Category: Artists

“The Harvesters” (1565), by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

“The Harvesters” (1565), by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

August, harvest month

I had the privilege of spending several weeks in the Dutch countryside this August, surrounded by vast wheat fields, with tractors and combines blending their mechanical prowess reaping the harvest. Amidst the rustic charm and the modern pulse of agricultural machinery, I was reminded of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1565 masterpiece “The Harvesters”.

The Harvesters (1565), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, c.1525 – 1569), 119x162cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“The Harvesters” is part of a series of six works that Bruegel created for the Antwerp merchant Niclaes Jongelinck, each depicting a different season of the year. “The Harvesters” specifically portrays the season of summer. It’s a landscape painting that offers a vivid and detailed depiction of a rural scene, showing peasants engaged in various activities during the harvest season. The foreground of the painting is dominated by peasants working in the fields. They are shown harvesting wheat, with some using sickles to cut the wheat and others gathering the cut stalks into bundles. Amidst the work, there is a group of peasants taking a break under a large pear tree, relaxing and enjoying their midday meal of porridge, bread and pears. In the background on the right, a man climbed an apple tree to shake its branches, while two women gathered the fallen apples into baskets. These scenes add a touch of human connection and leisure to the painting.

The background of the painting showcases a panoramic landscape with a village, a church, and a castle on the distant horizon. This panoramic view provides a sense of depth and perspective to the scene. “The Harvesters” is celebrated for its realism, attention to everyday life, and the way it captures the essence of rural existence during the 16th century. Bruegel’s series is a watershed in the history of Western art. The religious pretext for landscape painting has been suppressed in favor of a new humanism, and the unidealized description of the local scene is based on natural observations.

Summer “Aestas”, from the series The Seasons (1570), design and drawing by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, c.1525 – 1569), engraver Pieter van der Heyden (Flemish, c.1530 – c.1572), publisher Hieronymus Cock (Flemish, 1518 – 1570), 23x29cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder created also a series of prints that corresponded to the seasons of the year, similar to his paintings. “Summer” is one of these prints, and it’s often considered a companion piece to his painting “The Harvesters”. This famous engraving gives a glimpse of the varied work of country people on a summer’s day. In the immediate vicinity of a village, the ripe grain is scythed, bundled and transported away; but it’s also time for refreshments and a chat. In the tradition of medieval pictures of the months and seasons, Bruegel celebrates the working peasants as guarantors of the country’s prosperity. Bruegel’s prints were engraved by other artists based on his own designs and drawings, allowing his works to reach a wider audience. Brueghel’s drawing for “Summer” still exists and is now in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg; for a picture, see hereunder.

In the print “Summer” Bruegel once again focuses on the themes of rural life and the activities of peasants during the warmer months. Just like his paintings, Bruegel’s prints are celebrated for their meticulous attention to detail, rich narratives, and the way they capture the essence of the time and place they depict.

This manuscript illustration from circa 1500 is a detailed showcase of the labour-intensive process of wheat harvesting in Flandres in the pre-industrial era. Here’s an overview of the various activities involved in wheat harvesting during that time and shown on the illustrated manuscript pages above, from left to right:

  1. Reaping: The first step in wheat harvesting was reaping (Dutch: maaien), which involved cutting the mature wheat stalks with a sickle or scythe. Workers would move through the fields, carefully cutting the stalks close to the ground to ensure that the maximum amount of grain was harvested.
  2. Binding: Once the wheat stalks were cut, they were gathered into bundles or sheaves (Dutch: schoven) and tied together using straw or twine. These bundles made it easier to transport and handle the harvested wheat.
  3. Threshing: Threshing (Dutch: dorsen) was the process of separating the grain kernels from the rest of the plant. This was often done using a flail (Dutch: dorsvlegel), which consisted of a wooden handle attached to a wooden stick. Or it could be done by a horse trembling on the sheaves, as shown on this miniature, repeatedly beating the bundles of wheat to break open the husks and release the grain.
  4. Winnowing: After threshing, the mixture of grain, husks, and chaff (the dry, protective casings around the grains) needed to be separated. This was achieved through winnowing (Dutch: schiften), a process in which the mixture was tossed into the air. The wind would carry away the lighter chaff, while the heavier grain would fall back to the ground. See the top right corner of this manuscript illustration.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (Flemish, c.1525 – 1569)

The Painter and the Buyer (c.1566), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Flemish, c.1525 – 1569), Pen and brown ink, 26x22cm, Albertina, Vienna.

A morose painter (a self portrait?) with a coarse brush is contrasted with a stupid-looking buyer, whose mouth is open with wonder. The inner distance between the two figures becomes evident in the polarity of their expressions. While the artist dedicates himself entirely to the work lying outside of the picture’s range, the customer is already reaching for his money-bag, apparently interested solely in material values. A symbol of ignorance, the spectacles point to this failure to appreciate art. Rather than being a self-portrait the drawing addresses the role of the artist: Pieter Brueghel is here ironically commenting on the conditions of art production in his day. (Text with thanks to the Albertina, Vienna.)

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) was a renowned Flemish Renaissance painter and printmaker. He is often referred to as Bruegel the Elder to distinguish him from his sons, who were also artists and carried on his artistic legacy. Key points about Pieter Bruegel the Elder:

  1. Artistic Style and Themes: Bruegel was known for his distinctive artistic style that combined meticulous detail, naturalism, and a deep understanding of human behavior. He is celebrated for his ability to capture everyday life and landscapes with a keen observation of the world around him. He often depicted scenes of peasants engaged in various activities, rural landscapes, and the changing seasons.
  2. Subject Matter: Bruegel’s works often contained social and moral commentary. He frequently explored themes related to human folly, the cycles of life, the interaction between humans and nature, and the contrasts between different social classes. His paintings and prints often had multiple layers of meaning, inviting viewers to reflect on deeper concepts.
  3. Seasonal Series: One of Bruegel’s notable accomplishments was his creation of a series of paintings that represented the different seasons of the year. These works include “The Gloomy Day” (early spring, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), “Haymaking” (early summer, Lobkowicz Palace, Prague Castle), “The Harvesters” (late summer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), “The Return of the Herd” (autumn, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and “The Hunters in the Snow” (winter). The “Spring” painting disappeared.
  4. Influence: Bruegel’s work had a significant impact on subsequent generations of artists. His detailed depictions of nature and human life influenced the development of landscape painting and genre painting. Artists like Peter Paul Rubens and even later masters like the Dutch Golden Age painters drew inspiration from Bruegel’s work.
  5. Humanism and Cultural Context: Bruegel’s art was created during a time when humanism was flourishing. Humanism emphasized the importance of individualism, human experience, and the natural world. Bruegel’s art reflected these ideals by portraying the common people, their joys, struggles, and the world they inhabited. While Brueghel did create some religious paintings, his most famous and distinctive works depict scenes of everyday life, landscapes, and the activities of peasants.
  6. Printmaking: In addition to his paintings, Bruegel also created a number of prints. His detailed designs were engraved by skilled printmakers, allowing his works to reach a broader audience and leaving a lasting influence on art history.
Summer (1568), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Netherlandish, c.1525 – 1569), Pen and brown ink on brown paper, 22x 29cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Kupferstichkabinett, Hamburg, Germany.

This drawing from the Kunsthalle in Hamburg served as a relatively accurate preparatory sketch for the depiction of summer in a graphic sequence of the seasons planned by Bruegel towards the end of his life and which were put into engravings by Pieter van der Hayden (for a picture of the engraving “Summer” see above). Brueghel’s “Summer” offers a wealth of delicious pictorial inventions, such as the drinker’s foot, which pierces the front edge of the picture. Bruegel’s fine sense of humor is illustrated by the boy with a bundle of wheat growing out of his back, or the woman whose head is completely covered (or even replaced) by a basket of vegetables.

Bruegel was born in the town of Breda in the Duchy of Brabant, which is now part of the Netherlands. However, he spent a significant portion of his artistic career in Antwerp, a prominent city in Flanders. His work is associated with both the Netherlandish artistic tradition and the broader Flemish artistic movement. In essence, while Bruegel’s birthplace lies in what is now the Netherlands, his artistic contributions and much of his career are deeply connected to the artistic heritage and culture of Flanders. Therefore, he is often referred to as a Flemish artist within the context of art history.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s legacy has endured through the centuries. His works are celebrated for their ability to transport viewers into a detailed world of everyday life in the 16th century. His influence can be seen in the works of later artists, and he remains a highly respected figure in the history of Western art.

Lucas van Leyden, The Twelve Apostles

Lucas van Leyden, The Twelve Apostles

Lucas van Leyden was a Dutch Renaissance painter and printmaker. He was born in Leiden, The Netherlands, in 1494, and died there in 1533 at the age of 39. Lucas van Leyden was one of the most important artists of the Northern Renaissance. He was known for his intricate and detailed engravings in various genres, including religious subjects, portraits, and landscapes; with a particular interest in capturing the expressions and emotions of his subjects. Lucas van Leyden’s style combined the influences of the Italian Renaissance with the local traditions of the Netherlands. His religious works originate from the traditional Catholic background, as that was the widely accepted and almost exclusive religion during Lucas van Leyden’s life and that of his contemporaries. The Reformation started only during his lifetime.

In 1510 Lucas van Leyden produced a series of fourteen engravings with Christ as Salvator Mundi, Paul and the Twelve Apostles. Let’s have a look.

Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Jesus Christ as Salvator Mundi, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.

“Salvator Mundi” is a Latin term that translates to “Savior of the World”. In the context of art, “Salvator Mundi” refers to a specific subject matter that has been depicted in Christian religious art. “Salvator Mundi” typically portrays Jesus Christ as the savior of humanity. The subject is often depicted with Jesus blessing the viewer with his right hand and holding a globe or crystal orb symbolizing his role as the ruler of the world.

Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Peter, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.

The Apostles are the twelve disciples who were chosen by Jesus Christ to be his closest followers and to spread his teachings. They played a central role in the formation and early development of Christianity. Paul, not part of the original group of twelve, is considered so important in spreading the word of God, that he often is included in the group of apostles. Together with Jesus Christ himself, the group as depicted by Lucas van Leyden in 1510 consists of 14: Jesus Christ as Salvator Mundi, Paul and the Twelve Apostles.

Their names and symbols, in sequence of the series by Lucas van Leyden, are as follows:

  1. Jesus Christ as Salvator Mundi
  2. Peter, with the Keys, representing his role as the “keeper of the keys” to the Kingdom of Heaven
  3. Paulus with a sword as a reminder of the means of his martyrdom.
  4. Andrew, with an X-shaped cross known as the saltire or St. Andrew’s Cross, as he was crucified on such a cross.
  5. John, holding a chalice or cup with a serpent in it, representing the cup of poisoned wine that he drank without harm, symbolising Christian faith prevailing over death, signified by the serpent.
  6. James the Greater, with a pilgrim staff and bag, and a hat with scallop shells, symbol of pilgrimage.
  7. Thomas, with a spear, referring to his martyrdom.
  8. James the Less, with a club, as he was beaten to death.
  9. Bartholomew, with a knife, alluding to the tradition that he was martyred by being skinned alive.
  10. Philip with a cross, referring to his crucifixion.
  11. Judas Thaddeus with a builder’s square, as he was an architect of the Christian church.
  12. Simon, with a saw, as he was reportedly martyred by being sawn in two.
  13. Matthew, A halberd, symbol of his martyrdom.
  14. Matthias, with an axe, or cleaver, symbol of martyrdom.

Their symbols serve as visual cues to help identify and distinguish the individual Apostles in religious art and iconography. It’s worth noting that some variations and interpretations of the symbols may exist in different traditions or artistic representations.

Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Paul, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.

An engraving is a printmaking technique that involves incising or carving a design onto a hard surface, typically a metal plate. The process is typically done with a sharp tool called a burin, although other tools can be used as well. Here’s a general overview of the engraving process:

  1. Plate Preparation: The artist begins with a flat, smooth metal plate, often made of copper, zinc, or steel. The plate is polished and cleaned to create a clean surface for the engraving.
  2. Incising the Design: Using a burin or another engraving tool, the artist cuts lines directly into the plate. The lines are incised with varying depths and thicknesses to create the desired effects of light, shade, and texture.
  3. Ink Application: After the engraving is complete, ink is applied to the plate. The ink is usually spread across the surface, filling the incised lines.
  4. Wiping and Printing: The excess ink is carefully wiped off the plate’s surface, leaving ink only in the incised lines. A sheet of paper is then placed on top of the plate, and both are passed through a printing press. The pressure transfers the ink from the incised lines onto the paper, creating the printed image.

Engravings can produce highly detailed and precise images with a distinctive quality. The process allows for intricate line work and shading effects, making it suitable for capturing fine details and subtle variations in tone. Engravings are often characterized by their crisp lines and rich contrasts. Engravings have been used for centuries by artists, particularly during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. They have also been utilized for illustrations, bookplates, currency printing, and decorative purposes.

Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Andrew, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), John, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), James the Greater, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Thomas, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), James the Less, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. I am following the Rijksmuseum distinction here, that names this Lucas van Leyden print as James the Less; in the system of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this is Judas Thaddeus.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Bartholomew, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Philip, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Judas Thaddeus, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. I am following the Rijks museum distinction here, that names this Lucas van Leyden print as Judas Thaddeus; in the system of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, this is James the Less.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Simon, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Matthew, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.
Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, c.1494 – 1533), Matthias, from the series Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510), Engraving, 12×7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA.

Hereunder a timetable linking the Italian Renaissance and Northern Renaissance, and linking the invention of book printing to the spread of the Reformation over the continent. Lucas van Leyden lived and worked at the dawn of the Reformation. His work originates from the tradition Catholic background. As reference, Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age are a century later.

  • 1433, Jan van Eyck

    Northern Renaissance artists, such as Jan van Eyck and Albrecht Dürer incorporated new techniques like oil painting and printmaking, contributing to the advancement of artistic practices.

    Jan van Eyck (Flemish, c.1390 – 1441), Portrait of a Man, Self-portrait (1433), National Gallery, London.

  • 1450, Gutenberg Bible

    The Gutenberg Bible was the first “printed” book. It was printed by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany in 1450. The Gutenberg Bible is a landmark achievement in the history of printing and played a significant role in the dissemination of knowledge and the spread of the Protestant Reformation.

  • 1479, Sandro Botticelli

    One of the prominent artists of the Italian Renaissance whose works exemplify the ideals and themes of the classical mythology, humanism, and the exploration of perspective and proportion.

    Sandro Botticelli (Florentine, 1446 – 1510), Portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici (c.1479), National Gallery of Art, Washington.

  • 1498, Albrecht Dürer

    Painter, printmaker, and theorist; one of the most renowned figures associated with the Northern Renaissance. Dürer’s mastery of printmaking allowed for the wider dissemination of his works and ideas throughout Europe.

    Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471 – 1528), Self-portrait at 26 (1498), Prado, Madrid.

  • Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, 1494 – 1533) Series with Christ, Paul and the Twelve Apostles (c.1510)

  • 1517, Maarten Luther 

    On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) nailed his 95 Theses to the door of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg protesting at the sale of papal indulgences. This led to public debate about corruption in the Catholic Church and about church doctrine itself, and sparked off the Reformation.

    Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472 – 1553), Portrait of Martin Luther (1528), Veste Coburg Art Collections, Coburg, Germany.

  • 1550, Johannes Calvin

    Johannes Calvin (1509 – 1564) was a French theologian and key figure of the Protestant Reformation. His teachings and writings, particularly the concept of predestination, shaped the development of Reformed theology and had a lasting impact on Protestant Christianity.

    Portrait by unknown painter (c.1550), Museum Catharijne Convent, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

  • 1566

    The “Beeldenstorm” (Iconoclastic Fury) refers to a series of violent outbreaks in the Netherlands in 1566. Protestant reformers expressed their opposition to the Catholic Church and its practices by vandalizing and destroying religious images and statues, particularly those found in churches and monasteries. The “Beeldenstorm” became the starting point of the Eighty Years’ War or Dutch Revolt (1566 – 1648), the protracted conflict where the Dutch provinces fought for independence from Spanish (and Catholic) rule, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Dutch Republic.

  • 1629, Rembrandt

    Rembrandt (Netherlandish, 1606 – 1669), Self-Portrait, Age 23 (1629), Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681) and writing letters.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681) and writing letters.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “The Letter” (c.1663), 82x68cm, oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust, London.

Gerard ter Borch, 1617 – 1681, was a highly skilled Dutch Golden Age painter, who influenced his fellow Dutch colleagues Metsu, Dou and certainly also Vermeer. Ter Borch painted men and women, mistress and servant, soldiers and civilians, in the sanctum of guard room and home and hinting at their love lives. As this is the pre-email and pre-chat era, messages were sent by letters. The love letter was the appropriate start of dating. Letters are a returning subject in Ter Borch’s paintings. And a lot is left to the imagination of the viewer. Look at the painting from the Royal Collection, London. What is the lady reading from that letter? And is the dog, symbol of fidelity and now sleeping, a hint?

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “Officer Writing a letter, with a Trumpeter” (1658), 57x44cm, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Gerard ter Borch situates this scene in a guard room. The ace-of-hearts card on the floor suggests that the letter being written is an amorous one. The pieces of the clay pipe scattered around the card may refer to frustrations the letter-writer is having in expressing his romantic feelings. And the Trumpeter, a soldier-messenger, is waiting to deliver the letter. And he looks at us viewers to make us part of the story.   

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “Curiosity” (1660), 76x62cm, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Three women appear in a luxuriously appointed interior. On the table is a letter with a broken seal and the answer back is in the making. The girl peers over the shoulder of the writer and tries to read what’s being written. The standing woman appears pensive or lovelorn. In the 17the Century letter writing was a common feature of courtship. Perhaps the woman at the table is helping her friend craft a response to a suitor?

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “An Officer Dictating a Letter” (c.1656), 75x51cm, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

A young officer is dictating a letter to a man with the quill, probably a soldier on duty who could write and read. Their comrade, a trumpeter soldier and messenger, will deliver the letter. His faintly amused expression and the way he catches the eye of the viewer creates a conspiratorial air: is there love in that letter?

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “Woman Writing a Letter” (c.1655), 38x28cm, oil on panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

A woman is writing a letter and we can only imagine for ourselves if its love she is thinking and writing about. Maybe the large pearl she wears has a meaning; it can be interpreted as a symbol of virginity. This painting with such minimal scene, certainly was an example for other artists, like Vermeer.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “The Messenger” known as “The Unwelcome News” (1653), 67x59cm, oil on panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Here, we see a soldier receiving a letter from a messenger. The door on the left is still open and the messenger has his hat in his hand. He came rushing in, to hand over that letter. That is for sure not a love letter, but most likely a call to the front, away from the girl who leans against him so lovingly.

Gerard ter Borch’s works are comparatively rare; about eighty have been catalogued. Ter Borch died in Deventer, The Netherlands, on this day December 8, 1681. 

Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667)

Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667)

Thomas de Keyser (c. 1596–1667) was a Dutch painter, stone merchant and architect. His father was the famous Amsterdam architect and sculptor, Hendrick de Keyser (1565 – 1621). Thomas was buried on this day June 7th, 1667, in the family vault in the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church) in Amsterdam.

Thomas de Keyser excelled as a portrait painter and was the preeminent portraitist of Amsterdam’s burgeoning merchant class until the 1630s, when Rembrandt eclipsed him in popularity. From then on, Thomas’ style of painting became out of fashion and he received less commissions. This forced him in 1640 to return to the stone trading family business. His father was also the municipal stonemason of the city of Amsterdam.

The men on the 1627 painting above were the board and syndics of the Amsterdam guild of gold- and silversmiths. They controlled the quality of the raw material and of the finished products of the guild members. These group portraits were ordered by board members of the guilds and displayed in the guild’s hall, showing off success and authority. Thomas de Keyser put them together in a less static and almost informal manner, a composition that later will be followed by Rembrandt. The syndic on the right is Jacob Everts Wolff. He has a silver belt in his hand and seems to make an eloquent speaking gesture of persuasion, as if to say, “Trust us.” On the left is the dean of the guild, Loef Vredericx, of whom an individual portrait can be seen hereunder.

Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667), “Portrait of Loef Vredericx as an Ensign” (1626), 93x69cm, Oil on Panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

This is the portrait of Loef Vredericx, from the Mauritshuis in the Hague. In his daily life Loef was silversmith and dean of the guild. But here he is portrayed in the honourable position of Ensign of the Amsterdam civic militia. Although a full-length portrait, the size is relatively small and will have fitted better in the Amsterdam house of Loef Vredericx. Reducing the scale of such portraits to make them suitable for their patrons’ urban homes is one of Tomas de Keyser’s innovations within Dutch portraiture.

Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667), “Portrait of a Silversmith, probably Christian van Vianen” (1630), 64x54cm, Oil on Oak Panel, Auctioned at Sotheby’s 2015, current whereabouts unknown.

This is full-length portrait of another silversmith. Thomas de Keyser transformed Dutch portraiture from a static, formal approach towards a more informal and personal representation of the sitter, bridging portraiture and domestic genre scenes. It’s as if we interrupted this young silversmith while he was studying the design of the salt cellar. The identity of this silversmith has been debated ever since. It could be Christian van Vianen, who was the most innovative and celebrated silversmith in The Netherlands in those days. The large ornamental salt cellar on the table has a close resemblance to similar designs by Christian van Vianen.

Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667), “Officers and other Civic Guardsmen of the IIIrd District of Amsterdam, under the Command of Captain Allaert Cloeck and Lieutenant Lucas Jacobsz Rotgans” (1632), 220x351cm, Oil on Canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

This is a group portrait of very large size, more than 2 x 3 meters. It’s a portrait of the Officers and Civic Guardsmen of the IIIrd District of Amsterdam, under the Command of Captain Allaert Cloeck and Lieutenant Lucas Jacobsz Rotgans. Joining these guards was a privilege for the rich well-connected members of the Amsterdam merchant families. Although they were indeed a police force and had to safeguard their part of the city, being a member had a high social and networking purpose. And you had to be rich to join, as it’s on a voluntary basis and you had to pay for your own uniform and weapons.  And occasionally paying for a group portrait!

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634) and playing golf on ice

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634) and playing golf on ice

It’s winter. But the real winters are far behind us. When will we skate again on frozen rivers? Let’s have a look at the Dutch 17th century winter-wonderland paintings by Hendrick Avercamp. And let’s speak about those harsh winters and about the Dutch as the inventors of playing golf.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “A Scene on the Ice” (c. 1625), 39x77cm, Oil on Panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

First about the harsh winters. In the 16th and 17th century a climatic shift happened, nicknamed “The Little Ice Age”. It was an era with severe winters that started early and lasted long. The frigid weather came with heavy snow, freezing temperatures, and the Dutch waterways and lakes were frozen for months. Avercamp specialized in painting winter scenes and he could draw and paint what he witnessed firsthand. In his paintings, people young and old, rich and poor, share the joy and the hardship of The Little Ice Age. Avercamp shaped our perception of the Dutch winter.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Winter Games on the Frozen River IJssel” (c. 1626), 20x33cm, Pen and Ink with Watercolor on Paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Avercamp had a keen eye for detail. He captured children skating and gentlemen playing “kolf” on the ice. Avercamp emphasized the social contrast between the elegantly dressed kolf players, who were successful Amsterdam merchants, and the common people like fishermen and beggars. Peasants and tradesmen, young and old, men and women, on the ice everyone mingles and Avercamp knows how to tell those winter stories.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Winter Landscape with Skaters” (c. 1622), 19x31cm, Pen and Ink with Watercolor on Paper, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands.

The frozen rivers and lakes were the perfect place to play “kolf”. It’s a Dutch early form of golf, mainly played by the elite gentlemen. Kolf as a game was very popular in The Netherlands. It was played wherever there was space. Streets and public squares were favorite places, but city and church councils were not so happy with the cost of this sport, mainly the broken windows. There are many official ordinances, dating back to the 15th century, banning playing kolf from the narrow city streets and around churches. Kolf had to be played outside the municipal borders. And the severe winters offered the perfect solution. The kolf players took to the ice and found all the space (and joy) they needed for their game.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Enjoying the Ice near a Town” (c. 1620), 47x89cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Dutch in the 17th century were leading in wool trading with Scotland and that’s how “kolf” migrated to the Scots, where it is played on their coastal sandy grasslands, as modern “golf” on modern golf courses. Scots are right in claiming the origin of nowadays version of golf, but it’s the Dutch who are the original inventors of the game, known then as kolf and as depicted many times by Hendrick Avercamp.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Kolfplayers on the Ice” (1625), 29x51cm, Oil on Panel, Collection Edward and Sally Speelman.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680)

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Still Life with a Roemer and Watch” (1629), 46x69cm, Oil on Panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Let’s have Sunday brunch 17th Century style! And that’s best done with Willem Claesz. Heda, Dutch Golden Age painter from Haarlem, The Netherlands. He specialized in the genre of “banketjes” and “ontbijtjes” (banquets and breakfasts), and most of them in a monochrome manner. Not much known about his life, not even an exact date of birth or death. But his legacy can be seen in the important museums all over the world. Let’s have a closer look at the one from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And let’s find the hidden message in what seemingly is just a banquet still life painting.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Banquet Piece with Mince Pie” (1635), 107x111cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

This is the aftermath of a feast meal; a table filled with exotic food, luxurious tableware and precious glasses. The lemon and olives have been imported from the Mediterranean. The salt – expensive in those days – can been seen on a silver salt cellar. The mince pie, filled with meat and fruits and spices, is a dish for special occasions and on this painting has clearly been eaten already. A glass broke, the goblet fell over and the candle went out. But the message is shown exactly in the middle and in the front; it even sticks out of the painting right into our face. And that’s the piece of bread. The roll has not been touched. Bread in the Eucharistic meaning represents the body of Christ. Heda tells us that we should not overlook the Christian faith while being seduced by the pleasures and richness of food and earthly goods.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Still Life with a Ham, Bread and Precious Vessels” (1654), 105x147cm, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

And here is another still life breakfast painting by Heda. It’s from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. On the table a ham, lemon, oysters, the salt on the silver salt cellar, precious vessels, Venetian glass and even a “nautilus cup”, made of the nautilus shell imported from the Far East. This painting shows the wealth of a rich merchant from the Dutch Golden Age. But also here, on the left side of the table, is that very modest, untouched, lonely piece of bread. All the richness on one side of the table and on the other side, at that pure white clean tablecloth, the power of the Christian faith, symbolized by a simple bread roll. I guess the owners of these paintings, those rich merchants in the 17th Century, liked to show off their wealth and their taste for international and exotic treasures, but they also wanted to show how modest and down-to-earth they were. It’s true Calvinist behavior; almost as an excuse for wealth and success.

Hans Memling (1430 – 1494)

Hans Memling from Bruges, Belgium, died on this day August 11 in 1494. Besides producing the standard devotional paintings, he also became one of the most sought-after Netherlandish portrait painters. He invented an unique and totally new style of portrait, with a landscape in the background, as if the sitter is portrayed outside or in front of a window.

Hans Memling (1430 – 1494), “Portrait of a Man with a Letter” (c1485), 35x26cm, Oil on Panel, Le Gallerie Degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Memling’s clientele was quite international. Bruges had many visitors from Florence, Tuscany, as the Italians and the Flemish were partners in textile trading and banking. The Medici family even had their permanent representatives in Bruges. These wealthy merchant guys with haircuts fashionable in Florence, asked to be portrayed against a Flemish background.

Hans Memling (1430 – 1494), “Portrait of a Young Man” (c1472), 38x27cm, Oil on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The portraits were shipped to Florence and many of these are now in Italian museums. Already a few years after the first Memling portraits were sent home to Florence, painters from Tuscany started to use similar Flemish backgrounds in their own paintings. Memling is the perfect example of the influence of Netherlandish art on the Italian Renaissance. Memling revolutionized Italian painting.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593)

It’s summer; fruits and veggies galore! So, let’s speak about Giuseppe Arcimboldo, an Italian painter who spent his whole career at the Habsburg court, in Vienna for Emperor Maximilian II and later in Prague for Rudolph II. Arcimboldo was highly successful during his lifetime, but soon forgotten after his death. Only in the 1930s Arcimboldo got rediscovered. About 20 of his paintings remain and those 20 are quite something! A genius with an absolutely unique imagination, Arcimboldo combined fruits, plants and vegetables into allegorical portraits. Here is “Summer”, from one of his “Four Seasons” series, displaying a summer abundance of fruits and vegetables. Arcimboldo’s signature and the date of the painting are woven into the straw coat.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593), “Summer” (1563), 67x51cm, Oil on Wood, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The Habsburg Court encouraged the study of art, nature and science. They not only collected works of art, but also established botanical and zoological gardens. Arcimboldo created a portrait of Emperor Rudolph II as “Vertumnus” the God of the Four Seasons, Gardens and Fruits. And of course Rudolph, who had a sense of humor indeed, loved to show off with this portrait as a symbol of the agricultural richness of his empire. Now the painting is on view in Skokloster Castle in Sweden. In 1648 the Swedish army took it with them after joining the Thirty Year’s War and having looted the castle in Prague.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527 – 1593), “Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the Seasons”, c1590, 70x58cm, Oil on Canvas, Skokloster Castle, Sweden.

Arcimboldo had another trick. Some of his painting can be turned upside-down. Look at this basket of fruits, a painting from 1590. Reverse it and it’s the smiling face of the gardener himself. What a wonderful and witty way to paint the wealth of summer. Current whereabouts of the painting unknown, latest at French & Company art gallery, New York.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723 – 1792)

July 16th, 1723, birth of Joshua Reynolds. English painter and the most fashionable portraitist of the 18th Century elegant society of England. As a young painter he made his grand European tour and studied all the Italian Old Masters. This influenced his style of painting, which we now know as the Grand Style. His clients were portraited in the most impressive and perfect way. Reynolds portraits show lavish dresses and hats fit for Royal Ascot. His paintings have often been inspiration for Hollywood costume designers.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), “Elizabeth, Lady Taylor” (1780), 127x102cm, Oil on Canvas, Frick Collection, New York.

Joshua Reynolds had a busy career. No exception were 6 sitters a day, each for an hour. And next to work he was an incredible socialite, social climber and self-promoter Reynolds was a smooth talker, friendly to everyone and had no enemies. He stayed single his whole life, but of some of his female clients it was said that they visited his house for more sittings than strictly necessary for painting a portrait.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), “The Hon. Miss Monckton” (1777), 240x147cm, Oil on Canvas, Tate, London.

Reynolds also painted so-called “fancy pictures”, which are character studies. Painted after someone, often a family member of the artist, but now mostly unknown who the model was. Here is Reynolds “The Age of Innocence”. It’s from the Tate London and an all-time favorite of the public. Reynolds himself entitled this painting simply “A Little Girl”. The current and more poetic title has been given after Reynold’s death.

Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), “The Age of Innocence” (1788), 77X64cm, Oil on Canvas, Tate, London.

Reynold’s use of pigments for paint was of less high standard. His paintings have fading colors and the blacks tend to crack. But better to have a “Reynolds” of low quality than none at all. Sir Joshua Reynolds died in 1792 and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Adriaen Coorte (active 1683 – 1707)

It’s summer; fruits and vegetables galore! And that’s what Adriaen Coorte painted. Mini still lifes, the size of a postcard, often painted just on paper. Around 60 of these fragile works of beauty still exist and were mostly collected by the 17th Century elite in the province of Zeeland in the south-western part of The Netherlands. Fortunately Adriaen Coorte signed and dated his paintings, because that artistic legacy is all we know about the artist himself. Mystery surrounds his personal life.

Adriaen Coorte (active 1683 – 1707), “Still Life with Gooseberries” (1701), 30x23cm, Oil on Paper, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

There are some records of a family of rope and cord makers in IJzendijke, a small city in Zeeland. Their family name “Coorte” means “cord”, and amongst the family members is  a certain “Adriaen Coorte”. Could this be our painter? This Adriaen had 3 brothers and we know more about them. They were sailor and soldier on ships for the Dutch East and West India Companies. Maybe Adriaen stayed at home and painted his delicate paintings as an amateur painter? He certainly lived far away from the influence of centers of art like Amsterdam and he invented his own personal and unique style.

The fruits and vegetables Coorte painted are seasonal and a bit special. Peaches, apricots, asparagus, wild strawberries: these are delights that could be found in the gardens of the Zeeland merchant elite. They collected exotic plants that arrived in Zeeland with the trading ships coming back from the Far East and West.

Adriaen Coorte (active 1683 – 1707), Still Life with Asparagus and Red Currants” (1696), 34x25cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

But what to paint in winter? How about exotic shells! And that’s another specialty of Adriaen Coorte. Maybe he got these on loan from a local wealthy trader who collected precious goods from around the world, or he got these as gifts from his brothers who took these from far-away exotic places? Adriaen remains a person of mystery. We only know him through his wonderful paintings. Adriaen Coorte is not anonymous, but now almost a “Banksy” of his own time.

Ferdinand Bol (1616 – 1680)

On June 24th, 1616, birth of Ferdinand Bol, celebrity-portrait painter of the Dutch Golden Age. Bol married himself into the Amsterdam high society of merchants and the Dutch Admiralty with their naval heroes. Always being compared to Rembrandt, Bol went his own way and became very successful and famous. His style of painting is less “emotional” than Rembrandt’s, but more “polished” and pleasing towards his audience. When Bol died he had been retired for years already and been living in one of the biggest Amsterdam canal houses. He was the painter-to-go-to for a portrait that would give the sitter eternal remembrance and make them surpass their earthly existence.

Ferdinand Bol (1616 – 1680), “Portrait of Michiel de Ruyter” (1667), 157x135cm, Oil on Canvas, Mauritshuis, The Hague. This painting was hanging in the Amsterdam Admiralty headquarters from 1667 – 1798.

In 1667 Bol painted a portrait of Michiel Adriaenszn de Ruyter (1607 – 1676), Admiral of the Dutch fleet and winner of sea battles all over the world. De Ruyter was loved by his sailors and admired by the government of the then Dutch Republic. And on the occasion of his 1666 victory against the British at the Four Days Battle on the North Sea, the Dutch Admiralty decided that Michiel’s portrait should hang in the six local headquarters of the Dutch Admiralties. And those six copies had to be painted by Ferdinand Bol. It was the Admiralty who ordered the portraits, but Michiel de Ruyter had to pay for it himself.

The portrait shows Michiel de Ruyter as Admiral and Chief Commander of the Dutch Fleet, conqueror of the world and man of great dignity, discipline and decisiveness. His flagship “De Zeven Provincien” (Seven Provinces) is in the background. The portrait is seen from a low perspective, which adds to the image of power of Michiel de Ruyter. No emotions are shown. This is a state portrait and depicts Michiel de Ruyter as he wanted to be remembered.

Abraham Storck (1644 – 1708), “The Four Days Battle, 1666, with Admiral Michiel de Ruyter’s ship “De Zeven Provincien” (Seven Provinces) on the left” (c.1670), 79x111cm, Oil on Canvas, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

Ferdinand Bol is a master in inventing an image of the one portrayed. And with much success. Everyone remembers Michiel de Ruyter as the one depicted in Bol’s portrait. This is how one believes Michiel de Ruyter looked like. It’s an idealized portrait, but so well known that our communal memory believes this is Michiel de Ruyter.

When we look at portraits in general we should be careful with believing what we are seeing. When looking at this portrait of Michiel Adriaenszn de Ruyter, we need to realize that this is not the real Michiel de Ruyter. No, this is a portrait of Michiel de Ruyter. By Bol!

Han Huang 韓滉 (723 – 787)

Han Huang (韓滉) was a Chinese painter from the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907). But he was also a high ranking court official under a range of Chinese Tang Emperors. Han painted “Five Oxen (五牛圖)” and it is said that in this painting he shows to the Emperor his loyalty and hardworking dedication, like the loyalty of an ox serving his master. Painted 1250 years ago, this is the oldest painting on paper and one of the top ten Chinese masterpieces of art.

The painting was owned by many Chinese Emperors, who according to tradition put their seals on the painting. Those are the red stamp marks. This is adding historical importance to the painting and shows its provenance. Some Emperors also wrote poems and added these to the painting. It became a handscroll of 140cm long, and just 21cm high. The painting was kept in the Old Summer Palace in Beijing, but stolen in 1860, when the Palace was looted and burnt down. In the 1950s the handscroll resurfaced at a Hong Kong auction house and the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai immediately ordered the purchase of the painting and the return to Beijing. It’s now kept in Beijing’s Palace Museum.

Han Huang (韓滉) (723 –787), “Five Oxen (五牛圖)”, Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), Handscroll of 21x140cm, Ink and Colors on Paper, The Palace Museum, Beijing.

Oxen, or cattle in general, are a universal symbol of wealth. In agricultural nations, cattle are the foundation of society; providers of strong labor, milk and meat, and they stand for prosperity and economic development. Look at this 1650 painting by Aelbert Cuyp, a leading landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age. This painting is more than just a pastoral scene. These cows are symbolizing abundance and wellbeing. The people who bought Cuyp’s paintings had invested substantial capital in canalization and draining the Dutch wetlands. They increased their wealth from exploiting the new agricultural land. And that means cows! This work is expressing the quintessence of Dutch agricultural richness and wealth.

Aelbert Cuyp (1620 – 1691), “Cows in a River” (1650), 59x74cm, Oil on Oak, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Here are a few prints by the famous Dutch cattle painter Paulus Potter (1625 – 1654). These are from his “Bullenboekje” from 1650, a booklet with cows and oxen. Portrayed almost as human beings. As ourselves!

Frans Hals (1582 – 1666), a family (portrait) reunited!

This is the story of a rich merchant family from 17th Century Haarlem in The Netherlands. Or it’s actually the story of a portrait of that family. Gijsbrecht and Maria van Campen celebrated in 1624 their 20th wedding anniversary, by ordering a family portrait from the famous Dutch painter Frans Hals. They wanted to be portrayed in grand style, together with their 13 children. And that became a big painting of nearly 4 meters long. Almost too big to fit in any house. Oh, small detail indeed, after the painting was finished, child nr 14 was born. It’s a daughter, and she conveniently got photoshopped into the painting in the bottom left corner. Not by Frans Hals but by Salomon de Bray (1597 – 1664), another famous painter from Haarlem.

Proposed reconstruction of the original Van Campen Family portrait (1624) as painted by Frans Hals (1582 – 1666).

Frans Hals was a popular portrait painter, who lived and worked in Haarlem. He depicted his clients in an informal realistic and relaxed way, but certainly grand and with elegance. Exactly how a liberal “new-rich” successful merchant wants to be depicted. It should be old-style “royal”, but in an informal modern way. Think how the European royal families of these days like to be photographed: royal and grand, but informal at the same time!

Frans Hals (1582 – 1666), “Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape” (1624), 151x164cm, Oil on Canvas, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio.
Frans Hals (1582 – 1666), “Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat Cart” (1624), 151x108cm, Oil on Canvas, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

The picture with the parents and their 14 children as shown here above is a reconstruction. Of the original painting, three pieces still exist: “Van Campen Family in a Landscape” in the Toledo Museum of Art, “Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat Cart” in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium and “Head of a Young Boy” in a private collection. For the first time in two hundred years, the three surviving pieces of this monumental family portrait are on view side by side at an exhibition in the Fondation Custodia in Paris (until August 25, 2019.

Frans Hals (1582 – 1666), “Head of a Young Boy” detail from “Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape” (1624), Private Collection.

The descendants of the Van Campens decided to cut their family portrait into pieces and sell it as separate “Frans Hals” paintings. The original painting was rather big and difficult to fit in any decent house and almost unsellable in its original format. And by cutting in into pieces, one actually creates even more paintings by the famous Frans Hals! Now, after a few hundreds of years, those three individual paintings have been puzzled together to reunite the parents and children Van Campen in one family portrait. In modern times, you sometimes edit someone out of a picture. But here we are happy to put a family with 14 children together again. The original piece with the portrayal of the two children in the bottom right corner is still missing. If you happen to know the whereabouts of these two kids, please do contact me or the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels.

Reconstruction of “Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape” (1624) by Frans Hals. The child at the bottom left was added by Salomon de Bray. The part in grey is still missing.

John Constable (1776 – 1837)

On June 11th, 1776, birth of John Constable, English landscape painter. Now considered one of the greatest English painters, but during his life more successful outside England than at home. From Suffolk, England, Constable spent almost his whole life painting the local landscape, with clouds full of rain. His paintings show the England we know from Jane Austen and Downton Abbey. It all looks very romantic, and even the endless rain and clouds have their own charm.

John Constable (1776 – 1837), “Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden” (1826), 89x112cm, Oil on Canvas, The Frick Collection, New York.

Here is Constable’s “Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden”, from 1826. Painted for his friend the Bishop of Salisbury. The Bishop and his wife are standing in the front and he points out to the spire of the cathedral. An earlier version of this painting exists (in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum), but when the Bishop had seen that version he asked Constable if the weather could maybe be a bit more sunny. That’s why this second version has more blue sky. Apparently even for the English themselves, the endless clouds and rain can become too much. In our modern days of Instagram, one would put a filter over it. And that’s what Constable did by painting this second and more sunny version. Unfortunately the Bishop died just before his “sunny” painting was completed. It’s now on view in the Frick Collection, New York.

John Constable (1776 – 1837), “Stonehenge” (1835), 39x60cm, Watercolor, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Also here is Constable’s wonderful 1835 watercolor painting of the Stonehenge ruins. This watercolor expresses sadness. Its painted after his dear beloved wife passed away and left him alone with their seven children. Constable was extremely sad and deep grief came over him. Look now at this painting. We see one strong remote set of stones standing in the centre, all other pieces have fallen to earth. But lonely as these remote standing stones are, there is hope. A beam of light (or is it a rainbow?) gives warmth and power. I think Constable is expressing his feelings here and also uses this painting to cope with his grief. Constable is like that lonely standing piece. Everything around him fell down, but Constable knows that he needs to cope with his losses. This beautiful Stonehenge watercolor painting confirms to me the healing strength of art. Constable himself said: “Painting is but another word for feeling”.

Jan Lievens (1607 – 1674)

Jan Lievens (1606 – 1674), “Samson and Delilah” (c. 1632), 131x111cm, Oil on Canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

On the 4th of June 1674, death of Jan Lievens, Dutch Golden Age painter and friend, colleague and rival of Rembrandt. Only a year younger than Rembrandt, they grew up together in Leiden and shared a studio in Amsterdam. Rembrandt became the well known favorite of all times, and Lievens always stayed in his shadow. But let’s look now at Jan Lievens’ “Samson and Delilah” painted around 1632. The story is from the Old Testament (Judges 16: 17-20) and goes as follows. The Israelite Samson is the strong invincible super-hero. Delilah is a treacherous smart woman, bribed by the Philistines, who seduces Samson into telling her the secret of his heroic strength. He tells her that he will lose his strength when his hair will be cut. When Samson falls asleep on her lap, she hands a pair of scissors to a frightened Philistine and in the next scene Samson’s powerful hairlocks will be gone. This is a scene of terror and suspense. On the painting it’s the moment when Samson still has all his strength, and the Philistine guy knows that and looks pretty anxious. But Delilah is determined and Samson’s hair (and strength!) will be gone in a second. This subject appeals to the viewer for a few reasons. It’s about a strong muscled guy, who now sleeps like a baby and will be powerless very soon. It’s also about women being smart and able to seduce men. And there is a moral: strong as you may be as a man, you are weak in the arms of a beautiful woman. And Lievens is depicting the moment when Samson still has all his power and strength. It can all still go wrong! There is suspense in this part of the story!

Here is also a painting that’s actually more a sketch. Over the centuries this small painting has been attributed on and off to Rembrandt or to Lievens. There are endless discussions between historians of art who the artists is behind this painting. Its for sure from the Rembrandt/Lievens studio, from around 1626, and it shows again the terrifying moment just before the cutting of Samson’s hair. Currently this painting is attributed to Rembrandt.

Attributed to Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), “Samson and Delilah” (c. 1626), 28x24cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In the days of Rembrandt and Lievens, artists were using prints as source of inspiration. It could very well be that the below print has been seen by Rembrandt and Lievens. It’s a print from 1611 by the Dutch artist Jacob Matham, after a painting by Rubens made in 1609. Most likely Lievens and Rembrandt have never seen the Rubens painting and only know the work through the Matham print. Rubens is depicting the moment of cutting the hair. But Rembrandt and Lievens choose the moment just before that, creating masterly that sense of terror and suspense. It can still go wrong! That’s like a Hitchcock thriller, but painted in the 17th century!

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640)

On the 30th of May, 1640, death of Peter Paul Rubens, the most important Baroque painter from the Flemish Netherlands. Rubens was not only a well-educated scholar and painter, but also businessman and diplomat. He made religious altarpieces, portraits of royalty, mythological paintings and hunting landscapes. All his paintings are impressive big pieces with lots of color and typical Baroque-emphasized movement and sensuality. He run a large studio in Antwerp which is now the Rubenshuis Museum.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “The Descent from the Cross” (1613), 420x320cm, Oil on Panel, Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp, Belgium.

Here are two of his paintings. It’s “The Descent from the Cross” (1613), which is the 4×3 meters magnificent central panel of a triptych, which is still in its original place in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium. The body of Christ is lowered from the cross, with very energetic support of Saint John (in the red mantle). Mary Magdalena is gracefully supporting Christ’ leg and Mary, a mother in despair, is stretching out her arms towards her son. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are placed on both sides of the scenel.

Also here is a 2×3 meters big painting of the legendary hero “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1614). Chief counselor to the Persian king, Daniel fell victim to his jealous co-officials. They plotted against him and threw him into a den of lions. But that plot truly failed! Daniel keeps on staring up and praying towards the light of heaven. And he stayed unharmed! Next day he was freed without a single scratch. A strong moral: look up when things get you down; keep your head up and think positive!

Peter Paul Rubens (1577 – 1640), “Daniel in the Lions’ Den” (1614), 224x351cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Pontormo (1494 – 1557)

Pontormo (1494 – 1557), “Visitation of the Virgin and Saint Elizabeth” (1528), Oil on Board”, 202x156cm, Church of San Michele e San Francesco, Carmignano, Italy.

On the 24th of May, 1494, birth of Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo, simply known as Pontormo. He is famous for his Mannerist way of painting, with figures in a floating, almost dancing, manner. Pontormo painted in and around Florence, often supported by the Medici family. Here is Pontormo’s “Visitation of the Virgin and Saint Elizabeth”, housed in the church of San Francesco e Michele in Carmignano, about 20 km west of Florence. The Visitation is the visit of the Virgin Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, to Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, (Luke 1:39–56).

Pontormo’s work was quite out of fashion for several centuries. Though he has received renewed attention by contemporary art historians. Indeed, in 2002, Pontormo’s “Portrait of a Halberdier” was the world’s most expensive painting by an Old Master. The Halberdier holds a halberd, a combination of spear and battle-axe. The sitter’s identity has been much discussed. It could be the young nobleman Francesco Guardi at the age of around fifteen. But it has also been suggested that the portrait represents Cosimo de’ Medici himself.

Pontormo (1494 – 1557), “Portrait of a Halberdier (Francesco Guardi?)” (1529), Oil on Panel transferred to Canvas, 95x73cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

Pontormo’s closest pupil was Bronzino, who followed Pontormo’s style. Of several paintings it’s disputed if the author is Pontormo or Bronzino.

Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528)

Albrecht Dürer  (1471–1528), “Saint Jerome” (1521), Oil on Panel, 60x48cm, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lissabon.

On the 21st of May, 1471, birth of Albrecht Dürer, painter, drawer and printmaker, and one of the key artists of the Northern Renaissance.  Dürer’s printmaking has been of immense influence on generations of painters, all of whom had printmakers copy their works in prints, to be able to distribute their art. Dürer was born in Nuremberg, Germany, where his father was a successful goldsmith. He made a few trips to Italy and contributed greatly to the exchange of knowledge and skills between the Italian and Northern Renaissance. Back in Germany Dürer dedicated himself to printmaking, mainly woodcuts and engravings, turning printmaking into an art of its own right. Dürer is considered one of the most famous artists of his time.

Here is Dürer’s painting of Saint Jerome. It’s more a portrait of an old wise man and only little details like the inkpot and bookrest remind us that this is a scholar sitting in his study. Saint Jerome was a Christian theologian, best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin. But look how he is pointing at the skull. Saint Jerome reminds us of our mortality and the vanity of earthly life and goods.

The Albertina in Vienna keeps four of Dürer’s preparatory sketches for the painting; see hereunder. Dürer’s handwritten note on the drawing of the Saint Jerome’s head, gives us information about the model: “The man was 93 years old and still healthy”. The three other sketches are details of the painting, all brush drawings on gray violet primed paper highlighted in white tempera, and from 1521, Fotos: © Albertina, Vienna.

Albrecht Dürer  (1471–1528), “Study of a Man Aged 93” (1521), 42x28cm, Albertina, Vienna.

Jacob Jordaens (1593 – 1678)

Jacob Jordaens (1593 – 1678), “Susanna and the Elders” (1653), Oil on Canvas, 203x154cm, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen.

On the 19th of May, 1593, birth of Jacob Jordaens, one of the top Flemish Baroque painters. Here is his “Susanna and the Elders“. The painting learns us that the concept of female beauty is changing over time. The story in a nutshell: as Susanna bathes in her garden, two lustful elders observe her and threaten to claim that she was meeting a young man unless she agrees to come with them. Susanna refuses to be blackmailed and at the end virtue triumphs. Look at the dog! It’s the symbol of fidelity and he is already barking at the elders.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), Mona Lisa or La Gioconda or Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Oil on Panel, 77x53cm, The Louvre Museum, Paris.

Today 500 years ago, on May 2, 1519, Leonardo da Vinci dies in Amboise in France. He spent his last years in the service of his good friend Francis I, King of France. Already during his lifetime considered a super genius, and now thought to be one of the greatest artists and scientists of all time. Inventor, painter, drawer, engineer, writer, musician, botanist, historian; Leonardo is the epitome of the Uomo Universale. As painter he left us only around 15 paintings, but one of those is the most famous painting of all. Here is Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”. The name is a contraction of Ma Donna Lisa, which means My Lady Lisa. It’s Lisa Gherardini who is portrayed here, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. And that gives the painting it’s other name “La Gioconda”, which translates as “The Joyful Lady”. Her mysterious smile attracts millions of visitors to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it’s listed as acquired by Francis I and having entered the French royal collection in 1518.

Jules Breton (1827 – 1906)

Jules Breton (1827 – 1906), “The Song Of The Lark” (1884), Oil on Canvas, 110 x 85 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Jules Breton, born on the 1st of May, 1827, was a 19th-century French Romantic-Realist painter. His paintings are influenced by the French countryside and rural peasant life. Breton transmits the hardship of rural existence into romantic and idyllic beauty. Here is his painting “The Song Of The Lark”, from 1884. The poor farmer girl has a day of hard work ahead, but she is catching the beauty of the moment of sunrise and the pleasing melodic song of that tiny lark high up in the sky. It’s a moment of power of nature, which might give the girl the strength to go through the day ahead. When painted, the nostalgic of the hard working peasant class appealed to the salons of the Paris elite. But everyone, rich and poor, feels the warmth of the sun at dawn and enjoys the power of the song of a lark.

Joaquín Sorolla (1863 – 1923)

Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863 – 1923), “Paseo a Orillas del Mar (Walk on the Beach)” (1909), Oil on Canvas, 205x200cm, Museo Sorolla, Madrid.

On February 27, 1863, birth of Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida, Spanish impressionist painter. Famous for painting people and landscapes under the bright Spanish sunlight and with sunlit water. Here is Sorolla’s “Paseo a Orillas del Mar” (Walk on the Beach), painted on the beach of Valencia and depicting his wife Clotilde and daughter Maria. The effect of the breeze on the dresses gives an impression of fleeting momentary; it’s a painting like a snapshot photo. On view in Madrid’s Museo Sorolla, which was the artist’s house and studio.

Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916)

Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916), “Ophelia among the Flowers” (1905), Pastel on Paper, 64x91cm, National Gallery, London.

On April 20, 1840, birth of Odilon Redon. French symbolist painter who combined the macabre with beauty and light. Redon’s paintings are a synthesis of nightmares and dreams, as in “Ophelia among the Flowers” from 1905. Ophelia is a character from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Towards the end of the the play she drowns in a pond, surrounded by flowers.

Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582 – 1647)

Jacob van Hulsdonck (1582 – 1647), “Roses in a Glass Vase” (c. 1640), Oil on Copper on Panel, 35x28cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Jacob van Hulsdonck, born April 26, 1582, Flemish painter of still-lives and flowers. Here are his Roses in a Glass Vase. It’s white and red roses, plus an eglantine-rose (Dutch: “egelantier”) in the top left of the picture. Executed with great precision throughout, from the water droplets on the petals to the maybeetle in the foreground to the right. There is also symbolism in this painting. White and red roses are representing female “pure” and male “erotic” love; here arranged in harmony. The eglantine-rose, as symbol of scared and profane love, makes this painting a “Bouquet d’Amour”.