An envelope arrived from Grandma and Grandpa Snail, and inside I found a clutch of postcards! Grandma and Grandpa Snail recently visited The Frick museum in NYC. The postcards were from a show there of 17th century Dutch paintings, on loan from the Mauritshuis gallery at The Hague.
The painting appears in full, I didn’t crop it. But as you can probably tell, it’s not a standard postcard size. What I cropped was the white border. Museums often print their postcards with white borders, choosing to feature the artworks in full and needing to fill in the rest of the card space. I don’t buy these postcards, preferring ones where the art is cropped to fit the card. I understand the curatorial loyalty of presenting the work in full, but I find the “matting” more of a disservice than cropping.
Slick, perfect whiteness flattens images. For modern art, this can be suitable–that’s why contemporary art galleries and museums typically have such clean white walls and sharp lighting. But have you noticed that exhibits of older works tend to have more earthy colored walls and lower lighting?
Most art in the last 100 years was created by artificial light, often in whitewashed studios, and so galleries and museums present them in their natural habitat, so to speak. You wouldn’t get the full pop art effect looking at an Andy Warhol against a muted colored wall by the light of a chandelier.
The fact that masterpieces like Girl with a Pearl Earring were painted without artificial lighting is equally essential to their character. I’ve been told of an essay by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki called In Praise of Shadows.Originally published in 1933, the essay was inspired by the electrification of Tokyo, posing questions about the value of traditional Japanese aesthetics tied to shadow and subtlety. Japanese lacquerware, for instance, struck Tanizaki as garish under bright light, no longer just catching glints. Similarly, paintings from the 1600’s weren’t meant to be seen against a brightly lit white wall (or postcard background) because artists like Vermeer had no notion of such an aesthetic. The pearl earring doesn’t wink the same way when there’s even brighter white elsewhere. Vermeer painted such a dark background for a reason, and the border undermines that.
I learned from the Mauritshuis page on the piece that goldfinches were popular house pets because they could be trained to do things like draw their own drinking water with a tiny cup. The Dutch called them putterje, from the word putten, meaning to draw water from a well. Carel Fabritius painted The Goldfinch as a trompe-l’oeil to be hung high on the wall so it first appeared as an actual bird on a perch.
You may have noticed this piece is from the year the artist died. Fabritius was one of over a hundred killed in what is known as the Delft Thunderclap, a gunpowder storehouse explosion that destroyed much of the city.
Portrait of JacobOlycan 1625 Frans Hals (1582/83-1666)
29 years-old in this portrait, Jacob Olycan was a beer brewer and Haarlem political representative. He probably commissioned Frans Hals–the best portraitist in Haarlem if not in all Holland in the first half of the 17th century–to commemorate his wedding. Here’s his wife:Portrait of Aletta Hanemans 1625 Frans Hals (1582/83-1666)‘As the old sing, so pipe the young’c.1668-70 Jan Steen (1626-1679)
Jan Steen often illustrated proverbs. This one means a bad example has a bad outcome. Steen was not a moralist, however, but creating a joking scene. The child smoking a pipe and his elder brother playing the bagpipes is a play on the title. The grandmother is actually singing. The proverb appears on the sheet music she’s holding. I love this painting knowing Steen featured his own family!