Dutch Master of the Golden Age

When the National Gallery reopened this year, they began with a free exhibition about the little known Dutch painter, Nicolaes Maes. Having learnt from the great master of painting, Rembrandt, Maes produced over 1000 artworks, 900 of which were portraits. This exhibition only contained 50 artworks but managed to provide a detailed journey of Maes’ artistic progress, beginning with historical and biblical scenes and ending with depictions of everyday life.

Nicolaes Maes was the second son of a wealthy cloth merchant Gerrit Maes and Ida Herman Claesdr. He was born in Dordrecht in the Netherlands in January 1634, but there is no record of his childhood. During the 1640s, he received a mediocre art education in his hometown but, unsatisfied he travelled to Amsterdam to train under one of the greatest artists in history: Rembrandt (1606-69).

Maes spent five years in Rembrandt’s studio alongside upcoming artists from all over the Dutch Republic. Together, they mostly learnt to paint histories, usually of a biblical nature, which Rembrandt believed to be a hard genre of painting to achieve. The students were not left to their imaginations; they were encouraged to encompass scenes from everyday life or use props and models. As well as this, Maes and his contemporaries were expected to copy works by Rembrandt as part of their composition training. As time went on, Maes began to incorporate his ideas with a blend of Rembrandt’s, eventually developing his unique style.

It is not easy to put Maes’ earlier works into chronological order because he tended not to sign or date them. His earliest signed and dated painting is Dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael, which he produced in 1653 during his final year with Rembrandt.

Loosely based on an etching by his master, Maes managed to convey the scene in an original manner. The painting shows a scene from the Book of Genesis. Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, is being dismissed along with her son Ishmael. Abraham’s wife had given Hagar to him so that he could produce an heir. Fourteen years later, Abraham’s wife Sarah miraculously gave birth to a boy, Isaac. Concerned that Ishmael would receive her son’s rightful inheritance, Sarah commanded Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. The constrained emotion on both Abraham and Hagar’s faces suggests neither of them was happy with the outcome.

Christ Blessing the Children is considered to be Maes’ earliest surviving painting, although initially wrongly attributed to Rembrandt due to the similarity in style and lack of a signature. It is also of contrasting size to the other artworks Maes produced while in Amsterdam. His paintings were “cabinet size”, but this biblical scene is much larger with a height of 81.1 inches (206cm) and a width of 60.6 inches (154cm).

Maes took inspiration for this painting from the Book of Mark when Jesus says, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:14-15) Following this, Jesus blessed every child in his presence.

The majority of Maes’ surviving early works are religious. Biblical stories include the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22), The Death of Absalom (2 Samuel 14), Christ before Pilate (Matthew 27) and The Adoration of the Shepherds (Luke 2). Maes painted the latter after he had left Rembrandt’s studio and used an engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) as a basis. Maes made a faithful copy of the engraving to the tiniest detail. The proportions are exact and the colour and shading he added to the image highlight the holy family and their visitors.

One of Maes’ religious paintings extends beyond the Bible. Using his imagination and traditional beliefs, Maes experimented with portraiture by painting The Apostle Thomas. The apostle, sometimes known as Doubting Thomas, established seven churches in India between AD 52 and AD 72. Maes imagined what the older man looked like during his mission in India and, at first, the portrait appears to be of a reticent elder. Painted in the manner of Rembrandt, Maes indicated the man’s identity with the subtle inclusion of a set square in his left hand. As well as being one of Jesus’ disciples, Thomas was a builder or carpenter, a profession that used a set square for accurate measurements. Some traditions believe Thomas was martyred by a spear that had a head resembling the set square, which has since become his symbol in works of art.

Maes returned to his hometown at the end of 1653 and married Adriana Brouwers, the widow of a Dutch preacher. It was around this time that Maes established himself as an independent painter, but his training was far from over. Maes had not been home long when he travelled to Antwerp, Belgium to study the works of Flemish painters. He particularly admired Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1549-1641), who are the most famous Baroque painters to have come from Antwerp. Painter and tapestry designer, Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678), provided Maes with lots of artistic advice during his stay in the city.

During the mid-1650s, Maes moved from history paintings to genre paintings. His contemporaries, Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) and Pieter de Hooch (1629-84) had proved there was a niche market for genre paintings, which likely influenced Maes’ direction.

Generally, Maes’ genre scenes focus on women, but not in a sensual or erotic nature like the Renaissance artists before him. Maes did not discriminate between old and young, rich and poor, but used women of all walks of life as his inspiration.

Many of Maes’ paintings show women at work in the home. In the present day, these scenes reveal the Dutch social stereotypes of the 17th century. Occupations such as sewing and lacemaking were symbols of domestic virtue and humility. Maes usually painted these women alone, using chiaroscuro to evoke the presence of a warm fire or candle, suggesting their work was a peaceful activity rather than a chore.

In contrast to these scenes of domesticity, Maes produced humorous, light-hearted paintings, often with a moralising message. A series of six works known as the Eavesdroppers, show women listening to an incident occurring in another room. The eavesdropper looks out of the painting at the viewer as though making them complicit with the act. Maes also painted the scene the eavesdropper can hear but not see.

In one of the paintings, the woman holds her finger to her lips, asking the viewer to be quiet. She can hear the voice of her maid, who is chatting to her lover through a window. In another, the mistress of the house playfully smiles while eavesdropping on a pair of lovers. A man with a lamp has discovered the couple in the basement, and the woman is eager to hear what happens next. A third painting reveals a woman enjoying the sounds of an argument. Although only one person is visible in the other room, it is easy to imagine he is reprimanding someone hidden behind a curtain.

Another amusing painting is The Idle Servant, which is similar in composition to the Eavesdroppers paintings. Maes has painted two scenes, the smaller of which is visible through the doorway, but it is the larger scene where the action (or inaction) takes place. The lady of the house has come into the kitchen to refill the wine decanter and discovers her maid asleep. Rather than waking her, the lady smiles indulgently at the viewer, indicating she finds the situation rather comical. 

The Account Keeper differs from Maes’ other comical genre scenes in that it only contains one figure. By looking at the painting, the viewer feels as though they are the one to have found someone slacking on the job. The older woman has fallen asleep while sorting out her account books. Critics have read a lot into this painting, suggesting there are many moral messages. Counting money is often a sign of greed, whilst dozing is associated with laziness. The sleeping woman is also a sign of distraction and lack of concentration. This, along with the map of the globe on the wall, may suggest she is preoccupied with worldly affairs.

Maes’ focus on genre painting drifted towards the end of the 1650s and by 1660 he had dedicated himself almost exclusively to portraiture. Tax records indicate Maes was a wealthy man, which suggests he earnt a lot from his paintings. He was also well respected and was a lieutenant in the civic guard.

When Maes first started producing portraits, they were rather austere paintings of typically dressed people against a dark background; not too dissimilar to those by his master, Rembrandt. During the 1660s, Maes was influenced by the Flemish style of portraiture, particularly those by Van Dyck. Maes began to think carefully about composition, paying attention to the furniture and surroundings as much as to the sitter.

Portrait of Margaretha de Greer is a cross between Rembrandt’s style and the Flemish style. Whilst the background is still dark, the details of the sitter and the chair in which she rests is much clearer. Margaretha de Greer (1583-1672) was the wife of Jacob Trip (1576-1661), a wealthy weapons dealer from Dordrecht who Maes painted several times. They came from families that belonged to the most powerful clans in the Dutch Republic. Rembrandt had painted their portraits, which goes to show they trusted his student as much as the renowned painter himself.

During the 1670s, Maes’ style of portraiture changed again. He attempted to lighten the mood by staging the sitting in elegant gardens and introduced props to make the composition more intriguing. He painted his sitters in less rigid poses, as though captured mid-movement. When painting children, Maes often depicted them in the guise of a mythological character and styled the background accordingly.

Portrait of a Girl with a Deer and Portrait of a Boy as a Hunter were both painted in 1671 and could be the portraits of two siblings. Their style of dress implies Maes was imagining them as characters from another period. The girl, for example, wears an elegant silk dress with a low neckline, which was not a typical style in the Dutch Republic. With one arm hugging a small deer and the other holding a large shell, Maes was likely portraying her as the fictional Princess Granida.

Granida was a play by the Dutch writer Pieter Corneliszoon Hooft (1581-1647). Known as an example of pastoral literature, the first part of the play is set in a Persian field where a shepherd and shepherdess were tending their flock. Granida, a princess who had become separated from her hunting party, found herself in their field. After offering her a drink from the stream (potentially in a large shell), the shepherd fell in love with the princess. It is this scene Maes captured in paint.

The identity of the character the boy in the other portrait portrays is less certain. His attire, particular the sandals, imply he is a figure from Roman mythology. Slung on his back is a quiver full of arrows, suggesting he is out hunting with his dog. Yet, sitting on his hand is a bird attached to a leash so that it cannot fly away. The meaning of this is ambiguous. Has he caught the bird, thus showing he is a skilled hunter or is the bird a symbol of something else? Both dogs and birds are known for their ability to learn, which may represent the young boy’s upbringing and education. Likely a robin on account of its red breast, the bird could also be a symbol of spring and rebirth. In some Christian traditions, the robin was a childhood friend of Jesus.

Maes moved to Amsterdam in 1673, where he resided until his death. The art market in his hometown had been hit badly after France invaded parts of the Dutch Republic in 1672. Hoping to appeal to Amsterdam’s bourgeoisie population, Maes took his chances by relocating and was not disappointed. Before long, Maes was in great demand, and many people considered it to be an honour to have him paint their portrait. Maes also attracted many young painters who wished to learn from the popular artist.

In 1677, Maes, at the height of his career, received the commission to paint the portraits of the Van Alphen family. This wealthy family came from Leiden in the south of Holland, which reveals Maes’ painting skills were renowned well beyond Amsterdam. Maes painted individual portraits of the siblings Simon (1650-1730), Dirck (1652-1701) and Maria Magdalena (1656-1723), as well as their niece, Beatrix (1672-1728). The siblings are dressed in antique costumes from an indeterminate era, which was a common trick used in portraiture to make the paintings appear timeless. Maes captured the luxurious, lengthy waves of hair worn by the boys and the hairstyles worn by the girls, which were fashionable at the time, thus giving away the era the portraits were painted.

Whilst these portraits exemplify Maes’ skill, it is not the reason the National Gallery decided to include them in their exhibition. All four paintings are still in their original 17th-century frames. Typically, frames at that time were dark and plain but the ones surrounding the Van Alphen portraits are made from lighter walnut wood, decorated with gilded tin floral ornaments. These frames were purpose made for the paintings, either on the instruction of the family or the painter.

Also in their original frames are portraits of Ingena Rotterdam (d.1704) and Jacob Binckes (1640-77). These were painted to commemorate their betrothal, although they never married because Binckes was killed the following year by the French while defending the Dutch colony of Tobago. The paintings are more formal than the Van Alphen portraits, but it is the frames that makes them stand out. Known as trophy frames, they are elaborately carved and gilded, making the sitters appear to be people of importance. Binckes’ frame is decorated with nautical weapons and instruments, alluding to his position in the Dutch Navy. Ingena’s frame, on the other hand, is decorated with floral ornaments. On top of the frames are figures representing a god (Mars, god of war) and goddess (Venus, goddess of love).

Despite his success in Amsterdam, Maes waited until 1688 to register with the Guild of St Luke. Even then he did not consider himself a citizen of Amsterdam, merely a resident. His reasons for this are unknown but it certainly was not due to a lack of money. By his death, Maes owned 11,000 guilders in cash as well as two houses in Dordrecht and three houses in Amsterdam.

In his later years, Maes suffered from a few physical ailments, including gout. His wife, Adriana, predeceased him in 1690 and was buried in the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam. Maes passed away three years later and was buried next to his wife on Christmas Eve.

Although his name is not so well-known today, Nicolaes Maes was one of the most successful portrait artists of his time, producing over 900 portraits. Combining this with his other artworks, he far surpassed an output of 1000 paintings. Yet, unlike Rembrandt, Maes tended to avoid painting himself. Of all his work, there is only one painting that has been identified as a self-portrait, produced when he was around 50 years old. Reasons for the lack of self-portraits could be because he was a modest man or because he lacked time due to the number of commissions he received.

The exhibition organised by the National Gallery and the Mauritshuis, whilst no longer open, brought Nicolaes Maes to the attention of a new generation of people. Once popular in the 17th-century, Maes had almost fallen into obscurity until his paintings were resurrected in the 21st century. It is time Nicolaes Maes reclaimed his position as one of the most versatile Dutch artists and no longer merely Rembrandt’s student.

Developing Selfies

Since 2013, the word “selfie” has been included in dictionaries as an official word. Statistics claim 93 million selfies are taken every day, usually on smartphones, and uploaded on social media. Access to smartphones with front-facing cameras has allowed everyone to participate in this “selfie culture”, and the ability to filter or edit the photographs has encouraged people to express a different version of themselves.

Some may say selfies are a part of a self-obsessed culture, however, the concept dates back centuries, particularly in the form of self-expression. Google Arts & Culture have produced an online exhibition to explore How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie. There is evidence of “selfies” throughout all times and cultures, which has helped us learn about how people once looked, or at least how they perceived themselves, what they wore, how they lived and so forth.

It was not until the mid-15th century, the Early Renaissance, that self-portraits became a trend. Portraits were common, however, artists mostly painted other people, usually on commission. The increase in self-portraits coincided with the availability of mirrors. Once expensive, mirrors were becoming cheaper and easier to get hold of, allowing even the poorest of painters to study their appearance.

The Early Renaissance also saw a change in painting technique. Before then, most paintings were done on walls and ceilings of buildings, but in the 15th century, the technique of panel painting began. Artists could now complete the artwork in their studio on wooden boards, which would later be positioned on the client’s walls. This also meant artists had access to surfaces on which they could experiment and produce work that they could later sell without a particular client in mind.

Artists were now freer to produce paintings for themselves as well as for their clients. With mirrors by their easels, many took the opportunity to depict themselves as the main subject. For some, this was a means of practising facial expressions, painting techniques and so forth, whereas, for others, it was a chance to express their personality, reveal who they were inside and demonstrate what they thought of their physical appearance.

Google Arts & Culture searched through several museums and galleries to find the best examples of self-portraits or “selfies” that also pinpoint the changes in style and the development of technology over time.

Rembrandt (1606-69)

When looking at the history of self-portraits, there is no better place to start than with Rembrandt, who produced nearly 100 self-portraits. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch painter whose works depict a wide range of subject matter, such as landscapes, allegorical scenes, historical scenes, biblical and mythological themes, portraits and, of course, self-portraits. The latter are amongst his greatest triumphs and form a visual biography of his life, which was marked by youthful success and later financial hardship.

Of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, at least 40 are paintings and the rest etchings or drawings. These made up around 10% of Rembrandt’s artwork and were produced over forty years. As a result, Rembrandt documented his ageing process and he encouraged his students to make copies of the paintings to practice drawing people of different ages.

Rembrandt’s etchings and drawings are usually more playful than his paintings and were probably not intended for public consumption. These sketches often depict the artist pulling a silly face, as though he was practising drawing different facial expressions. Rembrandt also drew himself in fancy dress, often in clothes from previous centuries.

The oil paintings are more formal than Rembrandt’s drawings, although there is one of Rembrandt laughing, which dates to around 1628 when Rembrandt was in his early twenties. Rembrandt’s style of painting remains consistent from the beginning of his career, when he was an ambitious young man, to the rugged face of his final years. Rembrandt’s final self-portraits usually included his signature velvet beret.

At the height of his career, Rembrandt’s self-portraits depicted him as a fashionable man, often wearing a hat. Similar to his etchings and drawings, Rembrandt occasionally painted himself in fancy dress, however, the quality of the oil painting suggests they were serious pieces of work and not experiments for fun. Several times, Rembrandt painted himself as a character from the Bible, for instance, the Apostle Paul and the Prodigal Son. He also depicted himself as Zeuxis, a Greek painter from the 5th century BC who supposedly died from laughter.

Rembrandt sat in front of a mirror when painting his self-portraits, therefore, the paintings are a reverse of his actual features. As a result, his etchings, which print a mirror image of the original sketch, reveal him in the correct orientation. Rembrandt did not usually include his hands in his paintings, for he realised they would be on the “wrong” side, for instance, his paintbrush would appear to be in his less dominant hand.

Frida Kahlo (1907-54)

Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is remembered for her bold coloured self-portraits. Similar to Rembrandt, they document her life, however, her style is very different, often crossing the border into surrealism. Kahlo’s life experiences were the inspiration for the majority of her paintings, 55 of which were self-portraits. Kahlo was keen to depict her indigenous Mexican culture in her paintings but, most importantly, she wanted to demonstrate her physical and mental pain.

As a child, Kahlo had suffered from polio, which she fought to overcome so that she could earn a place at medical school. Unfortunately, at 18 years old, Kahlo was involved in a bus accident that, whilst she was lucky to survive, left her with medical problems that would cause her pain for the rest of her life. Whilst lying in bed for three months after the accident, Kahlo occupied herself by painting. She had no formal art training but her early paintings suggest she drew inspiration from European Renaissance painters before developing her recognisable style.

Kahlo’s surreal self-portrait The Broken Column, reveals the devastation to her body caused by the crash. Kahlo painted herself semi-nude with a large crack from chin to hips through which can be seen her crumbling spine. The bus crash had left Kahlo with several spinal fractures, a broken collarbone and ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a shattered pelvis and a broken foot. Although this painting was produced almost two decades after the accident, Kahlo was still feeling the effects and had a total of 30 operations in her lifetime.

The Broken Column shows Kahlo’s body held together by a corset, which was something she needed to wear for most of her life to protect her damaged spine. Her skin is pierced by dozens of nails, indicating her constant pain. Although her facial expression is devoid of emotion, there are tears on her cheeks to indicate the pain and frustration she felt inside, and yet she stares resolutely ahead, having accepted her situation and determined not to let it stop her from living.

For Kahlo, self-portraits were a method of self-expression, initially helping her deal with the aftermath of the bus crash and later her unhappy marriage to Diego Rivera (1886-1957). They were also a way to connect with her Mexican heritage, which was gradually disappearing as Central America became more westernised. Kahlo usually portrayed herself in traditional Mexican clothing, often with Pre-Columbian ornaments in the background. She also included her pet monkey in a few self-portraits. Monkeys are a symbol of lust in Mexican mythology, and Kahlo and her husband had several affairs during their marriage. Although Kahlo did own a monkey, its appearance in her paintings may have been an allusion to her turbulent relationship with Rivera. Alternatively, the monkey, usually shown with an arm or tail around Kahlo’s shoulders, may represent the monkey’s desire to protect its owner.

Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41)

Amrita Sher-Gil, like Kahlo, explored her heritage in her artwork. Born in Hungary, Sher-Gil was the daughter of a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and a Persian Sikh aristocrat. As a child, Sher-Gil liked to paint the servants in her household but did not receive any formal training until the age of eight, by which time the family had moved to India.

At the age of 16, Sher-Gil returned to Europe to train as a painter in Paris. Her early works reveal she was significantly influenced by Western art, particularly Impressionism. She drew inspiration from European artists, such as Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), especially the latter’s depiction of non-western women.

During her time in Paris, Sher-Gil produced several self-portraits, which were later described by the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi as the artist’s way of capturing “her many moods – sombre, pensive, and joyous – while revealing a narcissistic streak in her personality.” Yet, whilst these paintings reflected Western art, her professors remarked that the richness of colours she used was more fitting with the atmosphere in the east. Despite being half-Hungarian, Sher-Gil found herself longing to return to her Indian roots.

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Village Scene, 1938

In 1936, Sher-Gil returned to India where she made a conscious effort to adopt the style of classical Indian art. Her subject matter reflected the traditional colourful clothing and the rhythms of rural life. She also depicted some of the poverty and despair she witnessed, which was a stark contrast to life in Europe. Her painting style became flatter and smoother the further away she went from Western art.

There are very few self-portraits in Sher-Gil’s later style as she prefered to paint the poor, deprived people of India. Unfortunately, her artistic career was cut short at the age of 28 when she fell ill, eventually slipping into a coma. She passed away on 5th December 1941, possibly from peritonitis, just days away from her first major solo show.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)

“Rembrandt is with the possible exception of Van Gogh, the only artist who has made the self-portrait a major means of artistic self-expression, and he is absolutely the one who has turned self-portraiture into an autobiography.”
– Kenneth Clark, An Introduction to Rembrandt

Like Sher-Gil, Vincent Van Gogh died before he had the opportunity to earn significant recognition in the art world. Amongst his 2,100 artworks, 860 of which were oil paintings, Van Gogh created more than 43 self-portraits. Struggling financially for most of his life, Van Gogh could not afford to hire models, therefore, with the help of a mirror, he painted himself.

“If I can manage to paint the colouring of my own head, which is not to be done without some difficulty, I shall likewise be able to paint the heads of other good souls, men and women.” Suffering from depression for most of his life, Van Gogh had a very low opinion of himself and this quote from a letter written by the artist suggests he practised his technique by creating self-portraits until he felt he was good enough to paint other people.

Whilst living in Paris in 1887, Van Gogh became aware of impressionist artists, for instance, Claude Monet (1840-1926), and their method of applying dabs of paint to the canvas. It was around this time that Van Gogh began using rhythmic brushstrokes, introducing different pigments to highlight the contours of his facial features.

Unintentionally, Van Gogh’s self-portraits provide an autobiography of his mental and physical condition. In earlier paintings, Van Gogh had a fuller face but, as he approached the end of his life, his face became more skeletal with sunken eyes and cheeks, the latter indicating he may have lost some teeth. His brief “good” periods are determined by his choice of clothing and the neatness of his beard and hair. During his “bad” periods, Van Gogh tended to neglect his appearance.

Self-portraits in which Van Gogh’s head is bandaged were produced soon after he had mutilated his ear in 1888. Those painted after this event show Van Gogh from the right, hiding his damaged left ear from view.

Loïs Mailou Jones (1905-1998)

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Self-Portrait

After looking at Van Gogh, the Google Arts and Culture exhibition returns to the 20th century, during which Kahlo and Sher-Gil were both working. Although she only produced one notable self-portrait, Loïs Mailou Jones has been included because she too explored her heritage in her artwork. Unlike Kahlo and Sher-Gil, Jones did not experience her true ancestry until much later in life, yet this did not stop her looking towards Africa and the Caribbean for inspiration.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1905, Jones was the daughter of the first African-American to earn a law degree. Her mother, a cosmetologist, encouraged Jones to draw and paint during her childhood, which led to a lengthy education at a series of art schools. In 1945, Jones eventually received a BA in art education from Howard University, a historically black university, although she had previously earnt a degree in design.

Jones began teaching art before she had completed her degree but this did not prevent her from producing many artworks. Paintings titled Negro Youth and Ascent of Ethiopia contain African design elements, such as those found on African masks. Her work gradually became associated with the Harlem Renaissance, which was known as the New Negro Movement at the time.

In 1940, after spending some time in Paris during which she continued to represent African life in her art, Jones produced her self-portrait. Whilst she wears typical western clothing, the figures in the background are associated with African ceremonies. Although the French were appreciative of her paintings, Jones was not accepted in national galleries and competitions in America on account of her skin colour.

Jones married a Haitian artist in 1953 and began to spend her time between America, Haiti and France. Elements of Haitian culture crept into her artwork and her paintings became more abstract. Finally, in between 1968 and 1970, Jones was able to visit Africa where she interviewed contemporary African artists in Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Zaire, Nigeria, Dahomey, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leona, and Senegal.

It is partially Jones’ determination to portray her African heritage in her art that she has paintings in museums all over America. Rather than be deterred by racism, Jones fought to prove that black artists had talent and deserved to be known as American painters with no other labels attached. By her death in 1998, Jones had earned six honorary doctorates, won at least 13 awards and been honoured by President Jimmy Carter (b.1924) at the White House. In 1984, 29th July was declared Loïs Jones Day.

Victor Brecheret (1894-1955)

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Self-Portrait

A self-portrait does not need to be a painting or drawing, as evidenced by the Italian-Brazilian sculptor Victor Brecheret. Like Jones, Brecheret made only one known self-portrait but was keen to reference his native country.

Originally born in Italy, Brecheret spent most of his life in São Paulo, except for a brief period studying in Paris. His European modernist education is evident in his work but his human characteristics and forms were inspired by Brazilian folk art.

Many of Brecheret’s sculptures are of biblical or mythological characters, which appear similar to European sculptures until the face is studied more closely. The nose and eyebrows, as can be seen in his self-portrait, are sharp and precise with clean lines, unlike the soft features of classical sculptures. The nose, in particular, appears flat on top, although remains proportionally correct.

Albert Tucker (1914-99), Cindy Sherman (b.1954), Sarah Lucas (b.1962)

It was during the 20th century that having your portrait done changed meaning from painting to photography. Australian artist Albert Tucker, whilst better known for his paintings, demonstrates an early “selfie” taken in a mirror. Although it captures two people, only Tucker appears to be posing for the camera. The woman in the photograph was his first wife Joy Hester (1920-60) who was also an artist.

Whether Tucker’s photograph was spontaneous or staged is uncertain, however, one woman who goes to great lengths to stage her self-portraits is Cindy Sherman, an artist from New Jersey, America. Sherman’s work is exclusively photographic self-portraits, although you would not always know that it was her in the picture. Exploring the idea of identity, Sherman dresses up as characters from film, magazines, television and art history. Quite often she challenges stereotypes, particularly concerning women, and brings into question how much a self-portrait can be trusted.

Sarah Lucas, who is also concerned about the casual misogyny of everyday life, is more down to earth with her photography. Between 1990 and 1998, Lucas produced 12 photographic self-portraits that challenged the stereotypical representation of gender and sexuality. Perceiving her appearance as more masculine than feminine, Lucas dressed in “manly” clothing whilst staring directly at the camera, and thus the viewer, as though challenging them to question her appearance. She often used food to symbolise sexual body parts, such as fried eggs for breasts in Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, which draws attention to her gender.

Amalia Ulman (b.1989)

Whilst the “camera never lies” the subjects, filters and editing do. To emphasise this, Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman came up with an idea for a photography project called Excellence and Perfections, which she posted on a fake Instagram account. Ulman initially posed as an aspiring actress, which attracted a lot of attention, causing her follower account to soar. Many people posted messages of encouragement but soon became concerned when the photographs took a drastic turn.

Ulman made people believe she had flown to LA to pursue her dreams, she photographed herself in trendy clothing, taking pole-dancing classes, relaxing in posh hotels and eating expensive meals. Her appearance began to change; she dyed her hair, looked increasingly tired, and to top it off, pretended to have breast augmentation surgery.

When Ulman revealed the Instagram account was a hoax, her followers reacted in two different ways. Many were relieved that Ulman had not drastically changed her appearance and ruined her life, whereas others were so hooked on the story they wanted to continue to believe it was real.

Excellence and Perfections drew attention to how desperate people were to believe their first impressions. Media in the 21st century is inundated with edited images that trick people into believing what they are seeing. Photographs in newspapers are often taken from angles that tell a different story from the truth and other photographs are posed by heavily made-up models and celebrities. The same goes for selfies; how many people use photo filters, wear make-up or pose a certain way to conform to society’s beauty standards?

This brings into question the authenticity of painted portraits. Did Rembrandt really look the way he did in his self-portraits? We know he painted himself as biblical characters, which in some ways is similar to Ulman posing as an aspiring actress. Photographs of Frida Kahlo reveal she looked similar to her self-portraits but her art style, particularly her surrealist paintings, are not realistic. The same can be said for Van Gogh, Loïs Mailou Jones and Amrita Sher-Gil.

Sherman, Lucas and Ulman demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate your appearance in a photograph or selfie and, in this day and age, people can easily edit other people’s photographs. Yet, just because people are more likely to believe a photograph, does not mean people cannot embrace “selfies” as an art medium.

How the Self-Portrait Evolved into the Selfie provides a brief timeline of the selfie, revealing that artists have altered their appearances or included symbols and hidden meanings in their self-portraits for centuries. Is there much difference between Ulman pretending to be an actress and Rembrandt pretending to be the Apostle Paul? To argue against that is to bring into question what is art. But that is a discussion for another time…

Jews, Money, Myth

In 1933, the Oxford English Dictionary listed the definition of “Jew” as “to cheat or overreach”. For centuries, myths and harmful stereotypes have formed that link Jews and money, the majority of which are untrue. In an attempt to disperse these tropes, the Jewish Museum London has staged an exhibition that explores the role of money in Jewish life, which over 2000 years has led to gross misconception. Jews, Money, Myth combines art, literature, culture and politics in a bid to challenge these false impressions and explore how they took shape in the first place.

Godines, Benjamin Senior; Triptych

Scenes from the life of Isaac – Benjamin Senior Godines, late 17th century.

Today, the OED’s definition of the word “Jew” is “a member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.” Ultimately, being Jewish is about religious faith and this is where the exhibition starts.

“Charity is equivalent to all the other commandments combined.”
– Talmud Bava Batra 9a

For Jews, charity or Tzedakah is a vital part of their faith. Tzedakah is a Hebrew word that literally translates into English as “justice” or “righteousness” but is more commonly associated with charity. This form of charity, however, is a different concept to the general Western perception of charity, which is typically seen as a spontaneous act of goodwill. In Judaism, Tzedakah is an ethical obligation and can be achieved by giving money to the poor, to health-care institutions, to synagogues and so forth.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.'”
– Deuteronomy 15:11

Many of the Jewish commandments involve Tzedakah in some shape or form and, although they are not obliged to give Tzedakah on a daily basis, there are two festivals where giving is customary: Yom Kippur and Purim. The exhibition includes a couple of examples of Purim plates on which Jews can place their donations.

The Jewish celebrate Purim in the early spring, in memory of the survival of the Jews in Persia during the 5th-century BCE. As told in the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish queen of the same name saved her people from the king’s advisor, Haman, who intended to kill all the Jews. During the celebration, the Book of Esther is read aloud after which everyone places three coins on the Purim plates for charity. Tradition states that each coin should be the denomination of half the standard currency in that country (e.g. half a shekel, half a dollar, half a pound).

“Every firstborn of man among your sons, you shall redeem.”
– Exodus 13:13

Another Jewish custom involving money is Pidyon haben or redemption of the first-born son. According to the Code of Jewish Law, the firstborn son is destined to become a priest, however, this fate can be “redeemed” for five silver coins.

Ironically, the exhibition moves on to scenes recorded in the New Testament, which is not part of the Jewish Bible. Nonetheless, certain events in the Gospels have played a major role in establishing the negative connection between Jews and money.

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.”
– Matthew 26:14-16 (NIV)

Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, has become the archetypal traitor and personification of the Jews. The Passion of Christ or the Easter story is well-known by the majority of the Western world regardless of religion. Judas’ involvement in the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion is perhaps not as recognised, however, his actions have permanently associated him with treachery and greed – something that managed to cast a shadow over the way Jews are perceived.

In exchange for thirty silver coins, Judas Iscariot agreed to hand Jesus over to the Romans, thus allowing God’s plan to come to fruition. Despite being a small part in a much bigger story, Judas is often the man blamed for Jesus’ death. Depicted in artworks with red hair and wearing yellow, these colours have become icons of evil and deceit.

The fact that the other Disciples were Jewish but had not betrayed Jesus is overshadowed by Judas’ treachery. A snap conclusion has been drawn that because Judas took the money and he was a Jew, then all Jews must be greedy. Whilst that statement can be seen as ridiculous, it managed to create an almost permanent judgment about Jews.

In many artworks, Judas is portrayed with a money bag tied to his belt, suggesting his love of money, however, Rembrandt (1606-69) avoided this stereotypical imagery in his painting Judas Returning Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629).

“Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders”
– Matthew 27:3

Rembrandt’s painting shows the moment Judas attempts to return the money after he realises the extent of his actions. Judas kneels pleadingly on the floor, the thirty coins scattered at the feet of the priests and elders, who refuse to take the money back. Whilst his remorse is stronger than his desire to keep the money, some people point out that Rembrandt has painted Judas with his head turned towards the coins on the ground as though he still craves the money. Nevertheless, Judas, full of guilt and shame, hanged himself.

“For I did dream of money bags tonight.”
– Shylock, The Merchant of Venice

The Jewish stereotype that stemmed from Judas was enhanced by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in his play The Merchant of Venice. The play’s antagonist Shylock, is a Venetian Jewish moneylender who lends money to his Christian rival Antonio, setting the security at a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio cannot pay back the loan, Shylock demands his flesh.

Throughout the play, Shylock’s appearance is stereotypical of the perception of Jews during the Elizabethan era. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 and were not allowed to resettle in the country until Oliver Cromwell’s (1599-1658) rule, however, there were plenty of Jews in other countries, for instance, Venice, where the play is set.

During the 16th and 17th century, Jews were often presented as a hideous caricature, usually with a hooked nose and bright red wig. Completing their costume, of course, was their ever-present money bag. Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity at the end of the play is supposedly a happy ending, “saving” him from his unbelief and desire to kill Antonio. Overall, the play is typical of the antisemitic trends in Elizabethan England.

To counteract the antisemitic views expressed in The Merchant of Venice, Roee Rosen (b1963), an Israeli multidisciplinary artist, writer and filmmaker, produced a retelling of the story told from Shylock’s point of view. As the title The Blind Merchant suggests, Shylock is blind in this version. The “parasitical” text written by Rosen is interspersed between the original text of Shakespeare’s play, offering alternative ways of interpreting the action. Alongside the text are black and white illustrations, many of which the author/artist produced while blindfolded. Through this book, Rosen proves there is more than one way of viewing a situation, thus emphasising the prejudices in Shakespeare’s version.

The exhibition moves on from the middle ages, introducing visitors to names of notable Jewish businessmen who, due to their wealthy lifestyle, unintentionally created the tropes that “all Jews are rich” and “Jews get rich at the expense of others.” During the Commonwealth, Jews sought permission from Cromwell to return to England. Although nothing official was signed, Cromwell conceded and the Jewish population began to grow once again. Sephardi merchants from Spain presented annual gifts to the Lord Mayor to ensure their protection. Many of these Jews were involved with international trade, for instance, the East India Company, whereas others were seen as pedlars or beggars.

As is the norm, it is the rich Jews whose names are recorded and a handful of these people are responsible for the development of banks and trade during the 18th and 19th century. One famous name is Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, 1st Baronet (1784-1885), a British financier, banker and later Sheriff of London. Coming from an Italian-Jewish background, Montefiore distributed generous amounts of money to help establish industries, businesses, economies, schools and health resources among the Jewish community in the Levant. He also served as President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which had been established in 1760 to safeguard the interests of British Jews as a religious community, both in the British Isles and the colonies.

Montefiore’s brother-in-law, however, was just as, if not more, famous, becoming the richest man in the world during his lifetime. Nathan Mayer, Freiherr von Rothschild (1777-1836) was born in Germany to the Jewish banker who founded the Rothschild banking dynasty. The Rothschild brothers, of which there were five, moved to different cities where they established a new branch of the Rothschild bank. Nathan moved to England in 1798 as a textile merchant, however, he eventually set up his banking business in 1811. N. M. Rothschild and Sons was founded at New Court in St Swithin’s Lane in the City of London, where it still operates today.

Rothschild was also involved with supplying funds for the British army during the Peninsular War (1807-14), and founding the Alliance Assurance Company (now Royal & SunAlliance) with his brother-in-law. Furthermore, Nathan Mayer Rothschild played a key role in the abolition of the slave trade, helping to finance the British government’s buyout of the plantation industry’s slaves.

The Rothschild family, in general, was renowned throughout a large part of the world. Lionel Nathan Freiherr de Rothschild (1808-79), Nathan’s son, became the first practising Jew to sit as a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. As well as being a politician, he was responsible for raising large sums for the government, which aided the Crimean War (1853-6) in particular. His most famous contribution, however, was financing the government’s purchase of the Suez Canal shares from Egypt for £4 million.

Not all the rich Jews stemmed from the Rothschild family; Sir Albert Abdullah David Sassoon, 1st Baronet (1818 – 96) was a British Indian businessman who was a major benefactor to the city of Bombay. He made many philanthropic donations throughout his life, including 60,000 rupees towards the construction of the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room and made a significant contribution towards the erection of a large equestrian statue of the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward (1841-1910), commemorating his visit to India in 1875.

Unfortunately, the wealthy Jews were not received favourably by everyone and many satirical illustrations began cropping up in publications. The biggest target was Nathan Mayer Rothschild who was accused of numerous allegations. Some saw the Rothschild’s as people obsessed with material possessions, only parting with money if it would benefit themselves. Despite Nathan’s involvement with the abolishment of slavery, the Rothschilds are accused of colonialism and globalisation as a result of their trade with less wealthy countries.

Nathan Mayer Rothschild became the personification of greed. Many caricatures portrayed him as a rotund man sitting on piles of money. Rather than working for that money himself, it was claimed others were doing the hard work for him. One illustration from Die Karikatur der europaischen Volker vom Altertum bis zur Neuzeit by Eduard Fuchs titled Die Generalpumpe (The General Pump) suggests Rothschild was controlling everyone around him. He was also portrayed as a demonic, evil creature, for example, Jean-Pierre Dantan’s (1800-69) grotesque sculpture.

Not all Jews were “filthy rich”, however, with that stereotype firmly in place, the less affluent Jews were not looked upon favourably. When Jews first returned to England, many earned a living by peddling their goods on the streets. An illustration titled “Rhubarb!” shows a turbaned Jew selling the plant from a box around his neck. In one hand is a scale to weigh his money – an icon that became synonymous with Jews.

The Charles Dickens’ character Fagin from his acclaimed novel Oliver Twist, gradually became a visual representation of the less wealthy Jew. Yet, Jews were never considered to be poor; their second-hand clothing businesses and the like were considered to be ways of making money rather than a living. Whilst they may not have appeared wealthy in their pre-owned clothing, the prejudiced believed they had lots of money stashed away, just like Fagin and his ill-gotten gains. In 1830, an illustration of a Fagin-esque character was published in a periodical, alluding to a supposed 11th Commandment that the Jews closely followed: “Get all you can, keep what you get, give nothing away.”

nazi-propaganda-jevrejin

Antisemitic propaganda

Whilst the Rothschild’s helped to found things, such as the London Underground, their personal lives were under scrutiny. They supposedly married their cousins in order to retain control over their assets, which led people to believe they aimed to control the world. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was particularly concerned that the Jews aimed to destroy Germany. He also associated the Jews with communism – another thing he wished to eradicate. We all know the result of Hitler’s incorrect thinking and prejudice, and while thousands of Jews were able to escape his clutches by migrating to England, many more died as a result of the Holocaust.

Throughout the Second World War, antisemitic propaganda was spread throughout Europe claiming that not only were Jews aiming to destroy Germany, but they also sought world domination. One poster from Serbia in 1941 shows a man in traditional Jewish clothing holding a scale. On one side sits a pile of money and on the other, a rather irate Adolf Hitler. The text reads: “Who will be heaviest? [Who will overcome?] No one because the Jew is holding the scale.”

Fortunately, some Jews were able to find safety in England where Poor Jews Temporary Shelters were set up to help them get back on their feet. Gradually the strong prejudices established by the Nazi Party began to disperse and Jews became accepted in society.

4zydki

Żydki, “Little Jews”

Unfortunately, antisemitism has not been completely eradicated from the world and the age-old stereotypes still exist. In Poland, Żydki or “Little Jews” are figurines that are sold in marketplaces as good luck charms. The superstitious believe that having one in the house brings wealth to the family. The figurines come in all sorts of styles, however, they all have the stereotypical features that have existed for centuries. Whilst the Żydki are not deliberately making a mockery of the Jews, some find them derogative and a source of controversy.

A 17-minute film at the end of the exhibition reveals the prejudices that are still in the world today. These clips feature Donald Trump addressing a Jewish society, carnivals where people are dressed similarly to the Żydki sold in Poland, and protests against Jewish billionaires who are supposedly controlling the media. One hand-made banner encouraged people to “Google Jewish Billionaires” – I did, approximately only 8% of the world’s billionaires are Jewish.

Jews, Money, Myth is an educational and eye-opening exhibition. Most people are aware of Jewish stereotypes and nearly everyone has learnt about the Holocaust, however, it is interesting to discover where and how these myths came about. Ultimately, the exhibition is challenging two particular tropes: “All Jews are rich,” and they “get rich at the expense of others.” Both statements are proved wrong and are only based upon a handful of Jews, for instance, the Rothschilds.

Some aspects of the exhibition are shocking and uncomfortable as they drag up old propaganda and illustrations that would never be allowed in print today. Yet, we cannot ignore that these things happened, that people had these opinions and that certain events followed. In order to educate the current generation, the past must not be forgotten but learned from. The Jewish Museum London has done an excellent, if not brave, job putting the exhibition together.

The exhibition Jews, Money, Myth is open until 7th July 2019 and is included in the entry ticket to the museum. Tickets are £8.50 for adults, £6.50 concessions and £4.50 for children under 16. These prices include a £1 voluntary donation. The ticket grants visitors entry to the temporary exhibitions and permanent displays.

The Rembrandt House

“Painting is the grandchild of nature. It is related to God.”
Rembrandt
— As quoted in Rembrandt Drawings (1975) by Paul Némo

The Netherlands has provided the world with a large number of great artists but one stands out above all the rest: Rembrandt (1606-69). Generally considered one of the preeminent artists to date, Rembrandt is also the most important figure in Dutch art history. Not only was he an exceptional painter, he was also a draughtsman, collector and teacher. He excelled after his move to Amsterdam, the city rich in opportunity for artists at the time. In order to celebrate this famous Dutchman, the house he once owned has been restored to its 17th-century appearance and opened as a museum. The Rembrandt House Museum (Museum Het Rembrandthuis to the locals) gives visitors a complete Rembrandt experience with furniture, art and objects from that time.

NMG B 26/1977

Self-Portrait, Open-Mouthed, 1630

Rembrandt moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat (now Jodenbreestraat) in 1639 but his artistic vocation had already begun long before. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on 15th July 1606 in Leiden, a city in the Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands). He came from a large, well-off family, being the ninth child born to Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuijtbrouck. Although his parents had no creative background, it is thought that Rembrandt’s mother’s deep Roman Catholic faith influenced many of his religious works.

Remaining in Leiden throughout his schooling, Rembrandt eventually became an apprentice to the local painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571-1638). Van Swanenburg was known for his religious paintings, which may also have influenced the young Rembrandt. He remained here for three years before travelling to Amsterdam where he became apprenticed to the history painter Pieter Lastman (1583-1633). However, Rembrandt did not stay here for long; six months later, he had returned to his hometown to set up as an independent artist.

Whilst Rembrandt was working in Leiden, he took on his first pupil, Gerrit Dou (1613-75) and began to receive important commissions from the court of The Hague. Life for Rembrandt was going well, however, in 1630 his father died and, without his support, Rembrandt’s financial worries began. Fortunately, he was able to borrow one thousand guilders from the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh (1587-1661) and moved to Amsterdam to reside as his lodger.

Through Uylenburgh, Rembrandt met his future wife, Saskia Uylenburgh (1612-42), who he married in 1634. For the remainder of the decade, Rembrandt continued to teach and paint successfully, culminating in the commission to paint The Night Watch, now found in the Rijksmuseum, in 1639. In the same year, after taking out a considerably large mortgage, Rembrandt and Saskia moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat.

 

Although Rembrandt continued to receive commissions and was well-known in the art community, his family life was suffering due to circumstances outside of his control.  Of Rembrandt and Saskia’s four children, only the youngest, Titus, born in 1641, survived infancy. The following year, Saskia also died. Over the next decade, Rembrandt had relationships with two women, Geertje Dircx (1610-56), Titus’ nanny, and Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-63), his housekeeper. The latter gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Cornelia, in 1654.

Throughout his career as an artist, Rembrandt also collected a huge quantity of objects and artefacts, which can be seen in a couple of rooms in the museum. He also owned a large art collection, which would not have helped his growing debts. Finally, in 1658, Rembrandt’s property was sold at auction after he was declared bankrupt.

Nonetheless, Rembrandt continued to paint and deal in art, for which he enlisted the help of both Hendrickje and Titus. Sadly, they both died before him, Hendrickje in 1663, and his son in 1668. Rembrandt followed them the following year, shortly after welcoming his only grandchild, Titia.

The life of Rembrandt van Rijn is narrated via an audio guide as visitors make their way around the rooms of the Rembrandt House Museum. The museum also owns the building next door, which contains a small art gallery on the upper floors and the entrance to the museum on the lower. The tour begins in the basement with the keucken (kitchen), which, as with all the other rooms, has been refurbished to look as it would have during Rembrandt’s residence. The furniture and 17th-century objects have been sourced or reconstructed based on a list written by the Insolvency Office.

 

The kitchen was where everyone in the household cooked and ate. Unlike upper-class families, there were no separate dining areas for the family and staff. Not only that, the maid would have slept in the box bed in the corner. These types of beds were common in the Netherlands, they could be shut-up during the day, making additional bedrooms unnecessary. They were also particularly small because the Dutch would never lie completely flat to sleep. Lying down was associated with death, therefore, people slept in a half-upright position.

 

The tour continues up a twisted staircase to the ground floor and into the voorhuys (entrance hall). This is the room people would have seen on first entering the house. It is spacious and well lit and has a good view through the windows onto the street. Today, the entrance hall contains many paintings by “Pre-Rembrandts” and his contemporaries, including his teacher, Pieter Lastman. A tiny room at the back of the hall contained Rembrandt’s study where he kept all his important papers. Whilst it is too small for visitors to go in, it is possible to peer through the door to see how it may once have looked.

To the left of the entrance hall is the sijdelcaemer (anteroom) where Rembrandt held his art dealing business. Similarly to the previous room, the walls are full of paintings by Rembrandt’s contemporaries and pupils. Another box bed can be found here where a family member may have slept. The most interesting aspect, however, is the mantlepiece above the fireplace. Whilst the floor and pillars are made of marble, the mantlepiece is not, but without an audioguide, no one would know. It is actually marbled wood, a very fashionable feature during the 17th-century. This was a lot cheaper than real marble, but not many would be able to tell the difference.

On the same floor but at the back of the house was Rembrandt’s living room or sael (salon). The artist would also have slept here in the box bed by the door. The high ceiling allows room for numerous paintings to be hung, mostly by Rembrandt’s most successful pupils.

 

Up another flight of stairs is Rembrandt’s groote schilder caemer (large studio) where he painted many of his masterpieces. This north facing room receives a lot of daylight, which would have been perfect for an artist working throughout the day. Being a large room, it would have been possible to set up scenes with models and props from which to paint. If need be, the light could be adjusted by closing the shutters of some of the windows.

During the day, the museum demonstrates the 17th-century method of paint-making in this studio. Visitors are amazed that artists had to create their own paints, whereas, today, we only need to squeeze it out of a tube. Various pigments were ground together with linseed oil to create the correct consistency of paint. Artists were limited to what colours they could make because the range of pigment was rather small. Lead, for example, was used to create white, and insects’ blood and plants could create different shades of red and yellow. A demonstration of another art technique Rembrandt frequently used: the printing press, can be observed on the floor below.

In the attic is a cleyne schilder caemer (small studio) which would have been used by Rembrandt’s pupils. It is separated into five cubicles so that each artist could work undisturbed. Often, his pupils would produce copies of his own work, for example, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, of which a version by Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) can be seen on the ground floor.

 

Opposite the large studio is a room titled kunstcaemer (cabinet) in which Rembrandt stored his exceptional collection of art and rare objects. It is easy to see how easily Rembrandt went bankrupt from the purchase of these extraordinary items. He collected everything from plaster casts of classical statues to beautiful butterflies and shells. Since he often painted stories from the Bible, classical mythology or history, Rembrandt would regularly use these objects as references to draw from – there was a method to his collecting madness.

 

It is a shame that there are not many paintings by Rembrandt in the museum. Being one of the world’s greatest artists, galleries are quick to purchase his work when they become available. Fortunately, the museum owns 250 of Rembrandts 290 etchings. Although they cannot all be displayed at once due to their fragility, a selection can always be found in the recently added print room. These highlight Rembrandt’s exceptional artistic quality and draughtsmanship.

 

I have seen various of his printed works which have reached this country; they are very finely executed, sensitively and skilfully etched. And I regard him unequivocally as a great virtuoso.”
Don Antonio Ruffo (1660)

Rembrandt’s etchings are equally as impressive as his paintings. He began learning the printing technique in 1625 when he was working as an independent artist in Leiden. Rembrandt’s etchings were produced by making spontaneous, sketch-like lines onto metal plates that would be covered in ink and placed in a printing press to transfer the image on to paper. (As mentioned, a demonstration of this is available during the tour.) The deepness of the lines would determine how dark the image would appear, therefore, Rembrandt was able to produce several tones to create dramatic lighting within his compositions.

An etching plate could be used to print several impressions, which made them very popular with collectors. Whereas only one version of a painting would exist, numerous copies of the same etching could be owned by different people. They were also a lot cheaper to purchase.

Unlike his paintings that mostly focused on popular stories from religious or historical contexts, Rembrandt’s etchings covered a much broader range of themes. Initially, Rembrandt practised etching by drawing his face making different expressions. He continued to use himself as a model throughout his career. He also studied the heads and faces of people on the street, resulting in a number of interesting characters.

Rembrandt would go for walks around Amsterdam with his sketchbook and come home to copy his sketches onto etching plates. As well as people, Rembrandt studied and drew landscapes. Nonetheless, there are also a few etchings of the typical classical and Biblical stories.

“Rembrandt’s extraordinary manner of etching which is characterised by the free and irregular use of line, without delineation of outlines, and which results in a deep, powerful chiaroscuro of painterly quality.”
Filippo Baldinucci, 1686

Since it was opened to the public as a gallery on 10th June 1911 in the presence of Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962), the Rembrandt House Museum has undergone many changes. Initially, the house was used as an art gallery to display Rembrandt’s etchings. It was not until 1998, when the building next door became available, that the opportunity to restore Rembrandt’s house to its original appearance became available. Historians and curators have done a phenomenal job to present a realistic as possible 17th-century home in which the greatest Dutch painter lived and worked. Everything has been completed with painstaking accuracy to provide a true insight into the artist’s life.

The Rembrandt House Museum is continually being updated as funds become available in order to provide the best possible experience. The latest updates took place earlier this year, including the print room and Rembrandt’s study.

With helpful staff and audio guides available in several languages, the Rembrandt House Museum is a wonderful place to visit. It is educational in a variety of ways, from the background of the artist to the methods painters used in the 17th-century. It is also a great way of discovering what the inside of the tall Dutch houses once looked like, imagining how a family would cope in the narrow building.

The Rembrandt House Museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm and costs €13 for adults and €4 for children. The audio guide is included in the entrance fee. Guidebooks are also available for purchase in a number of languages. Photography is allowed throughout the museum unless a sign requests otherwise (no flash), however, be prepared to leave large bags in the lockers provided.

“Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy.”
Rembrandt

 

 

Simeon goes to Amsterdam

32866310_10213968890207792_2656639836118581248_nMeet Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please). Instead of swinging from tree to tree in the subtropical rainforests of Bangladesh, Borneo or Sumatra, Simeon enjoys going on trips with his human friends. Fortunately, being a stuffed toy (do not mention that to him, it is a sore subject) Simeon can easily fit in hand luggage and be taken into all sorts of places where animals are not usually welcomed. This year, 2018, was a very special year for the small ape; in May, Simeon experienced his first trip abroad to the artistic capital of the Netherlands: Amsterdam.

Jetting off from London Southend Airport, Simeon landed at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol a mere 35 minutes later. It took less time to get from England to the Netherlands than it did to get from home to Southend! Schiphol is the main international airport of the Netherlands and sits nine kilometres southwest of Amsterdam. Despite being the third busiest airport in Europe, Simeon and friends whizzed through security to discover their luggage was already waiting for them on the conveyor belt – a complete contrast to most of London’s airports!

Without any to-do, Simeon found himself on a train heading to Amsterdam Centraal. Not only was this his first trip abroad, it was his first ride in both an aeroplane and a train! And what a good experience it was, too. Despite understanding little Dutch, it was quick and easy to get from A to B, the only issue being which exit to use at Centraal Station.

 

 

Soon to be connected to the Eurostar line, Amsterdam Centraal is the largest train station in the Netherlands and has been listed as a rijksmonument or national heritage site.  The Gothic/Renaissance Revival station building was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921) and first opened for public use in 1889. Like the majority of buildings in Amsterdam, the station was constructed on the canals and required 8,687 wooden poles. The structure and surrounding area have since been redeveloped to make it more pedestrian friendly.

Despite renovations, Amsterdam Centraal Station is one of the most impressive buildings in the city; it looks more like a palace than a station. The building is richly decorated both inside and out. The façade is made up of red brick with prominent carvings on the towers either side of the main entrance. Each tower is topped with a spire and displays a large dial, however, only one of these is a clock. The other, which at a glance may look like a clock, is a read-out for the weather vane that sits on top of the station.

33401578_10213993463502109_6251086077671505920_nAmsterdam has an area of approximately 84.68 square miles, which is far too much for a little gibbon to walk. Fortunately for Simeon, there are 16 tram routes across that city, the majority of which begin their journeys outside Amsterdam Centraal. So, with 72-hour travel pass to hand (other time periods are available) Simeon was ready to check in and out of the trams as he made his way from one destination to another.

Although trams travel all over the place, the best way to experience Amsterdam is on the canals. There are plenty of canal trips to choose from of varying lengths that traverse the 60 miles of water. The most famous canals in Amsterdam are Prinsengracht, Herengracht, and Keizersgracht, however, the small ones are just as interesting to travel along – gracht means “canal” and Prinsen, Heren and Keizers can be translated to “Prince”, “Lords” and “Emperor’s” respectively.

 

 

Initially, the 17th-century canals were a form of defence but eventually became a means of navigating the city. Today, they are one of Amsterdam’s greatest attractions. Simeon opted for the open-top tour by the Blue Boat Company that took its guests around the more narrow canals in the city. The trip began at the company office on the edge of the water in Stadhouderskade, which is a short walk from the Museumkwartier where the major museums are located.

Depending on the tour company and guide, not only does a canal trip offer extensive views of the city, it provides a lot of interesting information and local knowledge that may not necessarily crop up in guidebooks. On an hour and 15-minute ride, after Simeon had got over his disappointment about not being allowed to drive the boat, he learnt a lot of fascinating facts about Amsterdam.

The name Amsterdam comes from Amstelredamme, indicating its origins as a 12th-century fishing village around a dam in the river Amstel. Although the city has lots of canals, it sits around two-metres below sea level. Originally, the area was farmed for peat, which was used to heat houses, resulting in the low level of the land. Due to this, Amsterdam was not inhabitable as a city until grand developments in the 14th and 15th centuries when the majority of canals and original buildings were constructed.

Most of the buildings in the city look fairly old, however, they do not date back as far as the conception of the city. Many of the buildings in Amsterdam were built during the 17th century and, as Simeon was amazed to see, stand rather crookedly, leaning forwards, backwards or even sideways. There are a number of theories for this strange sight but do not worry, they are unlikely to topple over.

Original buildings were built on wooden poles so that they would be raised above the water level. Unfortunately, due to the peaty quality of the soil, the poles began to sink into the ground as they tried to sustain the weight they were holding. This may be the cause of many of the slanted buildings around the city. Thankfully, the situation has been rectified by filling up the gaps below houses with cement so that they would not sink any further.

What surprises some people to learn is that some of the structures were deliberately built at a slant. This is known as op de vlucht bouwen and was a building regulation pre-1800. This may have stemmed from medieval times when the top floor of a wooden building traditionally jettied out further in order to prevent rain from flooding the floors below. The strongest reason for the leaning buildings is for economical purposes. As a staple port, Amsterdam was receiving daily deliveries from merchant boats of cotton, spices and so forth. Warehouses tended to be situated in the attics of the buildings along the canals and in order to store the crates, they were winched up on ropes from a hook on the top of the building. In order to prevent damages to the walls and windows, buildings were slanted forwards to provide enough room for the boxes to swing without hitting anything.

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One thing that will not go amiss, regardless of whether you take advantage of a canal tour or not, is the width of the tall, Dutch buildings. Typically, houses are three windows wide and four windows high and were built as such due to heavy taxes imposed upon the people of Amsterdam. Similarly to London, Amsterdam had a window tax meaning that the more windows a building had, the more its owners would have to pay. Another tax was on the width of the houses – the wider, the more expensive. Large families were forever going up and down narrow, spiralled staircases in order to navigate their tall but thin houses. Any buildings wider than three windows were likely owned by the wealthier people of Amsterdam.

33167034_10213993573304854_4090493120037257216_nA good thing about travelling via the canals is, at least in Simeon’s opinion, you are not at risk of being hit by any of the 881,000 bicycles zooming around the city … or so you would think. To the astonishment of the people on the boat, the tour guide revealed that 15,000 bikes are pulled out of the canal every year. These are not necessarily a result of clumsy cyclists; thousands of bikes are parked against railings on the edge of the canals or bridges every day. It only takes one to fall over before a domino effect pushes them all into the water. Cars are also parked by the side of canals and risk falling in, fortunately, only five unlucky drivers are affected by this!

Returning to the Museumkwartier, Simeon had the opportunity to visit two of the most popular museums in Amsterdam. The city itself is one of the most visited cultural places in Europe and it is without a doubt in part due to its most famous museum, the largest museum of art and history in the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum. Opened in 1885 and designed by Cuypers in the same Gothic-Renaissance style as his station building, the Rijksmuseum houses a number of different collections including 19th-century art and art from the middle ages. The most well-known section, however, is the masterpieces of the 17th-century painted by the school known as The Dutch Masters.

 

The majority of artworks in the museum are of Dutch origin and can be found in all the collections, however, the artist visitors flock to see is the magnificent Rembrandt (1606-99). The Rijksmuseum owns 20 of his works including the extraordinary Night Watch or De Nachtwacht, which impressed Simeon with its colossal size (363 cm × 437 cm). Initially called Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq by the artist, it portrays the eponymous company being led out by Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, who are captured in a dramatic use of light and shadow, giving the impression of movement. Traditionally, portraits of military groups were static and posed but Rembrandt broke away from this custom.

Visitors also get to see paintings by other famous Dutch artists such as Vermeer (1632-75), Hals (1582-1666) and Van Gogh (1853-88). Simeon was particularly ecstatic to see The Milkmaid (Het melkmeisje) by Vermeer as well as look at examples of sculpture and decorative arts.

Amsterdam is a great city for art-lovers and on the opposite of the Museumplein is a museum devoted to one of the greatest Dutch artists from the 19th-century. Vincent van Gogh was born in Zundert, a small town in the south of the Netherlands. Although he spent a large amount of his artistic career in France, the Van Gogh Museum has brought 200 of his paintings back to his home country. As well as paintings, the museum has an enormous collection of drawings and letters made by van Gogh at various times during his life.

Visitors are not allowed to photograph the exhibits, however, they have provided a couple of areas where snap happy tourists can record a few memories. Simeon was pleased to discover that one version of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was in one of these areas – this vain, little gibbon loves having his photograph taken!

The museum is set out in chronological order so that guests can learn about the artist’s life as they peruse his paintings. This also allows the more art savvy to notice and compare the development of van Gogh’s paintings as he progressed through his ten-year career. These are interspersed with artworks by other notable painters who inspired van Gogh or had a personal connection to him, for instance, his friend-cum-enemy Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

The museum is located in two buildings joint together by way of underground passage. One side houses temporary exhibition and the other contains three floors of van Gogh’s work and timeline. Designed by Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), and eventually completed in 1973, the museum is a stark contrast to the Rijksmuseum. The architecture is modernist and features wide open spaces, although, once the crowds enter, there is not much space left!

Already seen in the Rijksmuseum, the Netherlands boasts another famous artist, however, to discover more about him, Simeon had to move away from the Museumplein and get the tram to Rembrandtplein. This artist is, of course, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

Rembrandtplein, originally called Botermarkt, was established in 1668 as the central square for a dairy market. Today, it lies in homage to the 17th-century Dutch artist with a large cast iron statue of Rembrandt standing in the middle. Although Rembrandt was born in Leiden, South Holland, he bought a house nearby in Amsterdam, making him a significant famous association with the city.

In honour of his 400th birthday in 2006, a bronze-cast representation of his famous painting, The Night Watch, was erected in front of the statue of Rembrandt. Tourists are drawn to the square like magnets thanks to the brilliance of these figures produced by the Russian artists Mikhail Dronov and Alexander Taratynov. With so many cameras around, Simeon had to be quick to get his photograph taken with the majority of the characters.

The house Rembrandt owned is not on the square but a short walk will bring you to the very building now known as Museum Het Rembrandthuis. Decorated to look exactly how Rembrandt lived, Simeon enjoyed exploring the 17th-century rooms and seeing hundreds of collectable items that the artist had amassed during his career.

Rembrandt both lived in and worked from this building between 1638 and 1658, painting and teaching new students. His studio, kitchen and sleeping areas give the impression of an artist’s life during the 17th-century. People were shorter and did not need tall doorframes, causing visitors to duck in order to enter a room – not a problem for Simeon! Their beds were also much shorter but not because of their stature; the Dutch slept sitting up in fear that lying down would cause the blood to rush to their head and kill them.

With the main art museums fully explored, Simeon had time to visit smaller, lesser-known museums in Amsterdam. These were Cromhout Huis and Het Bijbels Museum. The former is a canal-side house once owned by the Cromhout Family who lived there for almost two centuries. The house faces the Herengracht canal and is decorated as splendidly as it would have during its Golden Age. An audio guide educates visitors about the seven generations of the Cromhouts, their ups and downs, and their unique pieces of furniture and art collection.

On the top floor of the house is Amsterdam’s Biblical Museum where the Bible is mixed in with art and Dutch culture. The collection features rare Bibles, including the oldest printed copy in the Netherlands (1477), Egyptian artefacts and many other treasures. Simeon’s favourite was the model of the Tabernacle and the 19th-century model of Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

There may be many museums in Amsterdam but there are so many other things to see. Dam Square, where the national monument and Koninklijk Palace can be found, provides several photographic opportunities and is surrounded by souvenir shops. However, the best places to buy mementoes is at one of the city’s markets, particularly the Bloemenmarkt situated along the Singel Canal. This flower market has been a tradition since 1862 and is open all year round so that both locals and tourists can benefit from the brightly coloured plants. The best time to visit this market is in the spring when the Dutch tulips are in full bloom, however, at any other time of year, the market is full of fake but beautiful tulips (Simeon thought they were real), or you can purchase bulbs to take home to plant in your own garden.

Simeon was only in Amsterdam for a few days, and although he visited so many places, there is still so much to explore. Amsterdam is the type of place tourists can visit time and again and discover something new on every trip. There is, of course, the “other side” to Amsterdam that gives it a bad name and evokes the saying “Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go to Amsterdam” but that is an extreme exaggeration. Nonetheless, Simeon has compiled his top tips for those wanting to visit the Dutch capital city.

Simeon’s Top Tips

1. Be careful crossing the road. Bicycles and trams have right of way.
2. Don’t take photographs in the Red Light District. This is where all the prostitution and sex-oriented businesses can be found.
3. Avoid Coffee ShopsYou may end up purchasing 5g of cannabis with your order!
4. Try the Stroopwaffels (syrup waffles) but make sure it does not contain a certain ingredient … Marijuana
5. Book museum tickets before you go. Particularly the Van Gogh Museum, it works on a timed entry system and runs out of tickets quickly.
6. Don’t fall in the canalThat would be silly.
7. Don’t eat the cannabis lolly pops or ice creamIt may look yummy but might not do you any good.
8. If purchasing tulip bulbs, make sure you can legally bring them homeSome bulbs need special licenses to be taken abroad.
9. Always check in and out of tramsNot just in.
10. Be prepared to pay by cardNot all shops take cash.

The Other Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn is one of the most recognisable names of the 17th century. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Rembrandt is the greatest artist the Dutch have ever produced. In order to celebrate the opening of a new gallery at The National Gallery in London – the first to open in 26 years – an exhibition ran from 22nd March – 6th August 2017 entitled Rubens and Rembrandt. But why were these two artists merged together?

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Section of Self Portrait at the age of 34 by Rembrandt, 1640

Rembrandt

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn was born in Leiden, a city towards the south of the Netherlands, on 15th July 1606. Although he was the son of a miller, he would grow up to be the country’s greatest artist. His love of art was sparked by a local painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, to whom Rembrandt was apprenticed for roughly three years. However, Rembrandt’s most significant influence was Pieter Lastman, a painter in Amsterdam who he spent six months with in 1624. Lastman’s teaching inspired Rembrandt to focus on religious subjects but also to portray evocative emotion in his works through the use of dramatic lighting effects.

The beginnings of Rembrandt’s career included many portrait commissions, becoming the most sort out portraitist in the city of Amsterdam. However, by the 1640s the amount of formal portraiture declined as he turned his hand to religious painting. This may have been a psychological response to the death of his wife Saskia in 1642 and of his mother two years previously. Religion was likely to have been a comfort to him during this difficult period.

Unfortunately, it was portraits that earned artists the most money during this era, therefore Rembrandt began to suffer financial difficulties. To avoid the fate of bankruptcy, Rembrandt had to sell his lavish home and move to a poorer district – a complete contrast to the wealthy lifestyle he had been used to since birth. However, this downfall did not attack his productivity and he continued to receive important commissions from those who knew of and respected him.

As Rembrandt entered his final years, his paintings took on a greater air of human understanding and compassion. Unfortunate circumstances throughout his life saw the deaths of his wife, children and lover, however, he kept his dignity until the very end, not letting tragedy negatively impact on his artwork. Rembrandt continued to paint up until his death on 4th October 1669.

It is not only his portraits and religious imagery that caused Rembrandt such renown. Although these make up the greater part of his collection, he also produced many landscapes, still-lives and paintings that defy classification. He was also adept at etching and drawing, his skills so adroit that it has been almost impossible to surpass.

Rubens

(Sir) Peter Paul Rubens – Rembrandt’s Flemish counterpart in this exhibition – was born much earlier on 28th June 1577 in Siegen, Westphalia (now Germany). His youth was mostly based in Antwerp, Belgium, to which his family returned after the death of his father in 1587 (he had fled from religious prosecution for having protestant sympathies).

From approximately 1590, Rubens began his training to become the most influential artist of Baroque art in Northern Europe. Although he had tutors in his home country, Rubens’ style did not develop until he had spent some time in Italy at the dawning of the century. Here he took on some portrait commissions for aristocratic families whilst honing his skills by studying the artistic masters of the Renaissance.

Rubens returned to Antwerp in 1608 and promptly became court painter to Archduke Albert, the Spanish governor of the Netherlands. The demand for Rubens’ work increased rapidly and the artist often had to rely on his students and assistants to complete various commissions. As well as being able to paint nearly every subject possible, Rubens could also turn his hand to tapestry, book illustration and fresco, plus provide advice for architects and sculptors.

My talents are such that I have never lacked courage to undertake any design, however vast in size or diversified in subject.

-Rubens, 1621

The exhibition at the National Gallery hailed the two artists as the most inventive and influential of the seventeenth century in Northern Europe. Although working at similar times, their approaches were profoundly different, yet, they both had a significant impact on the future of art. With Rubens’ work adorning one side of the gallery, and Rembrandt’s the opposite, the exhibition celebrated the differences and similarities of the two world renowned painters.

Although only a handful of each artists’ work made it into the exhibition, the selection showed off the diversity of their talent, including, but not limited to, subject matter and scale. Some paintings were more well known than others, particularly the self-portraits of Rembrandt aged 34 and 63.

The most expressive of Rubens’ work in the display was Samson and Delilah which was painted in approximately 1609. This is an interpretation of the Old Testament story in which Delilah cuts off Samson’s hair – where his source of great strength comes from – weakening him enough to be captured and imprisoned by soldiers (Judges 16:19). It is not the story that grabs the viewers attention, but rather the dramatic lighting effects and strong use of the colour red. This goes to show the influence other painters hand on Rubens during his time in Italy. (For example, see Caravaggio)

Many of the other paintings in the display revealed Rubens penchant for Roman mythology. One oil painting of significant scale, The Judgement of Paris (c1632-5), tells the story of the golden apple that Paris was solicited into giving to the goddess he believed to be most beautiful. Paris chose Venus, the goddess of love, angering the other two goddesses, Minerva and Juno, and foreshadowing the Trojan War.

Although this painting does not have the Caravaggesque of Samson and Delilah, it is still brightly coloured and detailed, making it pleasant to look at. Despite containing nudity, it is not lewd or suggestive, thus doing justice to the major Roman goddesses.

Rembrandt’s work, on the other hand, is much darker – not the subject, but in the choice, or lack of colour. As can be seen in the section of his self-portrait above, Rembrandt preferred to leave the background in shadow with little to none detail. His dramatic lighting draws the viewer to the important parts of the painting. At a glance, a general overview of the stories depicted can be ascertained, however, a deeper study must be made to reveal all the elements.

An example that sums up all these aforementioned approaches is Belshazzar’s Feast (c1636-8). The source of light highlights the lesser known Babylonian king written about in the Bible (Daniel 5), pouring wine from precious containers. In the top right-hand corner, Hebrew words appear that translate to “God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. thou art weighed in the balance, and art found wanting.” As the Bible story goes, Belshazzar was killed later that night.

A closer look at the painting shows the shock of Belshazzar’s guests at his reaction to the words by the divine hand. The lack of colour in the figures help to emphasise the strong light source that shines through the written words of God. This is just one of many religious paintings that Rembrandt undertook during his career, and also goes to show that he did not only stick to the famous Bible stories, instead illustrating the more obscure.

Other religious paintings that were displayed in the exhibition include Ecce Homo (1634), The Woman taken in Adultery (1644) and An Elderly Man as Saint Paul (c1659). These all contain a distinct lack of colour, preferring browns and shades of black over anything more flamboyant.

The most obvious difference between the two European painters is the choice of colour palette. Rubens’ brighter selection paint a more fairy-tale-like story that befits mythology, whereas Rembrandt’s dark colours create a sense of melancholy and seriousness. The contrast of theme between Rubens’ mythological paintings and Rembrandt’s religious is also evident, however, is also misleading, for only a marginal selection were on display. Both artists are known to have focused on both subject matters in their paintings.

One final observation and contrast is the brush work. The strokes in Rubens’ paintings are much smoother than Rembrandt’s who appeared to have dabbled the paint more often than applying a gentle, steady hand.

Take One Picture 

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A Roman Triumph, Rubens c1630

Every year, the National Gallery encourages primary schools throughout Britain to focus on one painting in their collection and create an artistic response. In an exhibition titled Take One Picture, the gallery is exhibiting a variety of the work produced by these children. This year’s painting of choice is Rubens’ A Roman Triumph, which felt highly appropriate regarding the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition in the adjacent room.

This painting depicts a Roman triumph to celebrate either a military campaign or victory. A procession of young men, musicians, dancers, a priest and exotic animals are witnessed by spectators as they make their way through the city. Instead of regarding the busy painting as a whole, each participating school was encouraged to select a particular aspect to study. Children contemplated the sounds, smells, and feelings the participants may have felt and responded to these ideas with a group art project. A range of art forms has been experimented with from performance to sculpture and puppet-making.

Despite the Rubens and Rembrandt exhibition closing on the 6th August, Take One Picture has remained throughout the summer holiday and will continue to be shown until 24th September. Not only is it interesting to see how young minds reacted to the European master’s painting, it also encourages visitors to assess their own thoughts about the work.

Some children were inspired by the people in the painting, taking an interest in their postures and the way in which they were walking or standing. Others narrowed it down to the clothing, looking closely at patterns, fabrics and colours. Naturally, some classes were drawn to the animals, particularly the elephants, but the way they executed their creative responses varied greatly.  Some based their work on the types of animals, whereas others used the sounds the animals may have made as their inspiration.

Whichever element of the painting the schools honed in on, none of the responses were the same. This goes to show how open to interpretation artwork can be. No one will know what Rubens hoped viewers would take away from his painting, but today it still has educational purposes and is a great source of entertainment.

Take One Picture has been running since 1995 and has greatly benefitted children with its cross-curricular opportunities. It will be interesting to follow the scheme and discover which art works are chosen in the future. For 2018, the choice has already been made. Next summer, the National Gallery can expect to display a wide range of responses to Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768).

Take One Picture is generously supported by GRoW @ Annenberg, The Dorset Foundation, Christoph Henkel and other donors. Further information about the programme, related CPD courses for teachers, and the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery can be found here

Figures Seemingly Alive

The summer holidays may well be over, however, the National Portrait Gallery’s summer exhibition The Encounter is only half way through. Open until 22nd October 2017, a rare collection of drawings from several Renaissance and Baroque artists are on display at a fee of £10 (members free). Emphasis needs to be made on the word drawings or, to make it more transparent, the synonym sketches may be more appropriate.

Rather than showing the priceless paintings and famous works of European artists, the gallery has sourced from collections throughout Britain the initial drawings of the accomplished draughtsmen. Providing a fresh understanding as to how the artist begins a portrait and the materials used, these sketches bring forth a feeling of humanness – imperfect – and a sense of the private encounter between the artist and the sitter.

Due to their sensitivity to light and resulting fragileness, it is unlikely that viewers will recognise the drawings in the exhibition because they rarely get put on display. Since many are initial sketches rather than finished artwork, it is plausible to suggest that viewing The Encounter is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The majority of people depicted in these portraits are unknown, being referred to as Seated Young Girl (Wenceslaus Hollar, 1635), Woman Wearing a Hood (Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90) and so forth.

Unfortunately, the exhibition’s strapline is a little deceptive. “Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt implies that one will see drawings by the famous Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). To their credit, the National Portrait Gallery has located a study by each of these outstanding artists but, alas, that is all. Rather than misleading art lovers and tourists by enticing them with two well-known names, it could have been more appropriate to subtitle the exhibition “Drawings from the Masters 1430-1650” or something of that nature.

If the name of an artist needed to be used to advertise this exhibition, Hans Holbein the Younger would have been a far more appropriate choice. Not only is a Holbein the first portrait to be seen on display (John Godsalve c.1532), a whole section compiled of eight drawings has been devoted to the artist. In fact, Holbein the Younger is treated as though he were the most accomplished portraitist in Europe during the sixteenth century.

Hans Holbein (1497-1543) was a German painter and designer who was trained by his own father, Hans Holbein the Elder (1465-1534). By the age of 19, Holbein was being commissioned for portraits, notably the mayor of Basle and his wife. By the late 1520s, Holbein was the leading artist in Basle, producing murals, altarpieces and stained glass windows alongside his more intimate canvases.

Disturbances caused by the Protestant Reformation caused a decline in the amount of work offered, so Holbein moved to London. By 1536, Holbein was working for Henry VIII, painting his portraits and those of other notable people in the Tudor family. Whilst in the residence of the king, Holbein had the opportunity to mix with a whole range of people of different class. Over 100 of his preparatory studies survive today, evidencing his range of sitters from merchants to those of nobility.

“Stranger, do you want to see figures seemingly alive? Look at these, brought forth from Holbein’s hand.”

– Nicholas Bourbon, 1538

A contemporary of Holbein, Nicholas Bourbon, is noted for proclaiming that the artist’s drawings strikingly brought people to life, easily revealing the mood and personality of each sitter. From boredom to alertness, Holbein drew those both confident and unsure, capturing an accurate representation and varying atmosphere.

It is not the artists who are the main focus of The Encounter; it is the techniques and the evidence that the artist was working directly from life, that has the greater appeal. Some drawings may almost look complete, however, the majority were implemented at speed, thus preserving a momentary contact with the sitter.

All the artists featured in the exhibitions were working in various European countries between the 15th and 17th centuries. Art historians can divide the past into art movements due to evidence in changing style and themes, but with these swift sketches, it is possible to see the reasons for certain developments. The human race is constantly evolving, inventing new contraptions and utensils in an attempt to make life simpler. Between the years focused on by the National Portrait Gallery, new materials were becoming readily available for artists, such as paper, ink and chalk.

Previously, a limited quantity of material restricted the amount of practice and preparation an artist could undertake before commencing on the final product. With paper becoming more abundant, the opportunity to try out different methods and ideas was leapt upon by the masters and their apprentices. It also allowed students to copy other works as a way of learning and honing their skills – something which most likely attributed to the development of an art movement in which the majority of work resembled a certain style.

By being able to make preparatory studies for paintings, particularly portraits, the artist was allowed to scrutinize the human anatomy and understand the importance of proportion when drawing a body. Like today’s sketchbooks, sheets of paper were easily carried around meaning that an artist could sketch wherever he pleased, thus observe people unawares and in different positions from the traditional seated posture.

It was not only the production of paper that benefited artists, the availability of chalk became extremely beneficial. Looking at the portraits in the gallery, many have been produced with red chalk and some in black. This was a recommendation at the time because chalk was a lot easier to correct than the more permanent pen and ink, which was also popular. To erase a mistake in the proportion of their sitter, artists were instructed to rub a small piece of bread over the surface. This lifted the chalk from the paper, allowing new lines or shading to be redrawn correctly.

With these new techniques and methods in place, less pressure was placed upon the sitter to remain still for a considerable length of time. A quick chalk drawing allowed the artist to judge the proportions, note down colours and facial expressions, and determine the composition. It is from these initial sketches that many artists began their final painting. This was a particularly convenient way of working when drawing a child, especially one with very little patience and easily bored.

In order to appreciate how useful the new materials were, a video has been provided within the exhibition of a contemporary artist demonstrating a few of the utensils. The tools are also on display in a glass box for visitors to have a closer look. The short film illustrates the way to use these implements, including silverpoint and pen.

Silverpoint was a technique using paper that had been pre-prepared with coloured ground and a metal stylus with a silver tip. Scratches are gently made with the stylus then gradually built up to add strokes and shadow to the drawing. Unlike working with chalk, mistakes could not be erased, thus the instruction to start lightly and only increase the pressure when feeling confident.

Pen and ink were used in much the same way. This time, the paper did not need to be covered with any substances, but a quill needed to be cut to provide a suitable nib. Dipping the quill into ink, the artist then draws lightly on the paper, adding darker strokes later to create the shadows.

Although using medieval techniques, the demonstration is similar to how a student would be taught at school today. This goes to show that the master painters were just as human as everyone else. They needed to practice daily to achieve the skills evidenced in their celebrated artworks. Artists such as Leonardo and Rembrandt were not exempt from making mistakes; their fantastic paintings did not just occur over night.

“Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good.”

-Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, c1400

The Encounter is an exhibition that will appeal to those with a greater interest in art than the average tourist. Students and artists alike may find regarding these drawings advantageous to their own studies or career. It will certainly boost the confidence of those aspiring to produce portraits as good as artists such as Holbein. Instead of focusing on the final artwork, it is important to create studies, whether quick or detailed, in order to determine exactly how the portrait is going to look. It is also natural to make mistakes.

Although not a traditional exhibition of famous artists and paintings, the National Portrait Gallery has given the public a deeper insight into past European techniques and allowed each artist to be appreciated as a hard-worker rather than someone who was naturally perfect from birth. It is certainly reassuring to discover that artists from 400 years ago faced the same set of challenges contemporary artists encounter today.

The Encounter has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper and Dr Charlotte Bolland.