These texts were published in The Low Countries. Arts and Society in Flanders and the Netherlands, Antwerp, 2018 and are reproduced by the courtesy of TLC.
An Enigmatic Laugh in Cologne
Anja K. Sevcik
Oh, that laugh! No less mysterious than the secretive smile of the Mona Lisa, it has preoccupied art historians for decades and never fails to fascinate the viewer. Rembrandt’s self-portrait is one of the best-known paintings in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne. And at the same time it is one of the most enigmatic. I return to it again and again, wondering, marvelling, admiring.
Another Cologne icon, the contemporary artist Gerhard Richter, once said: ‘To me, pictures which I understand, are bad.’1 That explains, conversely, my fascination. In a masterly way, Rembrandt does not make it easy for us to understand his work.
How should we interpret the old man, portrayed with such humility, who stands out brightly against the darkness? Is the artist striving for that ‘one’ interpretation anyway? Is Rembrandt alluding to the philosopher Democritus laughing at the world? Is he depicting himself cynically scorning death? Or, mahlstick in hand, does he step into the role of the classical painter Zeuxis, who notoriously laughed himself to death painting the portrait of an ugly old woman? Could she be the grotesque profile on the left-hand edge of the picture?2
On closer inspection the comedy is also art historical drama, because that forthright laugh, like the raised eyebrows, was the result of overpainting. Many comprehensive technological studies have been carried out, yielding numerous discoveries regarding the possible original state of the painting and its current precarious condition, which further lessens its readability.3
The indiscernibility, the ‘great blackness’ that dominates many of Rembrandt’s works, ‘because one must often do without three-quarters of a work for a stirring section gleaming with light,’4 already irritated the connoisseur Gerhard Morell in 1767. No, Rembrandt was never easy to digest. His grasp of painting, the virtuoso mountain of layers that unite to form an ecstasy of brown and gold tones, challenges the viewer. The comparison of his art, in a play in 1648,5 with haptically gleaming gold embroidery is apposite. Nonetheless, in Rembrandt’s work it is the grand gesture rather than painstaking handwork that dominates, that conceals his art – real dissimulatio artis. John Elsum describes it congenially in 1704 in his epigram to ‘an Old Man’s head, by Rembrant’:
‘What a coarse rugged Way of Painting’s here, / Stroake upon Stroake, Dabbs upon Dabbs appear. / The Work you’d think was huddled up in haste, / But mark how truly ev’ry Colour’s plac’d, / With such Oeconomy in such a sort, / That they each other mutually support. / Rembrant! Thy Pencil plays a subtil Part / This Roughness is contriv’d to hide thy Art.’6
With laughter in my eyes, I draw on this wonderful ekphrasis for the old man of Cologne.
1 Quoted by Christoph Menke in Die Kraft der Kunst, Berlin, 2013, p. 77.
2 See for further explanation: Jürgen Müller, Der sokratische Künstler. Studien zu Rembrandts Nachtwache, Leiden/Boston, 2015, pp. 102-109.
3 Iris Schaefer, Kathrin Pilz, Caroline von Saint-George, ‘Rembrandts Selbstbildnis als Zeuxis. Neues zum Original, zur Erhaltung und zur Frage der Restaurierung’, in: Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung, 25/2011, pp. 285-323.
4 Gerhard Morell, Beurtheilendes Verzeichniß aller in der Neuen Gallerie befindlichen kostbahren Malereyen […], Copenhagen 1767, cited in Michael North, Gerhard Morell und die Entstehung einer Sammlungskultur im Ostseeraum des 18. Jahrhunderts, Greifswald, 2012, p. 143.
5 Jan Zoet, Zabynaja of vermomde loosheid, cf. Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, Die Urkunden über Rembrandt, The Hague, 1906, no. 112a.
6 John Elsum, A Description of the Celebrated Pieces of Paintings of the most Eminent Masters, Ancient and Modern […], London, 1704, p. 92, CXIX.
Double Dutch in Dublin
‘Oh … I thought they were by Vermeer!’ This comment is frequently expressed by visitors to the National Gallery of Ireland upon seeing the wall text next to Gabriel Metsu’s Man Writing a Letter and Woman Reading a Letter. Personally, I do not blame people for misidentifying the artist of these pendants, as they look more Vermeer-like than any other work by contemporary artists. In fact, I have sometimes wondered myself whether Metsu deliberately painted works that might be mistaken for Vermeer’s.
The celebrated companion pieces have fascinated me ever since I started my Ph.D. dissertation on Metsu’s work in 1999. Five years later, I was fortunate to take up a curatorial position at the museum that owns these works. Seeing them on a daily basis gave me ample opportunity to ponder what Metsu tried to achieve. It became clear to me that he combined several of what he considered to be signature elements of Vermeer’s repertoire, including the division of the composition in geometrical shapes, the shallow interior, the checkered marble-tiled floor, and the natural daylight reflecting off a white plastered back wall. Metsu even painted some of Vermeer’s typical pointillés on the lady’s shoe in the foreground. Towards the end of the painting process, he made one change that encapsulates his strategy: he changed the colour of the lady’s jacket from red (his favourite colour of such garments in the mid-1660s) to bright yellow. By doing so, Metsu replicated what he saw as a trademark of Vermeer’s work.
As I kept looking at the pendants, I realised however that Metsu did not copy or imitate, but merely approached Vermeer’s style: his colouring is brighter, his natural light has fewer tonal values and his spatial relations are poorly defined; moreover, Metsu’s superb brushwork aimed at carefully describing textures and surfaces bears little relationship to Vermeer’s work. Furthermore, I should admit that after all these years I still cannot identify with certainty which of Vermeer’s individual paintings served as direct sources of inspiration to Metsu. He certainly did not study Vermeer’s Astronomer, now in the Louvre, in preparation of Man Writing a Letter, and The Love Letter, currently at the Rijksmuseum, to arrive at Woman Reading a Letter, as scholars have argued in the past. True, Metsu’s and Vermeer’s two pensive men seated at a carpeted table near a window and a globe look very much alike; and both other paintings depict ladies in fur-trimmed jackets, seated next to a sewing basket, having received letters from a maid standing in front of a marine painting. These similarities are hardly coincidental. Yet, Metsu completed the works two to four years before Vermeer finished his. It is far more likely that the Delft artist saw Metsu’s pendants, which, although inspired by his own earlier works, provided him with ideas that he had not previously explored. Intriguing as this scenario may sound, I am afraid we are still a long time away from museum visitors in Paris and Amsterdam mistaking Vermeer’s Astronomer and Love-Letter for works by Metsu…
An Explosive Struggle in the Prado
Rubens’s Hercules and Cerberus from 1636-37 is a small picture (28 x 31.6 cm) bursting with formal power. The sense of compressed energy is palpable – handling the painting at the Prado feels like holding an explosive.
We usually think of Rubens as an artist who favoured large-scale work, but approximately one third of his paintings are small. Most of them are sketches, as is the case here. This type of picture, made in preparation for a larger work, offers us visible traces of the creative process, and a sense of privileged access. In Hercules and Cerberus, the brown tone of the oak support glows through the overlapping translucent layers. Two lines drawn in black mark two axes of the composition: one runs through the head of Hercules, the other, to the left, through the head of one of the Furies and the hindquarters of the three-headed dog. Strokes of paint pile over each other as traces of the painter’s evolving thoughts.
In spite of the dazzling show of craftsmanship, the painting is not boastful. The perfect fusion of content and form is characteristic of Rubens, and key to understanding his art. His goal is to activate empathy, to make us feel the emotions involved in the stories that he paints as if they were lived experience. Virginia Woolf, talking about her writing, once explained that words lead people to think and feel, but ‘to think and to feel not about them, but about something different’ (in the BBC radio recording Craftsmanship, 1937). Rubens shares this approach to art-making. His painterly skills, the qualities and powers that he brings to bear in his art, are never self-serving.
Hercules and Cerberus illustrates an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (VII, 409-419): ‘There is a dark cavern with a gaping mouth, and a path into the depths, up which Hercules, hero of Tiryns, dragged the dog, tied with steel chains, resisting and twisting its eyes away from the daylight and the shining rays’. Rubens’s telling of the story in this sketch exemplifies how he translates meaning into form. The impressions left by the vigorous strokes of the brush over the surface animate the scene. Dynamic forms and lines create an impression of ebb and flow, pulling us into the contest of strength taking place before the gates of Hell. Because of how they are characterised, the figures appear as if engaged in an exalted moment, yet they also seem close and real, as if directly witnessed. Rubens makes the struggle between the youthful hero and the forces of the underworld feel as an event where great things are at stake.
A Miniature Netherlandish Treasure in Detroit
Among the many treasures in the encyclopaedic collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts is a miniature Netherlandish altarpiece deftly executed in boxwood – a hardwood favoured by carvers for its fine grain and remarkable density. Measuring no more than nine inches high, the altarpiece comprises three principal components: a triptych body, a circular winged predella, and an openwork tracery foot. The altarpiece’s exterior is exceedingly plain. It hardly prepares the viewer for the hypertechnical virtuosity of a world rendered in miniature that waits inside.
When the triptych wings are open, one finds a central scene of the Nativity combined with the Annunciation to the Shepherds. The Nativity is prominently depicted in the lower half, in the foreground, and the Annunciation to the Shepherds in the upper half, but in the background and on a slightly smaller scale. The brick ruins help to separate as well as to connect the two chronologically distinct episodes. This spatial arrangement contributes to the remarkable illusion of pictorial depth in an otherwise shallow space that measures no more than an inch deep. The interior of the left wing bears the Annunciation and that of the right, the Presentation in the Temple. Both are carved in very low relief. In the predella below is an Adoration of the Magi that displays many compositional similarities to the Nativity.
The first half of Matthew 2:6 is inscribed along the bottom edge of the triptych body: ET TV BETHLE[hem] / TERRA•IV[da] NEQVAQVAM MIN[im]A / ES I[n] PRI[n]CIPIB[u]S (But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah). The words appear cramped towards the end of the inscription, with some of the letters carved into the moulding. This suggests that the sculptor might not have planned accordingly. I find this endearing, for it is the plight of the sculptor to carry on, knowing that such oversights cannot be reversed in the art of the carving.
This altarpiece exemplifies the late medieval tradition of microscopic boxwood carving for which the Duchy of Brabant served as a major centre of production. Having written my dissertation on another popular Brabantine carved form, namely, that of large-scale carved oak retables with painted wings – many of which still adorn the high altars and side chapels of churches scattered throughout the Rhineland, Sweden, and Belgium – I cannot but marvel at this portable miniaturised version. It is small enough for me to cradle with my two hands. Not only can I open and close the wings with just the slightest touch, I can fully rotate the object to examine all sides. The triptych’s backside is slightly chamfered, not flat – a feature that we sometimes encounter in large-scale winged retables – and on the reverse of the winged predella is a hinged circular door that reveals a relic cavity when opened. Such intimacy of handling is almost impossible with larger altarpieces, making me cherish even more this miniature boxwood one in the DIA’s collection.
The Bon Vivant back in the Hermitage
The life of the painting The Bon Vivant (De vrolijke drinker), by Louis de Moni (1698-1771), has been quite eventful. During the lifetime of the Dutch master, at the start of the 1760s this work in cabinet format was purchased for the collection of Catherine the Great along with its pendant A Fish-Woman (Verkoopster van zeevis en garnalen). For a century and a half, these two paintings hung in the gallery at the Hermitage, an extension of the Winter Palace, which was not open to the public. The Russian Revolution of 1917, which brought radical change to the rule of the land and in all segments of society, however, saw their fate shift dramatically. In 1930, together with many other art objects, both paintings were moved from the Hermitage into storage at the Antiquariat,1 then sold in a Soviet-organised auction of museum pieces to art dealers mainly in Western Europe. For a long time, every trace of both paintings appeared to be lost. It seemed as if they had left Russia forever. But almost a hundred years later one of them was to return to the banks of the Neva. In 2015, The Bon Vivant emerged at the Rafael Valls art gallery and dealers in London. Not long after, the painting was bought by the State Hermitage Museum from a Russian art dealer.
Until the present day the panel has been mounted in the gilt frame, with characteristic scroll-type cartouche, with which all paintings in the Hermitage galleries were ‘uniformly’ displayed in the mid-nineteenth century, in the preferred style of Tsar Nicholas I. This fact testifies that the work was once in the possession of the Imperial Hermitage Collection.2
Russian sources from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries name the panel differently: ‘The bon-vivant’, ‘Un homme faisant collation’, ‘The merry drinker’, ‘The enjoyer of life’, ‘The reveller’. A wax seal on the back of the painting and its old inventory number 40 on the front indicate a connection to the renowned collection of Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky in Berlin.3 The acquisition of this collection by Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1764 formed the basis of the picture gallery at the Hermitage. According to the archives, The Bon Vivant and its pendant A Fish-Woman did not go for a small sum: Gotzkowsky was paid 500 Reichstaler for them.4 In the mid-eighteenth century, there was much demand for De Moni’s genre paintings.5 At the auctions of the famous collections of Gerrit Braamcamp (1771) and Johan van der Marck (1773), for example, his paintings once fetched high prices: at the latter, two kitchen scenes sold for 825 guilders.6
‘The merry drinker’, a smiling man sitting at the window with a glass of wine in his hand, is painted in the tradition of the ‘fijnschilders’ from Leiden and at first glance brings to mind the work of Golden Age masters: many familiar elements appear in this scene. The still life painted with elegance and painstaking detail – herring on a tin plate, a carafe of wine and a piece of bread on a stone windowsill, on which the signature and the date are inscribed: L. de Moni, 174 – bears a striking resemblance to the oeuvre of Frans van Mieris, the elder (1635-1681) in particular. The light, refined colour palette and the nonchalant pose of the protagonist, however, belong more to the eighteenth century: the ‘galant era’. The arched window which gives the composition a trompe-l’oeil effect not only demonstrates the virtuosity of the rendition, but also draws the viewer unwittingly into a dialogue with the painted figure, who merrily raises his goblet to the viewer of the panel.
That The Bon Vivant by De Moni was known in Russia is clear from the engraving made after the work by S.M. Vasilev,7 which was part of a particularly popular series of prints about the paintings of the Flemish School published in St. Petersburg between 1826 and 1832.8 In the State Hermitage Museum, photographs of both paintings by De Moni – taken by court photographer F. Nikolaevski in 1904 and 1917 – have been preserved in which we can see that they were excellently preserved.
As is well known, the year 2017 saw the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which so dramatically determined the course of history in Russia, and with it that of Russia’s art treasures. How extraordinary the story of a painting can therefore be, is demonstrated by the singular fate of the small panel, The Bon Vivant, by Louis de Moni. We may still hope that at some point the whereabouts of its pendant, A Fish-Woman, will become known.
1 According to the deed of 27.06.1930, the Antiquariat agency of the USSR (1925-1937) was tasked with the sale of valuable artworks (paintings, drawings, sculptures, silverwork, porcelain, and so on), in order to finance accelerated agricultural and industrialisation plans.
2 While no longer visible today, on the auction photograph from the Rafael Valls gallery, the name of the artist ‘De Moni’ is still legible on the cartouche of the frame, in Russian and in French.
3 Out of the three wax seals on the back of the panel, one can be identified as the seal of Prince V.S. Dolgoroekov, Russian envoy in Prussia, who brokered the purchase of Gotzkowsky’s collection, and another as the seal of Tsar Paul I, whose paintings were all numbered in the 1797 inventory of his collection. Of the inventory numbers on the front: number 40 at bottom right, painted white, is from the Gotzkowsky collection; on the bottom left are traces of the number from the Hermitage catalogue of 1797 (no. 2140).
4 Malinovski, K. V., Istoria kollektsionirovaniya zjivopisi v Sankt Peterburge v XVIII veke (The History of Collecting Paintings in St. Petersburg in the Eighteenth Century), St. Petersburg, 2012, p. 440.
5 See: P. Terwesten, Catalogus, of Naamlyst van schilderyen, met derzelver prysen, zedert den 22. Augusti 1752 tot den 21. November 1768, zo in Holland, als Braband en andere plaatzen, in het openbaar verkogt, dienende tot een vervolg of derde deel op de twee deelen der uitgegeeve cataloguen door wylen de … Gerard Hoet ; zynde hier agter gevoegt: Catalogus van een gedeelte van’t vorstelyk kabinet schilderyen van … den … prince van Orange en Nassau. The Hague, 1770, pp. 85, 267, 325, 531, 589-590, 599, 668, 679.
6 A. J. van der Aa, Biographisch woordenboek der Nederlanden, Gorinchem 1852-1878, volume 12 out of 21. Part II. 1869, p. 982.
7 Vasilev Sakerdon Mihaylovich (1793-?) was a painter and lithographer who started his studies at the Imperial Academy of Arts in 1803, graduating in 1818 with the title: ‘Portrait painter, first class’.
8 G. Mirolubova, Ruskaya litografia 1810-e – 1890-e. (Russian Lithography in the Years 1810-1890), Moscow, 2006, pp. 212-215.