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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!

The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

It is Rembrandt’s birthday again—happy birthday to the great artist! Last year we looked at an enigmatic painting by the great Dutch master which could have represented several different mythological/historical scenes. This year instead of celebrating with one of his astonishing paintings of people, we turn instead to an intaglio print which Rembrandt made by combining etching, drypoint, and direct hand manipulation of the printer’s ink. Uncharacteristically, humankind is not the direct subject of the print (although if you enlarge the image, you will discover both a fisherman plying his luck at the river and a yokel loitering in the fields). Three monumental trees loom over the flat Dutch landscape—but their symbolism, if any, is not overt. A bustling city sprawls in the background, but it too is not the focal point on the composition. The real subject is the darkling sky which roils with strange clouds, abstruse turbulence, and glorious patches of sunlight. The world changes with astonishing speed: the mutable clouds are the most direct manifestation of the ever shifting nature of reality, yet the country dwellers, cows, city, and even the long-lived trees all seem to partake of the same impermanence.

Happy 407th birthday to Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn!  The master’s peerless paintings and etchings show a unique understanding and empathy for the human condition.  Rembrandt painted faces more expressively than any other artist–because of this strength, his works attain deep emotional complexity.   To illustrate this, and to celebrate his birth, here is a masterpiece by Rembrandt which is in the collection of the Prado Museum in Madrid.  The painting is magnificent!  A pensive noblewoman (modeled by Rembrandt’s beloved wife Saskia) in resplendent jewels and silks takes a nautilus cup from a little page.  Behind her stands a strange gray figure, half-visible in the gloom—an apparition? a servant? The painter himself?  It is unclear.  The painting itself is a mystery which has been discussed an argued about for centuries.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_014a

Rembrandt painted the work in 1634 (which we can see from his prominent signature and his inimitable style), but, uncharacteristically we do not know the title.  The painting is either “Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes” or “Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup.”  If the first title is correct, then the nautilus cup which is dramatic focus of the painting contains the ashes of Queen Artemisia’s husband/brother, Mausolus, satrap of Persia.  Mausolus’ immense tomb (constructed by Artemisia) was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and gave us the word “mausoleum”.  Yet the great tomb was empty:  Artemisia had Mausolus’ ashes mixed into wine which she drank day after day until she had completely consumed his remains (the Greeks were fascinated by the fact that Artemisia was simultaneously the sister and wife and devourer of Mausolus).

However, if the second title is correct, then the seashell cup contains deadly poison.  Sophonisba was the daughter of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal Gisco.  Upon his defeat, she took poison so as not to endure the humiliation of being part of a Roman triumph.   Nautilus shells allegedly had the magical power to negate poison (safety tip: this is not true at all).  That Sophonisba would commit suicide with such a cup indicates the true moral of the painting: the real poison is defeat and slavery.  Poison and a proud death are her antidotes.

Rembrandt_-_Artemis_-_Detail_Nautilus_cup

So which answer is right?  Or are they both wrong?  Saskia’s strange diffident anxiety could be fitting for either story, yet her manner and dress are not those of a grieving Persian sister-queen.   I favor the interpretation of the painting as that of the stoic Sophonisba.  These are her last moments and the gray figure is as much an inhabitant of the underworld as a flesh-and-blood attendant.  The strange whimsical garb is the fantasy raiment of vanished Carthage. But I could well be wrong. What do you think?

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)

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