Tag Archives: genre scene

Jacob Maris – Girls Blowing Bubbles

5 Apr

Jacob Maris, Two Girls, Daughters of the Artist, Blowing Bubbles, 1880, watercolour and black chalk

I recently discovered some watercolours by a Dutch painter Jacob Maris which instantly captivated me, and looking at Moris’s more representative paintings just further assured me in the opinion that these simple and delicate watercolours are the most beautiful works that Maris ever painted. Maris (1837-1899) is mainly remembered as a landscape painter, thus continuing the centuries long tradition of gloomy and atmospheric Dutch landscapes and seascapes with dark dramatic clouds looming over seaside villages and solitary windmills, reminiscent of the seventeenth century landscapes by Dutch masters such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan van Goyen. Along with his two younger brothers Matthijs and Willem, he belonged to the Hague School of painters which was inspired by the Realist tendencies of French art and the Barbizon School. Maris studied in Hague and Antwerp where he was a roommate with Lawrence Alma-Tadema for a brief time, lived in many different places in Europe and died in Karlovy Vary which is in modern Czechia, and of course he had a taste of Paris as well and lived there from 1866 to 1871, and married Catharina Hendrika Horn in 1867.

But these watercolours here are something completely different; firstly, a different medium. Watercolours make every motif, no matter how mundane, appear poetic, gentle and tinged with a bit of sweet melancholy. Being so watery and changeable, watercolours remind of me tears, of the moon’s unpredictability and quickly changing emotions. These playful and intimate genre scenes painted on small scale canvases are a stark contrast to Maris’s darker and larger scaled landscapes. In the painting “Two Girls Blowing Bubbles” we see Maris’s two daughters, probably Tine and Henriette, enjoying themselves. The older girl is blowing a bubble while the younger one is sitting and gazing in awe at her sister’s triumphant large bubble. Look how the bubble was painted, almost transparent, with just a few touches of pink and blue. A spontaneous moment from Maris’s home life captured in a scale of white and grey tones, perhaps similar to Whistler’s Harmonies and Symphonies. A colourful ceramic bowl in the centre of the painting is a little relief from all the greyness, and yet, even with these sombre colours Maris achieved liveliness and spontaneity, it doesn’t look dull and serious at all. But these were painting made for sale, despite their seemingly more intimate character. They weren’t painted just to portray his cozy family life. The thing that connects these genre scenes with the landscapes that he painted is that despite the difference in motifs, his aim was the same; to capture the atmosphere, the mood, which interest him more than the portrait itself. Perhaps that is why Maris often painted his figures seen from the back or from the profile, because he wasn’t that interested in the individual characteristics of the face. That also gives his shadowy figures of girls in white a mysterious vibe.

Jacob Maris, Two Girls, Daughters of the Artist at the Piano, 1880, watercolour

“Daughters of the Artist at the Piano” also shows an intimate moment from his family life. Again, his two daughters are shown enjoying a proper past time for a respectable young lady; piano playing. Well, we can assume they are playing it because in this watercolour they are just standing next to it. I love the contrast between the left side of the painting which is darker and the right side which is way lighter because the two girls are standing here, with their backs turned back to us they are showing off their soft feathery hair and matching blue ribbons. The older girl is touching a few piano keys while the younger one watches. Can you not hear music in the air? Do you not feel as if you are standing right behind them and observing them. For those of you who are not convinced in the superior beauty of watercolours, let me show you a similar motif by Maris but painted in the traditional oil on canvas technique. How much more delicate the watercolour looks? Like a poem on paper.

Jacob Maris, Girl at the Piano, 1879, oil on canvas

Jacob Maris, Daughter of Jacob Maris with Flowers in the Grass, 1878, watercolour and black chalk

The third and the last watercolour I’ve chosen for this post shows an idyll of a beautiful spring day; Maris’s daughter is sitting in the grass dressed in a pretty white dress and holding a little flower bouquet in her hands. Blue colour of her ribbon is echoed in the details of the bouquet, her little boots, and it’s also present here and there in the lush green grass. This watercolour truly brings the atmosphere of a lovely spring day; warm but not too warm like in the height of summer, mingled scent of many flowers hanging in the air, soft breeze which makes music in the treetops, bees buzzing somewhere in the distance, birds singing in trees. You can imagine stepping through that same grass and seeing the girl yourself, noticing the play of shadows on her dress, feeling the grass as it tickles your ankles, hearing the girl’s soft singing or rambling about her flowers. It’s more sketchy and shows the influence of Impressionism and the plein air technique on Maris, and it’s a very different approach to portraying landscape than he usually did. This painting makes it so easy to fall into a reverie, and it being spring, makes it even easier, and just look at this detail of her dress. I just love how the thin blades of grass and tiny yellow flowers are painted over her dress, and I love the stroke of lighter blue on her shoes. The scene is so airy and delicate and, to me, it brings to mind Debussy’s music.

Detail

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.