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This is the season where winter has outstayed its welcome but spring has only made the most halting and rudimentary progress (although there is progress–more on that next week). In order to fulfill the pent-up need for garden beauty, here is a still life painting by one of the greatest Dutch masters of the golden era. This is Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee which was painted in 1741 (the work can today be found in the Kunstmuseum Basel). I wrote about Ruysch’s remarkable career in an earlier post, but her exquisite work demands further attention. Although she is famous among painters for her flower painting, within medical/bioscience circles she is known for the work she made in collaboration with her father, the great anatomist. Those works are…uh…found object installation art (?) made of exquisitely arranged and preserved human body parts (particularly stillborn infants). They are too disquieting and extreme (and probably poisonous) for contemporary art tastes, but believe me they are among the most remarkable works in the whole pantheon.

Still Life with Rose Branch, Beetle and Bee (Rachel Ruysch, 1741)

But let’s talk about this wonderful rose painting! Although the composition is small and modest (for a floral still life), it is also extremely beautiful and showcases the strengths which made Ruysch one of the greatest flower painters in art history. For one thing, the characteristic black background of golden age Dutch flower paintings is gone and has been replaced by a neutral parapet against a neutral wall bathed in sunlight. The glass vase–which typically forms the compositional foundation of still life paintings–is likewise gone! Instead we have a great translucent pink rose surrounded by supporting flowers cut and cast straight onto the platform. A stag beetle leers up in dismay at the fulsome disaster (looking quite a lot like a Dutch burgher throwing up his hands at the scene of a shipwreck). The high baroque drama of radiant glowing colors against darkest black has been replaced with greater realism which invites us to contemplate the radical difference of the textures of petals, leaves, and thorns. The viewer can almost feel the prickle of that rose stem. The fading light and the bee burrowing into the cut flower for a last sip of nectar remind us of the transience of the things of this world.

Ruysch’s artwork, however, is not transient–it stands the test of time (and is so well painted that every thorn, stamen, and antennae endures). Ruysch herself was more immune to time than most artists and she continued painting (as well as ever) into her eighties.

Venetian painting owes an immense debt to Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430 – 1516 AD).  Not only was he the teacher of Giorgione and Titian, Bellini’s sensuous and atmospheric painting style colored the work of all the subsequent Venetian masters of the 16th century. Bellini’s figures have a grace and dignity lacking in earlier Venetian art: their emotions seem real and profound. He was also one of my favorite painter of mysterious and evocative backgrounds.

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Here is an exquisite Pietà by Bellini which highlights his artistic mastery. Fields of exquisite flowers (of many species and types) lead the eye back to winding roads and sinuous city walls. Looming across the entire background is Jerusalem, mysterious and lovely (and looking suspiciously like a Renaissance Italian city-state). Beyond the holy city, great mountains and cliffs march off into the horizon. Yet all of the beauty of the background is still. The roads are empty. Jerusalem seems deserted. In the foreground, Mary stares at the dead body of her son with desolate eyes. The savior is dead and the whole world has literally stopped.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

May 2022
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