Petrus van Schendel – Reading by Candlelight

9 Dec

Petrus van Schendel, Reading by Candlelight, date unknown, c. 1840s-50s

I recently rediscovered the wonderful paintings of a Dutch-Belgian painter Petrus van Schendel. I say rediscovered because I remember seeing some of them before, and forgetting about them, but now my eye was truly ready to take in all their beauty and magic. Van Schendel specialised in nocturnal scenes lit by candles or lamps. A daylight scene wouldn’t provide him with an opportunity to paint such mesmerising effect of the candlelight, and in Van Schendel’s paintings the beauty of light is truly mesmerising. I really love his painting “Reading by Candlelight” painted c. 1840s or 1850s. The clear date isn’t given, by the lady’s hairstyle gives the time period away. The painting is a simple genre scene of a young girl reading a book at nighttime. The light of a single candle lightens the room and illuminates the space around her while the rest of the chamber descends into darkness. You can just feel the warmth and the coziness of that room.

The girl is seen from the profile and her face shows calmness, she doesn’t even know she is being watched. The way her head is painted and her clothes remind me of the girls from Vermeer’s, or even better Geritt ter Borch’s paintings, who are shown reading or writing a letter. But in those paintings the cold light of a grey day is falling on the girls, while here we have the light of a candle which colours this simple genre scene in warmth, dreaminess and mystery. Night is always more mysterious than day, and in the light of the flickering candle, which may extinguish at any moment, the contours of things fade away and things may seem different than they are, more enchanting or eerie. The vase full of vibrant flowers on the girl’s table is very pretty in shape and I love the detail of its shadow falling behind.

And another interesting thing is the faint, barely noticeable portrait of a bearded man on the wall above. Who is he? Her father, or perhaps old ancestor who had died. Regardless, his ghostly face is keeping an eye on the girl like a stern, yet protective father-figure. The whole scene oozes intimacy and warmth, as if we are watching into a private world of this girl without her even knowing it. The beauty of the candlelight as the main focus of the scene naturally brings to mind the French Baroque painter Georges de La Tour who is very famous for his chiaroscuro scenes where the candle is the only source of light. We are spoiled for light today and it is easy to forget just how precious the light was in the past ages when you couldn’t just press a light switch; when a candle burns out, the darkness rules again until the dawn’s faint light comes again.

One Response to “Petrus van Schendel – Reading by Candlelight”

  1. Siobhan 9th Dec 2020 at 5:04 pm #

    I’ve been enjoying the art you share in your posts…this is a beautiful painting to contemplate as we head into the dark of winter.

    Liked by 1 person

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