CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael

Liefde en Lust: De kunst van Joachim Wtewael Exhibition: 21 February - 25 May 2015

From the museum website, 25 November 2014

Centraal Museum is organising the first monographic exhibition on Joachim Wtewael, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Sara Campbell Blaffer Foundation, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Who was this painter, who dipped his brush in carmine red? What life did he lead – and what moved his spirit? For whom did he paint?
Pleasure and Piety invites the visitor to look through the eyes of this brillliant painter and master storyteller from Utrecht.

From the museum’s press release, 2 February 2015

Centraal Museum Utrecht presents Pleasure & Piety: the first-ever large monographic exhibition on the Utrecht painter Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638). This sublime colourist and fabulous storyteller painted mythological scenes and religious scenes with equal ease, and on a scale ranging from the grand to the minute. His works on copper are exquisitely painted gems. His biblical depictions are strikingly sensitive, while his mythological works are witty and good-humoured, with gods and goddesses at play or at war. His portrayals of Mars and Venus are so risqué that some were censured or hidden from view – behind another painting, on a collector’s bookshelf, or in a museum depot. A selection of his best works has been brought together for the exhibition Pleasure & Piety. Approximately forty paintings and ten drawings from European and American museum and private collections offer a unique demonstration of his mastery. The exhibition is a joint production with the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Who is Joachim Wtewael?

During his lifetime, Joachim Wtewael’s paintings were hugely popular among leading art patrons, and he was praised as one of the greatest Dutch painters of his time. So why has he been all but forgotten today? That his name is spelled in different ways (Wttewael, Uytewael, Wtewael) and is hard to pronounce does not work in his favour. Wtewael is seen as the most important Northern-Netherlandish mannerist. This style, which seems rather ‘un-Dutch’, is characterised by an extremely idealised nature: nude figures with prolonged bodies and limbs in unlikely positions populate the mythological, often erotically charged scenes. Only from the 1970s onward was Dutch mannerism appreciated again as visually stimulating, intellectually challenging and of importance historically. The renewed admiration for Wtewael has only increased ever since. Pleasure & Piety honours Wtewael as one of the best Old Masters of the sixteenth, but also the seventeenth century Northern-Netherlandish pictorial art. Joachim Wtewael was born and died in Utrecht. He was probably an apprentice of his father, who was a glass painter. Early in his career Wtewael spent several years traveling through Italy and France, where he mainly studied the work of the School of Fontainebleau. When he returned to Utrecht in 1592, his international mannerism rivalled the prints of the ‘Haarlemmer’ Hendrick Goltzius. He mainly painted religious and mythological subjects, but also produced some portraits and genre pieces. It is remarkable that Wtewael not only painted on canvas and panel, like most of his counterparts in the Northern Netherlands, but also on copper. This material is particularly suitable for the very detailed and finely painted depictions that Wtewael excelled in. Especially the explicitly erotic scenes are famous. Wtewael was one of the founders of the guild of painters of Utrecht in 1611. He was a Calvinist, a loyal supporter of the House of Orange and active in local politics.

Pleasure and Piety

The theme of Pleasure and Piety returns frequently in the work of Wtewael, and often in a playful manner. On his self-portrait he holds his palette, brush and maulstick in his left hand. He clasps the brush that he is working with between his thumb and index finger. There is red paint on the tip of the brush. The colour was likely not chosen at random; instead, it is a playful hint for the perceptive viewer. Red is the colour of danger, but also of pleasure and love. That is why red is also the colour of Mars – Wtewael’s favourite mythological figure. With his aggressive character, Mars was the god of war that everyone feared. When the ravishing Venus, goddess of love, falls in love with him, Mars lays down his arms. The two have a passionate affair until the moment that Apollo, the god of the sun who sees everything first, discovers their adultery and betrays them to Vulcan, the spouse of Venus. The lame blacksmith, god of fire, forges a cobweb-like net that he hangs on the beams of the conjugal bed with invisible bronze chains and clasps. When Mars and Venus make love again, the net falls on top of them and like that, caught in their embrace, the lovers are exposed in front of the other gods. Wtewael painted at least four versions of this scene in the period 1600-1611. It is the explicitly portrayed adultery that is striking. Aside from a bit of textile here and there, Mars and Venus are shown naked in bed, making love. In the past this outright eroticism was covered up and even censored outright. Mars, Venus and Cupid of the P. and N. de Boer Foundation (Amsterdam) is an intimate representation of their passionate love and could well be considered the highlight of what Wtewael seeks to depict within this genre. It tells us something about the person that he (most likely) was.

Touring exhibition and catalogue

After Utrecht the exhibition Pleasure & Piety will travel to The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (28 June to 4 October 2015) and to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (1 November 2015 to 31 January 2016). The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue with contributions by Stijn Alsteens, James Clifton, Liesbeth M. Helmus, Anne Lowenthal and Arthur K. Wheelock. The catalogue is available in two languages: Dutch and English. It can be purchased in the Centraal Museum shop (and elsewhere). € 35.00 (English, soft cover). ISBN-/EAN-number: 978-0-89468391-6.

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