Category: Artists

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!