I usually blog on this with a painting – Goya, Bruegel, Spitzweg (genius) and more. I was prompted today to look at Rembrandt’s** late work, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which, if you know the parable, is highly apposite for Lent. Wikipedia is good on this. Kenneth Clark called it “a picture which those who have seen the original in St. Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted” – a fairly high bar, I’d say.
Henri Nouwen had a more overtly human and religious take on it, expressed very poetically: “Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home”
We’ve all been there, and we will be again.
**The Knife is in awe of a few painters, Rembrandt is one of them: 1, 2, 3, 4
Thomas Cole was an American painter of the famous Hudson River School, though slightly bizarrely, he was actually born in Bolton, Lancashire. Famous and successful in his day, he did the obligatory Grand Tour to Italy in 1842, six years before he died at the age of 47. He had the requisite technical skills, certainly, but if you had to pin down what made him special, it was, I think, a sense of grandeur and otherworldly numinosity. A kind of large scale American version of Caspar David Friedrich, with a touch of the classicism and ethereal light that Turner and Claude Lorrain had mastered.
To a degree he is the victim of the kind of snobbery that relegates him to second tier status in the art world. If you were to dilute him down to the most basic elements, you might end up with someone like the gifted commercial sentimentalist, Thomas Kinkade.
In any event his Italian paintings are terrific, and here’s one of them:
I’m not sure where it’s held these days, but note that it’s almost contemporaneous with Cole’s work. Lear had a long life and spent about 5 decades travelling on and off, mainly in Europe, at a time when that was obviously a bit more arduous than today. Both paintings are magnificent.
Before them both though, in 1826, was Camille Corot, with a much simpler style, but the same magical effect:
You can of course still see this scene, at the Parco degli Acquedotti, only a few miles from the city centre. The Roman engineering of the Aqua Claudia and associated structures is astonishing, but the photographs can’t compete with painters.
To be honest, Bruegel turned out great landscape after great landscape. Coming as he did, from the Low Countries, one suspects that if he hadn’t made a long and arduous trip to Italy and back, over Alpine passes, from 1551 to 1555, then it might be that we’d still have lots of quirky peasants and scary devils, but zilch in the way of towering crags, dark forests and Alpine meadows. It would have been our loss.
So I’m recommending this one for a topical reason: it’s November and it’s deep into autumn. Try as we might in our modern times, unless we have free global travel and lots of time off, we can’t escape the seasons, for good or bad. Someone could write a modern day Georgics on this. The increasing use of strange devices like SAD lamps tells us that despite Christmas good cheer and all that, going into winter is still tough.
As an aside, on November days like today, with clear skies, skeletal beauty in the garden, and rich twilight, then a painting like Millais’ 1856 classic, Autumn Leaves actually makes the whole thing appealing.
Back to the master though. If you visit Vienna’s amazing Kunsthistorisches Museum, you can enter the Bruegel room and see some of the seasonal paintings (also Prague and New York). Everyone has seen Hunters in the Snow, and the summer ones are charming and fun, but it’s February (The Dark Day) and November (The Return of the Herd), that to me are the most evocative and genuinely powerful. Man toiling against a harsh nature, outwith the relatively settled calm of the snowbound landscape of the depths of winter.
By a strange coincidence, today’s Daily Mail, of all publications, had a fascinating piece on how the shepherds in a remote and very inaccessible part of Georgia, Tusheti, bring their sheep down from the high pastures (10,000 ft!) for the winter, via the thoroughly hair raising Abano Pass. Which is exactly what Bruegel’s peasants are doing with their cattle in this landscape, and the main reason why the painting has been identified with November. It’s incredible to realise that large swathes of rural Europe are essentially the same, culturally and economically, as they were 400 years ago.
Looking at the painting, as a study of structure it’s endlessly rewarding, with cunning obliques, horizontals, verticals and blocks of muted colours. As a Bruegel geek though, I have to say it’s in the specifics that I get the most pleasure. Looking at the two details below, there’s a classic barely visible Bruegel village with its identikit church, and buildings so dirty and muddy that they blend into the surroundings. The other shows a couple of late season boats on the river as it expands into the freezing estuary, with in the foreground an absolutely echt Bruegel motif – the gallows and the executed, rotting on the wheels high above the ground.
A stunning painting.
There’s even a song to go with it – Tom Waits, always reliable
I have an enduring soft spot for Dutch art in general, well beyond the big names. The second tier, like Hobbema, Avercamp and so on are not just technically gifted, but also supremely evocative of real life, only several hundred years ago. Taking your time to closely scrutinise their works is like entering a time machine. One could say the same for the Brabantine twins Bosch and Bruegel, except with those supreme masters their admittedly great landscapes are frequently in the context of the wackier end of the imagination. Not always though, as I detail here.
Back in 2010 there was a terrific exhibition at Holyrood Palace, featuring works from the Royal Collection, called Dutch Landscapes. No-one could even approach the scale and quality of the Royal Collection if starting from scratch today, not even Bill Gates. It is an amazing body of work, technically still in private hands. The original cover of the book that went with the exhibition, was a painting by Jan van der Heyden. He was a bit of a polymath, not least because he seems to have invented the fire engine. This painting of the Vliet, near Delft repays your attention. It is a classic of structure, technique and numerous small details – the flying birds, the bridge, the human activities. As with most of these Dutch Golden Age pictures, it seems like a good time and place to be alive, health/social circumstances permitting (see also 1950s USA, Habsburg Spain etc).
As a comparison, which in terms of the aesthetically pleasing rural idyll shows you what has been lost, here’s an up to date view of a scene from the same vicinity:
…and if you didn’t believe the fire engine thing, here’s JVDH’s sketch of his design. Quite an all rounder...
I guess I’m displaying a degree of ignorance in admitting that I’d always associated Edward Hopper – a real American original – only with airless city scenes, isolated buildings, lonely people and so on. Like this, in fact:
..and it is a work of genius, completely original. Hopper spent a lot of time In Cape Cod though, and he did produce terrific seascapes that are highly evocative of that frankly blessed portion of the planet. So, landscapes of a sort.
However, it was only a random spot on Twitter that alerted me to his other work in New England, and here it is. Lush, verdant magnificence, totally different in feel to his more famous stuff, but quite marvellous. This was nearly 20 years before the painting above.
It turns out that there is a book on this period in Hopper’s life, with this watercolour masterpiece on the cover. More weirdly, in a good way, is this blogger’s realisation that he lives in a Hopper painting. The picture above is the view from his driveway.
From a long but rewarding read by Daniel Johnson in the always interesting Standpoint magazine, considering the theme of Europe v the EU, through the lens of the life of Spanish intellectual Jose Ortega y Gasset:
Ortega died in Venice, the maritime republic that had once embraced Orient and Occident, and I cannot help wondering if this was a coincidence. Venice was the bulwark of Catholic Europe in defeating the Ottomans at Lepanto, together with the Papacy and the Habsburg Empire. La Serenissima symbolises grandeur and decadence, the metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky. Venice is the antithesis of Brussels, the Europe on which Ortega had turned his back.
Venice as the antithesis of Brussels is a great concept, and entirely in keeping with the flavour of those cities. Venice is the one you want to revisit, for sure.
Many painters have tackled Venice of course, Brussels not so much (though this, from the greatest Belgian of them all, is stupendous). Turner, the most brilliant of all British artists, did many, many such scenes, and the one I’ve chosen is not a favourite as such, just a good example of the prolific Turner’s stunning technical and creative facility. And it is indeed a metaphysical city suspended between land, sea and sky.
I’ve posted on this four times previously (1, 2, 3, 4), in part because it’s such an intriguing day. Bryan Appleyardtweeted 3 years ago: Easter Saturday, a catastrophic, hopeless day of no hope. Some say all Beckett’s work takes place on Easter Saturday. I guess that hopelessness is how it felt back then, around 1984 years ago. But if you’re a believer it’s different – you know what’s coming. This astoundingly good Mantegna painting sums up the Appleyard view…
……it looks to be all over. But the mysterious activities behind the scenes, so to speak, on this Saturday are Christ entering hell, as seen in this engraving, also by Mantegna. Note that Christ is trampling down the gates of hell, with the souls in limbo waiting expectantly through the open door…
..and you may ask what that’s all about? I went into the background to it here. It’s decribed in the Catechism as the “last stage of Jesus’ messianic mission”, to “preach even to the dead”. It’s produced some pretty flamboyant painting, such as this derivation of Rubens, Bosch and other Low Country painters…
Easter Saturday then is quite a day. The transient attempted secularising of Easter makes no difference to these awesome traditions and beliefs. Here is a fine blog post on the Limbo thing and its depiction, if you’re interested, and also a great study of the ‘Appleyardian’ view in painting.
** the title is from the famous and highly poetic sermon of Melito of Sardis: Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
I confess that I hadn’t heard of the Dutchman Carel Willink, and I owe my exposure to him to ace film critic, acquaintance of Russ Meyer, and all round arts maven, Anne Billson (whose extensive film database is a very witty and stimulating bargain on Amazon),
But if you like Giorgio de Chirico, Rene Magritte, Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Paul Delvaux, then you’ll like Willink. Technically very gifted and versatile – his portraiture is outstanding – he had the ability to produce startlingly evocative dreamscapes like the one in this post. The elegaic mood and unspoken history in them remind me of neighbouring Belgian Fernand Khnopff, albeit the style is very different. Khnopff was inspired by the unique gloomy atmosphere of Bruges (which is still there, despite the tourism), and his literary parallel is with fellow Belgian Georges Rodenbach, whose beautiful (and readable) Bruges-la-Morte is effectively a symbolist novel. In Willink’s work symbolism mingles with surrealism, classical landscape and technical precision. It’s an interesting observation that notwithstanding the Greek de Chirico, all this is very Nordeuropa, in a line that stems from the fantasy and improbable landscapes of Bosch, Bruegel and particularly Patinir, the most obscure of these three giants.
Nash is primarily famous for his brutal war art, such as The Menin Road, strangely elegant though that painting is. He was actually out there in Ypres, amidst the bombs, mud and carnage, ending up with an official war artist role. He became disillusioned quickly: “It is unspeakable, godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.”
He died in 1946. After WW1 he got into illustrating, often with a surreal, abstract or expressionist edge, and painted plenty of rural scenes, of which this is one. In WW2 he was back as an official artist for a while, and all of his work is of great quality. As you can see, Shell liked it so much (they commissioned it) that they continued to use it for a funky travel advert 37 years later. Anyway, the great man is currently the beneficiary of Tate Britain exhibition.
When you’ve built the tallest medieval fortified structure in Europe, for its time, you would expect it to tower over the landscape and the trees. The Chateau de Vincennes does exactly that in the last of the twelve month cycle. It’s still there today, though without the many smaller towers you see in the painting (and in the model below).
The chateau took a battering over the centuries, and housed a community of English nuns and the imprisoned Marquis de Sade, though not at the same time. It was further damaged by a rentamob once the French Revolution was well underway. The Duc de Berry’s interest in it is that he was born in the chateau, 676 years ago last week.
Vincennes was a heavily forested area near Paris – now part of the Parisian urban sprawl – and as you might expect, there was a lot of hunting, in this case a wild boar hunt, with dogs, a potentially risky business. Oddly enough, still no snow, that seemed to wait till after Christmas in medieval France, judging by the Tres Riches Heures. By this point in the series – about 1440 – the duke was dead, the Limbourg brothers were dead, and the probable artist was the Master of Shadows, which is a cool name, in real life Barthélemy d’Eyck, which is still not bad.