Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dutch Baroque (pt. 3)

Jan Steen, another Dutch painter, produced a prime, exemplary painting of the Protestant Genre painting style in his painting of St. Nicholas Day.  Genre paintings, remember, are scenes from everyday life; so this painting presents a kind of stage picture of a normal event which Dutch viewers of the painting would be familiar with.  "St. Nicholas Day" is Christmas.
In the painting, a Dutch family celebrates Christmas.  A woman on the right points to something outside the frame, perhaps St. Nicholas.  Another boy, who has evidently been naughty this year instead of nice, is unhappy for receiving a switch.  For those of you who don't know, a switch is what the parents used to do before they invented the "spanker"; you'd have to go outside and choose the branch or stick you would be reprimanded with.  Here it's in his shoe.  I was interested to see this tradition going so far back in history, because on Christmas morning my parents still put presents inside our shoes.  The little girl who takes center stage in the painting has emptied her shoe of all its presents and left it on the floor at the bottom.  The grandmother signaling the boy in back of the scene is either issuing him to come out and receive his punishment or else (it has been suggested) has some other gift to cheer up the poor lad.  Interestingly enough, the lines of the chair, the table, and the canopy point to the unhappy boy.  The long cake at the bottom left points to the center.  This painting carries what appears on first look a dizzying construct that causes our eye to look here and there to get the full picture of everything that's going on.
This is a typical Genre painting.  Like real life, the scene is muddled in some confusion, but the situations are not so out-of-the-ordinary that we can't see, with careful inspection, what is going on.  We can identify with easily-conveyed emotions: the girl is happy because she got a present; the boy is crying because he's going to be spanked; etc.  This is the beauty of everyday life that can be enjoyed and celebrated now that Lutheranism has provided a system for belief that allows all men to be saved, even common people and peasants.  Jan Steen seems to almost be suggesting that these people could be saints, they could be believers; and that this is the new face of "religious" art (even though there's nothing religious about it).  In Protestantism, normal people, too, are part of the body of Christ and "the Elect."  This, therefore, is a celebration of the lives of ordinary individuals, with a focus on the somewhat sentimental connections of family and communal affection.  Other than that, it's just a big mess of people all in the same room and probably being very loud.  (Is this what Christmas looks like at your house?  Some things never change, right?)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Dutch Baroque (pt. 2)

Franz Hals was a Dutch portrait painter who reflected the Dutch interest of secular, non-religious images in his artwork; he did not paint saints or biblical figures.  These portraits of "common people" and peasants became more common until the time of the American and French Revolution.  In his portrait paintings he added interest and emotion along with lifelike detail to make the image of an individual look as much like a candid photo as possible.  He used quick, dashing brush strokes to give his works a fresh, just-finished look.  His illusion is to catch an instantaneous expression of character.  His famous work of the Young Man and Woman in an Inn, painted in 1623, beautifully expresses this.  This dashing portrait here is called The Laughing Cavalier, painted in 1624.
This is fun to examine more closely as an optical illusion as well as simply a great painting.  The title can be deceptive.  Is the man really laughing or even smiling?  The ambitious moustache above his lips causes our eye to transfer the curvature of the line to the bottom lip, but if you have a thin pencil, cover the moustache, and look at the painting again you may see a different expression on his face than a smile.  But the cheekbones also have to be taken into account.  The way my teacher described her impression of it was that it is capturing the moment right before someone bursts into a smile or a laugh—you know that nasal noise one makes under a restrained giggle that precedes an open smile.  Hals' paintings often deal with specific human emotions and expressions like that; his interest is in people, everyday common people, not saints or religious figures.  This is the Protestant perspective.
Judith Leyster was also a famous Dutch portrait painter at the time.  Here is a Self-Portrait of her from 1635.
When Louvre officials cleaned a painting thought to be done by Franz Hals, they found the signature of Judith Leyster.  The misconception owes itself to the fact that Leyster's paintings are very similar to Hals'; in fact, she was friends with the artist.  She studied the techniques of many artists and allowed their styles to impact her own.  She implemented Caravaggio's dramatic use of light and dark.  She obviously took inspiration from Hals' portrait of human emotions and expressions as can be seen in such paintings as this famous one by her of the Young Flute Player.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dutch Baroque (pt. 1)

From the Catholic art of the South we will now transition to the Dutch Baroque art of the North.  It is important to remember that this is the same time period as El Greco, Velàzquez, and Caravaggio, but artists in the North did things differently because of religious distinction.  Flanders in the South was Catholic, while Holland in the North was Protestant after the Reformation.  So, what does Protestant art look like?
Protestant art is naturally going to flow out of Protestant theology.  John Calvin said that Nature and the whole world is the theater for God's glory.  Martin Luther had established the fallibility of the Roman Catholic Church's practice of selling indulgences for salvation.  Anybody, he argued, could be saved according to the promises in Scripture.  The Christian-faith Protestantism focused on a personal relationship with God.  No priest was required, no works, and certainly no money was required for a person's salvation but only the staple Lutheran "five solae": salvation was through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone through Scripture alone to the glory of God alone (sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, sola scriptura, soli Deo Gloria).  The anyman of Europe could be saved and brought into the Kingdom of God through Lutheranism; and, as Calvin said, all of Creation would act as the stage for this divine play of salvation.  This led the Dutch to paint differently than the Flemish and Italian Baroque painters.  The Dutch usually painted secular scenes, whereas the Catholics, as we saw, dealt heavily (and somewhat overbearingly) in religious topics.  In truth, religious paintings were going out of fashion during this time.  The secular scenes that Protestants of the North painted were of their comfortable homes and profitable businesses.  These are often called genre paintings, which are paintings of scenes from everyday life.  The transition is critical: we go from the lives of saints to the lives of ordinary people.  This is secular art.  And, by the way, the word "secular" today has come to earn some very negative connotations towards sinful worldliness or carnality; that is not the meaning of the word in this context.  By secular I mean that the paintings presented nonreligious scenes of contemporary, earthly, day-to-day normality.  Make sense?