Thursday, October 30, 2008


Guercino, Allegory of Painting and Sculpture, 1637.

Forgive my long absence! After a particularly troublesome spot in my research (it's quite hard to find thorough examinations of 17th Century Dutch kitchen habits), I decided to take a trip down to Amsterdam, where I spent well over a week taking in the beauty of one of the Netherlands' crown jewels: The Rijksmuseum! I have been to many of the world's most famous museums (the Prado, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art...), but something of my own Dutch blood brings me forever back to the Rijksmuseum, and whenever I begin to lose my creative verve, it takes only a visit to the Rijksmuseum's Old Masters' wing to rejuvenate myself.

And so it seems odd that I should highlight this painting, Guercino's Allegory of Painting and Sculpture, which is an Italian piece (obviously) of the High Baroque period. But bear with me! The pure focus here, given the elementary symmetrical composition and base flatness of the figures, is the allegory at hand – the transferral of creative energy from one artist to another, and thus, inside a single painting (a meta-allegory), to us as well: a surreptitious glimpse into the artist's genius and reverie. A beautiful, classical example of the creative process: from heavily impasted multi-chambered bong, to brush, and then to brush again, and then to our eyes – relish this!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Domenico Fetti

Domenic Fetti, Archimedes Thoughtful, 1620

A quick post, this afternoon. We've just finished a conference call with a few gentlemen at Oxford (we're planning a lecture for early next year) and now I'm off to finish some work on a German cabinet (ca. 1780) that I'm restoring for the Ashmolean.

Here, we'll let Signor Fetti speak for himself.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Giuseppe Maria Crespi

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, Bookshelves, 1725

Although Crespi was a fine portrait painter, he is best known for his lively, informally posed scenes of daily life, which influenced artists throughout Europe in the later eighteenth century. Crespi also worked in genre painting and his Bookshelves makes a fine addition to his hefty oeuvre. At once immediate and timeless, this study of an overflowing set of bookshelves demonstrates Crespi's gift for showing life in the inanimate and for enriching a subtle palette with warm, diffuse light.

The books, all bound in a rich leather, blend with the hues of the woodgrain in the shelves themselves. They are full of dusty tomes on music and scores that have been hastily consulted and shoved back. Crespi continues the compliment of mild tones with the addition of an amber-colored bong. And as a flourish, in contrast to the notes of pulp and flesh, he offers a set of expired Domino's Pizza coupons that, like the books, have gone neglected after their initial use.

The work was probably commissioned by Giovan Battista Martini, a famous Bolognese musicologist who was respected and feared across Europe as a music critic.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Pieter Pietersz

Pieter Pietersz. Man and Woman by the Spinning Wheel with Bong, c. 1570.

Pieter Pietersz, born 1540 in Antwerp, son of the brilliant, bold Pieter Aertsen (whose work I plan to share with you sometime in the future), began his career by painting altarpieces and other religious works. But with the Reformation's individualist impulses (the same impulses that surged Christian capitalism around Europe), that career path soon ended, with commissions landing with those artists who, like Pietersz, could capture the simpler spirit of the times – away from Europe's grand churches, away from Amsterdam's Oude Kerk, toward the kitchen and the den.

Here, a bemused young woman meets our gazes, relaxed and distracted from her spinning. (Consider here the old "Protestant work ethic!") A gentleman caller, ignorant of the viewer's encroachment, leans in to her, predatory, perhaps about to whisper a jape or invite the young lady out carousing. Will she submit? Who can be sure – her gaze, though, is casually powerful, revealing to us something of Pietersz's sympathy for the female liberation latent in some Reformation theology. But still – the young man, lovingly painted bong in hand, may drive a hard bargain. Fancy-free and liberated times may await.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Hans Holbein the Younger

Hans Holbein the Younger. Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze, 1532.

This portrait shows Holbein at the height of his powers. The dominating figure of the sitter, silhouetted by means of just a few clear lines, forms the central focus of an interior filled with a seemingly random arrangement of objects. The angled table and the position of the sitter, turned slightly inwards, are combined into a skillful spatial composition. Holbein observes his model with the same cool, searching gaze with which the sitter looks at us.

The objects on the table reflect an enduring delight in the portrayal of still-life detail - something which Holbein inherited not just from the German painting of the 15th century, but more especially from the Netherlands.

While the individual objects - the vase of flowers, the cashbox, the items carved of wood, the four scattered joints, the books and the writing implements - may not reveal the warm luminosity so characteristic of Early Netherlandish artists from Jan van Eyck to Hugo van der Goes, Holbein nevertheless demonstrates supreme sophistication in the iridescent white heightening on the sitter's red sleeves, in the elaborate, almost palpable weave of the tablecloth, and in the shimmering glass vase.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cecco del Caravaggio

Cecco del Caravaggio. Interior with a young Man holding a Bong, 1620.

Formerly attributed to Louis Finson, the bong smoker was identified as a piece by Cecco in 1943. Little documentary evidence exists for this distinctive follower of Caravaggio. Like his master, he favoured strongly-lit compositions often of enigmatic themes: here a young man confronts the viewer with a challenging air, a billow of smoke and an acrylic bong amidst an abundant assortment of still-life elements. An ambrosia of foods; a crackled hunk of cheese, a knotty gourd, a handful of peaches and a bagel. Cecco del Caravaggio delights in the precision of the elder master in his renderings of a violin, a newspaper-clipped photograph of Marlon Brando and a milky billow of smoke.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Maarten van Heemskerck

Marten Jacobszoon Heemskerk van Veen (Maarten van Heemskerck), Family Portrait with Bong and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Paperback, 1530.

Professor Wundrum's comment on my recent post jogged my memory of this lovely painting, done during van Heemskerck's Roman period. How lovely it is – on the surface! This family, with bong and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas paperback novel, is in fact a bucolic reaction to the tumult of 1530, which van Heemskerck, in his deep sensitivity to the world, must certainly have felt: the Augsberg Confession and its ripple through the Dutch Reformation community; the flooding of Rome; the 1529 siege of Vienna. Indeed, in so many of these paintings, our painters are not recreating simple moments (How we wish they were!) as much as they are resisting powerfully against the unquenched passions and roiling doubts of the High Renaissance and Reformation periods.

Indeed, van Heemskerck's composition is full of doubt. The diagonals, surging downward from the two sober, serious parents onto the heads of their scions (like the political doubt of the age, presaging the religious chaos of the latter half of the 16th century) practically slashes the picture into quarters; deep theological and ecclesiastical anxiety wrenches, for me anyway, any satiety from this scene.

The table hangs awkwardly on the canvas, urging the viewer to correct it (i.e., to correct the conflicts in Christian theology at the time) – the figures are awkwardly posed, with only the artist's innate sense of rightness holding them in any sensible position at all. The parents form a supportive "V," as they should, but the incongruity of the table's placement destroys any sense of stability we have. Ah – the 16th Century! We await the placidity of the sweet 1600s.