Thursday, September 3, 2015

Art of the Lowlands & Spain at the Louvre

Art of the Lowlands

The Louvre has many masterpieces of Dutch and Flemish art, but photographic conditions are very difficult in those galleries. Glazing and glare are the foremost problems: many works are covered by glass, and many galleries have improperly shielded skylights that make streaky reflections on the glass. Many small but important works from the early era of art history are shown in small dark rooms where it is hard to see the paintings, let alone photograph them. Many large paintings are hung well above eye-level. The little camera on my iPad was quite overwhelmed.

Early Netherlandish Art

Early Netherlandish painting coincides with the Early and High Italian Renaissance but is seen as an independent artistic culture, separate from the Renaissance humanism that characterised developments in Italy.

The northern painters' doctrine was built more on elements of recent Gothic tradition and less on the classical tradition prevalent in Italy.

Early Netherlandish paintings reveal the pursuit of a common goal—to make the painted image vividly present and to render the unseen palpable.

1400s—The Renaissance Period

In the early 1400s—the time of Fra Angelico and Andrea Mantegna in Italy—the Lowlands had Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden.

Jan van Eyck, c. 1390-1441
The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin, c. 1435
Photo by Dan L. Smith

Rogier van der Weyden, 1399-1464
Braque Family Triptych, 1450
In the time of Botticelli, there was Hans Memling.

Hans Memling, c. 1435-1494
Virgin and Child with Sts James and Dominic, c. 1490
In the time of Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, there were Quentin Metsys and Joos van Cleve.

Quentin Metsys, 1466-1530
The Virgin and Child, 1529
Joos van Cleve, c. 1485-c. 1541
Salvator Mundi, Savior of the World, 1500-1520

1500s—Mannerist period

During the Mannerist period in Italy, the time of Bronzino, in the Lowlands there was Marinus van Reymerswaele and Jan Massys.

Marinus van Reymerswaele, c. 1490-1566
Two Tax Collectors, c. 1540
Jan Massys, c. 1509-c. 1575
David and Bathsheba, 1562


During the Baroque period of Italian art—the time of Caravaggio and Guido Reni—art of the Lowlands reached its peak with Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Hals, Anthony van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Vermeer.

Peter Paul Rubens

This sort of dramatic and fleshy work is typical for Rubens.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640
The Death of Didon, c. 1638
It was unusual for Rubens to paint a landscape, but he could do anything.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640
Countryside with Ruins of Palatine in Rome
Mention should be made of a unique creation by Rubens that is difficult to appreciate and tends to be overlooked. This is a series of 24 monumental canvases, called the Marie de' Medici cycle, depicting key moments in the biography of the wife of Henry IV of France. Rubens and Marie must have worked together to come up with a scenario. What gave Marie such a sense of self-importance was that when Henry died, his son and successor was only eight years old, so she acted as his regent. Thus there are canvases depicting her birth, her education, her introduction to Henry IV, the Wedding, the Birth of their son, the consignment of the regency, her Coronation, and so forth.

It was simply unprecedented to aggrandize a woman's life in this way. Rubens' painting style was sufficiently grandiose to meet the demands of even the most egoistic patron, replete with allegory and glorification.  Both the concept and the execution are amazing. The canvases originally decorated the Luxembourg Palace, the Queen's residence. Now they have their own beautiful gallery at the Louvre.

The vertical canvases are about 13 feet tall while the horizontal canvases are about 37 feet wide.

The Consignment of the Regency
The Victory at Jülich
Louis XIII Comes of Age

Anthony van Dyck spent much of his career in England, working for royalty.

Anthony van Dyck, 1599-1641
Portrait of Charles Louis I and his Brother Robert, 1637

Frans Hals

Wealthy sitters had to look their best, but with musicians and gypsies Hals could create spontaneous and relaxed portraits.

Frans Hals, 1580-1666
The Gypsy Girl, c.1628
Frans Hals, 1580-1666
Buffoon with a Lute, 1626
Here's a formal portrait from the period by Pickenoy.

Pickenoy, 1590-1656 (attributed to)
Portait of a Woman aged 34, 1634
In contrast, here's an intimate and spontaneous look at an ideal musician from the same period by Gerrit van Honthorst.

Gerrit van Honthorst, 1590-1656
Woman Playing a Guitar, c. 1624
Landscape painting—depictions of real scenes, as opposed to imaginary settings—was more important in the Lowlands than in Italy, by far. One of its major practitioners was Salomon van Ruysdael.

Salomon van Ruysdael, 1602-1670
Golden Seascape, 1665

Rembrandt painted over ninety portraits of himself—a record—and the Louvre has several of these. It is quite moving to see his frank report of his maturing personality and his aging appearance, but most of the paintings were obscured by glare. This one is special because it shows Rembrandt bare-headed; he usually wore handsome headgear.

Rembrandt, 1606-1669
Self-portrait with Bare Head, 1633
The nude below shows Rembrandt's true genius. It depicts a standard story based on the Bible. The way it is generally shown, Bathsheba is taking a bath in her garden, with a couple of female attendants. She is espied by King David, who is captivated by her beauty. Learning she is the wife of a soldier who is away at war, he dispatches a messenger to make her a proposition. The treatment by Jan Massys discussed previously is typical. Rembrandt brings the story inside in order to make it more intimate than decorative. Instead of idealizing Bathsheba's figure, he paints a fairly realistic body, and still she is lovely. He introduces a psychological element that had never been shown so intimately. If you were actually propositioned by a king while your husband was away in a lengthy war with no means of communication, what would you do? Does she really have a choice?

Rembrandt, 1606-1669
Bathsheba at Her Bath, 1654

Landscapes with cows and horses were popular in the 1600s. Two artists who specialized in these were Albrecht Cuyp and Paulus Potter.

Albrecht Cuyp, 1620-1691
Landscape near Rhenen, c. 1655
Paulus Potter, 1625-1654
The Spotted Horse, 1653

Johannes Vermeer liked to paint lovely young women involved in some task or some train of thought; the light is always clear and serene. This example is very small, and a crowd of tourists hovers around it constantly.

Johannes Vermeer, 1632-1675
The Lacemaker, c. 1670
Conclusion of Art of the Lowlands

While art in Italy peaked during the 1400s and 1500s, in the Lowlands the 1600s produced the greatest number of masters.

Art of Spain

The Louvre has only a small collection of Spanish art, and they treat it like an extension of Italian art. Italian art fills a block-long gallery plus a couple of rooms along the side; at the end of the long gallery, and down a few steps, is a medium-size gallery with a dozen Spanish works. Happily, this gallery has fairly bright and even light.


El Greco

During the Mannerist period—the time of Bronzino in Italy and Jan Massys in the Lowlands—the greatest artist working in Spain was El Greco. You can see the influence of Mannerism in his elongation of form and heightening of drama.

El Greco, 1541-1614
Christ on the Cross Adored by Donors, c. 1590
El Greco, 1541-1614
St. Louis, King of France, with a Page, c. 1590


Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

During the 1600s—the Baroque period in Italy and the Golden Age of Dutch art—one of the most important, and most versatile, artists in Spain was Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

This sort of sweet and reverent painting is what he is best known for.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1618-1682
This next painting is a rare curiosity. Painted for a monastery early in his career, it is almost 6 feet tall and almost 15 feet wide. It is divided into two parts by a pair of graceful angels, apparently engaged in conversation as they enter. On the left is a friar in ecstasy, seemingly because, on the right, more angels and putti have taken over his kitchen tasks. I imagine a lot of over-worked housewives can identify with his elation. Behind him are his Father Superior, and two gentlemen, presumably the dinner guests. It's an amusing painting, but it demonstrates Murillo's amazing skill.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1618-1682
The Angels’ Kitchen, 1646


During the time of Panini in Italy, when major artists were no longer emerging in the Lowlands, an artist named Luis Meléndez was working in Spain. Although he was extremely talented, he is not usually considered among the big stars of Spanish art. Most of his work is still lifes, so I was delighted to see this excellent self-portrait from his student days.

Luis Meléndez, 1716-1780
Self-portrait Holding an Academic Study, 1746


Francisco de Goya

Painting was in a decline in Italy and the Lowlands in the 1800s, but Spain produced one of its greatest masters: Francisco de Goya. The museums of Madrid have managed to retain most of Goya's work. Here's is a minor example of his skill as a portrait artist.

Francisco de Goya, 1746-1828
Portrait of a Lady with a Fan, 1807

Conclusion of Spanish Art

This is only a tiny sample of the wealth of Spanish art, but it is enough to see that painting developed a little later in Spain than in Italy or the Lowlands, and it was still vital in the late 1700s and early 1800s.