Thirty First Approach to Het Steen, 1636: The Search for Happiness?

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

I have recently been in discussion with a fellow writer, Ann Marquez, about the ways in which land communicates/ holds on to intense past emotions; melancholy or loss, perhaps, particularly in her sense of foreboding in a pre-flood trip to New Orleans. We also mused on whether we have ever found anywhere that resonated with happiness; I can think of none, or rather not a real one.

An Image of Happiness?

‘Het Steen in the Early Morning’ is, as I think I have established in these posts, a painting about contentment, about retirement, success; all those sorts of descriptions. It is that unusual image; art about personal joy.

How does he do that? The very gently rising ground plane, from foreground to horizon. Well, to be strictly accurate, we go down from a slight hill on which our elevated view-point is situated, sloping towards the house then slowly rise to the tower and the rising sun on the horizon.

The colour contrasts that establish the foreground are not, for example, the vicious jumps of a Caravaggio, There is a unifying, autumnal, colour scheme. The rising sun is a warm yellow, it lights objects of material achievement, the house, the cart of to market, the girl collecting milk. Colours that indicate ripeness, fertility, light filtered by early morning mist, but the space is easy and reassuring to comprehend. The visual traverse to the horizon, slight serpentine curve around the midground trees; this route is benign, gentle and comforting, it resonates with happiness.

Lights Out

The lights in the gallery go out suddenly, Het Steen becomes a study in browns and green washes. Even so, the rising sun still lights the land, white on pale to make it stand out, yellow edged by its complementary; light blue. The close parallel lines of trees and fields that lead to, and constitute, the horizon, are even more noticeable in the gloom; mirrored by the clouds above.

Man-Made Nature

The ramshackle nature of this disorganised world is predictable, we can see how it might have got to its current state and how that current state will not change: we hope. Pleasing on the eye, the sort of effect that Capability Brown would be hired to create in English Eighteenth Century landscape gardens. Man-made nature, the easeful view that only money brings, you need serious cash to buy ‘natural’ space, a sophisticated grown out nature, dependent in need on Pliny and Horace perhaps.

Lulu and The Flying Babies

The gallery is as crowded as I have ever known it, if it was possible to walk into this painted space, getting one’s feet wet on the morning dew, nodding a greeting to the carter, some milk warm from the cow, if that was possible, I would.

Posy Simmonds: ‘Lulu and The Flying Babies’. Publ. Red Fox, 2003.

I remember reading ‘Lulu and the Flying Babies’, a wonderful picture book by Posy Simmonds, to my daughter. Lulu, the fictional child, bored in a museum joins a lively life behind the picture plane, feeding royal horses with crisps, joining a Dutch winter scene, a Dufy seascape, a Rousseau jungle tiger. Today, I would prefer the quieter contented world of Het Steen with its bucolic stock figures and rising sun. That world might be better than here, this side of the picture plane, with the huge crowds of wandering Koreans and Italians.

The light has gone out again, the double sided bench I sit on is narrow, the Italian girls behind me flick their artfully tousled hair with the just washed look. Their hair is long and painful as it swishes in natural, easy serpentine waves across my own thinning coiffure. They are happy, looking at an image of a happy land?  Time to go.

 

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