when she was eighteen years of age she was living with her family in Amsterdam. It was in this year that she became betrothed to her first husband, Abraham Lefoutere, a citizen of Antwerp. His profession was given as a teacher but some records show him as an innkeeper. The couple had four children, Philips, Sara, Marytgen and Abraham who died in infancy. Her husband, Abraham, died in 1614 and soon after Jacomijntje remarried. Her second husband was Willem Fermout but he too died at a young age in 1624
Jacomijntje Garnier moved, with her three children, to Leiden and there she met Jacques Metsu and the couple were married in November 1625. In 1629 she became pregnant with Gabriel but sadly her husband, Jacques died in the March of that year, eight months before Gabriel was born, some time between the end of November and the middle of December 1629. Jacomijntje’s occupation around this time was given as a midwife. Gabriel Metsu, along with his step-brother and two step-sisters from his mother’s first marriage, were brought up by her alone, until, in 1636, when Gabriel was six years old, she married her fourth husband, Cornelis Gerritsz. Bontecraey, who then became their stepfather Bontecraey was a wealthy captain and owner of a barge and two houses in Leiden. He died in 1649 making Jacomijntje a widow for the fourth time. She died two years later in 1651.
There are few hard facts with regards Gabriel Metsu’s early artistic training and teenage years. However it is believed he could have helped in the workshop of Claes Pietersz de Grebber, a silversmith. Because Gabriel Metsu’s earliest work, which is still in existence, entitled Ecce Homo, which he completed around the late 1640’s was a religious one, it is believed that his early artistic tuition must have come from a history painter. It maybe just a coincidence, but his employer’s son, Anthonie de Grebber, who Metsu must have known, was a history painter and maybe he gave Gabriel some of his first artistic tuition. In 1644, when just fifteen years of age, Gabriel Metsu joined a group of local artists, and even at such an early age, his name was entered in the membership rolls as a “painter.” Other larger Dutch cities such as Gouda and Haarlem had their own painters’ guild, Guild of Saint Luke, and it was mandatory that artists were members of these guilds in order to sell their wares. Leiden, up until March 10th 1648, had no such guild but on that date the Leidse Sint Lucasgilde (Leiden Guild of St Luke) was founded by Gerard Dou and Abraham Lambertsz van den Tempel. Six days after its formation Gabriel Metsu, aged 18, became a member.
I will continue Gabriel Metsu’s life story in my next blog but for today I want to feature two of his most famous works, two narrative pendants, Man Writing a Letter and its companion piece Woman Reading a Letter, both of which were completed around 1666 and now hang in the National Art Gallery of Ireland in Dublin. Dutch artists were the first to make the private letter a central focus in genre scenes.
The setting for the painting, Man Reading a Letter, is a study. The scene is bathed in sunlight. We see a young, fine-looking man, with long blonde curls, sitting at a table, pen in hand. He is finely dressed in a black velvet jacket and the white of his shirt and neckerchief are lit up by the sunlight, which streams through the open window in front of him and reflects off the light-coloured back wall. His hat is precariously balanced on the back of his chair. He is quietly contemplating the words he wants to write to the woman he loves. The sunlight highlights him. He is at centre stage of this work and the sunlight acts as a spotlight. If this is indeed a love letter he is writing then he must be careful with his words. He cannot countenance a misunderstanding caused by what he has written. Look at the resolute expression on his face. He is totally lost in thought knowing the importance of the words he uses. They have to say exactly what he wants them to say. He must avoid ambiguity. The missive must be perfect.
Observe his opulent surroundings. The floor is made up of smooth black and white marble slabs, a sure indication that the owner of this house is wealthy. Everything points to this being a room belonging to a well-to-do person. We can tell this by some of the furnishings on view. The table at which he writes the letter is covered with a finely detailed expensive Oriental rug or table tapestry. Behind him we see a landscape painting in an expensive heavily carved gilt Baroque frame. To his right, partially hidden by the opened window frame we see a globe. The globe appeared in many Dutch paintings of the time and is almost certainly a reminder of the Dutch Golden Age when the country was one of the leaders in exploration and trade with the far corners of the world.
The companion work to this painting is Woman Reading a Letter. The Metsu’s pendants, when seen together, combine to become a set of narrative works in which we see the man writing to the woman and the woman reading his letter. In this second work by Metsu, we see the lady sitting in the corner on a wooden zoldertje platform in a marble-floored hall. She is wearing a long pink skirt, and her yellow top is trimmed with ermine, which is a sure sign of wealth. A pillow rests on her knees, which has been used as a support whilst sewing. Her sewing has been cast aside when the maidservant brought in a letter for her. In her excitement at receiving the letter she has dropped her thimble which we see lying on the floor. The letter obviously means a lot to her. She is totally absorbed by what he has written. Look how she tilts the letter at an angle as she thoughtfully reads it. Maybe it could be that she needs the sunlight which is streaming through the window to illuminate the words, making them easier for her to read or maybe she is shielding the contents from her maidservant. The painting is full of symbolism which adds intrigue to the painting. With this being one of a pair of paintings we know that the man has written the letter to her, which she is now reading but what is the relationship between the man and the woman? Look at the woman’s forehead. The hairline is receding and to achieve that it could be that some of her hair had been plucked or the forehead shaved giving a higher forehead, which was the fashion of the day. Look more closely and one can see a single curl of hair at the centre of the forehead and this usually signified that the lady was engaged.
The inclusion of the dog is a symbol of fidelity and one presumes its inclusion probably signifies the woman’s faithfulness. According to some art historians and iconographers, a cast-off shoe, one of which we see on the floor, has erotic connotations. I find that a slight stretch of their imagination but I suppose their line of thought is that lovers hastily cast of shoes in their rush to make love. It is interesting to look at the maidservant who stands next to her mistress. Because of her lowly status in the household she has been depicted in a drab brown dress although a little colour has been added with the blue of her apron. Under her left arms she has a bucket with two arrows scribed on it. Could this once again symbolise that love is in the air and these are Cupid’s arrows. To me they look more like the arrows one used to see on the back of prisoners’ jackets in 1930’s movies. She also holds in her left hand an envelope. There is a word on the envelope which I cannot quite read although it seems to start with the letter “M”. I read somewhere that the word is “Metsu” but until I stand before the original work I will not be sure. Hopefully I will get to Dublin next month and have a closer look.
The maidservant is drawing back the green curtain, which is hanging from a rod, and which is covering a framed painting on the back wall. Covers over paintings were not unusual as it was a means of preventing sunlight from falling on them causing them to fade. The subject of the painting is a seascape in which we see two sailing ship battering their way through a storm. Is the subject of the painting symbolic? There are two theories about this. One is that the woman’s betrothed is a seafarer and the other is that the ship struggling in a storm symbolises the romantic struggles ahead for the two lovers. Also on the wall is a mirror which is in a plain black frame, the colour of which I read symbolised a warning against narcissism and lewdness, but like the abandoned shoe I remain unconvinced with that theory.
As I said earlier, both the paintings are housed in the National Gallery of Ireland, part of the Beit Collection which is housed in the . The paintings were owned by Sir Alfred Beit and his wife, Lady Beit. Sir Alfred Beit was a British Conservative politician, philanthropist, art lover, and honorary Irish citizen. He donated the two paintings I have featured today along with fifteen other masterpieces to the National Gallery of Ireland in 1987, whilst the other major art works remained at their home, Russborough House, which was once described as the most beautiful house in Ireland. Sir Alfred and Lady Beit bought Russborough House in 1952 to house their art collection and in 1976 established the Alfred Beit Foundation to manage the property. Beit died in 1994 but Lady Beit remained in residence until her own death in 2005. Due to a number of armed robberies and thefts of some of the paintings, which fortunately were recovered, the Foundation agreed to move them to the National Gallery of Ireland for safekeeping.
In my next blog I will complete the life story of Gabriel Metsu and feature some more of his paintings.
Of my featured artist today, the Dutch Golden Age writer and poet Theodorus Schrevelius wrote in his 1648 book about the history of Haarlem entitled Harlemias:
“…There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called “the true Leading star in art…”
Judith Jans Leyster was born in Haarlem in July 1609. She was the eighth child of Jan Willemsz Leyster who was a cloth maker and owner of a local brewery, which was called Ley-ster (guide or leading star). It is thought that her initial artistic tuition came from Frans Pieter de Grebber. De Grebber, a member of the local painters’ guild, Haarlem Guild of St Luke, was a landscape artist and portraitist, who also designed tapestries. The reason for this belief is that the chronicler of life in Haarlem at that time, Samuel Ampzing, mentioned Judith Leyster in his 1628 book about life in Haarlem, Beschrijvinge ende Lof der stad Haelem in Holland. He commented that Leyster, then 19 years old, was a painter who had “good and keen insight”. It was interesting to note that he also made the comment: “Who has ever seen paintings by a daughter?” which alluded to the fact that it was very unusual for a female to become a professional painter and furthermore, in 1633, she was one of only two females in the 17th century who had been accepted as a master in the Haarlem Guild of St Luke. The first woman registered was Sara van Baabbergen, two years earlier.
It was around this time that Judith’s family left Haarlem and moved some forty kilometres to the southwest and went to live in Vreeland, a town close to the provincial capital Utrecht. Utrecht in the 1620’s was the home of the group of artists known as the Utrecht Caravaggists. These painters, such as Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick ter Brugghen, and Gerrit van Honthorst had spent time in Rome during the first two decades of the 17th century and, in the Italian capital, it was a time when Caravaggio’s art was exerting a tremendous influence on all who witnessed his works and by the early 1620s, his painterly style of chiaroscuro, was wowing the rest of Europe. Whether Judith Leyster mixed with these painters or just picked up on their style is in doubt as the family stayed in the Utrecht area less than twelve months, moving to Amsterdam in the autumn of 1629 but two years later Judith returned to her home town of Haarlem.
It is known that she met Frans Hals when she was in Haarlem but although many of Leyster’s work resembled Hals’ work, both in style and genre, art historians are not in agreement as to whether she was ever actually Hals’ pupil or simply an admirer. Leyster’s paintings were secular in nature and she never painted any religious works. Although she is known to have painted a couple of portraits she was, in the main, a genre painter, recording on canvas the life of everyday people. They were, generally speaking, joyous in their depiction and were extremely sought after by wealthy merchants.
Her famous self-portrait was completed around 1630 when she was twenty-one years of age and could well have been her entrance piece for the Haarlem Guild of St Luke’s. In the work, she is at her easel, palette and an array of eighteen paint brushes in her left hand. Her right arm is propped against the back of her chair and a brush, held in her right hand is poised ready to carry on painting the work we see on her easel. She has turned towards us. She is relaxed and seems to have broken off from painting to say something to whoever is in her studio. The first things we notice are that the clothes she is wearing. These would not be the ones she would wear when she was painting. They are too good for such a messy job to be worn by somebody who is painting. Her skilful depiction of her clothes allude to her social status and her depiction of them is a fine example of the up-to-date female fashion. Also consider, would a painter working on a painting really be clutching all eighteen of their brushes at the same time? Of course not! This is more a painting in which Judith Leyster is intent on promoting herself. Through this self- portrait she is eager to reveal herself, her painterly skills and her social standing. In this one painting she is advertising her ability to paint a merry genre scene as seen by the painting of the violin player on the easel. This depiction of a musician was similar to the one depicted in her 1630 work entitled The Merry Company, which she completed around the same time as this self-portrait. Of course this being a self-portrait it has also highlighted her ability as a portraitist. It is interesting to note that when this painting was subjected to infrared photography it was found that the painting on the easel was Leyster’s own face and so one has to presume she originally intended that this painting would be a quirky “self-portrait within a self-portrait”, but presumably, Leyster on reflection, decided to have the painting on the easel represent another facet of her painterly skills – that of a genre painter. This was her most successful and profitable painting genre with its scenes of merrymakers. It was this type of work which was extremely popular with her clientele, who wanted to be reminded of the happy and enjoyable times of life. Although Leyster was proficiently skilled as a portrait artist the art market was already crowded with popular portraitist and so, probably for economic reasons, she decided to concentrate on her genre paintings.
Around 1629 she set up a studio on her own and started to add her own signature to her works. Her signature or moniker was an unusual and clever play on her surname “Leyster”. Lei-star in Dutch means “lode star” or “polestar” a star often used by sailors to navigate by and she was often referred to as a “leading star” in the art world, and so she used this play-on-words to create a special signature: a monogram of her initials with a shooting star. She must have been successful at selling her works of art as soon she had employed three apprentices. It is interesting to note that she had a falling out with Frans Hals who had “illegally” poached one of her apprentices and the whole matter ended up in court at which time Hals was made to apologise and make a payment to her for his action.
Judith Leyster completed many genre pieces in which she portrayed people as being happy with their lot in life. Settings were often inside taverns but whereas with other Dutch artists who tended to portray the tavern dwellers with a moralistic tone around the evils of drink and the repercussions of becoming a heavy drinker, Leyster wanted to focus more on people enjoying themselves. A good example of that was her 1630 painting which is in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum entitled The Jolly Toper or The Merry Drinker which is considered to be one of her finest works.
However with this painting came the assertion by many critics that she was merely a copier of Frans Hals style of painting, such as her choice of subjects and her brushwork. Hals had completed his own painting The Merry Drinker in 1630 so I will leave you to decide whether there are more similarities between Leyster and Hal’s paintings other than the subject matter.
Although Leyster’s genre scenes would often focus on happiness and merriment with no moralistic judgement, she did occasionally focus on the darker side of life and a good example of this can be seen in her 1639 painting which is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, entitled The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier). It is a vanitas work, meaning it is a work of art which in some way symbolises the brevity of life. In the work we see two men dressed in festive clothing having an enjoyable time drinking and smoking. The fact that they are not just celebrating but are also dressed up for the occasion has led people to believe that this merriment is taking place on the Dutch holiday of vastelaovend, which we know as Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent. This was the day when people took advantage of the last day of merrymaking before the forty days of Lent abstinence and fasting. However it is not just the two revellers that Leyster has depicted in the drinking scene, for between them we see a skeleton. The skeleton holds an hour-glass in one bony hand and a skull and a lit candle in the other. The candle both casts a shadow on the seated drinker but at the same time lights up the cavalier’s face. The skull, burning candle and hour-glass are classic symbols of a vanitas painting which have the sobering effect of reminding us of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death. There is no interaction between the drinkers and the skeleton which is probably an indication that as they have imbibed so much alcohol the thought of death never crosses their mind. Look at the expression on the face of the cavalier dressed in red. It is one of blankness and stupidity which we have often witnessed when we look into a face of a drunkard. At that moment in time, he has no concern about his own mortality. One final comment about this work is that it is a good example of how Leyster utilised a style of painting which was associated with the Italian painter Caravaggio and his Dutch followers, the Utrecht Caravaggists, whom Leyster would have seen earlier in her career. It is known as tenebrism which is where the artist has depicted most of the figures engulfed in shadow but at the same time, have some of them dramatically illuminated by a shaft of light usually from an identifiable source, such as a candle as is the case in this painting, or from an unidentifiable source, off canvas.
On a lighter note I offer you another painting with a moral, but somewhat more humorous, which Judith Leyster completed around 1635 and is entitled A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel. It is a visual joke with a moralising tale. It is one of those paintings, typical of Dutch genre scenes, in which you have to look carefully at all who and what are depicted in the painting so as work out what is going on. See if you can fathom it out.
The two main characters are a boy and a girl. The boy has a cheeky smile on his face. He has enticed the cat to join them by waving a wriggling eel which he now holds aloft, having grabbed the cat. The little girl has now grabbed the tail of the cat, which in a state of shock and fear. It is desperate to get away from the pair of young tormentors and has extended its claws and about to scratch the boy’s arm in an attempt to escape his clutches. The young girl who has a face of an older woman, admonishingly wags her finger at us – so why is she so censorious? It is believed that she is smugly warning us against foolish and mischievous behaviour alluding to the Dutch saying: ‘He who plays with cats gets scratched’. In other words he who seeks trouble will find it. Although children are depicted in this moralising scene, it is more a warning to adults about their behaviour and many Dutch artists who painted genre scenes with a moral twist frequently used children to put over their moral message.
In the late 1630’s, a strange phenomenon occurred in the Netherlands, which had been brewing for a number of years. It became known as Tulpenwoede (tulip madness) which saw the price of tulip bulbs rocketing. It all began when some tulip contracts reached a level which was about 20 times the level of three months earlier. In one particular case a rare tulip known as Semper Augustus, which had been valued at around 1,000 guilders per bulb ten years earlier was fetching a price of 5,500 guilders per bulb in January 1637. This meant that one of these bulbs was worth the cost of a large Amsterdam house. Many people, who watched the rising value of the tulip bulb, wanted part of the action. People used their life savings and other assets were cashed in to get money to invest in these bulbs, all in the belief and expectation that the price of tulip bulbs would continue to rise and they would suddenly become rich. Alas as we have all seen when a thing is too good to be true, it usually is, and by the end of February 1637 the price of a tulip bulb had crashed and many people lost their savings.
However the rising value of the tulip bulb came as a boon to floral artists for if people could not afford the actual tulips for their gardens or pots the next best thing was to have a painting of them and even better still would be to have a book full of beautiful depictions of different tulips. Judith Leyster realised that the public’s love of tulips could be advantageous for her and she produced her own book of tulips.
In 1636 Judith Leyster married Jan Miense Molenaer, another genre painter, and the two of them set up a joint studio and art dealing business. They moved to Amsterdam as the opportunity to sell their works of art was better and there was also a greater stability in the art market. Judith went on to have five children and the role of mother and housekeeper meant that her art output declined. Until recently it was thought that her artistic output had all but ceased, that was until the run-up to a Judith Leyster retrospective at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem a number of years ago when a beautiful floral still life which she painted in 1654 surfaced. It had been hidden from public view in the collection of a private collector.
Judfith Leyster and her husband remained in Amsterdam for eleven years. They then moved to Heemstede in the province of North Holland, where in 1660, at age 50, Leyster died.
Last week I watched a documentary on television about the death of Vincent van Gogh. You have probably seen something similar or read a book on his somewhat mysterious death. Did he commit suicide? Was it an accident? Was he murdered? Why was the gun never found? What, if anything, did Doctor Gachet have to do with his death? Why did both Doctor Gachet and Vincent’s brother Theo allow Vincent to lie in agony for three days at his lodgings with the bullet still in his body rather than rush him to hospital to have it removed? However the subject of my blog today is not about Van Gogh’s death. During the documentary it showed a portrait of the great artist and said that it was Van Gogh’s favourite depiction of himself. What really stimulated my curiosity was to hear that the portrait was completed by a friend of his, an Australian painter by the name of John Peter Russell. I had never heard of this artist and I could not comprehend how an Australian artist could feature in the Dutchman’s life and so I decided to find out more about him. In this first of my two part blog on Russell I want to look at his early life and a couple of his portraits including the one of van Gogh. So come with me on a voyage of discovery and learn about how a former foundry worker in Australia came to paint a portrait of the great Dutch Master.
The story begins at the beginning of the 19th century in Kirkcaldy, Scotland. It was here that John Peter Russell’s grandfather, Robert Russell, had his foundry and engineering works. Robert and his wife Janet Russell (née Nicol) had eleven children, one of whom, John, was our featured artist’s father. In 1830 Robert’s business hit financial problems due to a downturn in demand and he decided to immigrate to Canada. His intended destination changed on the advice of a friend and instead of heading west to Canada he and his family took the steamer Anne Jamieson and sailed to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and arrived in the port of Hobart in June 1832. Robert Russell along with his sons, Robert, Peter and John started up an engineering works in Tasmania which proved very successful. In 1838 in order to expand the business the family moved to Sydney and established the firm, Russell Brothers with an engineering works and a foundry on the banks of the Tank Stream, a tributary of Sydney Cove.
John Russell married and English girl, Charlotte Elizabeth Nichol, and they went on to have four children of which John Peter Russell, the subject of today’s blog, was the eldest. He was born in June 1858 in the Sydney suburb of Darlinghurst. John Peter was educated at the Goulburn School in Garrooriagang, a private boarding school for the “sons of gentlemen”. After completing his education in 1876, the eighteen year old travelled to England and was apprenticed at the engineering company, Robey & Co. of Lincoln and eventually became a qualified engineer. It was also around this time that he began to take an interest in sketching and painting. In 1879 John Peter Russell’s father died and left his children a sizeable inheritance.
In 1881, John Peter Russell who thanks to his inheritance was financially sound and did not need to continue as an engineer. He decided to pursue his love of art and enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Arts at the University College of London. Whilst at the Slade he studied under the Dijon-born French painter and sculptor, Alphonse Legros. Legros would delight his students by showing them his quick preliminary oil sketches (known as ébauches) of the head portraits he had done and it was this type of painting which grabbed Russell’s interest.
In August 1883, after completing his art course at the Slade, Russell decided to set off on his travels. His fellow travellers were his brother Percy, an architect, Tom Roberts, a fellow aspiring artist who would later become a leading figure of the Australian Heidelberg School of Impressionism and who, like Russell, had emigrated with his family from the UK to Australia when he was fourteen years of age. Tom Roberts had returned to his birthplace, London, to study art at the Royal Academy Schools. Another person in the travel party was the physician and friend William Maloney who would later become a Labour MP. Their first port of call was Spain where they encountered two Spanish art students Laureano Barrau, who would become a leading Spanish Impressionist painter and the Catalan painter Ramon Casas who would later be known for his paintings depicting crowd scenes.
In 1885 Russell went to live in Paris and for the next eighteen months studied at the Atelier Cormon, which was run by the French painter, Fernand Cormon. It was an “academic” studio in which Cormon endeavoured to instil in his students the necessary artistic “rules” which would ensure that their paintings found favour with the Paris Salon jurists. Many great painters, such as Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin,and Toulouse Lautrec studied under Cormon during Russell’s tenure. Russell who had studied portraiture at the Slade School of Art was still interested in portraiture and would often paint portraits of his friends and fellow students. In March 1886 whilst Russell was attending the Atelier Cormon another student enrolled – Vincent van Gogh. Vincent had moved to Paris and went to live with his brother Theo in his apartment in rue Laval on Montmartre in order to study at Cormon’s studio. A great and long-lasting friendship developed between Van Gogh and Russell. In October 1886, Russell finally persuaded Van Gogh to sit for him. The resulting work was the beautiful crafted portrait of the Dutchman which I spoke about at the beginning of the blog.
Although Russell had painted portraits of his friends it is believed that he wanted to paint Van Gogh’s portrait as the depiction of the Dutchman’s face would be a challenge with its craggy and somewhat haggard appearance. Russell had seen some of Van Gogh’s own head and shoulder portraits and self portraits and liked the way the Dutchman had used an academic style in his portraiture, incorporating darkened background as a contrast to the lighter skin tones and so decided to use this same technique on his own depiction of van Gogh. He has given Van Gogh such a penetrating gaze as he stares out at us which in some ways makes us feel slightly uncomfortable. It is almost a censorious gaze as if he is questioning our presence. What I think adds to the beauty of this portrait is how Russell has got van Gogh to look over his shoulder for the pose and of course to remind every one of the sitter’s profession he had the Dutchman hold a paintbrush. Vincent van Gogh was delighted with Russell’s finished portrait. On September 6th 1889, ten months before his death, Vincent wrote to Theo and in it he mentioned the Russell portrait:
“……….Afterwards, what are we beginning to glimpse timidly at the moment that is original and lasting – the portrait. That’s something old, one might say – but it’s also brand new. We’ll talk more about this – but let’s still continue to seek out portraits, above all of artists, like the Guillaumin and Guillaumin’s portrait of a young girl, and take good care of my portrait by Russell, which means a lot to me.….”
The painting, which is at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, has itself darkened over the years as on a recent microscopic examination it was discovered that, above the head of van Gogh, there had been inscribed in red the words:
Also according to the Museum curators, a friend of John Peter Russell and van Gogh, the British artist Archibald Standish Hartrick, had seen the original portrait soon after it had been completed and he said that Vincent was depicted in the portrait wearing a striped blue suit ! According to the museum curators there is a hint of blue near the mid base of the work.
Russell and Van Gogh were great friends for the short time they were together and after they went their separate ways they continued to correspond. One of the last letters Vincent wrote to Russell on February 1st 1890 just five months before his death and when he was in the mental hospital in St Rémy.
My dear friend Russell
Today I’m sending you a little roll of photographs after Millet which perhaps you may not know. In any event, it’s to recall us, my brother and myself, to your good memory. Do you know that my brother has since married and that any day now he’s expecting his first-born? May it go well – he has a very nice Dutch wife. How it pleases me to write to you after a long silence. Do you remember the time when, almost simultaneously, you I think first and I afterwards, met our friend Gaugin? He’s still struggling on – and alone, or almost alone, like the good fellow he is. Am sure, though, that you don’t forget him. He and I are still friends, I can assure you, but perhaps you’re not unaware that I myself am ill, and have more than once had serious nervous crises and delirium. This was why, having had to go into an asylum for the insane, he and I separated. But prior to that, how many times we talked about you together! Gaugin is currently still with one of my fellow-countrymen called De Haan, and De Haan praises him a great deal and doesn’t find it at all bad to be with him. You will find article on canvases of mine at the Vingtistes. I assure you that I myself owe a lot to things that Gaugin told me as regards drawing, and hold his way of loving nature in high, very high esteem. For in my opinion he’s worth even more as a man than as an artist. Are things going well with you? And are you still working a lot? Although being ill isn’t a cause for joy, I nevertheless have no right to complain about it, for it seems to me that nature sees to it that illness is a means of getting us back on our feet, of healing us, rather than an absolute evil. If you ever come to Paris, take one of my canvases from my brother’s place if you wish, if you still have the idea of making a collection for your native country one day. You’ll remember that I’ve already spoken to you about it, that it was my great desire to give you one for this purpose. How is our friend MacKnight? If he’s still with you, or if there are others with you whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, give them my warm regards. Above all, please remember me to Mrs Russell and believe me, with a handshake in thought,
Vincent van Gogh
c/o Doctor Peyron
St-Rémy en Provence.
Whilst living in Paris, Russell had become very friendly with two Parisian sculptors, Auguste Rodin and Emmanuel Frémiet and it was whilst visiting their studios that he encountered one of Rodin and Frémiet’s’ favourite models, Marianna Mattiocco della Torre. Rodin had, in 1888, encapsulated her beauty in a bronze bust entitled Head of Mrs. John Peter Russell (Marianna Mattiocco della Torre) and Frémiet had used Marianna as the model for his bronze life-sized Jeanne d’Arc statue which is at the Place des Pyramides in Paris.
Marianne who was born in Cassino, Italy was in her early twenties when she met Russell in 1885 and three years later, on a cold Parisian day in February 1888, John Peter Russell and Marianna Mattiocco became husband and wife. By the end of the year the happy couple had left Paris and set up home at Belle Isle, the largest of the Breton islands, off the west coast of Brittany. It was here that Russell had their home built and because he was the first non-Frenchman to settle on the island his house was known as Le Chateau Anglais.
The second portrait by John Peter Russell I want to show you is entitled Dadone and was completed around 1900. The question is who or what is Dadone? The word “dadone” I believe, but I am by no means certain, is an old fashioned Italian slang for “ancestor” or literally “old one” and therefore indicates that the subject has some sort of family relationship with Russell.
The answer to the question can be found in a double portrait which was painted by Russell a few years later, entitled Les deux Mattiocco which has, at the top of the work, the inscription ‘Maria Peppa-Y-Pascal Mattiocco’. The painting, which depicts an elderly couple, is of Russell’s father and mother-in-law, Pasquale and Maria Mattiocco.
The date of the Dadone painting is thought to be 1900 as there is a preliminary sketch for the work in existence, inscribed, ‘JPR 00’ dating it at 1900 and it is thought that the final painting was completed shortly afterwards.
In the painting, Dadone, we see an inscription in the top right corner of the work:
The inscription indicates the title of the work, the initials of the artist and the word “fecit” meaning he or she made it and the word is used formerly on works of art next to the artist’s name.
This beautifully crafted portrait by Russell is an affectionate and personal depiction of his wife’s father. The main colours used by Russell in this work are white, blue and greys profile. The bony structure of his head is framed by the imperious greying hair and beard, which along with dark bushy eyebrows give his father-in-law such a distinguished appearance. His eyes are dark and there is a hint of tiredness about them, which has been brought on by age.
In my next blog, the second part of my look at the life and work of John Peter Russell, I will examine his newly found interest in seascapes and landscapes once he had moved out of Paris and went to live on the Breton island of Belle-Ile where he met with many artists such as Monet and Matisse.
For further information regarding Russell’s friendship with Vincent van Gogh there is a book you may like to read. As yet I haven’t read it but I am sure it would be fascinating. It is:
A Remarkable Friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell by Anne Galbally
There is also an interesting short video on YouTube about the Van Gogh portrait and the inscriptions that were originally on it: