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Exquisite National Gallery of Art exhibition – Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael

May 29, 2015
Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael Perseus and Andromeda, 1611 oil on canvas 180 × 150 cm (70 7/8 × 59 1/16 in.) framed: 209 × 178 cm (82 5/16 × 70 1/16 in.) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures, Gift of the Société des Amis du Louvre, 1982 Click on image to enlarge.

Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Perseus and Andromeda, 1611
oil on canvas: 180 × 150 cm (70 7/8 × 59 1/16 in.)
framed: 209 × 178 cm (82 5/16 × 70 1/16 in.)
Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures, Gift of the Société des Amis du Louvre, 1982
Click on image to enlarge.

The first monographic exhibition of the great Utrecht-based artist Joachim Wtewael opens at the National Gallery of Art on June 28, 2015 (through October 4). According to the museum’s press release:

Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638) includes nearly 50 of his finest paintings on canvas, copper, and panel, as well as selected drawings.  Ranging from portraits and moralizing biblical scenes to witty mythological compositions, these works underscore the artist’s reputation as a remarkable storyteller.

“Wtewael was one of the most important Dutch artists at the turn of the 17th century, but unlike some of his contemporaries—Hendrick Goltzius, Abraham Bloemaert, and Cornelis van Haarlem—Wtewael has not been the subject of a solo exhibition,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. “This exhibition sheds light on Wtewael’s artistic excellence, allowing him to reclaim his rightful place among the great masters of the Dutch Golden Age.”

The exhibition presents the artist’s finest works, selected by the curatorial team from the 100 or so known paintings and drawings in private and public collections in Europe and the United States. “Pleasure” and “piety” are constant motifs in these works, which were rendered from the imagination and from life—two approaches to Dutch painting at the time. The exhibition covers three galleries and is organized thematically.

Wtewael painted compelling portraits of family members and close associates, and his ability to capture the likeness and character of a sitter is exceptional. The exhibition opens with pendant portraits (both 1601) of Wtewael and his wife, Christina, on loan from the Centraal Museum Utrecht. In his Self-Portrait, Wtewael holds his paintbrushes, while a Latin motto on a wall plaque declares that he seeks “Not Glory, but Remembrance.” In her portrait, Christina points to her husband with one hand and holds a prayer book or Bible with the other; a coin scale on the nearby table alludes to her thrifty management of the household. Several other portraits are also on view in the first gallery, along with large-scale biblical and mythological scenes, including The Death of Procris (c. 1595–1600) from the Saint Louis Art Museum and Lot and His Daughters (c. 1597–1600) from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Joachim Antonisz Wtewael (Holland, Utrecht, 1566-1638) Holland, circa 1595 Paintings Oil on canvas 64 x 81 in. (162.56 x 205.74 cm); framed: 74 x 91 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. (187.96 x 233.05 x 8.89 cm); sight: 65 1/2 x 81 1/4 in. (166.37 x 206.38 cm) Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation through Dan Belin (M.81.53)

Joachim Antonisz Wtewael (Holland, Utrecht, 1566-1638)
Oil on canvas: 64 x 81 in. (162.56 x 205.74 cm); framed: 74 x 91 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. (187.96 x 233.05 x 8.89 cm)
Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation through Dan Belin (M.81.53)

Nearly one-third of Wtewael’s extant paintings are on copper, a smooth shiny support that yields intense luminosity. Popular in the late 16th and early 17th century, paintings on copper appealed to an elite clientele that valued their exquisite delicacy. Wtewael’s talent for executing these meticulous, miniature scenes was celebrated by both critics and patrons, including Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who owned one work by Wtewael, most likely The Golden Age (1605) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Among Wtewael’s wittiest mythologies are his depictions of Vulcan, god of fire, catching his wife Venus, goddess of love, and Mars, god of war, in bed and exposing their adulterous affair. Though a pious Calvinist, Wtewael depicted the lovers’ predicament on several copper sheets. In each of the three versions on view, Vulcan stands next to a lavish bed having just ensnared the couple in a bronze net, while several other gods look on. Small enough to be tucked away, these jewel-like works were kept private and brought out only for those who would appreciate the erotic subject.

Joachim Wtewael, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, 1601 Oil on copper: 20.8 x 15.7 cm Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis

Joachim Wtewael, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, 1601
Oil on copper: 20.8 x 15.7 cm
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis

Wtewael also made large narrative paintings that focus on a single figure, including the sensuous and evocative Perseus andAndromeda (1611) from the Louvre in Paris, and the remarkableMartyrdom of SaintSebastian (1600) from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.

Wtewael made many sophisticated variations of his own compositions, raising questions about his workshop practice. He may have made these versions for his own satisfaction rather than for the market, since a number of his paintings remained in his possession until his death.

Two versions of The Annunciation to the Shepherds (made in or about 1606), from the Rijksmuseum and Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, illustrate the passage from the gospel of Luke (2:8–14) in which shepherds, watching their flock by night, are visited by an angel who bears tidings of the birth of Christ. Subtle differences between the two compositions exist, but infrared reflectography made during the recent restoration of the Rijksmuseum picture reveal that the two paintings were initially nearly identical.

The exhibition concludes with a selection of Wtewael’s exquisite drawings. Among them is a series of four drawings related to a commission he received to paint 12 glass panels for the town hall of Woerden, west of Utrecht. The series depicts the early stages of the Dutch Revolt, a struggle for independence from Spain dating from 1568 to1648. The designs on view chronicle the events through the tribulations and triumphs of the Dutch Maiden, the allegorical personification of the Netherlands.

Joachim Wtewael (Netherlandish, Utrecht 1566–1638 Utrecht), The Golden Age, 1605 Oil on copper: 8 7/8 x 12 in. (22.5 x 30.5 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art Click on image to enlarge.

Joachim Wtewael (Netherlandish, Utrecht 1566–1638 Utrecht), The Golden Age, 1605
Oil on copper: 8 7/8 x 12 in. (22.5 x 30.5 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Click on image to enlarge.

About the Artist

Wtewael’s career began in his native Utrecht, where he studied with his father, a glass painter.  During an extended period of travel to Italy and France he became inspired by the school of Fontainebleau; Wtewael returned to Utrecht in about 1592 and quickly embraced the international mannerist style—one characterized by extreme refinement, artifice, and elegant distortion. Aside from his artistic career, Wtewael was a successful businessman who amassed great wealth from his flax business, as well as real estate and stock equities. An orthodox Calvinist, Wtewael was a loyal supporter of the House of Orange. He was active in local politics, serving on Utrecht’s city council, and was a founding member of the Utrecht artists’ guild in 1611.

Throughout his career, Wtewael remained one of the leading proponents of the international mannerist style. His inventive compositions, teeming with choreographed figures and saturated with pastels and acidic colors, retained their appeal even when most other early 17th-century Dutch artists shifted to a more naturalistic manner of painting. Nevertheless, Wtewael’s paintings were highly regarded during the Dutch Golden Age, but were largely neglected during later centuries. This exhibition reveals the full scope of Joachim Wtewael’s remarkable and fascinating artistic output.

Curators, Catalog, and Related Activities

Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., is the curator of the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art.  His fellow curators are Liesbeth M. Helmus, Centraal Museum Utrecht, and James Clifton, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, who is also director of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation. Anne W. Lowenthal, the foremost expert on Wtewael’s paintings, is the exhibition’s consulting scholar.

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