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Today we feature an obscure color which used to be well known and frequently written about.  Isabelline, also known as “isabella,” is a pale, silvery yellowish-gray.  The name for the color is older than most color names in English and dates back to the Elizabethan era (circa 1600).  There are several compelling (but non-definitive) explanations of the etymology of the word.  My favorite explanation is that Infanta Isabella, a Spanish noblewoman vowed never to change her snow white garb until her husband,  Archduke Albert of Austria, was victorious in conquering Ostend, a Protestant stronghold in Flanders.  A hasty victory was expected, however, the city’s Dutch defenders were reinforced and supplied from the sea by the English and the siege lasted for three brutal years, by which time the Infanta’s gown was a very organic yellow-gray.  The story is probably apocryphal but it is nearly old as the color itself (and it draws our attention to the Siege of Ostend, which was as brutal and bloody as it was historically interesting).

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This Spanish connection of the name hints at why the English of the early 17th century were so excited by yellow-gray to begin with.  Isabella is a color of horses, an unparalleled fascination for people of that time! In modern horse terms, such steeds are pale palomino or cremello, but the hue isn’t too far off from ancestral grullo (these horse color names all seem to have a late medieval Spanish flair don’t they?).  At any rate, even though isabella is a common color for living things, it is perhaps not of not of paramount beauty to the jaded modern eye and the word has been gradually fading from usage.  This strikes me as a pity, since it is a much better word for that organic yellow-gray than uh, “yellow-gray.”

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Let’s talk about the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) which is a sort of tragic mascot of the animals driven to extinction by humankind. Dodos lived on Mauritius, an Island in the Indian Ocean to the east of Madagascar.  The first written record of dodos comes from Dutch sailors in 1598 and the last sighting of a live dodo was in 1662 (or maybe in the 1680s).  They are regarded as victims of the age of colonial exploration: Mauritius was located on the trade route which lead from Europe, around Africa, to the silks and spices of the East.  The poor dodos were at a convenient island in the hungry middle stretch.

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The dodo has historically been regarded as clumsy, fat, and foolish—an animal which perhaps didn’t deserve to exist.  It now seems like this may be equivalent to what motorists say when they kill pedestrians and cyclists–which is to say an obviously self-serving calumny meant to disguise true culpability (although in fairness, colonial explorers weren’t particularly clear on whether other humans had any right to exist–to say nothing of flightless turkey-like birds which lived on an island stop over).  Ecologists and ornithologists now regard the dodo as admirably evolved to its island habitat. Standing 1 meter (3 ft) tall and (probably) weighing 10-17 kg (23–39 lb) the dodo lost the ability of flight, thanks to Mauritius’ lack of predators.  It had powerful legs which suggest it could run quite quickly, and it was not small (so perhaps the dodo took over the niche of some of those missing predators). The birds’ diet was predominantly fruit, whit it digested with the aid of large gizzard stones, although, if analogous creatures provide a clue, it probably also ate insects, small vertebrates and sundry bites of carrion, tender shoots, and eggs.  Speaking of eggs, it seems that the dodo, like many penguins, raised a single egg in a large nest.  They could live up to 20 years. Who really knows though? The people heading through Mauritius in the 17th century were not there to study birds.  It has been speculated that the dodo may have suffered from a lack of fear of humans (which is not unknown in certain modern birds found on remote Pacific islands).  The dodo was also reputedly quite disgusting (to humans) to eat. It seems like the real culprit behind the extinction of the dodo were deforestation (the birds lived in Mauritius’ forests which were quickly leveled) and other invasive species such as rats and pigs which came to the island via boat.

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During the 18th and 19th century, there was substantial controversy over what sort of bird a dodo actually is (was?).  Taxonomists, not unreasonably, suggested they were related to ostriches, rails, vultures, or albatrosses, however the real clue turned out to be in the Dodo’s leg bones which bore unmistakable similarities to those of pigeons.  Other details of facial anatomy and beak structure corroborated this: the dodo was a giant pigeon (although sadly no good DNA specimens now exist to find out further details or resurrect the extinct bird).  Though gone for more than 300 years the dodo clings to a strange ghost life as a symbol of a whimsical bygone era.  Lewis Carrol was apparently fond of them, and Alice in Wonderland greatly popularized the extinct fowl.  Additionally they are seen as a ominous warning for extinctions yet to come if humankind cannot cure its insatiable appetite or find a way to live in greater harmony with nature.  It is ironic that the great missing birds of yesteryear—the dodo and the passenger pigeon—are so closely related to the rock pigeon, the consummate omnipresent nuisance bird of human cities. Island species are often the first to go extinct: their specialized traits make them unable to compete with ruthless generalists.  Yet the dodo’s sadly comic appearance and the touching stories of its friendly openness to sailors do make it an ideal symbol of the danger faced by innumerable species in the Anthropocene.

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A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

A Young Man in a Fur Cap and a Cuirass (Carel Fabritius, 1654, oil on canvas)

Carel Fabritius (1622 – 12 October 1654) was the most gifted and innovative of Rembrandt’s many pupils. He alone escaped from the master’s shadow by reversing his teacher’s signature style: whereas Rembrandt was known for showing a brightly lit subject against a background of darkness, Fabritius painted dark subjects on a bright background. He certainly had a measure Rembrandt’s masterful humanism (as is evidenced by the soulful self-portrait above). In the early 1650s, Fabritius moved to Delft where a revolution in optics was underway. Based on the below painting “A View of Delft” painted in 1652, Fabritius was an early experimenter with lenses and optics in the visual arts. It is believed he taught Vermeer (who also used lenses to create special effects in his masterworks) and thus was an integral link between the two great 17th century Dutch masters.

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

A View of Delft (Carel Fabritius, 1652, oil on canvas)

Indeed Fabritius would likely be one of the most famous luminaries of world art with renown commensurate to Rembrandt & Vermeer except for a tragic and bizarre accident. On October 12, 1654–360 years ago yesterday–Cornelis Soetens opened the door of a gunpowder magazine located in a repurposed Clarissen convent (Soetens was the official keeper of said powder chamber). It is unclear what exactly went wrong but all 66,138 pounds of gunpowder ignited and combusted. The resultant explosion destroyed much of Delft. Fabritius was caught in the explosion and sustained mortal wound. As an added injury, the explosion destroyed Fabritius’ studio along with the majority of his life’s work. Only twelve known paintings remain—but they are very good paintings!

Saul with his Servants at the Fortune-teller of Endor (Rembrandt van Rijn, 1657, bistre ink on paper)

I wrote earlier about sepia ink, the beautiful drawing and writing medium used in the Mediterranean for thousands of years which was obtained from the ink sacks of cuttlefish.  Was sepia ink also used by the great northern masters for their sketches? Not at all: there was an altogether different source of the beautiful smoky brown inks used by Brueghel, Durer, Lorraine, and Rembrandt (as well as most other German, French, Flemish, Dutch, and English artists) when they sketched from life. The name of the transparent shadowy brown pigment with yellow undertones was bistre and its source was not a mollusk but rather a tree.  Bistre was made with the soot left over from burning beechwood.  The beechwood ash was boiled with water to produce a cheap and superior drawing pigment. Although steel and copper nibs certainly existed, most masters probably sketched with simple reed pens or goose quills (waterfowl were generally agreed to provide the best drawing quills and geese were most readily available).

Since I have a great fondness for both beech trees, reeds, and geese, it cheers me to think that the great drawings of the old masters were produced with such humble materials. Unfortunately there is no way to set out any sort of comprehensive collection of bistre drawings: the medium was more universally used then anything other than carbon black.  Even a little sampler would involve a wildly eclectic mixture of works from all sorts of drafstmen from wildly different ages and schools. So, instead I am showing three little Rembrandt drawings to represent bistre. I don’t write as much about Rembrandt as I do about other lesser artists (i.e. the rest) because my feelings about his ineffable works are hard to characterize.  The “Lines and Color” blogs summarizes the scope of Rembrandt’s drawings:

Over 1,400 of his drawings survive, conservatively estimated at less than half of what he produced. (For most great artists we’re lucky to have a few dozen. For Vermeer and Franz Hals we have none.) Also unlike most of the great masters, the majority of Rembrandt’s drawings were not done as preparation for paintings, and very few were signed as pieces to be presented to friends or patrons. Most of his enormous outpouring of drawings were apparently done for himself, as visual record of his life and experience or simply for the joy in the act of drawing.

The multitude of subjects encompassed in 1,400 drawings provides a comprehensive overview of life in seventeenth century Holland (which was one of the focal points of the first wave of true globalism).  Out of the murky brown ink washes emerge an endless parade of long-vanished people, places, and things. The figures work, play, and struggle in cities manufactured of hasty brown lines under brown clouds beside an ink wash ocean (over which inky ships carried the spices of the old world and the furs from the new). Magicians scheme, children squall, and captive lions recline.  It is my favorite alchemy. Rembrandt gives us an entire world crafted out of water and beechwood ash.

Lion Resting, Turned to the Left (Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1650-52, ink on paper)

Still Life with Turkey Pie (Peter Claesz, 1627, oil on panel)

Here is a painting of a turkey pie and oysters created by the Dutch still-life master Pieter Claesz in 1627. The original is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (which provides high quality digital images of the works within its collection—so if you click above, you will be rewarded with a much larger picture).  The painting is small and was painted from a muted palate but Claesz employed a variety of subtle techniques to arrest the viewer’s attention.  The overall meaning of the painting is clear—it highlights the owners’ good taste and wealth.  It also symbolizes the success and growth of the Dutch Republic which were then at an all-time apogee.

This sort of painting is called a “banketgen”—literally a banquet painting. This example is exceptionally realistic.  Notice how the pewter jug reflects the rest of the feast and how the wine in the glass römer throws a yellow shadow over the table.  Protruding from the plane of the table, the lemon plate subconsciously invites the viewer to prevent it from tumbling onto the floor.  With consummate skill, Claesz has put his initials and the painting’s date on the blade of the knife as if they were engraved there.

The individual components of the feast form a picture of seventeenth century globalism.  The still-living oysters may have come from the coast of Holland but the lemons and olives were not native and could not survive the harsh northern winter.  They are the literal fruits of Dutch success at trade as are the Chinese porcelain kraak and the Persian table weave.  The twist of printed paper from the almanac contains salt and pepper, expensive commodities in the early seventeenth century but not as rare as the overseas spices in the pastry which has been broken open with a silver spoon.

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Towering above the rest of the composition is the remarkable turkey dish, a large meat pie ornamented with the plumage, wings, and head of a wild turkey from the New World.  The exotic nature of the turkey and the rich gold and jewels of the nautilus goblet are the focal point on the composition.  Any Dutchman of the time would have instantly understood the meaning.  Manhattan had been purchased by Peter Minuit in 1626, only a year before this painting was finished.  New Amsterdam was growing across the Atlantic.  The maritime merchants of the Dutch republic were setting their table to gobble up the world itself. It is almost a shame that Claesz did not include a bowl of Indonesian sugar or a tank of Shell petroleum to perfect the picture.

Although we don't know what is in the shell goblet...

Of course there is a final element to this painting.  Tiny black spots of rot are forming on the apples inside the Chinese bowl. Did the artist foresee the ruinous colonial wars with France, Spain, and England?  Did he notice the growing tension between Royalists and Republicans or the schism between Dutch churches? Could he see that the banquet was about to be spoiled by events of the wider world or were the first touches of rot merely a visual flourish to convey a lesson about the limits of our little lives?

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