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."