Thursday, April 12, 2012

Hendrick van der Burch

Hendrick van der Burch. Dutch Interior, c. 1660.

Of late I have thought on this painting a truly great deal. As most of you know, much of my recent scholarship has concerned spirituality in Dutch interiors of the 17th Century (one of the finest Centuries in any place). And yet, despite a career in this field that has spanned several decades, largely on this very subject, I had never seen M. van der Burch's pictures! It is pure serendipity that I, after a stroll in the Zoological Gardens of Berlin just this past week, stopped into Gemäldegalerie to see some old friends. (By this I mean their fine Vemeers!)

There, not far from those very Vermeer paintings, I saw this painting hung near the gallery exit — ostensibly to demonstrate the stylistic cues van der Burch clearly borrowed from Vermeer. Much as Vermeer did, van der Burch emphasizes the presence of absence here. Where is the master of this opulent house? His hookah sits smoldering next to his fine ermine coat and limited-edition Rasta Vans. A Dali poster (surely not an original, as the original at this time was owned by Rembrandt, Dali's greatest admirer) hangs above. Yet the picture's focus remains the master's absence. He is gone, like an exhalation from the hookah. Some have interpreted all this rather drearily: The "limited edition" Vans relate to the limit of human life; the time drips away in the Dali poster; the hookah is probably cold. The most nihilistic go on suggest that the painting is a comment on religious doubt.

But as all who know me and my work could predict, I see that reading as quite hollow. I see this painting as suggesting a spiritual longing for return: more likely the master has stepped out for a moment, to the privy or, more likely, to welcome an old friend inside from the cold! And soon, mugs of Swiss Miss in hand, they will return to the sitting room, relight the hookah, and remark not on a facile study of Dali's painting, but instead on the warm muffins they shared with Dali himself just a few mornings ago.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Chat with Profs. Peeters & Wundrum

Hello, all!

We'd like to share with you an interview that we recently completed with Hunter Braithwaite, a former student of ours from our time at William and Mary. The piece is up at There Is No There, his website focusing on contemporary art in Miami, Florida.

A big thanks to Hunter from Jan and I. Hunter, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us. I am still enjoying the Trader Joe's Cookie Butter you gifted me!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Gerrit Van Honthorst

Gerrit Van Honthorst. Margareta Maria de Roodere, 1652.

In our last post I shared a delightful painting by Joachim von Sandrart, showing a butcher and his meat, cut for sandwiches, masterfully thin. And in that post I made mention of von Sandart's apprenticeship to the painter Gerrit van Honthorst. It is my great pleasure to share with you one of that master's best works. Seated here with her mother is another student of von Sandrart, the young Margareta Maria de Roodere.

The painting by van Honthorst is quite a testament to the skill Margareta Here Hendrix has been rendered quite faithfully, his face instantly recognizable. Yet the picture is embellished with smoke, and the young musician is given the pale and ghostly skin of the departed. Van Honthorst demonstrates Margareta's talents best in the glittering eye of the young poet, staring off through the haze and full of wonder.

We find a similar gaze in another painting made in about the same time: Jan Davidszoon de Heem's portrait of a Student in His Study. The portrait is a favorite of both Professor Peeters and myself, and captures the gaze of yet another glassy-eyed dreamer.

Van Honthorst pictured his student just as she was, talented, yet not quite matured as a woman. She is shown with the affects of youth, a jar of hazelnut spread and her glass pipe. The elder painter's depiction is masterful. Van Honthorst uses his palette to recreate another held by his student. Notice, too, a handful of brushes and her maul, the delicate swirls of glass in her pipe.

A bit of Margareta's personal history has come to use through the ages. In addition to painting beautifully under the tutelage of van Honthorst she also practiced calligraphy, drew, etched glass with diamonds, stitched her own hacky sacks and embroidered cloth. It seems the young Margareta took to each craft with great skill, answering the ages-old question, "Are You Experienced?"

Friday, March 9, 2012

Joachim Sandrart

Joachim von Sandrart. February, 1642

Often in our academic lives (Jan will agree!) we must take time away from important tasks to consider the work of our colleagues. To assist with the lecture notes, manuscripts and restoration projects that fill an art historian's days. And this morning, I'd like to share a bit of a certain colleague's work with our readers.

We have much in common, my friend and I, as art historians. His path toward a career in the arts was a winding one, studying first drawing, then engraving and finally painting and art history. It was only after earning an undergraduate degree in marine biology and then starting my practice restoring furniture that I came to study painting. My colleague, like me, worked for a time and studied painting in Utrecht. And as a historian he had a great interest in writing. The culmination of his greatest research was a widely acclaimed collection of writing on art history, education and the lives of artists. Many readers of the blog would by now know that I am referring to Joachim Sandrart.

It was in Utrecht that he studied with Gerrit van Honthorst, the great painter of candlelight, table games and revelry. From Honthorst we can be sure that Sandrart learned to appreciate the pleasures of the table. In the lovingly rendered cold cuts tray, we find its alternating mounds of ham, turkey and roast beef. And in the doughy face of the butcher, hoisting the tray in pride, we see his sweaty brow perfectly rendered. Sandrart's piece is both tender and cruel in its depiction of flesh. There is haste in our butcher's pose, as he prepares to carry the cold cuts to the party pictured over his left shoulder. There is a banquet table lined with lively guests, enjoying their evening, good company, bottles of fine meads, crispy bacon, cubes of Swiss and cheddar cheeses and wreaths brotherly smoke. We, too, might enjoy the painting, like the company of a wise and gracious colleague.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pieter de Hooch

Pieter de Hooch, Portrait of a Family in a Courtyard in Delft (Detail), 1658-60.

Friends, I have positively itched to tell you of this painting over the last week! Have you, readers, ever experienced this irrepressible social urge — perhaps late in the evening, somewhat dazed, when your mind leaps to some unforeseen connection between something long beneath your nose and some other circumstance? (No doubt Pieter Jansz van Asch did!)

Well, even if you have not, certainly you will understand the frisson I felt upon spotting this painting — once so well known to me, but later forgotten — in a used copy of Peter Sutton's now-classic book on de Hooch. Let me go back. I spent last Friday afternoon in Leiden, where I was present for a young colleague's thesis defense at the University. After toasting his success and sneaking a handful of stroopwaffels, I strolled through the streets of my youth. Stopping at a used bookstore not far from the Harvey House, I pulled down Sutton's monograph, hoping it would serve as a gift for my young friend, the newly minted academic.

A half-eaten stroopwaffel dropped from my hand when I opened the book at random: here was de Hooch's Portrait of a Family in a Courtyard in Delft, exactly as I had seen it so many times before, but here, nostalgic as I felt, I looked down at this portion of it and saw myself at a family gathering, just like this one, so many times before. Where de Hooch painted the family's teenage son at slight remove from other figures, standing almost sullenly in his Baja poncho (so popular among young students of the age), I saw myself in a garden in Leiden, 1970, in a poncho of my own, thinking of art. De Hooch's dog, so much like my own dear Knop, has stolen someone's hacky sack. The women to the left, de Hooch's aunt, holds a fine Delft bong and lifts the hem of her skirt to show a fine silk under-skirt, emblematic of the upper-middle-class of the time, much as my own aunt, in a Polaroid I have of us standing so like this, with dear Knop at our feet, would have flaunted her Silhouette sunglasses. We stood exactly in this way, so many years distant from de Hooch's family! I was astonished.

Being sure to wipe the stroopwaffel crumbs from the book before I purchased it hurriedly, I felt electric. That night, in my guest room, I played through both sides of Live Grape while writing what turned out to be a very long note to my friend, recounting this same story, on the title pages of Sutton's book. I wonder how many, through the long years, have looked at de Hooch's painting and felt the past rise up like a haze, enveloping them!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jan Steen

Mama, waar is Sinterklaas?

Jan Steen. The Feast of St. Nicholas, 1656.

Friends, friends! How we have been away, Jan and I, busying ourselves with obligations of writing and teaching. In the past few years (has it been so long, Jan?) we have had nary an afternoon to sit, write and share the certain perfumes of our favorite paintings. But with contracts now fulfilled and manuscripts submitted we can delight in our most-loved paintings yet again.

Though we've been negligent (perhaps unforgivably) I'm pleased to announce the fruits of my double sabbatical! A new book, soon published by Oxford University: The Golden Table: Food and culture of the Dutch merchant class.

The book will be available this fall in your local university bookstore. It's available for pre-order now on Amazon for those of you eager for a copy.

It is indeed a warm feeling returning to our blog. I'm reminded of an extended absence from my home in 1990 and 92. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had offered me an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellowship, too delicious to refuse. I spent a dizzying two years living in a cramped two-bedroom in Carol Gardens with a calligrapher friend of mine, working all of the time at the Museum. With my work spread so thick and the money so thin, I didn't journey home to the Netherlands until my fellowship had finished. When I finally returned to my flat, exhausted from a sixteen-hour trip, with two lay-overs, I was rejuvenated and ecstatic to find myself at home.

There I found my case of books and a favorite engraving, wonderful still in its hazy frame. A shelf of pipes exactly as I'd left them; a stash jar, still fragrant when the lid was lifted. And there was my spare copy of Europe '72 still on the turntable. And here, in the pages of On Familiar Things, I've found the dusty bits and faithful company of my great friends Jan Peeters, Frans Hals, Dirck van Baburen, Pieter Claesz and Jan Steen.

We find a similar and vibrant camaraderie in this late painting from Jan Steen. Here we see a family reveling after a visit from Sinterklaas. The golden child, shown here in her golden frock, has been showered with gifts from dear Saint Nicholas: baskets of bread, pretzel rolls, chewy bagels (by the bag!) and tubs of whipped Philadelphia cream cheese spreads. Standing and sobbing behind his younger sister is the misbehaving brother, slighted by Sinterklaas for his woeful mischief. Here he is openly mocked by his family, who tease him with a sort of keep-away game. A cousin hoists a tub of Philly just out of reach. Even his grandmother, partly hidden by a beaded curtain, is in on the jest as she enjoys a dollop of rich whipped cream cheese. The rest of the family is reeling, with the exception of its patriarch. He appears in the center of the paintings, seemingly lost in thought, mellowed as he recalls a distant visit from Sinterklaas on a morning long ago.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Pieter Jansz van Asch

Pieter Jansz van Asch. Self Portrait with Dio LP, c. 1648.

It is no secret, readers, that I am almost overfond (if I can admit such) of the liminal figures of the Dutch Golden Age, those painters whose stars, had they risen just a few years earlier, would have glowed that much brighter. Instead they live on now with little recognition, though I like to think that Professor Wundrum and I are, via our humble blog, able to show you modern scholars how similar these hard-working artists, with their garrets and microwavable treats, are not so unlike us, in our adjunct faculty cubicles.

In this picture, van Asch is mid-conversation with us. We almost feel the intensity of his late-night-snack-fueled fervor. He sits red-eyed in his dressing gown, revealing to us as co-conspirators the secret-within-a-secret of his copy of Dio's Evil or Divine LP: Dio's logo, when inverted, reads "Devil." (I, rarely a symbolist in my interpretations of paintings, leave the exegesis of this to you, readers.) It was common among artists of all stripes during this era, Dio and van Asch included, to hide such "Easter Eggs" in their works, perhaps to let observant viewers in on a secret. What a delight!

Astute art historians and frequent visitors to the Rijksmuseum, where this painting sometimes is on view, may note that I was more precise with the date of this picture than other scholars have been. Further explanation of my choice here is forthcoming via SSRN, in "Beaded Curtains in Dutch Households 1640–1678." I pin this picture's date to the late 1640s, when men of van Asch's social class frequently hung in their libraries and studies beaded curtains like the one featured here. I am frankly surprised that other students of 17th Century Dutch domestic culture have missed this, but where one finds fertile ground in the overcrowded world of academic art history, one must till it.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Aert de Gelder

Aert de Gelder, Self Portrait with Escher, c. 1686.

Welcome back, friends! I have much to tell you — most of it having to do with my newly acquired model railroading hobby — but let me first share with you a gem of the Dutch Golden Age, unknown to me until a recent jaunt through the Hermitage.

You already know — I'm sure of it — of Aert de Gelder's long and proud history as standard-bearer for the style of his teacher Rembrandt, and of his earlier tutelage at the easel of one of my dearest favorites, Samuel van Hoogstraten. Art historians often read him as an also-ran, a sad bearer of Rembrandt's palanquin as the Old Master bid us all goodbye, in his wake coming the genre painters of the 18th Century.

I submit this painting as a refutation of that narrative, which I have always suspected of being a disingenuous gloss. Look at how de Gelder portrays himself: he confronts critics of his style even as he recognizes his place among his fast-moving contemporaries, one of whose works — M.C. Escher's Convex and Concave — he holds as he glances over his shoulder, red-eyed, befuddled, almost guilty to be observing his competition but still, admittedly, somewhat humbled by the leaps of perspective that Escher, psychedelic explorer of academic headspace, has undertaken. His marijuana cigarette smokes idly by a silent beeper. As a lover of art history one cannot help being somewhat wrenched by the self-investigation de Gelder has undertaken here. He aches to find his place in history even as it gallops onward. I end with a quotation from his diary, written (by my own research) roughly a year before this painting's completion: "Saw Escher drawings in house of M. Troost — my God."

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Cornelis Bega

Cornelis Bega. Woman Playing Guitar Hero, 1664-65.

Colleagues! I have much for which to atone: let me preface first, for my own sake (and so you forget what is to come) that I have moved from dreary Ithaca, New York, to the lush and verdant shores of Northern California, to work as an independent scholar and researcher near Berkeley, California. I can say nothing of the experience that the Bard has not already written, and note the "darling bud of May" – which indeed is not roughly shook here, but persists throughout the year!

The unfortunate aspect of the above is that I was, while an adjunct professor at Cornell, unable to complete the necessary research for The Sacred Kitchen. I would like to say that the reasons for this had to do with my own scholarly inability (and in a sense, they did), but the truth is this: at some point, several months ago, I can't remember when, my fellow professor (and condo-mate) Marcus Grum bought, for his research into Gaming as a Cultural Text, the video game Guitar Hero. At first I imagined my participation in Professor Grum's research to be merely an act of assistance to my friend and colleague. But as I began to return to my apartment for "lunch breaks" only to find myself, several hours later, desperately trying to conquer Eric Johnson's "Cliffs of Dover" (on medium, no less!), I realized that I had surpassed even my own capacity for cognitive dissonance and rationalization. So – the move! Here I am, now, ensconced in the green California hills, with nary a television set or Wii in sight, returning diligently to my work.

And the painting – ah, the painting! Indeed, Cornelis Bega is a favorite of mine, as any friends know. Something in the way he treats his subjects – caricatures, really – should do well to remind us all, professors or laypeople, that even on our worst behavior (cf. Bega's "Tavern Scene" of 1664), we maintain the indelible mark of pure humanity. And that, my friends, warrants thought. Even in her squalor, amidst the Costco snack packs and novelty wizard bongs, our young musician, in form and moral intention, resembles the finest Renaissance angel. I take this, indeed, as part of Bega's philosophy, at which I just hinted: whether in the gutter or on the dais, we as humans share, every day, in the blissful spark of creation.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Jan de Bray et al

Jan de Bray. The Governors of the Guild of St. Luke, Haarlem, 1675.

This painting, while credited to Jan de Bray, is in actuality the work of four separate men. Jan de Bray is pictured here, second from the left. His drawing board is perched against the back of a companion, Jan de Jong. De Jong painted his own likeness, and is pictured here in a relaxed and contemplative pose. In the back left we see painter Jan van Hotingh seated in the shadows. Van Hotingh painted himself into the work, as well. And the seated man resting his head against his hand is none other than Jan de Bray's brother Dirck de Bray. For this painting the brothers de Bray painted one another. Jan is shown making a preliminary sketch of Dirck in a reference to the painting before its completion! A remarkable work, a great synthesis of talent and camaraderie.

The collaborative nature of the painting is most plainly evidenced by the sketch shown on the table.

We are unbelievably lucky that this sketch is extant! Good fortune has allowed the painting to survive. The mind can freeze when considering the survival of any fragile material through hundreds of years. Many of our favorite paintings benefit from their sheer size. It is unlikely that a stretched and painted canvas measuring many square feet could go missing but it is a true wonder that such a small scrap of paper could survive intact! Legend goes that in the early 19th century an art scholar by the name of Bartholomew Ionides discovered the sketch at a flea market in Antwerp. It is now in the collections at the Rijksmuseum. Here is the full scrap.

It is a revelatory sketch. The members of the Beatles achieved their greatest genius as group. While the four men were abundantly talented, each in his own right, their work was its best when made together. The painting of the governors alludes to the Fab Four and their famous collaborations. A majority of the Beatles' best-known songs were penned by Lennon and McCartney. Though the credits go to the men in front, the work would have been impossibly incomplete without the contributions of Harrison and Starkey. Surely, the same is true here. Without the added touches of de Jong, van Hotingh and brother Dirck de Bray Jan de Bray's painting would remain incomplete. May we delight with them in their friendship and admire their collective spirit!