Posts Tagged ‘Rembrandt’

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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MillstoneCWhat could possibly be the appeal of this garment? Granted, this is an ad and therefore an exaggeration, but the overwrought tube scarf that was in fashion this past winter invites an interpretation. During these cold months we saw and still see women weighed down by these bulky catenating knits as if they were making a statement. What might be the intended statement? We can rule out the need to keep warm, because these things, more often than not, are cascating down and away from the neck. It couldn’t have been about money, too cheap. It couldn’t have been about knitting as an appealingly feminine activity, too old-fashioned an idea. It couldn’t have been considered attractive, in the sexy sense, since these things bulge up and turn the female torso into a barrel.
All I could think of when I encountered these tube scarves (their actual name) on public transportation and in museums was the Millstone Collar, a fashion rage in the sixteen hundreds. We see them in the IMG_4955portraits by Rembrandt, Hals and many other Dutch painters of the early seventeenth century. Jane Hollander in her study of fashion, “Seeing Through Clothes,” doesn’t go near the Millstone Collar. She talks extensively about the use of black in fashion over the centuries—and the Dutch were big on black—but the Millstone Collar? Doesn’t mention it.
It’s such a peculiar, extreme, impractical thing to have put around your neck, that I’ve amused myself with some theories of my own.
The Millstone Collar was so named because it looked like a millstone. But it couldn’t have weighed anything. It was made of very fine linen that was starched to high heaven and pleated mercilessly. It must have been expensive. Also, scratchy and uncomfortable. You couldn’t possibly do anything but sit while wearing this thing. If you wanted to get to your chair, I can imagine you had to be guided by someone because without holding someone’s hand you risked tripping. You couldn’t see your feet or where you were stepping!
Because of the danger it posed to an ambulatory wearer, I think the Millstone Collar was only worn when you were posing for a portrait. But why would you want to be portrayed this way? Here’s my theory. The collar looked like a platter. The collar created the illusion that your head was resting on a platter. Your head appeared to be disconnected from your body. It existed on a different plane. An image that MillstoneBpresented the separation of body and head/mind/soul would have appealed to you if you, as a member of the reformed church , had been taught to rise above your dirty body and its desires. You wanted to be portrayed with your head in a loftier realm—on a platter, resting on the Millstone Collar.
We sometimes use the expression “a millstone around my neck” when we talk about a great, onerous burden. The tube scarf looks like a burden more than anything else. Women seem to be encumbered, weighed down by these things. Maybe that’s the answer. There’s a lot of talk in our media and around kitchen tables about women multi-tasking, doing it all, having too many obligations. The millstone/tube scarf may just possibly feel right to many women because it symbolizes their plight.
Draped like that over your sternum, the tube scarf certainly doesn’t keep your neck warm. And MillstoneAyou can’t see where you’re stepping, just like the 17th century Dutch with their itchy Millstone Collars.

For images of real millstones, see https://www.google.com/search?q=millstone&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=sL8UVbiwO4qQsQT6poLADQ&ved=0CDIQsAQ&biw=1398&bih=1066
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.



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I often think about Rembrandt and what he didn’t have.  He didn’t have central heating, for example, which is why he depicts himself bundled up all the time.  It was cold in Amsterdam much of the year.  He also didn’t have electric lighting to extend his work day. He painted by candle light. Imagine that. He was also a printmaker and did that without paper towels.  He had assistants, but still, imagine that.

Rembrandt didn’t have paper towels and he didn’t have aquarellable pencils, either.  He was a tireless experimenter and I’m sure if had had aquarellable pencils he would have used them.

A few weeks ago in my drawing class I gave a demo on how I use aquarellable pencils.  I work on gloss paper, which has two properties:  water does not seep in and certain pencils, like china marker and the aquarellable, glide easily on the surface. The aquarellable lines, as the name implies, can be made to bleed with water.  I particularly like the feathery effect made with a damp paper towel sweeping over the line or along the line.  The pencil is called Stabilo 8046, made in Germany by Schwan; it also has the words “paper, glass, plastic metal” on its side.  I use it for the drawings at http://facefame.wordpress.com

One of my students caught the bug and has been working with the Stabilo to great advantage.  Shown above is Gabrielle E.’s drapery study from last week’s class. The soft edges and blending effects are created with the sweep of a damp paper towel.

Art materials don’t have to be “classic” or expensive.  Forget bona fide art supplies.  Draw with a twig, a blade of grass, a shish kabob stick, the end of a used up brush, a paper towel; paint with a housepainter’s brush or a kitchen sponge.  Rembrandt used something called a reed pen, which at its finest was made of bamboo, but could also be a homemade tool made of indigenous reeds that grow near rivers and ponds.

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




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It was about 4 o’clock and the light favored Glenview Road. I was waiting on the side street, having just pulled out of the library’s parking lot.  I went over the to-do list for that evening in my head: emails, phone calls, drawings to finish,  a blog to write, what to do for dinner, you know, the usual stuff.  Here I was, stuck in traffic and who enjoys waiting for a light to turn green!  Well, actually, for me, it’s often a welcome moment.   It was a long light. Going over the chores list once is enough.  After that, I switch into visual.  I looked around.  There was something eerie about this late afternoon lighting. All I noticed at first was the low hanging thick gray cloud cover.  And then, there on my left was the library, with the peaks of the roof line illuminated in the rapidly setting sun.  Since this was not a bright sunny day at all and the ominous, leaden sky gave no hint of a sun anywhere, the peaks of the gabled roof line appeared to be glowing from within. I rolled down the window and fumbled for my camera.  I took just one frame.  The light changed on Glenview Road and I turned into the intersection.

I feared the worst for this shot:  It was just too dramatic.  When things seem to be glowing from within, you’re on thin ice.  The figures of Rembrandt and Caravaggio often come at us out of tarry, pessimistic blackness and they shine like lanterns. But for the epigoni, depicting figures that glow with an inner fire leads inevitable to preachy kitsch.

What saves this photo from the glowing ash heap of kitsch, I think, is the severity of the composition.  Saved by zig-zagging triangles!  Notice that the shrub in the lower right corner gives us a triangle standing on a point that is outside the frame.  Notice also, that the zig-zags go down from left to right and the illuminated peaks work in counterpoint, by going up.  Counterpoint pulls you from the brink of kitsch, any day.

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




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Yoko Ono says,  she constructs  her compositions—visual and musical–with the intention of leaving them incomplete in order to involve the audience. The audience is an essential component of the art itself.   This comes out of a Romantic sensibility. We don’t find this respect for the audience in Classical art, where a fixed idea, myth or dogma determines the approach and the outcome.  The Classical and the Romantic form two polarities that are already evident in our earliest cultural documents. The Classical sensibility dominated for most of Western history—until about 1800, when Romantic movements in all the arts changed the conversation.  Or rather, the relationship between artist and audience changed so that the artist no longer delivered a sermon but engaged the audience in a conversation.

This is not to say, that the Romantic idea fell out of the blue.  Rembrandt and Velazquez, in the 17th century, are Romantic sensibilities.  But we can trace this sensibility all the way back to the ancient Greeks.  Socrates, specifically.  He was a philosopher and teacher and he made an art out of teaching, an art in the Romantic sense.  The Socratic Method of getting a point across is to not get the point across at all, but to pose a question.  The student then delves into the question which leads to deeper questions and through this “conversation” the student reaches insight and understanding.  Socrates, the teacher withholds the information deliberately, all the while pretending he doesn’t know the answer. This withholding is called Socratic Irony.

Romantic Irony is similar.  The Romantic artist exposes the process by which the work came about.  Or rather, comes about, since it is never finished.   The Romantic poets around 1800 left their poems unfinished.  The “truth” of the art work was not given (as by inspiration) but an open question and a matter of infinite longing.   This Romantic sensibility is also the Modern sensibility.  This is why Shakespeare and the mature Michelangelo speak to us so immediately– as if they were our contemporaries.

John Lennon walked into a gallery one day and had to climb a ladder if he wanted to see the art that was attached to the ceiling.  He felt he had to meet this artist, who engaged him in conversation this way. That was Yoko Ono.

Yolo Ono’s birthday was February 18th. See also “Fluxus,”  posted January  11.

Images shown:

Yoko Ono. Caricature by Katherine Hilden, 2011

Rembrandt, Self-portrait, 1626

Michelangelo, Rondanini Pieta, 1552.






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