Sunday, January 6, 2008

Age of Rembrandt exhibit at the Met

Notes from my visit to the Met on January 6, the last day of this exhibit.

Woodland Road, probably ca. 1670
Meindert Hobbema (Dutch, 1638–1709)

"The trees are beautifully textured and lit, but the rest of the painting - the people, the cottages - doesn't seem that impressive to me." After I wrote this, I was very surprised to read the placard claiming that, to American collectors of the Gilded Age, Aelbert Cuyp, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Hobbema were the three greatest Dutch landscapists!

Piping Shepherds, ca. 1643–44
Aelbert Cuyp (Dutch, 1620–1691)

The shiny hair on the cow and the textures of the instruments - in fact, all the textures, are lovely. The musicians' faces are very well-rendered, and the gentle, cloudy sky tugs at my emotions.

The Forest Stream, ca. 1660
Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1628/29–1682)

The placard says this was inspired by a trip to Westphalia. In any event, I can see that this man knew trees! He captures the horizontal layering, the way the leaves cluster, the deep shadows and the reflections and the sparse patches. Warmly textured foliage is revealed by gentle light peeking through the clouds. The reflections on the water pooling in the stream are stunning. I find his stone surfaces to be better than Hobbema's, yet still not quite believable. Perhaps the geology is different, and this is actually realistic; however, the stones just seem too soft to me, as if they, like Hobbema's buildings, are filmed through cheesecloth.

Man in Oriental Costume ("The Noble Slav"), 1632
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669)

Unlike the figures in the other big Rembrandts, the man has a sort of aura of light that delineates his shadowed shoulder. This one was inspired at least partially by trade with the Ottomans (a mutual enemy of Spain!) and the diplomatic mission from Persia to the Dutch Republic (1627-28). Were this a lesser painting, the historical connections would be the most interesting thing for me. This is not a lesser painting. I know that no reproduction can convey how the light hits that turban; it's as though spiders spun a latticework over it. What sort of brush makes those thick, rough runnels of paint that so adroitly catch the light and spray it back out so enthusiastically? Could it be very thick horsehair? The two primary focus points are the sumptuous flowered gold fabric on his shoulder, and the turban. The secondary points are his face, the translucent blue-streaked sash, and the gold tassels and pendant hanging from it. Move to one side and you can see how Rembrandt used thick globs of paint to make the jewel high in the turban sparkle. The lower jewel does not stand out as much; perhaps it's a polished stone rather than a gem.

I can't say enough about the way Rembrandt conveys depth. The turban leaps out of the canvas, protruding inches forward from the face! This is a study in contrasts: the soft, slack, old-man's skin on the neck, not reflective at all, could hardly stand out more in both texture and in depth from the glittering turban.

Bellona, 1633
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669)

According to the audio guide, this was probably made for an Amsterdam civic guard house. The shield carries a very dramatic likeness of Medusa. Hanging from the armor is a sheet of sumptuous blood-red velvet with an overwhelming array of gleaming gold highlighting the trim. The helmet, typical of Rembrandt's skill, is amazingly lifelike; it seems I could almost touch its burnished curves. The figure within the glittering armor is strikingly unglamorous; she has a homely, big-sisterly air about her, yet upon close examination I saw how ready she is for action, and not simply because she's the sister of Mars. The heavily armored right hand, lurking in deep shadow and looking for all the world like Hellboy's stone hand, is not readily noticeable. Once I did notice it, however, I couldn't stop noticing it, resting there on the golden hilt of a rather nasty-looking sword. Together, the gleaming contents of the left hand and the shadowed contents of the right convey a powerful message: not only is the Dutch Republic ready to defend herself at a moment's notice, but she will conduct a potent offensive war if necessary! The overall impression is of a plump woman with broad hips: a big sister or cousin for whom kicking ass comes in a close second to having babies.

There's a great deal of green in this painting that one doesn't notice at first: eventually the sash on her sword arm draws my eye, as does the sapphire green in the sword strap with the gold gilt and the blue gems. The greenish blue in the neck scarf reminds me of the sea, and the deep forest green of the helmet's plume is so dark that the very way in which it mingles with the shadows draws my eye.

Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan, 1633
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669)

Look at the way the "petals" of the ribbons protrude from the canvas! Look at how the fabric of the sleeves bulges outward in between the gathers, and the way the tips of the sleeves stick out! Even the beads on her left wrist look like they're sticking out of the painting! From ten feet back the lace frills at her sleeves look almost absurdly intricate; I take a few steps forward and see that Rembrandt made those intricate gaps in the lace by scraping away the white paint while it was wet!

The young woman's left hand rests on a brick-red cloth with gold embroidery. It caught my eye because something about it said Mexico to me. I couldn't remember whether the Dutch were trading in the West Indies at this point, so I went to Wikipedia and found this article. Rembrandt painted this just twelve years after the Dutch West India Company got its charter! More curious than ever as to whether the cloth might indeed be South American, or perhaps Ottoman, I consulted Gwyn, a costuming and fabrics expert. She said

It looks like it came from the Spanish design world, but woven on French machines. Silk and wool, from the sheen. Color is a nice deep wine/burgundy, so may be momentous for the Bourbon family, who threw off relations across Europe like the Saxe-Coburgs did a couple of centuries later, but with better outcomes.

I read the word "wool" and gears started to turn. Here are my thoughts, with some [responses] by Jaap, an awesomely knowledgeable tour guide in Amsterdam, who provides some balance for my speculation.

Just the day before I had looked up the "Spanish Fury" in Wikipedia, attempting to refresh my vague memory from a history lecture. Wikipedia mentions that the sack of Antwerp in November of 1576 "encouraged the decline of the Antwerp Cloth Market as English traders sought out new commercial links, not wishing to risk visiting the town that now resembled a war zone. By 1582, all English trade to Antwerp had ceased." Then I started thinking about Catherine of Aragon, in which author Garrett Mattingly tells of how, by the early sixteenth century, the export of raw wool to Flanders had become so important to the English economy that the enclosure of pasture land was displacing roughly five percent of the English population.

So. In the early sixteenth century, Flanders is sitting pretty because England needs it a lot more than it needs England. Philip II, to whom a single Protestant within his domains is like a raspberry seed between his teeth, drains the Spanish treasury trying to subdue the Dutch Protestants, and finally manages to accidentally maul Antwerp via the ugly and inevitable side-effects of not paying a standing army. My memory of what happened between Spain and the Netherlands in sixty years after the Armada is hazy, but Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam and painted this right in the middle of both the Thirty Years War and the Dutch West India Company's brief period of prosperity. [Don't overestimate the importance of the WIC. It was nothing compared to the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or Dutch East India Company) and today attracts not a tenth of the attention we pay to the VOC.] In light of all this, and especially what Gwyn told me about the Spanish design and the French machines and the silk, it seems pretty reasonable to think that this cloth is a potent symbol. Here's the plucky Dutch Republic, battered and bruised but not beaten, still resisting juggernauts with one hand while carrying on a thriving trade empire with the other, saying "We have far-flung trade connections bringing in designs and/or designers from Spain. We have silk from the east. We have French machines. We have the artisans to run them. We RULE. Nyah nyah." [I don't think Rembrandt had any need to say that. All this was obvious both to him and his clients who commissioned these paintings and decided what was worn and how it was to be depicted.]


What is that gold pendant, and is it hanging from her fan or from her dress?

Old Woman in an Armchair, 1635
Attributed to Jacob Adriaensz. Backer (Dutch, 1608–1651)

The placard says this used to be considered a Rembrandt. I take one look and say "Oh HELL no! Those hands were not painted by Rembrandt!" They do not protrude from the canvas the way the hand of the Young Woman with a Fan does, and the brush strokes, especially those composing the chair, are just too crude. The two paintings seem like completely different animals. Also, the depth is far too static to have been painted by him. Look at "Man in Oriental Costume" or "Bellona", and see how Rembrandt conveys even the slightest variance in depth; now look at how this woman's dress seems to be all on a single plane. Her face, and her headpiece and neck frill certainly convey something of that mastery of depth, though; I could see how someone could think it was a rushed Rembrandt.

A Vase of Flowers, ca. 1618
Jacob Vosmaer (Dutch, 1584–1641)

This is nice, but it's nowhere near what Abraham Mignon achieved. I fell in love with Mignon's work at the Louvre two years ago, and for the life of me I can't see why the man is so unknown; I've almost never seen any other artist's still life that, to me, compares to his work.

Still Life with a Glass and Oysters, ca. 1640
Jan Davidsz. de Heem (Dutch, 1606–1683/84)

WOW! How the hell did he get that bubbly texture on the lemon rind?? It almost looks like kilned enamel.

Interior of a Kitchen
Willem Kalf (Dutch, 1619–1693)

The highlights in this one are particularly striking, although I don't get much else out of it. The pumpkin, leeks(?), cucumbers, platter, mirror, and glass vessel in the wall niche all catch the light dramatically, leaping out of the gloom.

Vanitas, 1662
Edwaert Collier (Dutch, active by 1662, died after 1706)

This is one of the most memorable paintings in the whole wing. It embraces a common dichotomy of seventeenth century Dutch still life, which is to say that it calls attention both to the power and riches of the patron, and to the futility of acquisitiveness in the face of time, decay, and death. With this work, though, it seems to me that Collier takes that dichotomy to almost absurd heights, and the result is undeniably playful.

Among the signs of culture, influence and affluence such as the resplendent whip-handled money bag, the expensive metal and glass vessels, and the violin, we see a portrait of Holland's favorite moralist, Jacob Cats. The large book, The Decades by Swiss reformer Heinrich Bullinger, is open to a chapter condemning material goods. We see the perfectly distorted image of the violin neck through a glass goblet which, along with the gleaming silver chalice, is tipped on its side. That which filled the vessels is gone, and this seems like a sly reference to death that Collier hid in plain sight, presenting a delightful counterpoint to the symbolically obvious skull and hourglass that are partially hidden in the shadowy background.

One of the most interesting things about this painting is how Collier's techniques compare and contrast with Rembrandt's. Collier's paper surfaces are superlative; one can almost feel the weight, texture, and thickness of the pages, almost smell their mustiness. At first the perfect texture and reflectiveness of the silver chalice dazzled me as much as any Rembrandt. However, after my eye failed to "follow" the chalice into the canvas I came to see this extra gaudiness as a way for Collier to mask a command of depth that is far inferior to Rembrandt's. If you need further convincing, just look at the necklace hanging off the edge of the table. Those beads don't look three-dimensional at all! Compare them to the beads held by "Young Lady With a Fan"; Rembrandt's wilder brush strokes somehow convey an undeniable depth, his beads receding from the viewer in a way that Collier's beads utterly fail to do.

A Vase of Flowers, 1716
Margareta Haverman (Dutch, active by 1716, died after 1750)

Ahhhh, now that's what I'm talkin' about!! Hell yeah! The texture, the depth, it's all there! The variable shading between the brightly lit flowers in front and the shaded ones in back! The roundness and the shininess and the texture of the grapes... the dimple in the peach... the tiny, delicate, wispy stalks of wheat, the beads of water with the reflections, the palpable depth variance within each crinkly leaf... oooh, forget-me-nots! There's a tiny bug on the peach, with a tiny glint of light reflecting off its black carapace. The butterfly looks alive! Look at the shading! Such depth!!! Another little butterfly and a second snail, each one assiduously, delicately rendered!

Portrait of a Man, possibly 1650s
Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (Dutch, 1606–1669)

His hands are hidden, and then I go back past the other Rembrandts: "Man in Oriental Costume" has his hand in shadow; "Young Woman with a Fan" has her right hand obscured by the fan. He, like many artists, obviously didn't like taking the time to draw hands. The difference between him and those other artists, though, is that when he did draw hands, they reached out of the frame. Again, take a close look at "Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan" and then take a close look at "Old Woman in Armchair"; the hands will tell you which one was a Rembrandt, and which was only attributed to him.

Portrait of a Man, early 1650s
Frans Hals (Dutch, born after 1580, died 1666)

I've seen this painting, or one like it, somewhere else. The cuffs are electric, edgy, geometric. The angular patches of paint are almost reminiscent of the way you can see the polygons that form the surface of a computer generated image. There's lovely depth in the hat, lovely dim reflectance in the satin sheen on the hat and the outfit. He's ruddy, defiant, bold, alive!

Man with a Beard
Style of Rembrandt (17th century or later)

This imitation of Rembrandt, possibly Dutch, has really striking depth: his hat brim pokes right out; his face recedes into the shadows! There's something not quite Rembrandt, though: in the patchy brush strokes around the eyes that remind me of van Gogh; and in the slightly electric look in the strokes defining the shirt. However, the way the artist troweled on thickly stepped layers of paint to highlight the neck frill really reminds me of Rembrandt's "Jewish Bride" in the Rijksmuseum.

Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1650, reworked 1660s or later
Frans Hals (Dutch, born after 1580, died 1666)

The guide says that the background is incongruous because it's not original; it was painted in later! I take a close look at her sleeves and find that, unlike Rembrandt's technique of scraping the white paint away in "Young Lady With a Fan", Hals added streaks of black paint; I like Rembrandt's effect much better.

As in "Portrait of a Man", the way Hals uses triangular or rectangular patches of paint gives the fabrics a kinetic, charged feel. The flesh, though, does not display this polygonal aspect, and that contrast certainly makes the composition more interesting.

Portrait of a Woman
Adriaen Hanneman (Dutch, born about 1601, died 1671)

I find this style to be both compelling and challenging: compelling because the opalescent luster is so invitingly sumptuous, and challenging because everything from her face to her hair to her clothes has this same texture. It's as though everything is made of very fine velvet; it's striking, although I don't know if I could stomach too much of this not-strictly-realistic style. The weakness, as far as I'm concerned, is the lack of textural variance to accompany the depth variance - and there is some incredibly well-conveyed depth here. The hand and the face both have intricate variances of depth, and the nose in particular sticks out perceptibly from the rest of the face. The silver pendant and the hairpiece have a fantastic luster.

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, ca. 1662
Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632–1675)

The patches of color from the cloth, reflected off the underside of the basin, look like stained glass! I wouldn't have noticed this if not for the guide.

I was anxious to get close to this painting because I wanted to see if Vermeer used the same tiny, bold medallions of paint that lent such fabulous textures to his paintings that I saw in the Rijksmuseum, especially Milkmaid. No, there's only the barest hint of this bold pointillist style in the gold thread and reflective metal of the box. "Milkmaid" was painted in 1658, only four years before this one; could Vermeer have discarded that style in those four years, or did the textures in this composition simply not call for it?

Enough of my fine-toothed-combing; time to take a step back. Like the other Vermeers I've seen, this is stunning. It's interesting to me how Vermeer conveyed light so differently than Rembrandt. Vermeer's reflections are dots and solid patches - pools of light! He conveys depth with haziness which, though it could hardly be more different than Rembrandt's bold, rough-edged streaks of reflected light, serve just as well to draw my eye into his composition. The cloth on the table in the foreground is hardly hazy at all, whereas surfaces farther back are moreso. I can't say enough about how each softened facet of the lovely crumpled fabrics reflects the light differently!

A Kitchen
Hendrick Martensz. Sorgh (Dutch, 1609/11–1670)

Depth is not this guy's forte. He gets some mileage from shiny, burnished objects, but the composition seems contrived solely for that purpose.

The Smoker, ca. 1623–25
Frans Hals (Dutch, born after 1580, died 1666)

Very bold, crude brush strokes. Obviously meant to be viewed from some distance.

The placard says that one of Hals's paintings bore the inscription "indecent lovemaking and smoking are both bad for the soul, but only the latter will harm the body." I guess that VD was just something that happened to other people!

Landscape with a Cottage, 1629
Pieter de Molijn (Dutch, 1595–1661)

This is interesting in a way I find very hard to articulate. The light is muted, almost smeared: there's a sense of greyness uniting the different surfaces and depths. The texture of the trees is lovely. There's something sad about the way the eye is drawn from the trees, out to the tiny figures on shore, out to sea, then back with the spilling light through the path and back to the trees. It conveys an emptiness with that slice of sea, the expanse of sky, and the way the brooding quality of the sky leaks into and suffuses the trees.

Still Life with Fruit, Glassware, and a Wan-li Bowl, 1659
Willem Kalf (Dutch, 1619–1693)

This one is very dark, very subtle. The first thing I notice is the lovely wavy texture on the lemon rind - it's not blotchy like de Heem's lemon rind, but wavy like light reflected off rippling water and onto a shaded yellow wall. It's patchy, a bit like sponge work. Then I see lovely, subtle, sumptuous reflections, and admire how Kalf led me to them: the peel drew my eye and then, BAM!, the depth variance between the peel and the platter grabbed me. My eye moves back to that platter and then futher, delighting in the exquisite texture of the reflective porcelain. The reflections off the glassware lurking in the shadowy background invite a more languorous, contemplative examination.

The more I look at this, the more I like it. Again, the things I notice first draw my attention to subtler elements on which I then linger. My eye moves from the porcelain and the lemon to the moldy fruit and the platter, then I notice the soft cloth bulging into the foreground! I can hardly believe it took me this long to notice it, because now that I see it I can't take my eyes off it! The reflections, so restrained yet so refined, are endlessly inviting. This is a very, very skillful composition that invites me to rove within it, to hang out a while. I notice that there are, in general, three planes of depth with contrasting permutations of elements: the closest is soft and dark; the middle is shiny, crisp and reflective; and the farthest is dark and shiny!

Still Life with Lobster and Fruit, 1650s
Abraham van Beyeren (Dutch, 1620/21–1690)

Oh, here we go with the lemon peel again. I wonder if this is like a signature of the artist, because each one seems to have a distinct way of rendering the texture. This peel reminds me just a bit of John Singer Sargent; although I could be just imagining things, there's something about the cascades of streaky blobs in his brush strokes that remind me of the light in Sargent's Fumée d'Ambre Gris.

This one interests me most for the quality of its light: it has an immense array of reflections, but they are all soft. This painting is the definition of "lambent". I wrote "Lousy/nonexistent foreshortening", but then I took a few steps back and reconsidered. "Oh, that's better!" I wrote. "Now I can see depth! Well, look at that!" Clearly, this one is meant to be viewed from a distance. Ten feet seems about right. The color is soft, yet vibrant; the textures are muted, yet the reflections make them very inviting.

Peacocks, 1683
Melchior d' Hondecoeter (Dutch, 1636–1695)

The monkey looks amazing! The peacocks are incredible, but lack the depth they should have (the word "should", here, having been defined when I walked in and saw the Rembrandts). There should be more perceptible depth between the head and the shoulders and the rump. Oh, look at the angry squirrel! The sheen of its fur is exquisite, like the nearly palpable monkey. The melon is lovely, but the peaches and apricots and such get a meh, and the grapes a meh+. The grape leaves, however, are stellar! Vibrant light shows every fold, every dimple and wrinkle. A+ on those!

Overall, the main flaw in this one is a lack of depth. Jeez, Mr. Rembrandt, did you have to go and ruin everyone else's work for me??

Still Life: A Banqueting Scene, 1670s
Jan Jansz. de Heem (Flemish, born 1650, died after 1695)

The guide says that de Heem lived in Antwerp, possibly for the fruit!

Something about the chair in the foreground seems not up to the standards of the rest of the painting; the foreshortening seems imperfect, the surface a bit crudely rendered. In contrast, the pitcher is fantastic... and yet again, the foreshortening isn't quite convincing. That's a damned nice silver coffee urn, though; the foreshortening there is unimpeachable . The reflections are lovely and inviting, especially the ones in the gold... whatever that gold thing is... and in the lobster which, along with the small crust of bread, looks real enough to touch. I give this one an A. Depth is very well conveyed through alternating sharpness and haziness, and by very well rendered smooth curves; these elements make up for the imperfect foreshortening.

And AGAIN with the lemon! De Heem's rind has a very fine texture that's different from the others, including his own in "Still Life with a Glass and Oysters"; the blotches bespeak a "dab and streak" brush stroke. I think I like this one the best!

Falconer's Bag, 1695
Jan Weenix (Dutch, 1642–1719)

Aha! Like the Hanneman, this one has a satiny suffusion of light, but unlike the Hanneman this texture doesn't cover all of it! Weenix varied his surfaces, so it's much more interesting. Holy crap, the birds look amazing! You can almost run your fingers through the feathers! The leaves are perhaps not quite as believable as some of the others I've seen today, but they're still very good. As we pass into the background the light gradually fades into shade. The eye lingers on the birds for a while, then moves back in curiosity to the background scene: people, swans, a boat, the water, stone arches, trees, sky... GOOD GOD, that buckle in the foreground is fantastic! So is the red and gold tassle! Yeah! I like the way things are sharp in the foreground and get gradually softer as the eye moves back. Aha, but there's a hint of light way off at the horizon! This strikes me as a lovely rhetorical device: objects in the distance face into haziness, but the corresponding fade into darkness is punctuated with the promise of sunlight around the corner, thus avoiding any potentially depressing overtones, not to mention forthright symbols of mortality that permeate many of the still lifes!

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