Tag Archives: Baroque

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.

El Greco’s ‘View of Toledo’

28 Apr

When I first saw this painting, I could not believe it was painted at around 1595-1610. because it’s so sharp, impulsive, dark and expressionistic; it’s so unlike any other painting of the time. Though the style of this painting is a striking resemblance to 20th century Expressionism, historically it is an example of Mannerism.

Alongside Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ and some of Turner’s and Monet’s landscapes, this painting is one of the best known depictions of the sky in Western art. This is not a typical landscape, it’s rather expressionistic for it shows the painter’s view of Toledo, a town he lived in most of his life, and not a faithful depiction of the town. Enigmatic symbolism of the painting could be connected to the mystic spirit the town was surrounded with those days. Also, isolated landscapes are rare in Spanish Renaissance and even Baroque paintings, thus making El Greco the first Spanish landscaper.

I am just so intrigued by this painting; the sky looks so powerful, so raw and so threatening while the buildings of Toledo look static, gloomy and solitary. Grey buildings are in contrast with the vivid green nature that exceeds in brown shades, even black in the background. Trees and bushes look so crooked and strange as if they are whispering a curse. I am writing a story set in an isolated castle (in England actually not Toledo haha) and this painting is my main inspiration for describing the nature.