Sunday, 6 August 2017

Low lands, high art.

You won't be surprised to read that I've visited the National Gallery many times (there are blogs on Delacroix, Chris Ofili, and Australian Impressionism to prove it) in recent years but I'd not descended into the bowels of the building for many a year. I'm sure last time I did there were just toilets and cloakrooms there but it seems like they've now opened up a series of new, far less busy, galleries down below for those who find their extensive collection does not, somehow, slake their thirst for great art.

I'd gone down there to see a small two room exhibition dedicated to the 17c northern European artists Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt Harmenszoon von Rijn. It would be a chance to compare and contrast two of the biggest names of that century's art world but there wasn't a lot of information available, we don't get to find out if they ever met for example, so any visitor would have to do a lot of the work for themselves.

Rubens was, by 29 years, the elder of the two and, to all intents and purposes, the more wordly wise of the pair. Rubens was born in 1577 in Siegen, then in the Holy Roman Empire and now part of North Rhine-Westphalia. As a young man he travelled in Italy, spent time in Antwerp, and carried out diplomatic missions to Paris and London on behalf of the Spanish Habsburg rulers. Rembrandt was born in 1606 in Leiden and died 63 years later in Amsterdam. In all that time he never once left the Dutch Republic.

You can see it in their art. Rubens' large allegorical paintings are imbued with bright colours, sunshine, and are often set outdoors. Rembrandt's work is more sombre, painted with a muted, often deathly, palette and, more often than not he sets his paintings either indoors or with virtually no recognisable background at all.

Rembrandt - Self-Portrait at the Age of 34 (1640)

They certainly make for odd bedfellows and there's an underlying suspicion that the National Gallery have mounted this exhibition just because they can, because they own all of these paintings. It's free to get in though so that's fair enough.

Dark and introspective Rembrandt may've been but he did not lack for confidence. His 1640 self-portrait borrowed the pose from Titian's Man with Quilted Sleeve from more than a century before, as if to say that he, Rembrandt, was the equal of any of the great Italian painters. Unlike Rubens he may not have visited Italy but he was very much aware of the work of the Italian masters.

He was also generous, if brutally honest, when painting the portraits of others. The Trips were a powerful merchant family from Dordrecht but Rembrandt didn't flatter Jacob Trip, his physical frailty rendered by delicate, almost impressionistic, brushstrokes. Trip's wife, Margareth de Geer is given the rare, and remarkable for a woman of the 17th century, honour of being painted in a frontal pose, perhaps revealing her to be the true power behind the Trip curtain.

Rembrandt - Portrait of Jacob Trip (c.1661)

Rembrandt - Portrait of Margareth de Geer, Wife of Jacob Trip (c.1661)

Rembrandt - The Woman Taken in Adultery (1644)

In 1644's The Woman Taken in Adultery Rembrandt devoted a good two-thirds of his canvas to blurry yet imposing architectural detail to create a sense of humanity being dwarfed both by the places they find themselves in as well as the emotional situations they find themselves in.

With the portrait of his younger (by 20 years) lover Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt is zooming in again. Stoffels had initially moved in to Rembrandt's house as a maid and nurse to Rembrandt's son Titus but that relationship got an upgrade fairly quickly. Hendrickje had to appear before the church council for 'living in sin' with Rembrandt and had to admit she had 'committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt the painter' which got her banned from receiving communion. A non-punishment for a non-crime if ever there was one.

Rembrandt - Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (1654-1656)

There's a perfectly understandable intimacy to Rembrandt's depiction of Stoffels that's completely, equally understandably, missing from Rubens' 1627 portrait of Ludovicus Nonnius. Love and lust are replaced with respect and admiration and rightly so, Nonnius was the one of the first ever physicians to recognise the importance of a healthy diet and, to highlight his greatness, Rubens has included (to the left of Nonnius) a bust of Hippocrates, the outstanding Greek physician often referred to as the 'Father of Modern Medicine'.

There are swans, magpies, sheep and all manner of flora and fauna in Rubens' A Shepherd with his Flock in a Woody Landscape. It lightens the tone of an otherwise shadowy exhibition but it serves more as a preamble to the first of Rubens' large historical/allegorical canvases. Minerva Protects Pax from Mars is a riot of colour, satyrs, and breast milk. It was presented to Charles I by Rubens when he was in London negotiating a peace treaty between England and Spain.

Rubens - Portrait of Ludovicus Nonnius (c.1627)

Rubens - A Shepherd with his Flock in a Woody Landscape (1615-1622)

Rubens - Minerva Protects Pax from Mars (Peace & War) (1629-1630)

Rembrandt - A Woman Bathing in a Stream (Hendrickje Stoffels?) (1654)

Even with the acknowledged influence of Rubens, Rembrandt, for the most part, kept things insular and personal. If it's not Hendrickje Stoffels tantalisingly lifting her smock to paddle in the shallows it's a very good likeness. It was painted the year that Stoffels gave birth to their daughter Cornelia.

Rembrandt never got to see Cornelia become an adult as fifteen years later he was dead, buried in an unknown grave in Amsterdam's Westerkerk. The self-portrait, below, was painted in the last year of his life and you can see in his face, a resignedness, a kind of world-weariness. It almost looks as if he felt it was time to go.

Rembrandt - Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669)

Rubens - Belshazzar's Feast (1636-1638)

Rembrandt - An Elderly Man as St Paul (c.1659)

The elderly man Rembrandt painted in the guise of St Paul looks equally tired, pensive to the point of exhaustion. It's a far cry from his painting, more than two decades earlier, of his wife Saskia von Uylenburgh (in the guise of Flora, the Roman goddess of spring, there was a huge taste at the time for rustic imagery and themes). Saskia's father was a top lawyer, burgomaster, and one of the founders of the University of Franeker, and an artist was seen as socially no match for her yet it was Rembrandt's family that refused to attend the wedding.

Three of their children (all of them except Titus) died soon after birth and Saskia herself succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of just 29. When Rembrandt fell in love with Stoffels he was unable to marry her because that would've meant sacrificing Saskia's inheritance, it'd been left to Titus but Rembrandt had been given permission to use it should he find himself in penury - which he did. In fact the straits he found himself in were so dire he sold Saskia's grave. Further tragedy struck Rembrandt when Stoffels, too, died prematurely. She was in her mid-thirties when she became one of the many thousands in Amsterdam to fall victim to the Black Death.

No wonder Rembrandt's paintings were so dark but when feeling sorry for him try to remember that between Saskia and Hendrickje he took another lover. Geertje Dircx was hired as a wetnurse for Titus but, true to form, became amorously involved with the painter. The relationship broke up acrimoniously and led to a lengthy court case for 'breach of promise' (a euphemism for seduction under the promise (unfulfilled) to marry) in which she claimed maintenance from Rembrandt. Rembrandt was none too happy about this and had her sent to a house of correction for unstable behaviour.

Rembrandt - Saskia von Uylenburgh in Arcadian Costume (1635)

Rubens - Samson and Delilah (1609-1610)

As Rembrandt's life, and work, became darker Rubens' work remained infused with the light of southern Europe. From Italy where he'd travelled, and been inspired by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto, to Madrid where he was based between 1628 and 1629. Like Rembrandt, though, he was fond of a younger woman. In 1630, at the age of 53 Rubens married Helene Fourment, the sixteen year old daughter of an Antwerp silk merchant. His first wife, Isabella Brant - a mere fourteen years his junior, had died four years earlier.

Rubens painted portraits of Fourment but there's none in this show. Instead we have Belshazzar's Feast which tells the story, from the Old Testament's Book of Daniel, of God writing 'God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting' in Hebrew thus prophesying the downfall of Belshazzar, the co-regent of Babylon who died when Babylon fell to the Persians in 539BC.

Samson and Delilah is better still. The skilful use of chiaroscuro nods to a knowledge of Rubens' near contemporary Caravaggio and, perhaps, of the geographically closer Utrecht Caravaggists. Samson, a Hebrew fighting against the Philistines, has fallen in love with Delilah who has been bribed by said Philistines. He's fallen asleep on Delilah's lap and, having told her the secret of his strength, his uncut hair, she oversees a young man taking the scissors to it. The room is mostly lit by a candle held by an old woman to Delilah's left which casts the Philistine soldiers to the right of the painting into a semi-darkness Rembrandt would've approved of. The painting is rich, almost too rich, with symbolism. Witness the statue of Cupid with his mouth, rather than his eyes, bound, and the hair snipper crossing his hands in a sign of betrayal.

One historical theme Rubens turned to time and again was The Judgement of Paris. The fleshy buttocks of the goddesses have surely done more than anything else to bequeath us the adjective Rubenesque. It's a celebration of earthy carnality for sure but Rubens seems to enjoy having it both ways, using the picture as some kind of morality tale as well. Paris judges a beauty contest but after being unable to decide which of the three goddesses was the most beautiful clothed decides they'll need to strip off to convince him further, yeah - right! This makes randy old Paris choose Venus because of her more overt sexuality and, in choosing sexiness over true beauty, somehow, confusingly, becomes a factor in the start of the Trojan War. The story's confusing, and many different versions are told obfuscating it further, but the painting is accomplished, iconic, and luxuriously devoted to the pleasures of both paint and human flesh.

You can see why Rubens was such a big hitter at the time but, to our more modern eyes and sensibilities, it's easy to understand why we now place more stock in Rembrandt's intense gaze and almost psychological profiling of his sitters. Two artists that are really quite different but genuinely, to the credit of the curators, complement each other. I came away with a better understanding, and a deeper appreciation, of both of them.

Rubens - The Judgement of Paris (1632-1635)

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