Janice Issitt                    Life and Style

travel, interiors, photography, home, crafts, personal style

10 Jan 2018

Talking Dutch Masters

Happy New Year and welcome to my first blog post of 2018.  You haven’t heard from me for a few weeks as my broadband was down and it took the provider three weeks to send an engineer, the trials of modern day living enforcing me to have a holiday from the computer. So the rusty wire is now fixed and the connection resumed. 

My time is also being taken up with some life changes, which I’m not going to jinx by talking about them here but will reveal as they happen.  I’ve been having a good long think about what I want to concentrate on right now, what with all the other distractions, and it’s photography.  You may have spotted that I’m heavily influenced by art in my home and my work and as such want to talk about a genre of painting that I am beginning to explore as an influence in my photographs. It is also a good way to approach a subject from a different angle and a way to concentrate my mind and style. I spoke before about joining with Gloom & Glow - an online course with Me & Orla and this work is a kind of spin-off from that. 

There is a period in history of painting known as the Dutch Golden Age, around the 1650’s the Netherlands produced countless masterpieces in every genre, but the  style that most of us know as the Dutch Masters, is that of the dark and brooding, with varying subjects matters but with the one main theme of catching the light.  

The study of how light falls and can be captured was mastered by names such as Rembrandt and Vermeer, with Rembrandt specialising in portraits showing a brutal honesty particularly in his own self portraits where vanity was sacrificed for reality.  Vermeer was especially interested in light as depicted in his most famous work ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’.  He also liked to feature windows as here he could depict the light shining through in many ways never before seen in painting. His painting ‘The Milkmaid’ depicts a woman standing under a window pouring milk and the table is spread with fabric and breads, this scene is about nothing but the light from that window. 

Another name who was fascinated with the interplay between darkness and illumination was Terbrugghen,  not such a household name due to his short career, but crucial in the development of Dutch painting none the less. His scenes were of people lit by candles or fire, and giving a sharp contrast of the light in the darkness.

My particular influence though, is Willem Kalf who worked in what was considered the lowliest form of painting - still life.  I personally am drawn to still life for no other reason than that I have no people to photograph.  Not having children to capture on a daily basis has led me to do very little portrait photography, although I do really enjoy the medium and would love to do more.  Anyway back to Kalf.  Well it seems to me that he was drawn to quite a set selection of opulent objects, presumably  chosen to give  him the opportunity to work on how light falls on glass, fruit, china, liquid and metal, as well as the folds of different textures of fabric.  But further investigation also reveals there is more to still life than just this. 

It’s a shame that masterworks created by women have been undiscovered until later, although Rachel Ruysch achieved international fame for her flower paintings, and here we can learn a lesson in colours, again the delicate interplay of light and dark, as well as another valuable lesson - that of styling. 
So why the Netherlands?  It’s thought that during this age, this was the most prosperous nation in Europe, led by trade, science and art. The Country having been freed from Catholic cultural traditions, meant that Dutch art had to reinvent itself entirely, with paintings of religious subjects declining very sharply.  There was also a hierarchy of genres, where history painting was at the highest but as these were the hardest to sell, the artists were forced to produce portraits or ‘genre scenes’ of everyday life, and these sold more easily.  In fact, the demand for smaller paintings in the lower categories led the Dutch to produce over a million paintings in just 20 years and this I think is important in what we have gained as a legacy.

Technically these artists were of a very high standard on all subject matters, but it’s the skill they displayed in still life that most interests me, and the way the objects are displayed also. Several types of subject were recognised, there were ‘banquet pieces’  and the much simpler ‘breakfast pieces’. Virtually all had a moralistic message, usually concerning the aspects of life and death.  Whilst a skull has an obvious meaning, the half peeled lemon is saying ‘life is like this, sweet in appearance but bitter to taste’.  'Flowers wilt and food decays, silver is no use to the soul', an early term for ‘you can’t take it with you’.  

Initially the subject matters were quite mundane but this developed through the century to include more and more expensive and exotic objects, and became a sub genre in it’s own right with Willem Kalf leading the change and Pieter Claesz staying with the simpler subjects.  In all these paintings colours are muted, with browns dominating.  Flower paintings formed another sub-group and the Dutch also became the world leaders in botanical and other scientific drawings, prints and book illustrations.  Interestingly too there was also a fundamental unreality in the flower arrangements seen in paintings, as it was not common to display flowers in the home unless it was individual blooms placed into a delftware tulip holder. 

With regard to the different arrangements of objects I’m fascinated with the choices they made and where possible like to include these objects myself, the pewter ware, jugs and tipped over vessels. 

Willem Claesz. Heda’s 'breakfast' pieces were stunning examples of still life, showing perfectly draped fabric, an assortment of fine glass and metal wares along with food. He achieved an unbelievable level of realism.  He began to include the crinkled napkin and knocked over vase, and later introduced more colour and fruit. 

Kalf’s work included a lot of small scale rustic interiors and still life. Being dominated with groups of vegetables, buckets, pots and pans, with figures only appearing blurred in the background. His work influenced the French painters, who would not have pictured these objects normally. It’s the objects that make his work instantly recognisable.  A damask cloth or tapestry is draped on the table, on which there is tableware in silver and gold and almost always, a chinese porcelain bowl with the fruits tumbling out of it. Again the symbolism is that of ‘vanitas’ - meaning ‘emptiness’ and refers to the Christian view of earthly life and the worthless nature of all earthly goods and pursuits. Oh dear, not very cheerful is it?  But I do love symbolism in art, and have a particular morbid fascination for objects that talk of death, like the Victorian jewellery containing hair of a deceased loved one ‘memento mori’.  Here the symbols speak of death and decay, remember that you have to die, consider the vanity of earthly life and be reminded of mortality.

There was, of course, also some good old Catholic guilt going on here, and the painters needed a justification for painting attractive objects, so the 'underlying message' being of life and death gave them an excuse.  The appearance of smoke, watches and hourglasses remind us of the brevity of life and musical instruments of the ephemeral nature, illustrating the time passing and slipping away.

So generally speaking, the painter was also a story teller, was trying to convey a important message, a reminder about our time on this earth.  In a similar way I believe that, although seen as less serious, our photographic diaries of simple objects are not only a technical practise in capturing the light as it falls, but a record of our lives and a meditation in appreciating the small things. Perhaps our instagram photos will one day be seen as a time capsule to every day life.

So if you are wondering what I’m up to, then in a nutshell this is it, you can follow my daily progress on Instagram, which will probably change along with the seasons, and I will be back here blogging very soon, much love and peace for 2018.
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