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Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

“Everyone knows that envy is usually aroused by the possession of goods which would be of no use to the person who is envious of them, and about the true nature of which he does not have the least idea.

Such is true envy – the envy that makes the subject pale before the image of a completeness closed upon itself … It is to this register of the eye as made desperate by the gaze that we must go if we are to grasp the taming, civilising and fascinating power of the function of the picture”

Jacques Lacan, from ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis’ ed. Macey,D. Penguin Books, London, 1994, page 116

For example Jan Van der Capelle’s: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. which I have mentioned before, another old friend in the National Gallery, London. I know nothing about boats, or water, or 17th century Holland and am not that keen to know more, so why can I happily sit in front of a painting of such things? Are we envious of these complete worlds that function quite well without us? In front of this painting recently I drew up a list of other possible reasons for sitting there:

· The pleasures of melancholy: it is a painting about boredom – ships becalmed waiting for wind – the only thing that moves are two birds to the right. Why is an image of boredom, not boring? It is carefully composed, low horizon, close tones, strong verticals and horizontals create an image of stasis.

· My feet hurt, there is a convenient bench in front of the painting.

· The illusion of depth is intrinsically pleasing? Although not mathematically derived there are clues to Albertian methodology, the left foreground boat lies on the diagonal that would check the tiles of a Renaissance pavement,

Leon Battista Alberti: ‘De Pictura and Elementa’ 1518, from 1435

the distance from top mast to horizon is similar to that of the bottom of the canvas to that same distant boundary; ie a symmetrical recession of ground plane below and boats above. As James Ellkins points out in his highly recommended book, ‘The Poetics of Perspective’ the creation of most fictive spaces owe little to true perspective, but van der Capelle has made a convincingly ordered static world, is that what makes it ‘lookable’?

· Do we have an instinctive appreciation of harmony? All paintings have to be balanced and we enjoy that harmony or balance in the arrangement of forms and colour. Are these harmonics permanent though, as in the Golden Section and Pythagorean harmonics, or are they culturally conditioned? Colour and tone very possibly, is the balance of form in a later Dutch artist (Mondrian) equivalent?

Piet Mondrian: ‘Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue’, 1935

· I have an hour to wait before my train home; one way or another paintings conquer time.

· We like stories, all paintings contain possibilities, what has happened, what is happening, what will happen next? (time again)

· Enjoying the skill of the maker must be part, but that skill also builds intellectual content. The curvature of the earth as seen on that painted horizon, the careful positioning of each object on a constructed surface, but a surface that equally and disquietingly, has it’s own sense of depth. Depth and distance in a crowded world, images of quietude, map making, exploration, colonisation, trade and narrative combine in an object about luxury, the past and the future (time again)

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London

· An image of quiet for an unquiet world.

· This room itself is quiet though, perhaps that is why I choose it. Few others bother with a room full of static, Dutch landscapes, the rest of the gallery is frantic with pleasure seekers.

· As those other rooms prove, looking at art is a communal activity, do we derive satisfaction from such a joint process? Perhaps we receive sustenance from those accumulated gazes, like the notion of a church as a prayer repository.

· This is a modern spiritual space, art as worship? Icons? Great God Culture? A thing that takes us from the dull here to the transcendent there? To the blue horizon in a satisfyingly complex manner?

· Historical interest and identification across the centuries. After a twenty minute wait on my train into London and ten minutes stuck on a tube station this afternoon, earlier problems with transport seem easy to appreciate. (time again)

· I see an old thing therefore, as Antiques Roadshow tells me, a thing of financial value so worthy of respect.

· Is there a parallel with fishing, another very popular activity that often involves no actual activity? Is looking at a painting an opportunity to:

“Turn off your mind relax and float down stream

It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,

It is shining, it is shining.”

As Lennon wrote in “Tomorrow Never Knows”

· Maybe it’s just showing off, demonstrating high status cultural knowledge. Is that sort of knowledge still high status? Wouldn’t it be better to know all about financial derivatives or the offside rule in football? (something I know  even less about than boats).

the-offside-rule

The key here is I think the term multi-layered, multiple layers of fictive space, multiple layers of narrative, multiple layers of paint in an image that is apparently undemanding. An image that slowly draws you into its depths. (time gentlemen please)

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London

Sitting in front of this painting, can we recognise a sense of freedom, a release from working to commission? This is, or so we are told in critiques of late Rubens’ landscapes, a painting made entirely for pleasure. It is certainly not one of Rubens’ machines, no muscular quantities of flesh and evident classical narrative.

“Man, why’s there so many dogs in all these paintings?”

“I don’t know, maybe the Brits liked dogs”

“Look there’s one with that man with the gun”

“And see in that one over there, the one with all the fat women, the dog under the tree, and there’s an ostrich!”

“Man, that’s not an ostrich”

“What’s it then?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not an ostrich”

“Maybe that dog will eat it”

“Maybe, then we won’t have to know what it’s called”

The panel is made from many odd sections (twenty apparently), some of the horizontal joins are increasingly obvious. Earlier explanations believed this unorthodoxy showed Rubens adding new parts to the painting as ideas occurred; a genuine development not an allotted task. Recent research (e.g. Christopher Brown: ‘Making and Meaning/ Rubens’ Landscapes’. National Gallery Publications. 1996)  thinks this unlikely. It would be difficult if not impossible to add, prime and work in sections of oil painting, the already worked paint would be disturbed at the very least. Adding sections of panel is not like, for example, Degas sticking on extra bits of paper to his drawings as he expanded an idea.

Edgar Degas: 'Woman Drying Herself', 1880's. pastel on several pieces of paper. 104 x 98 cm. National Gallery, London

The reason for all the small sections then? Rubens was paying for it himself, the artist went for the cheapest option, something knocked up from oddments in the panel makers shop: lots of bits.

But, to be honest, after looking for so long at this large painting in such a public place, I still think it is a public painting, made for this sort of reception. You could say that the strong brown washes (the Burnt Sienna like colour, probably Cassel Earth) over white lead underpaint in the foreground have the effect of lighting the trunk and fallen branches from underneath; like footlights on a stage.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London. Detail: The Foreground

I’m sure this has more to do with paint ageing, than a deliberate attempt to reinforce the artificiality of the painted world, far too Post-Modernist. Nonetheless, the fact that one could hold such a notion about the work, emphasises that it was an image made for public consumption.

Was there any other type in this period?  Van der Capelle (looked at in the last post), is often described as a ‘Sunday Painter’ in that, as a wealthy man (the family firm made money in the dye trade: carmine) he did not need to sell his work. Unlike for example Rubens, and like for example, Cezanne supported by his father’s money.

The Ground Plane

Van der Capelle’s paintings look very similar, but I hope my digressions on the ground plane recently showed that something else going on, some wish to follow a line of enquiry. There is none of that same sense of personal investigation about Het Steen, personal display perhaps but not personal discovery. Rubens is not finding anything that he had not known before, unlike Cezanne or possibly van der Capelle.

Look at the ground plane in Het Steen, unlike the van Der Capelle,

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

Rubens ground plane is entirely and deliberately solid, and for a reason. This is land that Rubens would like to us to believe generations of Rubens have traversed; there is certainly an ancient hill fort aspect to our viewpoint. It is also land, Rubens would like us to believe, generations of Rubens will traverse after him; in fact it was sold not long after his death.

“Eurgh, my feet hurt”

“We should really report in”

“What time is the meet?”

“Now”

“Moving on then?”

Timelessness and Pictorial Space

Another question: How does an artist go about creating this sense of timelessness in a scene which, through the contemporary dress of the carter and companion and hunter, is clearly set in 1636?

Answer: the deep pictorial space and elevated viewing point help a great deal. Think of a different painting, Rubens: ‘Samson and Delilah’, which you can just see from the bench in front of Het Steen.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'Samson and Delilah', about 1609, Oil on Oak, 185 x 205 cm. National Gallery, London

It is made by the way, from six very carefully jointed and prepared oak panels, with the grain running perfectly parallel in all of them. Although Samson is a timeless story and the some of the clothes are vaguely timeless, the animal skin notwithstanding, it is set in a claustrophobic now. The long past and future are suitably indicated, but not really part of the show. The contemporary armour helps, but that ‘nowness’ is set, because there are no depths for the eye to travel to, therefore no indicated depths of time for us to wander about in.

The action in Het Steen is in the immediate fore and near mid-ground, the rest of the view though, is equally clearly painted, and clear for us to potter across. It is not though,  the mere scene setting landscape you can see on the flanking Judgements of Paris.

A young man pushes an older man (father?) in a rather splendid wheelchair (all wicker back and cane edged wheels) to position him centrally in front of the painting.

“A view of Het-Stern, whatever a hetstern is”

The older man points with his stick at the horizontal crack running between cart wheel and trunk. They wonder between them what could have caused this. The younger man points out the hunter, the older points to the fallen tree and says:

“I suppose it looked like those once” waving at the oak and birches in the mid ground.

“I suppose so”

The younger man wheels the chair away, he has Rebel Rock Radio embroidered on the back of his shirt, and big head phones around his neck.

This morning I saw some drawings by Robert Bevan (The Camden Town artist better known for his small painting of horses and horse markets) made during time spent in Pont-Aven.

Robert Bevan: 'Poplars by the Road, Brittany',early 1890's, charcoal on paper, 33 x 40 cm.

Heavily influenced by Gauguin, these drawings of trees had enormous energy and strength, not dissimilar now I come to look at them, to the lively forms of the trees the old man has been indicating with his stick. The different areas of sunlight and the curving masses of the painted leaves are full of movement and, well, youth really.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. 131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London. Detail The Trees

On the other side of the bench, a young man is drawing in his sketchbook, not the usual insipid copying, but strong lines of figures, thick and black and energetic. So different for example to the art student I saw recently, laboriously copying the biro lines made by Boetti’s assistants, and getting them wrong.

Alighiero Boetti: 'Al Mondo Il Mondo', 1972-3. Biro on Paper, 159 x 164 cm. Archivio Alighiero Boetti.

In the Boetti, the biro lines are entirely vertical, in hers they were both horizontal and vertical. Boetti’s ‘Mettare Al Mondo Il Mondo’ series are strong, thought provoking images, a record of the labour involved in making art, hers were not.

The young man behind me continues to draw, I realise that he is drawing people as they walk past, reflecting their vigour in this room (Room 29) of vigorous painted figures. The focus of his drawing is moving round the bench and will get to me soon; time to go.

On the Platform

An empty station, Friday afternoon. I am on the platform alone. A man walks purposefully down the long empty space, it is hot, the sun very bright. He stops less than one pace in front of me. He is middle aged and red faced with a shiny suitcase on wheels, resting over the handle is a vividly crimson, highly decorated Chinese silk suit. He does not acknowledge me, although I could probably breathe down his neck if I wanted to, I do not, so I don’t.

Art about Waiting

Paintings are busy spaces, and the people depicted are busier still. They are always doing something, about to do something, having something done to them.

Conversely, travelling on public transport is all about waiting, long periods not going anywhere, not having anything done to you etc. There are few works of art that fit this state.

A Large Ferry

There is a painting in the National Gallery, London that shows stasis: Jan van der Capelle’s: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665.

Jan van de Cappelle: ‘A River Scene with a Large Ferry and Numerous Dutch Vessels at Anchor’, 1665. Oil on canvas. 122 x 154.5 cm. National Gallery, London.

It is calm, still, waiting for the tide, or a wind; the ferry by the way is the boat in front, lying diagonally. Apart from the gentle tonality, I have always been fascinated by van der Capelle’s treatment of the ground plane.

“This is the guard speaking with a message for the customer who just got on with a large plain (plane?) cross; you left half of it behind on the platform. I’ve got it here with me now. I’m in the fourth carriage from the front waiting for you”

Albertian Space

Leon Battista Alberti: ‘De Pictura and Elementa’ 1518, from 1435

Traditionally in Albertian space, the ground plane, the Renaissance pavement, is an opaque, unyielding surface, where figures can stand, buildings can be constructed with no fear of falling through that solid ground. Even in marine paintings, the sea is usually fairly solid and boats sit/ float on top of it like a ruffled carpet on a hard floor. The power of a painted storm is the obvious departure from the comforting horizontal format.

For Albertian space to be convincing, we must feel we can traverse it, usually on foot. In this van der Capelle image the ‘pavement’, the skin of the world is the thickness and transparency of a soap bubble; we would fall through. But fall through to where? The reflected world is equally real, as though, in fact, it is us that is upside down and the reflection is reality. The boundaries between one world and the next are confused. In a very calm world there is unease. To some extent this is the familiar artist game with mirrors, playing with spaces within pictorial spaces (think of The Arnolfini portrait, or Manet’s ‘Bar at the Folies Bergeres). These mirror reflections are in planes parallel to the picture plane, parallel to us looking at them. The game relates to the role of pictorial space in the first place; the function of illusion. Can we say the same with a horizontal plane?

Outside the British Car Auctions, in front of an enormous queue of waiting cars, two young men are playing football with a very white ping pong ball.

The Reflective Ground Plane

To get closer to what is happening in ‘Large Ferry’ try comparing it with another familiar image of reflections in calm water, Poussin’s ‘Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake’,

Poussin: 'Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake', 1648. oil on canvas. 118 x 198 cm. National Gallery, London

look at the lake in the mid ground, the reflections of the buildings do not, surprisingly perhaps, destroy the flatness of the surface, the watery ground plane still happily continues on its journey to the infinite horizon. Or, any of Turner’s reflections in calm waters:

J M W Turner: 'The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to her Last Berth to be Broken Up', 1839. oil on canvas. 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery, London

‘The Fighting Temeraire’, or

J M W Turner: 'Norham Castle Sunrise', 1845. oil on canvas, 90 x 121 cm. Tate Britain.

‘Norham Castle Sunrise’, you could traverse these flat, reflective ground planes without once thinking of falling through. Their function is to create space, to reflect the sky, to promote the narrative; but they are always an unyielding surface. Depth in these paintings goes horizontally, into the space not, as it were, down through it, as we can see in ‘Large Ferry’. Down into another world? Where does that other world lead to, do they do things differently there? This is the familiar trope from children’s fiction: the land behind the wardrobe; the rabbit hole; the looking glass. As Auden wrote in ‘As I walked out one evening’

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,

The desert sighs in the bed,

And the crack in the tea-cup opens

A lane to the land of the dead’

 

The Viewing Experience

Maybe this sense of unease is why this room of unassuming Dutch landscape paintings is always empty. Or, it might reflect my thesis that our behaviour this side of the picture plane is, to some extent, governed by the organisation of the space on the far side of the picture plane. This painting is hung in one of the quietest and calmest areas of the National Gallery, I have rarely seen anyone in this room, the few viewers rarely stay for more than a minute or two. Numberless hordes pass nearby, yet, like this painting, all in Room Twenty Two is still: waiting.

Peter Paul Rubens: 'A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning', 1636. Oil on Oak. Oil on oak.131 x 229.cm. National Gallery, London

Thinking further about those clouds and the trees in the foreground, their derivation and their future effect (although this was less in the Netherlands, the major influence would be on artists like Constable,Het Steen was owned by Sir George Beaumont, Constable’s patron). I have been reading the catalogue for a National Gallery Exhibition on ‘Dutch Landscape, the Early Years, Haarlem and Amsterdam 1590-1650′ published in 1986, National Gallery Publications, London. A show which centred on the development of work directly from nature; a process that characterises Dutch landscape drawings, prints and paintings in the seventeenth century.

Rubens was though, a Flemish artist, Italianate, learned, and devoted to istoria. The growing 16th century Dutch landscape tradition, developing around Haarlem, based itself on nature/ observation, the ‘extensive landscape’ a correlation between marine and landscape painting particular to the newly reclaimed Dutch landscape. These artists, inspired by the marine painters like the splendidly named Vroom, closely observed wind, cloud types and the effects of light. Unlike the Flemish:

“These [Rubens’] clouds are an arbitrary backdrop and are scarcely recognisable in meteorological terms” J E Thomas, Geographical Magazine 51.7 April 1979, quoted in ‘Dutch Landscape’ page 79.

“the marine painters observations of the sky ensured that in Dutch Landscapes and marine paintings sunlight always falls from the same direction [as the wind], Rubens’ ‘artistic licence’ in showing shadows falling from opposite directions in the same landscape would have been unthinkable for a contemporary Dutch artist’

In fact the light and shadows fall in Steen is reasonably consistent from top right to bottom left. There is no strong wind but a gentle East to West breeze, following the line of the clouds would seem believable. The painting that Russell is referring to in this second reference is the ‘Return from the Harvest’ in the Galleria Pitti, in which the shadows cast the peasants in the foreground run at right angles to the source of light.

By the way, can I recommend the Hay in Art Website www.hayinart.com which does exactly what it says, in great detail; indispensable.

This double light is not down to incompetence, or lack of knowledge, it is the traditional role of the artist to transcend the natural.

“It is by this that Rubens proves himself great and shows to the world that he, with a free spirit stands above Nature and treats her to his higher purposes” Goethe, conversation with Eckermann, in discussion over Return from the Harvest where Goethe uses the double light as an illustration of Rubens’ greatness, rather than Russell’s approach which tries to indicate Rubens’ indifference at best.

To point out where Rubens/ Flemish landscape and the emerging Dutch tradition meet, it would be worth mentioning Carel van Mander. van Mander’s treatise on painting, (Het Schilderboeck) published in the Netherlands in 1606, and went into great detail about art, artists and translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Chapter 8 was exclusively on landscape, parts of it seem relevant to Het Steen, for example:

“4: note, first of all, how over there the bride of old Tithonus rises from her saffron bed to announce the approach of the torch of day, and see how the four piebald horses soaked with water, rise panting from the shallows of the Ocean. See how the little purple clouds become tinged with pinkish red and how beautifully Eurus’ bright home is adorned ready receive Phoebus…see there in front of us, hunters are walking with their dogs through the green dewy fields: see how that trodden dew turns a lighter tone of green, showing their footprints, and so giving their route home. (Let the landscape recede smoothly into the distance, or let it gradually merge into the sky)”

From ‘Dutch Landscape, the Early Years, Haarlem and Amsterdam 1590-1650’ published in 1986, National Gallery Publications, London page 36.

There is a distinct similarity between these stock figures from classical myth and the role of the genre figures that people Steen’s foreground, certainly the horse/ cart drawing of the sun across the sky motif. A coincidence? A wry reworking of classical themes? Probably, these references were, after all, part of the trade of any literate 17th century artist across Europe. Had Rubens read van Mander? What is more relevant perhaps, is that these references had nothing to do with the new Dutch landscape style that was appearing, on his doorstep as it where, some 100 miles away from Het Steen.

It would be tempting to say that old man was learning new radicalism, by working directly from nature for example. Certainly this is a recognisable landscape, but, all the marks of composition, of his higher purpose, of studio bound painting, are here. Het Steen is framed, by the group of trees that also frame the house. The hunter, fallen tree arrangement makes the traditional the diagonal, foreground repoussoir element, characteristic of Flemish landscape painting.

“First of all it is important to show clear contrast in the foreground, as it pushes the other planes into the background. Ensure something large is painted in the foreground as was done by Bruegel and other great artists who are acclaimed for their contribution to landscape painting. Since they often place enormous tree-trunks in the foreground let us enthusiastically strive to follow their example.”

van Mander quoted in From ‘Dutch Landscape, the Early Years, Haarlem and Amsterdam 1590-1650’ published in 1986, National Gallery Publications, London page 38.

The Steen pictorial space is divided up into the traditional brown foreground, green mid and blue background. Yes, there is evidence of farming, of quotidian purpose that you can see in drawings especially by artists like Coninxloo. Rubens’ painting contains the field boundaries, the milkmaid etc. But, the centrality of the hunter makes it clear; this is a landscape for recreation. And, lastly there is the high view, the recognizable method for constructing the Antwerp landscape style that you can trace back to Patinir and the early sixteenth century.

So, back to the trees.

Van Mander wrote that the changes in the representation of trees in art in the Netherlands, was down to Coninxloo, because of him Netherlandish trees in art became leafier. Coninxloo  was an artist who specialised in dense forest landscapes, a subject and style that according to Christopher Brown in the Dutch Landscape Introduction, (‘Dutch Landscape, the Early Years, Haarlem and Amsterdam 1590-1650’ published in 1986, National Gallery Publications, London page 17) you can trace back to Pieter Bruegel the elder, and his son Jan Brueghel the Elder. Pieter had in his turn taken his inspiration from woodcuts after Titian, Campagnola and Muziano, i.e. from art, from higher purpose, not from life. 

Rubens’ little group of tall foreground trees, growing at angles, overlapping one another, with recognisably different foliage, and the foreground tree stump; this compositional form is pure Flemish landscape tradition. A tradition that Rubens had already conquered on his return to Antwerp from Italy, in his groups of landscape painted 1614-25. Paintings that seem to celebrate lushness, fertility and his identification with his native country. A return to prosperity after war. In the horribly complex history of the Netherlands, this was a period of powerful Counter Reformation, lots of work for a Catholic history painter newly returned from Italy, e.g. the Raising of the Cross for Antwerp Cathedral, 1610-11.

The landscape painting that makes all this clear is ‘Milkmaids with Cattle in a Landscape: ‘The Farm at Lacken’, 1618, oil on Panel, The Royal Collection.

Rubens: 'Milkmaids with Cattle in a Landscape: 'The Farm at Laeken', 1618. Oil on Panel, The Royal Collection, London

 Notice that there is some formal similarity between the arrangement of the right hand branches on the birch in the clump above the figure with the cornucopia of fruit and veg on her head and the right hand birch in the Steen foreground. To further emphasise our theme about the derivation of, and intentions behind these compositions, Christopher Brown in ‘Making and Meaning: Rubens Landscapes’, points out that this composition loosely owes something to a Titian woodcut (Landscape with a Milkmaid 1525).

Boldrini (after Titian) Landscape with a Milkmaid 1525. woodcut, British Museum

And, he goes deeper to show that the church, just visible top right, was a key centre of Marian worship and nationalist associations. In other words there are strong connections between this painting of prosperity and peace, the power of the Catholic Church and the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, Rubens was their court artist. Do we find our trees in Het Steen pointing us in any of these directions? No, the context is different. There is of course the same brass jug, here for containing milk, in ‘the Watering Place’ of 1620 for, presumably, water and in ‘Landscape with a Rainbow’ (generally assumed to be the companion piece to Het Steen) where it is also on a head, either water or milk. A Rubensian shape for indicating plenty/ fecundity/ prosperity, i.e. peace?

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