The Herring Season 2020 starts tomorrow June 12th and from that day on, the “Hollandse Nieuwe” (New Dutch Herring) can be eaten everywhere, mostly as a street-food snack with finely sliced onion and pickles. A whole herring is consumed raw and often eaten by lifting the herring by its tail, tilt your head back, and then eat the herring by lowering it into your mouth.
The painting above is a monochrome still life by Pieter Claesz. It’s a serene composition, symbolizing our “daily bread”. But in fact, this was for centuries a common breakfast meal indeed: a glass of beer, a herring and a piece of bread. On the painting hereunder, known as “The Cat’s Breakfast”, we see a woman of humble origin sharing the herring from her breakfast with a cat.
These herrings are caught in the North Sea between May and August, before the breeding season starts. Herrings at this time are unusually fat and rich in oils. The herrings are preserved at sea, by removing the gills and placing it in a salty brine, traditionally in oak casks.
The Dutch started fishing and trading herring more than 1,000 years ago. Much of Holland’s wealth and sea trade can be attributed to this fish. Part of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age is funded with the profits of the herring fishing industry. From the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum is this beautiful small panel by Gotfried Schalcken, depicting a woman selling herrings. And Christian Couwenbergh portrayed himself by holding up a freshly preserved herring.
In this panel by Gerard Dou, an old woman and a young boy seem to be discussing the herring she holds in her right hand. It’s the fisher boy who delivered the oakwood cask with the freshly caught and preserved herrings, and it’s the old lady as shop owner who will start selling the fish.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Meet Narcissus and Echo! Although we know them already, as they are around us every day and everywhere. But originally they are two mythological characters from the “Metamorphoses”, an 1st century book in Latin, by the Roman poet Ovid.
Let’s start with Narcissus. He was in those ancient mythological times a most beautiful young man. One sunny day, while walking in a wood and being thirsty, he wanted to drink from a well. But then another thirst grew in him. As Narcissus drank, he was enchanted by an attractive young boy he saw in the pond. Narcissus fell in love with that pretty guy in the water, mistaking that shadow of himself for a real body. Absolutely spellbound, he could not stop looking at that mirror image of himself. But poor Narcissus, whenever he wanted to kiss his lover, and when his lips touched the water, the reflection disappeared. Whenever he reached his hands to that guy in the pond, the image faded away. The boy he fell in love with did not exist and was nothing else than his own reflection.
Narcissus lay down next to the pond and being deeply in love kept on staring at his own image. No food anymore and no sleep. He started crying, but when his tears touched the water, the pool rippled and the object of his desire disappeared. Narcissus ultimately faded away and died. On that spot where he died, flowers started to grow; it’s the Narcissus flower, the daffodil, with its head hanging down, as if looking at the flower’s own refection in the water. See the painting by Waterford, some daffodils start to grow already next to Narcissus.
Would Narcissus have lived now and amongst us, he probably non-stop posted pictures of himslef on his social media. In that sense Narcissus invented the “selfie”, as ultimate passionate love for ones own image. We all know some of these guys and girls; check your InstaGram! We might even Narcissus ourselves?
Now about Echo, a young girl who fell in love with Narcissus. But first back to the beginning as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Echo was one of those girls who cannot stop talking, a chatterbox first class. Whenever in that mythological world the god Jupiter was playing around with girls, Echo distracted his wife Juno with her endless babbling. Juno got pretty angry and punished Echo. From that moment on, Echo could only repeat the last few words mentioned by someone else.
When Echo noticed Narcissus walking in the woods, she immediately fell in love. Narcissus sensed that someone was around and said: “Who is there, come here!”. And Echo said: “Come here!”. Narcissus said: “Let’s meet” and Echo said “Let’s meet!”. But when Narcissus saw Echo, he did not like her at all. Echo, feeling ashamed and rejected, hide in a cave where she became old and wrinkled and then died. Only her voice remains and that voice can still be heard when you are hiking in the mountains. Poor Echo will forever continue to repeat your last few words. I guess we all know some of these girls, endless talking and basically saying nothing more than just a few echoed words.
Of course there are deeper psychological meanings behind being a Narcist or being like Echo. The Narcists around us are the self-centered persons and the Echoists are the ones always focusing on others and neglecting themselves. And that makes them attracting each other, but never really connecting. They both should learn to share a bit each other’s characteristics. For Narcissus to echo more and for Echo to become a bit more narcistic.
July 22nd is the feast day of Mary Magdalene. But who is she, and how to recognize her in art? If there had been more gender equality in the days of Jesus, than Mary Magdalene certainly would have become one of the 12 Apostles. She was the number one female follower of Jesus and is generally considered a historical figure. Most likely Mary Magdalene was wealthy, mundane, intellectual and beautiful. Rumors say that Mary Magdalene was a penitent prostitute and the lover of Jesus, that she was washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying His feet with her hair and rubbing His feet with precious ointment. These are fantasy stories made up from the Middle Ages onwards. But it’s through these stories that we can identify Mary Magdalene in art: as a beautiful long-haired woman with a perfume or ointment jar, or as a penitent sinner.
Mary Magdalene depicted as a prostitute or sinful woman, whose sins are forgiven by Jesus, was a popular image. As everyone has some sins, big or small, one would love to see a painting with a sinner whose sins are forgiven and who sees the light of salvation. So let’s now look at this painting by El Greco. It’s the ecstatic moment when the penitent Mary Magdalene converts to the heavenly light and the skull representing her earthly mortality is rolling out of her hand. And of course in the left bottom comer is the omnipresent ointment jar.
Another story is about Mary Magdalene wiping and anointing Jesus’ feet with precious perfume or ointment. Or washing His feet with her own tears and drying with her long hair. That’s pretty dramatic and will certainly appeal to any sinner who is looking for forgiveness.
As a historical figure, Mary Magdalene most likely was present when Jesus was crucified. See hereunder the crucifixion triptych by Rogier van der Weyden. And just so that we do not mix up Mary Magdalene with anyone else, she is the person carrying the jar with the perfume or ointment. The jar is Mary Magdalene’s traditional attribute and a great trademark to recognize her in art.
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.
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!
The Four Evangelists are the ones who wrote the four gospels in the New Testament, which is the second volume of the Bible. These gospels describe the life of Christ and are therefore in essence four times the same story but written by four different authors. The word “evangelist” comes from the Greek word εὐ-αγγέλιον (eu-angelion), which means “the good message”; εὔ = good, αγγέλιον = message. The word “angel” has the same origin and actually means “messenger”. The authors of these 4 gospel-books are the Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
The Four Evangelists are mostly depicted separately, but here is a 1625 painting by Jacob Jordaens in which they form a group. It’s clearly a group of four wise men, writing books. And therefore these can immediately be identified as the Four Evangelists. Identifying the individual evangelists is the next step. Each of them has his own symbol, and that’ the easy way to recognize them. That can be seen on the painting (c. 1614) by the Utrecht painter Abraham Bloemaert. Luke’s symbol is the ox, Mark has a lion, John his eagle, and for Matthew it’s an angel. It’s still the group of the Four Evangelists, together in one painting. But in most cases they are depicted in individual pictures, and as there are four of them, it’s excellent for series of four paintings, prints and even sculptures. Look for the ox, lion, eagle or angel and you know who is who.
Here are two Dutch Old Master prints from a series of the Four Evangelists. It’s Saint Matthew with the angel, and Saint John with the eagle. And both of them are receiving holy and spiritual inspiration for writing their gospel: the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to John. Prints from 1606 by Crispijn van de Passe after paintings by Gortzius Geldorp, 42x30cm, Engraving on Paper, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.