Monday, May 20, 2013

In Studio with Masters: Jan Davidsz. de Heem

Last week, I started an analysis of Matisse's still life after de Heem's "A table of desserts"; to be frank, I had imagined it would be one blog post, but the more I think about it, the more interesting things emerge, so I've decided to stay longer on this topic, to go into this analysis more deeply, because the contrast between these two paintings seems to touch some essential, fundamental  questions about painting, and life, and art, and time. 




Jan Davidsz. de Heem. Self-portrait. 24 x 19 cm.
Oil on panel. 1630-1650. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.
And so today, I am taking a step back from Matisse to tell you a bit more about Jan Davidsz. de Heem, or Johannes van Antwerpen (1606 – 1683/1684): as you will see shortly, this difference in names might reflect his life and work deeper than expected. This is his self-portrait on the left; to be more precise, Wikipedia now attributes it to the circle of Adriaen Brouwer, but the Rijksmuseum (where the painting is located) lists it as self-portrait, so I'll go with their attribution. By the way, the link above leads to a much better image on the museum website, which you are allowed to use for any personal purpose, including prints and modifications, but not to publish in any form (and since they are so generous otherwise, I abide by their conditions).


De Heem was born in Utrecht in 1606 (the same year as Rembrandt), studied painting in Utrecht and Leiden, then moved to Antwerp in the early thirties, but occasionally spent some periods of time back in Utrecht (in 1649 and between 1665 and 1672, according to the Rijksmuseum website). These dates and places might seem insignificant if you don't recall the historical context, the eighty-years war against the Spanish rule, which in effect split what used to be the cultural continuum of the Seventeen Provinces. This means that de Heem spent the formative years of his life in the Dutch Republic (officially recognized by Spain in 1609) and then moved to Antwerp, which used to be the capital of the Dutch revolt, but surrendered in 1585 (and all its Protestant population was forced to exile, fueling the Dutch Golden Age).  

Books and a Lute on a Table. c. 1628. 26.5 x 41.5 cm. Oil on wood
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (image courtesy of Pubhist.com)
Within the domain of painting, the newly established political split manifested itself as the split between the Dutch Golden Age painting (culminating in the work of Rembrandt) and the Flemish Baroque painting (culminating in the work of Rubens). If ever there was a palpable, visible split in Zeitgeist, this was it. The Zeitgeist is always better manifested in the work of masters, but not geniuses (who belong more to eternity than to their particular time), and de Heem was doubtlessly a master painter. What is particularly interesting about him is that his work transcends this split in the fabrique of time and culture; or rather, this split is present within him. 

A Richly Laid Table with Parrots
c. 1655. 150 x 116.2 cm. Oil on canvas
The austere still life above is from his Leiden years. Compare it with this one, from his Antwerp years, and the split is right there, in front of you. For better or for worse, this is how politics and art seem to have been in tune since the times of antiquity: liberal reformation, freedom brings in classical simplicity, and baroque exuberance is correlated with absolutism and suppression of freedom. What is the cause, what is the effect? -- who knows? Did de Heem move to Antwerp because he was, deep down, a baroque painter? Or did he turn into a baroque painter because he moved to Antwerp? Be it as it may, the still life Matisse chose to study and rework distinctly belongs to both traditions, both in its style and its set-up, as though an attempt to heal the wound. I will return to it next week, but for now: if you have ever thought that the classical still life is but a meaningless representation of what the painter sees in front of them, this contrast, I believe, must give you pause...
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