Posts Tagged ‘Holland’

Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) is most famous, arguably, as having been the teacher of Rembrandt (1606-1663). Rembrandt was brought up Protestant, Lastman was Catholic. This is noteworthy because it shows that even in religiously torn Holland, people—artists, at least—still managed to respect each other.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century involved a lot of violence, for example, the destruction of stained glass windows, tapestries, paintings and statues in Catholic churches so that these stripped down buildings could then be converted to Protestant houses of worship. Holland became officially Protestant with Catholics being restricted to worshipping in private homes. How did this religious turmoil affect art and artists?  Drastically.   Painters, sculptors and craftsmen lost their primary client, the Catholic Church.

To work as an artist (to teach and to sell your work) you had to be a member of the Guild of St. Luke.  They met regularly and discussed art and business.  You can imagine these discussions when the big client was no longer there.  Paintings with religious themes were no longer being ordered.

Well, what about the genre called history painting? That was still popular. All the more so, since the shipping industry was booming, merchants were getting rich, built themselves huge houses and, ta-tah, needed paintings for their expansive walls. Given the religious-political climate, these had to lean towards the secular.

History painting gave the artist the opportunity to present edifying tableaus with figures, both clad and not-so-much, congregating in idyllic landscapes.  This required some acquaintance with Greek and biblical mythology. The owner of such paintings could throw a dinner party and feel cultured.

The Mauritshuis in The Hague recently acquired the Lastman painting we’re looking at here.  Their website offers a nice entry into the painting:


What fascinates me about this painting is the composition.  (No surprise to the reader who has followed this blog for even only a short time).

Shall we?

I’ve asked a couple of people what they see as the most prominent thing in this painting.  One said, the man on the left in that long red coat.  The other said, the huge man on the right, striking that showy pose on that too-small horse.  I agreed with them.  My attention was also drawn to these large figures – but only momentarily.   Then my focus landed in the middle and got stuck there.

Look! Lastman put a white circle smack-dab into the middle of his painting.  What was he thinking?!

If he had made that headband brown it would not stand out.  If he wanted it white but had made the background figure’s tunic light, then there would be no white circle to command our attention.  What was he thinking?

Not only is the white circle exactly in the middle, two diagonal lines (pink 3 and 4) lead directly to it.  Lastman contorts the figure along line 3 so that the leg line leads our eye directly to the white circle.  On the other side, along line 4, the woman’s garment is forced up to conform to a line that leads to the white circle. And then it leads along the dog’s paws, perfectly.

What was he thinking?

The picture purports to illustrate John the Baptist preaching.  There he is.  You look at him because, well, because you’re supposed to.  The title of the painting tells you to.  Then your eye wanders to the more colorful, theatrical characters in the crowd and then, wham, there’s the circle in the middle.

This is not a photo.  Did he work at this carefully, deliberately constructed composition to create an effect in our minds?  But what would that be? Why would he want us to keep coming back to that white circle in the middle? Maybe he didn’t think about that.  Maybe it was a joke. Maybe he was jaded and cynical.

The painting measures only 24” x 36.” Twenty-seven people, a horse (or three) and a dog are crammed into that small frame. Maybe, as the article on the Mauritshuis page says, he wanted to show how well he could draw anatomy in difficult poses and from different angles. Maybe that was good enough. It was a living. The nouveau riches bought it.

His pupil, Rembrandt, created paintings with mystery and depth.  We stand before them, fall silent, are drawn into them. They pose questions that we cannot answer. They silence us. And we come back to Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings and etchings over and over, to be silenced.  We never say, maybe he was jaded and cynical.

More paintings by Lastman:


For paintings by Rembrandt, try:


All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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I would like to have met Harmen Steenwijck. I wonder if anybody in Delft, where he was born, or Leiden, where he died, knew how witty he was.

In 17th century Holland artists had to invent themselves and their art.  A hundred years earlier the members of art guilds were kept busy with commissions from the Catholic Church: murals, tapestries, candelabra, gold smithing, marble carving and all that.  Then in 1517 a monk named Martin Luther said, let’s not do that anymore, well, not directly but in a round-about way.  The religious debate got very political, of course, with the Protestants storming Catholic Churches and smashing everything from stained glass windows to statuary to paintings.  In Holland, newly stripped down and whitewashed Catholic Churches were converted to Protestant Churches that tolerated no imagery or decoration.  But, hey, what about us artists!  What do we do now?

Dutch art became secular and humanist.  It became modern!

The Vanitas genre can be seen as a link between the old life-is-a-vale-of-tears theology and the new humanism that stressed living deeply with the reality of death.  But notice, that while theology preached hellfire-and-damnation, this new thing, humanism, gave you images to contemplate and it let your mind roam.

We still had to work with symbols.  Symbols furnished and cluttered our minds way into the end of the 19th century. But you could play with them.  These symbolic objects in your collection didn’t talk back like lace-collared Burgers who sat for a portrait.  You could arrange these things any way you wanted.  You played.


Harmen Steenwijck played. Some of the objects he shows in his still lifes were very expensive, like the Japanese sword, the sea shell, and the antique vase. In his Vanitas paintings they symbolized the futility of wealth.  The sea shell, expired life.  Then there are more common objects to represent the pleasures of life, like pipes and books.  The just extinguished candle is an obvious symbol of death and the skull takes the cake in this department.  Now, since he was painting an image with a message and everybody knew what symbolized what, why didn’t he just paint a shelf or a cupboard, with these things arranged one next to the other?  Wouldn’t that get the message across?

The message, yes.  But nobody would be attracted to the painting.  To pull viewers in and hold them emotionally, he needed to arrange the objects in a compelling composition.  Unlike portraits, still lifes were not commissioned.  A Vanitas, like other genre paintings, had to appeal a collector’s eye and tickle his mind.

In the painting shown at the top of this post, Steenwijck clusters all his symbols into a wedge at the bottom, balanced by the silence in the top triangle where a ray of light dramatically aims for the skull.


It’s a daring composition.  Spend some time with this painting and you’ll find that the empty gray wall in the background turns out not to be silent at all. It becomes eerie and ominous.

What we get with Steenwijck is a modern feeling for pictorial space.  There is no such thing as negative space or unimportant space in a painting.  That wall is not “empty,” it’s not “nothing.”  It’s an essential part of the drama.

This is an intriguing painting. But still, if he had painted the mirror image, that shell perched so precariously on the tip of the table would have gained so much more tension and character.


Harmen Steenwijck, 1612 – 1656

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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You’re not inclined to interpret this painting. You’re probably not asking “what is the significance of the number four, what does it symbolize or refer to, what is the sum of all the fours here and what would be the meaning of that large number, ditto for multiplication,” etc. This kind of interpreting is what we used to do. For example, when you look at this painting by Nicolaes Maes, you can’t help but try to figure out what the NicolaesMaesIdleServantartist is illustrating. Why did the artist put in the cat, the sleeping maid, the guests in the background? What is the hostess saying to us by gesturing that way? What was the social status of servants in mid-17th-century Holland?
We stopped digging for meaning about a hundred years ago. I recently found this 1923 Picasso quote in an announcement of the current MoMA show: “Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the songs of a bird?”
If this sounds perverse, it’s because prior to about 1900 images were used for didactic purposes and that’s what we got used to. They illustrated a story, a myth, a compositional ideal, an ideal ratio, an ideal body, an ideal color relation, etc. Ideals are culturally defined and over time get enshrined as absolute and immovable. By the early 20th century, these ossified standards were crumbling in Western culture: in the place of capital-t Truth we got evolution, relativity, psychoanalysis and the leveling of social classes. This is not to say that Cézanne, Manet, VanGogh, Matisse and Picasso were now illustrating these new theories. Not at all. They painted in a new way because to be alive at that time felt new.
The major societal shift involved the relationship between artist and client. Whereas before, the artist was a servant, he is now of the same middle class as his client. Whereas before, the client (pope, emperor, czar, king, archbishop, et al) was interested in the finished product and how it promoted his power status, now the client becomes more and more interested in how the work is put together and what philosophical dynamics those artistic processes embody. Whereas before, the work of art “appeared” in a mythical sense, like Athena from the head of Zeus, now the painting or sculpture shows the traces –the brush strokes, the chisel marks, the scratches, the nuts and bolts—of how it was made.
This is why the reviewers of art exhibits and the critics in art magazines like Art in America and Artforum will write at great length about the process that went into the making of the work of art. Most of the writing does not attempt interpretation of the pre-19th century kind at all. It’s assumed that you, as a contemporary, love process. You love to stand in front of a painting or sculpture and try to figure out how the artist made this thing. Reconstructing the process will trigger empathy with the artist, will vicariously pump you up with energy and, generally, make your day. Later you’ll meet a friend for lunch and, gesturing energetically,try to convey your aesthetic experience.
Well then, what was the process behind “What Four?” You can see that the painting, 30” x 40”, started as a color study: blue/purple and greens. What followed was only one layer of paint, but a layer produced through complex procedure. The artist, Jane Donaldson, decided to mix media. The first layer is painting. This second layer is printmaking. She carved the letter four on a linoleum plate. She painted it white and pressed it onto the canvas, one four after the other, until the white paint was worn from the plate. She now inked the plate again and started another set of “four,” and so on.
I find this very exciting. It has something child-like about it, but at the same time it hearkens back to that incision in Western civilization when in 1439 Johannes Gutenberg invented printing in Mainz, Germany, and literature was able to take off. Without printing, no Renaissance, without the Renaissance, well, you know, on and on.
That’s one of the chain reactions set off in the mind. There are others, because the process of decline/degeneration/fading and rejuvenation/fresh start is so true to the experience of life. The process tempts you to interpret metaphorically, but remains unspecific. It reverberates deeply in the imagination because it is visually rich. That richness comes from its process.
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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