Thirty Fourth Approach Het Steen: breaking up is hard to do (how to say goodbye to a painting; part two)

Friday Afternoon, National Gallery, London: 17th August

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

A slight return; breaking up is hard to do. I have been looking at this painting for over thirty years, but the thrill has gone. Have we come to the point where is there is little left to say we haven’t said? Except of course that it’s been a good year for the roses.

What does one do after a breakup, go and find another painting to look at for the next thirty years? I’m feeling guilty about it but I have been drawn, increasingly so, to the Rembrandt room especially the ‘Self Portrait Aged 63’.

Rembrandt: ‘Self Portrait Aged 63’, 1669, oil on canvas, 86 x 71 cm. National Gallery

I am not quite that old yet, but the gloom and weariness around the eyes, the way in which the texture tells us much as the head that it composes; there is a lot to look at there. Rembrandt died within a year of painting this, Rubens within four years of painting Het Steen, the methods by which an artist can summarise experience, without resorting to iconography or narrative, are always fascinating. And it is next to that great painting of concupiscence (longing, lust, desire etc), of Heindrickje Stoffels.

Rembrandt: ‘Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels’, 1654-6, oil on canvas. National Gallery.

So, back to Het Steen, is it imagination or does the painting look rather brown and tired? A young woman sits on the bench in front of it texting, she has a large purple bag with Etretrat printed on it. Fitting somehow that I should be saying goodbye to a painting that (through the collection of George Beaumont) influenced Constable who, won the Gold Medal in the Paris salon of 1824 for the Hay Wain.

John Constable: ‘The Hay Wain’, 1821, oil on canvas, 130 x 185 cm. National Gallery, London.

His broken brush work much influenced French romantic artists like Delacroix. Delacroix’s colours and evident brush strokes was part of the mix that leads us to Impressionism, along with Constable’s subject matter and his work directly from the motif that Pissarro and Monet studied whilst they were in London during the Franco Prussian war. Many artists painted in Etretat, both Delacroix

Eugene Delacroix: ‘Cliffs at Etretat: The Pied du Cheval ‘, 1838. watercolour on paper. 15 x 20 cm. Musee Marmottan, Paris

and Monet. Monet  in 1868 and 1883, but it was in 1885 that Monet developed his series ideas, painting fifty one canvases in this small seaside town.

Claude Monet: ‘Etretat, Fishing Boats Leaving the Harbour’, 1885. Oil on Canvas, 60 x 81 cm. Musee des Beaux Arts, Dijon.

Apparently he would work at up to six different sites at once, employing his children to walk behind him carrying the canvases between them. The young woman with the Etretat bag does not look at Rubens’ landscape before she leaves.

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

So do I change my relationship status? When you’ve lost that loving feeling, you need distance from a relationship before you can evaluate it; ‘you don’t miss your water till the well run dry’ as one reggae lyric puts it. So I just walk away, walk on by, that sun in the top right hand corner ain’t gonna shine anymore, but there’s always something there to remind me. Etc. etc.

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