Choice Dutch Old Masters at Lempertz
UPDATED WITH SALE RESULTS – A handful of pictures coming to auction at Lempertz May could easily make the beginnings of a fine 17th century Dutch collection. Specifically, a classic winter skating scene by Hedrick Avercamp, a romanticized artist in his studio portrait/genre painting by Gerrit Dou and a rare still life by Jan Fris. The three are solid examples of each artist’s styles and capabilities, through none could be said to be a showy masterpiece (for those who go for that sort of thing). Additional works of interest include those by Philips Wouwerman, Simon de Vlieger, and Jan Van Der Heyden.
The Dou is rich in detail, and texture, texture, texture! The composition is a dramatic stage-like setting created by the framing arch, open drapery and array of items in the foreground; the memento mori of the putti on the column and the suspended cupid juxtaposed with the elderly artist; the wonderful contrast of textures including the sheen of the drapery, the worn and dented surface of the jug, the pearlescent shell interior, the book of prints, the feathers of the dead peacock, the plaster bust and the worn wooden table. The elderly artist is carefully articulated, his attire and face also a delightful study of textures. Pretty much everything you want in a really nice Dou.
Gerrit Dou was 36 years old when he produced the painting ‘Painter in his Studio’ in 1649. It shows and old man lost in concentration on his work. He is elegantly dressed in a grey cloak over a brown jacket, such as the scholars used to wear, together with a beret of red-brown velvet. Because of the position of the easel and canvas we are unable to see what the man is painting. It could be the objects laid out on the table in the forground, but these are directed at the viewer and therefore wouldn’t be seen in the same way by the painter.
The scene is set in a tall room, lit by a window on the left hand side. The falling light accentuates the head of the painter, which is reflected in the shiny surface of a bronze tankard, and a gopper-coloured, gathered curtain on the right. If the curtains were drawn, the scene would hidden, therefore giving the feeling of an excerpt on a theatre stage.
The painting is, in many ways, an unusual work by Gerrit Dou. Measuring 68 x 53 cm it belongs to the very few ‘large’ pictures from his hand. The composition on the other hand is less detailed than his other works. Where these are mostly very colourful, this work offers a finely graduated, particularly subtle colour palette built from various tones of brown, grey, gold and copper with white and dark blue lending contrast.
The key difference to the great part of Dou’s paintings lies in the fact that it is not a genre picture, and also not a self-portrait – of which Dou had produced many.
Eric Sluitjer and Ronni Baur have studied the iconography of this picture and have established that it depicts an allegory to the art of painting. In a self-referential way, Dou is displaying his interpretation of painting. At the age of 15 he entered Renbrandt’s workshop and worked in close proximity to him up until he left for Amsterdam in 1631. He lived his whole life in the same house in Leiden, and despite great success, he lived simply and never married. His life consisted only of painting, at which he worked with great diligence, patience and devotion. The same could also be said for the painter in this picture. The emergence of a work of the art of painting also begins with inspiration, represented here by the flying Putto, shooting his arrow. His job is the ‘imitatio’, the imitation of nature, for which the objects laid out in the forground stand. The great painter must also study art and poetry himself, here reflected in the arrangement of the plaster busts, the open books and the musical instruments.
Sluijter noted that Gerrit Dou deliberately chose the peacock here to demonstrate the competition between ‘natura’ and ‘pictura’, between nature and painting. Here it may also be read that in the representation of nature we are overcoming its transience. Whilst the colourful feathers of the peacock are preserved or frozen in painting, something which nature is incapable of doing, the peacock itself has already been subjected to its temporary fate.
It is also interesting to note that this animal, dominantly placed in the forground, has been a symbol of vanity since the Antiquity. According to Dou, vanity damages the painter, whereas patience should be one of its principles. This is represented by the illustration in the open book which shows the biblical characters of Tobit and Anna: patiently waiting for his son, Tobit tends to the fire whilst Anna has the endless task of spinnging wool.
At the time this work was painted, described by Ronni Baer as ‘one of his most beautiful’, Dou was of those painters, famous in all Europe, whose works were particularly in demand and expensive. He was said to be the founder of the so-called ‘Leidener fine painters’. At the age of 28 his patron, the historian and Mayor of Leiden, Jan Orler, named him as a painter, whose style should be imitated by all young painters. In fact, many artists of the following generations absorbed his precise painting style and his appealing ‘window pictures’ together with his typical representation of single motifs.
This is a really handsome work by a very obscure artist. Here’s the catalogue entry:
The entire oeuvre of the Amsterdam painter Jan Fris is not very extensive, therefore, signed and authentic works by his hand are quite rare. This painting from his mature period shows a so-called “Toebackje”, a still life with tobacco. Bergström classifies this theme as a Vanitas still life where painter and viewer were supposed to reflect the passage of all worldly things (I. Bergström: Dutch Still Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century, London, New York 1956, p. 154 ff.). Vanitas paintings guide the viewer to reflect and contemplate deeply the mazes of the world, the vain pursuit for power, fame and enjoyment, and confront him with his own mortality and and the vanishing of time (H.J. Raupe: Dutch Painting of the Seventeenth Century, Münster 2004).
On a tabletop the painter has distributed several objects, in the centre, a white clay pipe is prominently shown, its mouthpiece emitting a fine line of smoke. Next to it extinguishing pieces of coal in a broken clay vessel can be seen, while at the back an undamaged Raeren jug with the Amsterdam coat of arms is displayed. On the left is a deck of cards with the six-of-hearts at the front left. In a Vanitas painting, the cards represent the game that is not only a waste of time but also of money.
In a landscape in the evening that is coloured in a warm light by the sun, huntsmen rest at an inn to take some refreshments. The inn with the maid and her children represent genre-like elements, but the protagonists of this painting are the huntsmen whom Wouwerman depicts in different positions, showing them en face, from the side and from behind, whereby he does not forget to place his hallmark, the white horse, in the centre of the composition. But the most important figure within the figural composition is the horseman in the right centre shown from behind. He is painted in bright colours and is depicted isolated from the other figures, so that his refined silhouette stands out against the gloomy sky.
Birgit Schumacher dates this painting to the second half of the 1650s, when Philips Wouwerman was at the height of his career, developing an individual style and succeeding on the art market. Schumacher has characterised this period with terms like “sovereignity” and “elegant refinement.” In this painting, the elegant refinement can be seen in the brilliant palette, the artistic sovereignity in the bold invention of the central figure who turns his back towards the beholder.
The landscape shows a hunting party that is about to depart for a falconry. The huntsmen, servants, horses, and dogs have gathered in front of a castle, and Wouwerman depicts them in a rhythmical figural composition, leading the beholder from right to left, from the horseman depicted en face to the elegant pair that steps down the staircase of the castle. The warm light, the picturesque castle with its Neptune fountain or the lady with the parasol give the landscape a southern atmosphere characteristic for Wouwerman´s landscapes.
This painting has been dated to around 1665/1668 by Birgit Schumacher who assumes that it was once the pendant of a landscape depicting the return from the hunt (Schumacher 2006, no. A225). Wouwerman´s landscapes with hunting parties often did not show the hunt itself, but the departure, the rest during or the return from the hunt, allowing the artist to depict elegant hunters with their precious horses. There was a constant high demand for landscapes with such elegant and refined figural staffage and warm, brilliant colours. The Dutch society, becoming wealthy and powerful, adopted an aristocratic taste in the middle of the 17th century that Wouwerman perfectly fulfilled with such landscapes. To satisfy the high demand, Wouwerman had his workshop make copies of his landscapes. Of this painting, a few have survived, one being in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich.
The solemnity of the upper left hand of the painting with its open sky and scant clouds is offset and balanced by the near chaos of the lower right hand section with all manner of people and animals (and the triton bearing figure on that fountain) kicking about.
Part of the challenge of collecting Old Masters is issues of attribution and the painting above is an excellent example as the opening line of the catalogue entry notes: “This self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck was long considered to be an authentic work by the artist because of its high quality.” It’s a copy after a lost original. The painting is nonetheless arresting. The sitter’s left eye almost bores a hole through the viewer and treatment of the face brings the subject palpably to life. We may yet see this re-ascribed to Van Dyck.
This self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck was long considered to be an authentic work by the artist because of its high quality. Scholars like Gustav Glück, Wilhelm R. Valentiner, Ludwig Burchard und Erik Larssen have ascribed it to van Dyck. In fact, is a copy after a lost original.
The self-portrait depicts van Dyck with a golden chain, probably the one he received from Charles I. as a knight of the English kingdom. In an apparently spontaneous turn he looks at the beholder, holding his black coat elegantly in his right hand. The painting is of importance for the self representation of the artist as Van Dyck used the head for one of his rare etchings by his own hand. This etching again was altered by Jacob Neeffs after van Dyck´s death and was used for the frontispiece of an edition of the Iconographia, van Dycks collection of famous men of his time. Thus this portrait was to shape van Dyck´s posthumous image.
There’s a compelling mundane-ness to this coastal scene with this group of figures in the lower right corner in conversation (while the dog impatiently awaits his master). The sharp ess-curve in the shoreline that separates the two boats in the foreground is especially effective and helps animate the figure in the water (foreground, center). The large vessel under sail (center, right ) does not add any compositional strength to the picture (at least as viewed in digital form). The ambiguous articulation of the clouds, however, allows us to focus on the more crisply detailed foreground activity.
I like this painting for what it’s not – a celebration of Amsterdam through its architecture. Those sorts of paintings force one to look up as though on a walking tour of a city’s architecture. The buildings here are largely shielded by trees, offering only a peek at some details – doors, windows, chimney’s, caryatids and other embellishments.
One’s eye is forced to look at the foreground precisely because the remainder is obscured. Rather than bright red brick and gleaming whiteness, we have to confront the streets one has to traverse (and scrape from your feet before entering the house), the way the water meets the edges of the somewhat crumbled embankments and the grit of daily life.
Here the prosperous city is humanized. A child watches someone sweeping. The construction materials of the embankment on which they stand — brick and timber — are quietly articulated. Behind the two, other figures sit and talk. There is the palpable sense of everyday activities that could be happening now, if only for the telltale period attire. Compositionally the left to right diagonal of the trees, repeated by the cloud structure, forces our eye to this simple, pedestrian drama.
This final piece is a fascinating mystery. The carving is reasonably competent but it’s the composition that intrigues and begs for further study. How is it that all these elements including broken crockery and tumbled tankard and the two figures add up to an allegory of melancholy? Are these two Adam & Eve after the fall (in some very revised, post-frat house party way)? And who are all the tiny figures to the left of the female figure’s crossed legs? Throw into the mix some astrological symbols, the Golgotha-like mound on which the two figures rest and the blasted tree trunks. Perhaps this is making more of what might be a fairly pedestrian carving, but I love it. Any information readers have about the history and iconography that supports this being an allegory of melancholy would be very welcome.