Tag Archives: 17th Century

Jan Steen – The Lovesick Maiden

13 Dec

Today we’ll take a look at a very interesting painting from the Dutch Golden Age; “The Lovesick Maiden” by Jan Steen.

Jan Steen, The Lovesick Maiden, c. 1660

In a typical Dutch interior of the period, a pale young woman is suffering from a terrible illness, the one for which no cure has ever been found – love! She is situated in the middle of the canvas as if she was an actress playing a role on the stage. Tragedy is the genre. On her right side is her maid servant, on her left is a doctor dressed in unusual clothes. His hat in particular is strange, and look at the way the servant is eyeing him. He is checking the girl’s pulse. The setting is the girl’s bedroom, there is a bed in the background, in the left corner there are bed heaters and the girl’s appearance reveals an intimate setting; she is wearing her white linen night cap, and she only carelessly threw on her ermine trimmed little coat to keep her warm I guess, her rounded white bosom are peeking above her garish red corset. She is too in distressed to care for frivolous matters such as clothes! Too ill to care, and still too healthy she appears to be sitting there like that instead of lying in bed. And that doctor too looks too much like a comedy actor. That’s because he is a quack doctor. Next to the girl’s feet a little dog is sleeping. In the context of a love scene, a dog usually represents fidelity. What exactly is she faithful to here; to her unrequited love, or to her love sickness?

I can really imagine her thinking these thoughts from Bob Dylan’s song “Love Sick” as she is sitting there with her head on her hand, her leg raised up, her rosy cheeks and her furrowed brow, half-lamenting and half-sulking:

Did I hear someone tell a lie?
Did I hear someone’s distant cry?
I spoke like a child; you destroyed me with a smile
While I was sleeping

I’m sick of love but I’m in the thick of it
This kind of love I’m so sick of it….

I’m sick of love; I hear the clock tick
This kind of love; I’m love sick

Sometimes the silence can be like the thunder
Sometimes I feel like I’m being plowed under
Could you ever be true? I think of you
And I wonder

I’m sick of love; I wish I’d never met you
I’m sick of love; I’m trying to forget you

Just don’t know what to do
I’d give anything to be with you

Decades before this was painted, in 1610, the French physician Jacques Ferrard published a study of this “disease of the fantasy”, named “Of Lovesickness or Erotic Melancholy: A Scientific Discourse that teaches how to know the essence, causes, signs, and remedies of this disease of the fantasy“. Here he names the symptoms of this illness that this Jan Steen’s pale girl which also have: “Lovesickness gives rise to a pale and wan complexion, joined by a slow fever that modern practitioners call amorous fever, to palpitations of the heart, swelling of the face, depraved appetite, a sense of grief, sighing, causeless tears, insatiable hunger, raging thirst, fainting, oppressions, suffocations, insomnia, headaches, melancholy, epilepsy, madness, uterine fury, satyriasis, and other pernicious symptoms that are, for the most part, without mitigation or cure other than through the established medical remedies for love and erotic melancholy… These symptoms of disease have caused many to believe that love is a kind of poison that is generated within the body itself…” (quote found here.)

Jan Steen, Physician’s Visit, 1660

In this painting, a sculpture of Cupid in the shadowy upper left corner, above the doors which lead into the outdoors stands as a symbol of love that is tormenting her. This is however just one painting in a row; Jan Steen made an entire series of paintings that portray love as an illness and a doctor as a quack. It was a comedy genre beloved in his time and especially in his home town of Leiden because the Leiden University produced many fine doctors in the country. Here is another example that he made, the same year in fact, called “The Physician’s Visit”. In this example, the painting of Venus and Adonis on the wall tell us that Steen’s girl is suffering from lovesickness. The physician is feeling her pulse because that was a way of knowing whether the patient suffers from the “erotic melancholy”. The illness could also be detected through the urine, and we can see that the maid is holding an urine bottle. Also, the little boy in the left corner is a Cupid dressed in contemporary costume, ready to shot his arrow.

Apart from doing mischief, Cupid was especially fond of idleness and even in the Ancient times Ovid wrote how avoiding idleness makes you immune to Cupid’s arrows. During the Renaissance it was thought that idleness in fact triggers erotic melancholy. “In “L’Antidote d’amour”, Jean Aubery delineates the “particular dispositions” that make one susceptible to passion and thus to love-sickness. Chief among these are idleness, youth, luxury, and springtime. When all of these factors are present, passion is inevitable. Why are artisans and laborers exempt from erotic melancholy, even during springtime and even if they are young? Because, the author concludes, they know neither luxury nor idleness.” (Virginia Krause; “Idle Pursuits: Literature and Oisiveté in the French Renaissance”)

If Steen’s lovesick maidens had been doing their embroidery regularly or had other occupations, they might have avoided the trap of pining and yearning. All in all, these painting are comedies of love and everyday life and the possible buyer most likely had a good sense of humor.

Gerard ter Borch – Love Letters and Glistening Satin Gowns

2 Jul

In this post we’ll take a look at some pretty women dressed in splendid white gowns by a Dutch Baroque painter Gerard ter Borch.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Reading a Letter, 1660-62

Out of the darkness that lures in the background, a genre scene full of intrigues and turmoil arises. A table, two chairs and three figures hold a story. A pretty young lady is reading a letter, most likely a love letter. Her raised eyebrows and slightly parted pink lips reveal her thoughts and feelings; she’s surprised, confused, a bit saddened by the words of the letter. An older female figure dressed in a fur-lined dress is sitting at the table, above an unfinished letter, she’s resting her head on one hand, and holding a quill in the other. Her gaze tells us about the seriousness of the situation. Even the young long haired servant boy glances at her worryingly! Meanwhile, a little dog is sleeping on the other chair.

Let us take a moment to appreciate her gorgeous satin gown. It is painted so beautifully and so skilfully that it looks, to me, as if it was a ball gown woven from moonlight and dandelion seeds for a forest fairy and by some magical mistake it ended up in the wardrobe of a seventeenth century lady. By painting the dress so shining and white, Ter Borch not only emphasised the rich status of the lady wearing it, and showed the elegance and sophistication of the latest fashions, but he also used it as a dazzling contrast of light and darkness. The background and the other figures are painted in dark sombre tones, and the spotlight is on her, the lady reading a letter whose words and emotions will remain forever mysterious to us. In that splendid whiteness the woman looks like a fragrant white lily blooming in the darkness of her beautiful cage.

Gerard ter Borch, Lady at her Toilette, 1660

In “Lady at the Toilette”, we have a somewhat similar scene. Again a woman dressed in a gorgeous white satin gown with details in gold and blue takes the central position. Our eyes are on her, but where is she looking? Both her clothes and the interior signify her high status, and are surely more sophisticated than Vermeer’s are. The interior with a fireplace, Oriental carpet, a mirror, and candlesticks shows luxury. The mirror shows the woman’s profile, but it doesn’t quite make sense. A figure behind the woman is perhaps a maid helping her with her gown, or a seamstress taking a measure or putting finishing touches to the dress. There is a richly dressed servant boy again. A little dog is present as well, not sleeping this time, but stretching with curiosity on the chair.

Ter Borch always lets the long skirt touch the floor and stay there in movement, creating shadows and depths, and you can almost hear its rustle, imagine its softness and shine. With his emphasis on elegance and splendour, Ter Borch partly announced the art of the eighteenth century.

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter, 1655

And now a lady not reading a letter but writing one. Take a look at her pearl earring, and look how concentrated she looks, as if she doesn’t know we are gazing at her. And what is she writing, I am bursting with curiosity to find out!

These days, Jan Vermeer is perhaps the most well-known out of the genre-scene painters from the Dutch Golden Age of painting but Gerard ter Borch has painted his fair share of everyday people in everyday situations and he went even further than Vermeer and Jan Steen by adding the glamour and stylishness to everyday life; he transformed middle class ladies into belles of the ball. There is a simple reason why genre painting flourished in the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century: there was a free art market and painters weren’t restricted by the demands of the church as they were in the neighbouring Flanders or Southern Netherlands, then controlled by Spain. The artists naturally shifted their focus from the pompous religious subjects full of pathos and flair, which dominated the Spanish and Flemish Baroque, to humble beauties of everyday life. Genre-scenes were a popular option, but still lives and landscapes were common too. This shift seems all to natural to me, for, if a king or a court lady deserves to have her portrait painted, if she is worthy of being captured on canvas for eternity, why wouldn’t a middle-class lady from Utrecht or Amsterdam be a worthy subject for a painting?

Gerrit ter Borch, Messenger, 1650

Painting “The Messanger” is very interesting because the mood of mystery that lingers throughout Ter Borch’s paintings reaches its peak here. A lady in a shining white satin is reading a letter brought by a messenger merely a moment ago. But she turned her back on us, so not only are the words of a love letter concealed from us, so is her face expression. Is she smiling sweetly and trying to prevent herself from giggling, or is she standing in that dark room with a furrowed brow, trying to prevent tears from obscuring her vision, in case the messenger had brought sad news and is waiting for a quick reply. We will never know.

In all these paintings, Ter Borch presents us with a gentler, more intimate, softer side of Baroque; a world of silence and stillness, eloquent glances and glistening fabrics, letters being written and letters being read, letters full of secrets; a world we can relate to and which intrigues us. Jan Vermeer’s genre scenes have a similar mood, and the emphasis is, in both artists, on intimacy and silent drama that takes place behind closed doors.

Gerard ter Borch, An Officer Making His Bow to a Courtesan, 1660s

I decided to add the painting you see above just because of the ethereally beautiful white fabric. It looks so light and airy as it touches the floor. Also, I recently wrote a short post about Victorian photography where girls are dressed in splendid gowns and reside in chambers of silences and dreams, and looking at Gerard ter Borch’s paintings now reminds me of those photographs.

Also, I already wrote about Jan Vermeer’s similar genre scenes here.

Jan Vermeer: A World of Tranquillity and Silence

3 Jul

Dear readers, you’re about to enter a world of tranquillity, silence and mystery, the world of Jan Vermeer; the master of light and the master of colour blue, the artist loved by Marcel Proust, the artist forgotten for three long centuries and then rediscovered in the mid 19th century, and above all – a painter who gave beauty to everyday activities.

1658. Jan Vermeer van Delft - Girl reading a Letter at an Open Window Jan Vermeer van Delft, Girl reading a Letter at an Open Window, 1658

I was seduced by the silent beauty of this everyday scene. Day is slowly coming to an end. The last rays of sunlight are piercing through the window and bathing the room with a soft yellow hue. A girl is standing by the window, solemnly reading a love letter. Everything is so light, warm and tender. We can see her reflection in the window. The sunlight spilt its charms across her chamber and everything appears soft and luminous, as if Vermeer himself was dreaming of the warm Mediterranean colours; from her blonde ringlets, rosy cheeks and yellow dress, to the wall and the greenish-yellow curtain on the right. Looking at that soft transitions of colour, you can imagine the rapture Vermeer felt while painting it.

Writing a letter *oil on panel *39 x 29.5 cm *signed b.c.: GTB *ca. 1655

Gerrit ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter, 1655

On the other hand, the girl seems sombre and lost in her own thoughts. Her eyes are fixated on the letter, her lips closed together. She’s dressed in a fine yellow and black silk, her hair nicely arranged, and she’s surrounded by luxurious fabrics and a bowl of fruit. In this cosy bourgeois interior, this young woman is facing an inner turmoil. The letter is most certainly implying the beginning of a secret love affair, which would be a very risky move in the seventeenth century. Some art historians have implied that the painting shows a young married woman who is about to engage in an affair. There are some elements in the painting that prove this; firstly the letter, then the bowl of apples and peaches, and we know that Eve tempted Adam with an apple, and also the colour of her dress, yellow, was considered a colour of adulteresses and whores, along with crimson red of course.

1669-70. The Love Letter (Dutch De liefdesbrief) by Jan Vermeer

Jan Vermeer, The Love Letter (Dutch: De liefdesbrief), 1669-70

For example, in the 16th century, courtesans in Florence were required to wear a yellow veil, and ‘a letter from 1688‘ notes that ‘whole streets fill’d with Ladies, easily distinguish’d from others by their Habits, being dressed in red and yellow, with naked breasts and painted faces…‘* While I agree that the letter is a hint of a possible love affair, I don’t think this lady is a married one. In my view, she could be a daughter of a wealthy merchant or something similar, who just received a letter from a man her parents might not have had in mind as a possible husband for her. This lady in a yellow dress, reading a mysterious letter in a room brightened up by the gold sunset, feels isolated and trapped by social customs. The open window could symbolise her longing to get acquainted with the outside world. After all, freedom is the sweetest of all the gifts.

1660-62. Woman Reading a Letter - Gerard ter Borch

Gerard ter Borch, Woman Reading a Letter, 1660-62

I’ve chosen some other genre paintings by Vermeer (1632–1675) and Gerrit ter Borch (1617–1681) with similar subject; ladies writing or reading a love letter. Gerrit ter Borch’s Woman Writing a Letter (1655) is especially interesting because it possesses a certain delicacy. Just think about it, these ladies, with their porcelain white skin, their rustling silk dresses, pearl earrings and aloof smiles, have spent four centuries writing and reading the letters we’ll never be able to read. Their longings and inner turmoil hidden underneath an ice-cold blonde facade will forever stay a mystery, but the beauty of the moment that Vermeer and Borch have so delicately captured is here for everyone to enjoy.

1650s Gerrit ter Borch - Messenger (unknown), date unknwon to me

Gerrit ter Borch, Messenger (unknown),1650

I’ve been thinking lately that I lack variety on the blog, and, well, I decided to write about an artist that I’ve never written about before. Vermeer’s paintings that depict everyday scenes with subtle beauty somehow intrigued me and I hope you enjoyed this post.

***

*Williams, Gordon, Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature

Pierrot – A Rococo Invention

6 Dec

Pierrot; a figure pure and sad, a figure as lonely as the Moon above, a figure naive yet immensely trusting; trusting in the goodness of man, a figure always in the shadow of the showy and cheerful Harlequin, a figure destined for the eternal tranquility.

1888. Mardi gras (Pierrot et Arlequin) - Cezanne

I recently became intrigued by Pierrot, after watching the amazing three-part documentary ‘Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness‘ by Waldemar Januszczak. His documentaries always intrigue me to find out more about the subject, but this one also gave me a new vision of Rococo. If you’ve considered it light and kitschy, well, maybe you should think again. Part of Rococo is like that, but Rococo in general gave art much more than Boucher’s ladies in silk pink dresses. One of the Rococo inventions was Pierrot itself.

Pierrot or ‘The Sad Clown‘ is a stock character in Italian Commedia dell’Arte which originated in the late seventeenth century in the Italian troupe of players performing in Paris. Dressed in a loose white blouse with large buttons, wide white pantaloons, with a face also painted in white, Pierrot, with a sad face expression, is a startling contrast to cheerful and colourful Harlequin. Pierrot is sad because Colombine rejects him, and she rejects him over and over again because he is not as interesting or daring as Harlequin. Pierrot is vulnerable and sad just like a human. He is naive, often seen as a fool, but nevertheless trusting.

1718. Antoine Watteau - Gilles (or Pierrot) and Four Other Characters of the Commedia dell'arte

One of the first artists who was sympathetic towards poor Pierrot was Antoine Watteau. He portrayed him as a human; sad, vulnerable and played out, over and over again. How solitary Pierrot looks, always left out, always rejected. Even in the crowd, he stands out, dressed in loose satin garment, as white and fragile as it was made out of tears. Pierrot, although officially one of the actors, feels separate, lovelorn possibly. Even his clothes don’t fit properly; his sleeves are too long, they’re ruffled at the elbow because he has pulled them up, and his trousers are too short, exposing his ankles. His face radiates deep sadness, unease and innocence. Unlucky in love, unlucky in everything, Pierrot is presented as humanly as any character can be.

Watteau’s Pierrot is without a mask. He stares directly at the audience; knowing and disillusioned. He feels at unease due to his position; he was designated to be a sad clown for eternity, he did not chose that. Pierrot, in his discomfort and alienation, rebels against his position in the comedy, and in his position in the painting as well. Sad and beat, Pierrot represent the sad human and the impossibility of finding true happiness. Pierrot’s identity troubles him; he’s not sure who he is any more than we do.

1719. Antoine Watteau - Italian Actors

In Romanticism, for the Post-Revolutionary people, Pierrot was not a fool but a symbol of a tragical struggling to secure a place in a bourgeois world.  Pierrot was a reflection of all the sadness, melancholia, alienation and disappointment the modern man felt in those changing times. Romanticists embraced Pierrot so much that they considered him their own invention. All the artistic/cultural movements after also loved Pierrot and he was soon embraced as a symbol of the artist himself.

The Decadents turned him, like them selves, into a disciple of Schopenhauer, an opponent of women and a callow idealist. The Symbolists saw him as a fellow-sufferer, ‘crucified upon the rood of soulful sensitivity‘, his only friend the distant Moon which shines above, as sad and lonely as Pierrot himself, but at least the silvery moonbeams give him comfort.

The Modernists turned him into a Whistlerian subject for canvases, faithfully devoted to colour and line. From the first Watteau’s painting of Pierrot, this tragic figure became an alter-ego of the artist, specially of the alienating late nineteenth and early twentieth century artists. His physical isolation, his poignant lapses into mutism (the legacy of the great mime Deburau), his white and fragile garment, face painted in white suggesting not only innocence but death paleness, his constant longing for Columbine and her constant refusal, along with his unwordly naivete have all added to the myth of Pierrot. Much of those mythical characteristic are popular and recognisable even now. David Bowie epitomised the Pierrot for the song ‘Ashes to Ashes’; Pierrot’s popularity in modern times has not withered.

I dedicate these Shelley’s verses to Pierrot; a figure as lonely as the Moon…

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless
Among the stars that have a different birth, –
And ever changing, like a joyless eye
That finds no object worth its constancy?

If you want to see more of the paintings, photos, anything culturally or artistically related to the sad Pierrot, you can visit my Pinterest board ‘Pierrot‘ – http://uk.pinterest.com/byronsm/pierrot/

1857. Jean-Léon Gérôme - Duel after a Masked Ball1857. Jean-Léon Gérôme – Duel after a Masked Ball

1883. Pierrot With A White Pipe (Aman Jean) - Georges Seurat1883. Pierrot With A White Pipe (Aman Jean) – Georges Seurat

1889. Pierrot et le chat - Théophile Alexandre Steinlen1889. Pierrot et le chat – Théophile Alexandre Steinlen

1908. Maxfield Parrish - The Lantern-Bearers, Appeared as frontispiece of Collier's Weekly, December 10, 1910.1908. Maxfield Parrish – The Lantern-Bearers, Appeared as frontispiece of Collier’s Weekly, December 10, 1910.

1914. Vasilij Suhaev and Alexandre Yakovlev - Harlequin and Pierrot (Self-Portraits of and by Suhaev and A. Yakovlev)1914. Vasilij Suhaev and Alexandre Yakovlev – Harlequin and Pierrot (Self-Portraits of and by Suhaev and A. Yakovlev)

1921. Gris - Pierrot1921. Gris – Pierrot

 

1923. Ilustração Portuguesa cover by Melendez Pierrot1923. Ilustração Portuguesa cover by Melendez Pierrot

1923. Pierrot with guitar, Gino Severini1923. Pierrot with guitar, Gino Severini

1960. Duilio Barnabé - Pierrot1960. Duilio Barnabé – Pierrot