The Anaemic Lady by Samuel van Hoogstraten

The Anaemic Lady by Samuel van Hoogstraten (c.1667)

As promised a while back, today I am going feature another painting by the Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten and at the same time have a look at his life story.

Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was born in Dordrecht, Holland in 1627.  He was the eldest of seven children.  His parents were Dirck van Hoogstraten, a silversmith and painter, and Maeiken de Conink.   He came from an artisan background.  His grandfather Hans was registered as a member of the Antwerp St Luke’s Guild, an association for painters and many of his mother’s ancestors were gold and silversmiths by trade.  The line of work the van Hoogstratens were in was a highly paid and one of the most prestigious of occupations.  In the late 16th century, the van Hoogstratens and the de Coninks moved from Antwerp to Dordrecht for a combination of religious, political and economic reasons.   Samuel’s grandparents and those of his wife-to-be were Mennonites, who had lived in Antwerp and because of their religious beliefs had had to escape persecution by the catholic Spanish rulers of the Spanish Netherlands

At the age of three, Samuel and his family moved to The Hague and his father Dirck enrolled in the local painters’ guild.  In 1640, Samuel’s maternal grandfather died and left his mother a sizeable inheritance as well as his house and business.  The family sold their house in The Hague, at a considerable profit, and returned to Dordrecht where they moved into the grandfather’s much larger house.  This was probably not before time as by then the family group had grown and now consisted of Samuel’s parents and seven children.  The family continued with the family’s silversmiths business.  Sadly, within a year of the move, Samuel’s father also died, leaving his mother to bring up the family single-handedly and at the same time persevere with the family business.     

From the age of seven Samuel van Hoogstraten had showed an interest in art and was taught the basics of drawing and the technique of engraving by his father.  In 1678 he wrote what is now considered as one of the most impressive painting treatises to be published in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century entitled Inleyding tot de Hooge Schoole der Schilderkonst (Introduction to the Academy of Painting) and in it he talked about his early love of art and his decision to become a painter despite some opposition from his uncle, his guardian.  He wrote:

“…I remember very well how when my father died my guardian advised me with gentle counsel to give up the art of painting and with pleasant words recommend another profession which seemed to him more secure.  And though I was not yet fourteen years old, I felt as if he wanted to take away my happiness and condemn me to slavery…”

Samuel achieved his wish to study to become a painter, for shortly after his father’s death, he moved to Amsterdam and entered the school of Rembrandt.   When he had completed his apprenticeship at Rembrandt’s studio, Samuel van Hoogstraten became an official Master and Painter.   It is only in some of his earlier works that the influence of his teacher can be seen.  In his later years during the 1660’s and early 1670’s he concentrated on genre paintings of domestic households as is the case with today’s featured work of art.  He was a man of many talents.  As well as being an accomplished artist, he was an expert in etchings and engravings, a gifted poet and writer and in 1656 when he was almost thirty years of age he married, went to live in Dordt, a suburb of Dordrecht, and became director of the local mint.  Samuel van Hoogstraten died in Dordrecht in 1678 aged 51.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today is entitled The Anaemic Lady which Samuel van Hoogstraten completed around 1667 and can now be seen at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.  The setting is a room in a house.  It appears to be a wealthy household judging by the sumptuous furnishings, gilt leather wall hangings and the paintings on the wall.  Before us is a pale faced woman, head slightly tilted to one side, reclining passively,  if somewhat lethargically in her chair, with her hands clasped before her.   It is a mysterious scene and we immediately wonder what is happening in the painting.  Although the woman has a sickly pallor we are not sure what ails her but there are clues.  Behind her we see two men.  One is a doctor holding up a flask of the woman’s urine to the light in order to determine whether she is in fact pregnant.   The other man, perhaps her husband, perhaps her lover, looks on with great apprehension at the bottle and maybe he fears the result of the examination. So what is the story behind this scene?  There are a couple of helpful hints in the painting.  Look at the naked figures, part of the design of the tablecloth and then look at the painting above the door which depicts an image of Venus, the goddess of love.  More importantly, look on the floor by the woman’s feet.  We see a cat.  Why would the artist add a cat to the painting?  Was it just a sign of domesticity and the family pet?   We should however remember that the cat was a medieval symbol of lust and in this painting its presence may represent illicit love.   This is not simply a cat stretched out on the floor but one which has trapped a mouse between its paws and maybe we should interpret that as reflecting the fact that maybe the man and the woman have, like the mouse, been caught and trapped by one moment of passion?

Does that sound a little farfetched?  Well here is a further twist to the story of the painting.  What you are looking at now is the painting after its restoration in 1989.  During the restoration work an overpainting was discovered.  Prior to the restoration work there was neither the mouse between the cat’s paws nor a second man in the painting.  The work just depicted a doctor treating a woman who was ill and the family pet lay lovingly at her feet.  There was now no hint of pregnancy, or entrapment.    It was thought that some time during the 19th century both the mouse and the man were painted out.  The reason for this overpainting is believed to be because it was not considered genteel or proper to refer to an unwelcome pregnancy or hint at its consequences.   

I will let you decide whether this is simply a scene of domesticity and whether the cat and mouse is just a load of nonsense, but if so, why overpaint the mouse and the second man?

Man at the Window by Samuel van Hoogstraten

Man at the Window by Samuel van Hoogstraten (1653)

My Daily Art Display today enters the world of trompe l’oeil.  The term is French and literally means “trick of the eye”.  It is a kind of artistic illusionism which gives the appearance of three-dimensional realism.  This story of trompe l’oeil originated in ancient Greece.  Pliny the Elder records in his Natural Histories the famous confrontation between two Greek 5th Century BC painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius who were involved in a painting contest. Each would try to make a picture that produced a more perfect illusion of the real world.   Zeuxis painted a likeness of grapes so natural that birds flew down to peck at them. Then his opponent, Parrhasius, brought in his picture covered in a cloth. Reaching out to lift the curtain, Zeuxis was stunned to discover he had lost the contest.  What had appeared to be a cloth was in reality his rival’s painting.

The early precursors of modern trompe l’oeil appeared during the Renaissance, with the discovery of mathematically correct perspective. But the fooling of the eye to the point of confusion with reality only emerged with the rise of still-life painting in the Netherlands in the l7th century.  Trompe l’oeil sets itself apart from ordinary decorative painting by its intent to mislead the observer, and it is this which sets it apart from ordinary still-life painting. The artist’s technical ability is meant to go undetected and, with use of perfect perspective, cleverly observed light and realistic colours, the ploy is to make the viewer believe that a flat surface is not actually flat, or that a space exists where there, in fact, is no space. A trompe l’oeil painting is one which shows apparently three dimensional objects and spaces in a way which the eye accepts as realism in the context of their surroundings.

The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), 1785

The new genre soon spread throughout Europe and America.   In American art, we have the Charles Willson Peale’s painting of 1795 entitled  The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), which is housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.   Peale executed this painting to prove that he was still one of the city’s preeminent artists. On a very large canvas, he made one of his rare full-length portraits, showing two of his sons on an enclosed spiral staircase. The high degree of detail and finish shows that the painting was undoubtedly intended to be a trompe l’oeil, an effect that Peale had never attempted before. To enhance the illusion, he set up the painting within a doorframe in his studio, with a real step in front. Rembrandt Peale, another son, recalled that his father’s friend George Washington, misled by Peale’s artifice, tipped his hat and greeted the two young men as he walked by!

Though highly regarded by collectors, from the beginning art theorists often rubbished trompe l’oeil as the lowest category of art.  These “wise” men regarded it as a mere technical tour-de-force that did not require invention or intellectual thought.  However in the l7th century, leading trompe l’oeil artists were not only receiving acclaim and acknowledgement from many quarters they were seen as also pushing the boundaries of the genre.  My Daily Art Display’s featured painter today,  Samuel van Hoogstraten was even  awarded a medal for his services to Art by the Emperor Ferdinand III, the Holy Roman Emperor, after being so impressed by one of his trompe l’oeil paintings.

My Daily Art Display featured painting today today is entitled Man at the Window which Hoogstraten completed in 1653 and now hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.   Look how the artist’s has splendidly portrayed the old man’s wrinkles and the graying of his beard.  The old man’s brow is furrowed and his head is slightly angled.  See how much detail the artist has given the window.   On the sill outside the window he has added a small vase which enhances and emphasizes the depth in the painting.  This window ledge is shaped by a stone wall surrounding the window.  Look at the amazing amount of detail Hoogstraten has put into his depiction of the texture and surface of the stonework.  You can almost believe that if you touched the surface of the painting it would feel like stone.  It is quite amazing.  Also on the windowsill, the artist has added a feather and a couple of leaves, one of which hangs over the side of the sill.  We see the man’s head protruding from one of the panes in the window and this gives the appearance that he is actually coming out towards our space.  Although it is a kind face there is something very haunting about it.  One can easily imagine that as an observer passes this painting and glances at it, they suddenly imagine that they are being watched by this elderly but real person. 

Today’s artist, besides his many trompe d’oeil works, completed many varied paintings and in a future blog I will look at the life of Samuel van Hoogstraten and another of his paintings.   He was not only a very talented painter but also a writer on art. He painted genre scenes in the style of de Hooch and Metsu, and completed many portraits, but maybe he will be best remembered as a specialist in perspective effect.