Hidden delights:
small animals in 17th C Dutch paintings

Elias van den broek, detail of Still Life with Roses (1670 – 1708)
Rijksmuseum (click to zoom right in on the museum’s website)

The 17th century saw a keen interest in science and naturalism and empirical research of the natural sciences became hugely popular. One of the achievements of the period was the exploration of microbial life by Anthonie van Leeuwenhoek, a lensmaker, who was the first to observe single-celled organisms and bacteria which he called dierkens, diertgens or diertjes  (small animals) using the first microscope. The Dutch 17th century was also one of the great eras of horticulture (tulipmania being an interesting side effect) and botanical gardens were systematically studied. Still life and flower painters then translated all this excitement onto linen, copper and wood panel (mostly wood panel). Some painters included insects and other small animals – nearly everything that could crawl, slither or flutter in seemingly one big celebration of nature.

Snails, bugs, grasshoppers, snails, spiders, butterflies were beautifully painted in amazing detail and often would hide behind leaves and flowers, in plain sight on ledges or flying.

Rachel Ruysch 1665-1750 (portrait by Godfried Schalcken)
and her Vase with Flowers, 1700 (Mauritshuis, The Hague
(click to zoom right in on the museum’s website)

Bumblebee in Rachel Ruysch’s Vase with Flowers, 1700 (Mauritshuis, The Hague)

Painters
Of the many who included small animals, Rachel Ruysch (1665-1750, the most successful female painter of the Dutch Golden Age) was one painter who represented them to great effect (see pictures above). Her father was a professor of anatomy and botany and drawing his collection of animal skeletons and mineral and botany samples from a young age was an invaluable opportunity to hone her skills. Otto Marseus van Schrieck (1613-1678) was another painter of small animals with his own unique style: his ‘forest floors’, which are effectively studies of flora and fauna, show insects, spiders, amphibians and reptiles. He was known to keep lizards and snakes as pets for his paintings and was called the snuffelaer: always hunting for inspiration in the garden (Seelig 2017).

Otto Marseus van Schrieck, Plants and Insects (1665)
Mauritshuis (click the link to zoom right in on the museum’s website)

Why??
Why were animals included in 17th century Dutch paintings? Debate goes on today. It is often said that they could be an expression of the memento mori concept: sober arrangements of objects chosen to remind viewers of the brevity of life. Flies were signs of decay. Snails could be used as symbols of resurrection, purity and our own mortality: they were long seen as an image of the Virgin Birth as people couldn’t comprehend how they could possibly reproduce with their thick calcium carbonate shell (George Wigmore).

No doubt some paintings would refer to the brevity of life, like the vanitas paintings of the time. However, it makes sense that animals could also be used as compositional elements: to counteract the large forms of flowers, to lead the eye into a certain direction, to balance bright flower colours with earthy tones.

But how about just a simple delight in painting something else than flowers and plants? An interest in the subject (e.g., Rachel Ruysch)? Injecting some playfulness? Hiding spiders behind leaves as little surprises for the viewer? Taking delight in the beautiful and delicate iridescence of a damselfly? Having painted a few flower pieces myself now, it’s great fun to paint little legs or a beautiful butterfly wing (espcially after a marathon of 15+ tulips!) and it’s a lovely idea to include a surprise. I’m convinced that 17th century painters just wanted to have some fun at times.

 

References / further reading:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Ruysch
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Otto_Marseus_van_Schrieck
Seelig, G (2017). Medusa’s Menagerie: Otto Marseus van Schrieck and the Scholars.
George Wigmore, Snails in art and the art of snails (blog) https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2012/10/11/snails-in-art-and-the-art-of-snails/

 

Doe je schaatsen aan!

(Put your skates on!)

Skating in Holland

     Winter Landscape with Ice Skaters (circa 1608)

Hendrick Avercamp
Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

 

Skating in Holland – Hendrick Avercamp was one of many to paint the Dutch winter and the young Dutch Republic’s obsession with skating on so-called ‘natuurijs’: frozen lakes, canals and rivers. We still love skating on natuurijs and we go into a frenzy if there is even a small hint of a severe frost as this might mean that we could be looking forward to the Great Race: the Elfstedentocht.

 

Elfstedentocht (Eleven Cities Tour)

Friesland, one of the northern Dutch provinces, is home to many canals and lakes linking cities and villages. In particularly cold winters the ice grows 15cm and is considered strong enough to kick off a long-distance skating competition along the eleven oldest cities and villages linked by water: Leeuwarden, Sneek, IJlst, Sloten, Stavoren, Hindeloopen, Workum, Bolsward, Harlingen, Franeker, Dokkum, then returning to Leeuwarden, a distance of 200 km. First thought to have been completed in 1670 (Wikipedia), the Elfstedentocht is an endurance race with plenty of frozen eyeballs and fingers. The race of 1963 is known as “The hell of ’63”, where only 69 of the 10,000 participants were able to finish the race due to the extremely low temperatures of -18 °C, powder snow and a harsh eastern wind (Wikipedia).

Skating in Holland
Skating in Holland: The Elfstedentocht of 1954 – click to see the video.
Wikimedia Commons

 

Plummeting temperatures will hold the nation on the edge of their seat for days, while the Heads of District measure the thickness of the ice. The Dutch then get into a near-frenzy when the go-ahead is announced and the race is started within 48 hours. I remember the winters of 1985 and 1986 – it was a wonderful temporary national insanity.

Only held 15 times in the 20th century, the last Elfstedentocht was 24 years ago. We’re due for one!

 

www.dutchoils.com

Portrait of a Man (assumed to be a self portrait), 1433. National Gallery London

Jan van Eyck was born in Maaseik, a town in east Belgium, around 1390. He painted for John III the Pitiless, then-ruler of Holland and Hainaut in The Hague, and moved to Lille to work at the court of  Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He then moved to Bruges where he worked until his death in 1441 (Wikipedia). Bruges especially was an economically important and rich region in the 15th century due to its strategic location, patronages and trade; I particularly love seeing the clothing of fashionable 15th century Bruges in Jan van Eyck’s paintings – this is a portrait of his wife:

Portrait of Margaret van Eyck, 1439. Groeningemuseum, Bruges

Brugge (Bruges). Not much has changed

Jan the 15th century giant

Jan van Eyck painted during the Early Renaissance. He was a true innovator and pioneer, making his mark using the new medium of oil paint, and basically kicking off the Northern Renaissance with a new style: objects and figures were painted to look more realistic and three-dimensional and were set within a more convincing space than was seen before this time. His work is of such importance that it has influenced painters throughout the centuries that followed.

Jan van Eyk’s paintings are known for their incredible detail and use of colour. The paintings have a remarkable freshness, even today, which is mind-blowing given these pieces are 600 years old. His painting, in my view, has never been surpassed. The use of colour, bright and at the same time subdued, and the expression of texture, naturalism and realism are nothing short of miraculous.

Also remarkable for the 15th century, was that he painted not only religious paintings but also secular portraits – most painters still exclusively painted for the Church. He was able to do this as his patrons made sure he was financially secure.

Masterpieces

Around twenty paintings attributed to Jan van Eyck have survived. Among these masterpieces are The Arnolfini Portrait in the National Gallery, London and the Ghent Altarpiece (or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb; Wikipedia). All are incredible when seen close-up. The restoration of the altarpiece was completed in 2019 and the focal point, the face of the Lamb, turned out quite different: it appears that its face had been overpainted in the 16th century. Now the painting has been brought back to its original state, the face of the lamb has an intense gaze and looks fairly ridiculous: see below.

Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432. Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent

Ghent Altarpiece, detail. Left: before the restoration

Jan van Eyck died in 1441; a statue of him and his brother (who painted as well) can be seen in Maaseik’s tree-lined marketplace. I must say that there are a few lovely cafes around that square.If you’d like to learn more about the Portrait of a Man and the Arnolfini Portrait, have a look at these great short videos by the National Gallery:
Portrait of a Man: https://youtu.be/VMJK1EDG2X8 (8 minutes)
Arnolfini Portrait: https://youtu.be/wM6d9BOj4Ww (4 minutes)
References and further reading:
National Gallery, London
Wikipedia
The Met Museum
Van Eyck’s techniques: underdrawing, and  use of red paint

Lapis Lazuli

Throughout history, lapis lazuli and the blue pigment that is extracted from it have have occupied a special place in the fine and decorative arts: an expensive, semi-precious stone that for centuries was exclusively sourced fron the rather inaccessible mountains of Badakhshan (today’s Afghanistan). Brought to Europe through the main trading port of Venice, the extracted pigment was known to Europeans as ultramarine (from ‘beyond the sea’). Ultramarine was the most expensive pigment on artists palettes, and long reserved for special passages in a painting such as Mary’s robes.


The Anunciation (1435)
Fra Angelico, Prado Madrid

 

Ultramarine, intensely blue and fine, had no equal as a pigment. When they couldn’t afford this paint, artists used alternatives such as smalt: cobalt-containing ground glass which was a by-product from the ceramics industry. However, smalt was very transparent, coarse and could be prone to fading. Another alternative was copper ore mined in northern Europe, from which azurite (a copper carbonate) was extracted. The best grade azurite was obtained from the largest particles, however this meant that the paint was coarse. The supreme ultramarine was therefore viewed as an extremely luxurious choice and would take paintings to an entirely different level.
The cost of ultramarine was not only due to the cost of mining and transportation into Europe, but also due to a laborious and precise production process by specialised manufacturers, before it was bought by artists. ‘Raw’ lapis lazuli was first separated from other minerals (calcite, quartz and pyrite) by crushing the stones, followed by grinding this to a fine powder and mixing with a paste of wax, pine resin and linseed oil. The resulting waxy dough was kneaded in a lye solution (typically potassim hydroxide) which caused the ultramarine particles to settle in the alkaline water. The first extraction yielded the finest and purest grade of azurite. Subsequent ‘washes’ caused the unwanted minerals to enter the solution, resulting in a less pure azurite. The last and least pure extract was known as ultramarine ash which had a grey colour. Artists did use all grades; some contemporary paint mix recipes mention ‘ash’, for example in Beurs’s “De groote waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert” published in 1692. The price of good quality ultramarine comes to no surprise when it comprises less than 1% of the weight of the original material. Ultramarine was therefore by far the most expensive pigment on the palette of Medieval, Renaissance and post-Renaissance painters.

Left: for centuries lapis lazuli was exclusively sourced from Badakhshan.
Right: Lapis lazuli in its natural state (Wikipedia).

Some painters fully exploited this luxury status of ultamarine. Willem van Aelst (1627-1683), one of the most influential painters of the Dutch Golden Age, had many wealthy patrons and customers. Knowing the value and perceived value of fine ultramarine, he used it to paint significant areas of his paintings and even the preparatory layers of the painting which would be overpainted (underpainting). This approach ensured a huge intrinsic value that would be understood and appreciated by a wealthy 17th century audience.

Hunting still life with a velvet bag on a marble ledge (1665)
Willem van Aelst

Fine ultramarine, sourced from Afghanistan, is also part of my own palette. Still expensive today, it is a truly amazing colour. Next time you see one of my paintings, look out for this beautiful blue!

References and continued reading:
Still Lifes: Techniques and Style. A Wallert (ed.) Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 1999.
Elegance and Refinement, the still-life paintings of Willem van Aelst. T. Paul et al., 2012.
De groote waereld in ‘t kleen geschildert. W. Beurs, 1692.

On the Easel

Detail: Wood pigeon, in progress

Classical painting technique

Traditional pigments: raw and burnt umbers, lapis lazuli, lead white, bone black, Cassel earth, burnt sienna, malachite.

Wood pigeon by Tanja Moderscheim

My paint box:
Madder Lake

My paint box is one of my favourite things: I’ve managed to exclude any paint developed after 1700, so no cadmiums or synthetic ultramarine for me. I guess that makes me a purist – it’s interesting how you learn things about yourself after a number of decades. So, I have ended up with a palette containing colours 17th century Dutch painters had access to:

Lead white and chalk-containing lead white, lead-tin yellow, stil de grain/schietgeel, vermilion, madder lake, lapis lazuli, blue verditer/bice, smalt, malachite, raw and burnt siennas, raw and burnt umbers, Cassel earth and bone black.

These colours are from a variety of sources: man-made (such as Lead white, Smalt), mineral/deposit (such as Lapis lazuli, Malachite and earth colours) and organic (made from berries such as Stil de grain, or sourced from ancient peat-containing soil such as Cassel Earth). Madder Lake is organic in origin and produced from the root of the madder plant (Rubia tinctorum). It is a beautiful, deep ruby-red.

Use throughout history
Madder lake has been in use since antiquity, as a textile dye and as a paint. It was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb and as a paint was especially popular in 15th and 16th century Holland, where it was one of the few bright paints available to painters. Examples can be seen in paintings by for example El Greco, Velazquez and Vermeer. It had to be used with caution though as the purpurin pigment in this paint (rather than the pseudo-purpurin and alizarin), is prone to fading if not used in a careful way: exposure to excessive light was to be  avoided. This was achieved by using Madder lake as a glaze or as a thick layer in relatively dark areas of a painting – and definitely no heavy mixing with white. Using this approach, madder lake is fairly permanent.

As a transparent paint madder lake is ideal for glazing. It was traditionally paired with vermillion: brushed over this as an unbroken glaze results in a brilliant deepened red. Vermeer was known to use this technique, and we can see this today in his paintings Girl with a Red Hat, Girl with a Wine Glass and, famously,  Girl with a Pearl Earring where he used madder lake to paint those lips:

girl with a red hat vermeer

Girl with the Red Hat
Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665/1666
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Google Arts & Culture
girl with a wine glass vermeer
Girl with a wine glass
Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665/1666
Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum, 3Landesmuseen Braunschweig
Google Arts & Culture
girl with a pearl earring vermeer

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
Mauritshuis, The Netherlands

Further reading/references:
Colourlex
Artiscreation
Essentialvermeer
Wikipedia

The Dutch Tulip: heritage cultivars

From my garden:
Zilver Standaard
Dutch tulip, 1760

zilver standaard tulip 1760

 

One of the latest Dutch heritage tulips to surface in my garden is also one of my favourites: the Zilver Standaard, a Dutch tulip which hails from 1760. It is part of my heritage tulip collection spanning the 16th to the 19th centuries – all sourced from the friendly conservation team at the Hortus Bulborum in Limmen, Holland.

It is a relatively strong tulip; stronger than the earlier 17th century cultivars. It has a yellow base and white petals which show red flames. Some tulips have more red flames, some fewer, so there is quite a variety within the same cultivar. While very beautiful, this cultivar should not be confused with the flamed tulips of the 1600s, which only showed the famous and popular ‘broken’ colour due to a mosaic virus. This, unknown at the time, weakened the tulip plant and eventually pushed it to extinction.

Only one broken 17th century Dutch tulip cultivar remains today: the Zomerschoon (1620). This tulip appears to have developed tolerance. I was able to get hold of a few Zomerschoon bulbs last year – the buds are now showing and I’ll show you a photo when, after 4 years of waiting for this tulip, I can finally paint it.

See what’s on the easel this month!

One of my paintings on the easel this March is a fruit still life. This painting is all about grapes, the old way: using the techniques painters used in 1600’s Holland. I’m also using the pigments that were available to the 17th century Dutch painter, starting with umber and lead white.

On the easel by Tanja Moderscheim

Grapes (in progress). Traditional oils on poplar, 30x30cm

Cyprus umber and Lead white

Process

After preparing the wood panel, which was typically made of Baltic oak (I use poplar from Italy), 17th century painters would apply a layer of lead white followed by a toned layer. The toned layer typically included lead white and an earth pigment such as umber and often a little bone black, to create a warm grey ground to start painting from. Once this was dry they set up the composition, often in charcoal (although some painters started without a drawing). I have used ordinary pencil for this painting.

Underpainting: the first couple of layers were reserved for the monochrome underpainting, also called dead layer due to the ‘absence’ of colour. This was for example just an umber and lead white, although many painters (especially flower painters) completed the underpainting of each element in their design in its local colour, ending up with a jigsaw effect. The underpainting, which confirms aspects such as the composition and the value landscape, serves as a map for the subsequent colour layers. The underpainting was excecuted to varying levels of detail: some painters moved on to colour quite soon, some painters finished this layer in high detail.

And this is where this painting is now- after two layers, I’d like it to be even more detailed so I’ll use another session to achieve that. Once this is dry, I’ll move on to colour.