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Hoosier thoughts on a Haarlem artist: Booth Tarkington on the IMA’s Portrait of Frans Hals

Louis Betts (American, 1873-1961), "Portrait of Booth Tarkington," 1941 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist. 42.12

[Fig. 1] Louis Betts (American, 1873-1961), “Portrait of Booth Tarkington,” 1941
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gift of the Artist. 42.12

In the preface to a catalogue of an exhibition at the John Herron Art Museum (the predecessor to the IMA) in 1937, Indianapolis native Booth Tarkington (1869-1946) [Fig. 1] expresses his admiration for the Portrait of Frans Hals [Fig. 2], then thought to be by the master’s own hand:

“…a keen and living bit of analysis from as quick and sure a brush as ever flicked canvas or panel.  Admirably and pathetically lacking the remotest taint of vanity, this picture would have satisfied Robert Burns; battered Frans Hals, without self-pity, could see himself as others saw him, but more shrewdly.”

Unknown artist (Dutch), "Portrait of Frans Hals," about 1650 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10047

[Fig. 2] Unknown artist (Dutch), “Portrait of Frans Hals,” about 1650
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10047

 

 

 

 

 

The painting has since been qualified as the best surviving copy after a lost original by Hals. As the copyist retained many elements of the master’s signature style, however, Tarkington’s poetic words are still of interest to the modern viewer.

Tarkington’s characterization of Hals’s manner as “quick and sure” underscores the artist’s distinctive approach. The sketchy contours that suggest movement, the creation of tone through unblended brushstrokes [Fig. 3], and, foremost, the crisp slashes of color that sit unapologetically upon the surface – the final “master stroke” flicked onto the support that defines form – these are the elements that comprise the painter’s recognizable “rough” style. Hals puts these components into the service of a “keen and living bit of analysis,” suggesting the persuasiveness of the representation. Surprisingly, the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s brief description echoes many of the earliest commentaries upon the artist, such as those composed by Cornelis de Bie (1627-c. 1715), Govaert Bidloo (1649-1713), and Arnold Houbraken (1660-1719).

The portrait under consideration is not just any likeness, however, but the artist’s own visage. Tarkington celebrates the honesty with which Hals approached his own face, writing that the portrait lacks “the remotest taint of vanity.” Furthermore, he alludes to the difficulty of viewing oneself with such frankness by referencing Robert Burns’s 1786 poem “On a Louse”:

“O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
An’ ev’n devotion!”

[Fig. 3] Detail of "Portrait of Frans Hals."

[Fig. 3] Detail of “Portrait of Frans Hals.”

Tarkington likely meant the furrowed brow, the bags under the eyes, the slightly misaligned eyelids, and the thin cheeks when he wrote about Hals’s “shrewd” perception of himself. Tarkington’s descriptors of “battered” and “without self-pity,” however, smack of early authors’ incorrect portrayals of the artist as a drunkard and hedonist. (For a laugh, read Houbraken’s life of the artist, in which the author notes that Hals’s students often helped their inebriated master home from the tavern and, once, played an ambitious prank on him.) These characterizations resulted from centuries of confusion between the painter and his cousin of the same name – thankfully, these accounts have been discredited. On the contrary, the respectable, though oft indebted, painter appears to have received a quarterly stipend from the city of Haarlem during his final years in recognition of his artistic abilities!

Though removed in time and space from the early writers on Hals, Tarkington continued their perceptions of the artist’s stylistic strengths. Employing zippy language and an evocative reference to Scottish poetry, Tarkington provided a captivating variation upon past literature that reinvigorates this portrait for viewers of the 20th century and beyond.

 

The Golden Age anew: The IMA’s Dutch and Flemish gallery reinstalled

071814_dutch_flemish_01On July 18, the newly reinstalled gallery of Dutch and Flemish painting opens to the public. The Northern baroque paintings are one of the strengths of the IMA’s collection, and it is with pride that the IMA presents some of its most popular paintings – such as Aelbert Cuyp’s Valkhof at Nijmegen and Jan Miense Molenaer’s Battle Between Carnival and Lent – alongside some of the lesser-known gems, such as Govaert Flinck’s Woman in a Red Dress and Pearls. Several pictures are coming out of storage, including an excellent mid-17th century copy after a lost self-portrait by Frans Hals and a painting of an old man in a fur-edged cap by a follower of Rembrandt, both from the Clowes Fund Collection. The integration of these two Clowes pictures into the hanging in the William C. Griffith Jr. and Carolyn C. Griffith Gallery (H215) invigorates the survey of 17th century Northern painting.

071814_dutch_flemish_02

Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde, (Dutch, 1638-1698), “Dam Square in Amsterdam,” 1668
Collection of Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

The highlight of the new gallery layout, however, is a long-term loan from the Koninklijk Museum voor  Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde’s Dam Square in Amsterdam [left] of 1668.  Recently treated by IMA paintings conservators, this is the artist’s largest and most vibrant interpretation of this site. The painting shows the “eighth wonder of the world,” the classicizing Amsterdam Town Hall (Stadhuis), overlooking the boxy Renaissance Weigh House (Waag) and the chancel and spire of the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk). The square, which bustles today with tourists as it bustles with magistrates and merchants in Berckheyde’s painting, occupied a central place in the Dutch national identity in the 17th century.

The cornerstone of the new Town Hall was laid on Oct. 20, 1648, in celebration of the Treaty of Westphalia, the agreement that officially recognized the Dutch Republic’s independence from Spain. The entire visual program of the building’s exterior is crafted, in fact, to speak to this newly gained freedom. The tympanum on the east façade displays the enthroned maid of Amsterdam surrounded by water creatures, who offer her crowns of laurel. This carved relief is surmounted by three free-standing sculpted figures; on the two sides stand Prudence and Justice. The figure of Peace crowns the pediment and holds aloft an olive branch, symbolizing peace, and the caduceus of Mercury, an allusion to wisdom and trade. Even the classicism of the architecture – the rounded arches of the ground-floor doorways, the prominent Composite and Corinthian pilasters on the second and third levels, the sculpted tympana, and the carved garlands between the pilasters – is meant to recall the style of that exemplary model of republicanism, Rome. That Peace stands atop a cornucopia, evoking abundance, is fundamental to the Town Hall’s placement on the Dam.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Inherent to sustaining this freedom is the economic and civic activity that we see depicted in a variety of forms in Berckheyde’s painting. The Weigh House, where imported cargo of more than 50 pounds was weighed upon entrance to the city, is the locus around which men roll barrels of wine [Fig. 2], horses pull heavy loads, and money exchanges hands. In front of it, a small fruit market marks the morning, while the buildings on the square’s south side (at the left of the painting) bear signs indicating a printseller and a notary [Fig. 3]. Even the pockets of magistrates chatting before heading into their chambers in the Town Hall suggest a thriving society. Berckheyde, who has animated the square here with more citizens than in most of his other versions, demonstrates the Dam to be a vibrant, essential location in the city.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

A more enlightening painting could not inaugurate the new gallery hanging. An expression of Holland’s new identity as a prosperous republic of the North, Berckheyde’s scene records the physical and cultural topography of Holland’s most important city. The artist’s brilliant sense of light and color, however, captivates the eye as it informs the mind, making the painting a welcomed temporary addition to our museum. Be sure to come see the new installation and admire Berckheyde’s painting!

 

 

Style and Science: Assessing a Rembrandt, Part 2

Today's blogger is Jacquelyn N. Coutré, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Curatorial Fellow, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800.

Figure 1:  Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Self-Portrait, about 1629 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of the Clowes Fund, C10063

Figure 1: Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Self-Portrait, about 1629
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of the Clowes Fund, C10063

In the last posting on the Rembrandt self-portrait in the Clowes Collection (Fig. 1), we considered how art historians evaluated its status according to characteristics visible on the picture’s surface. But we can also gather scientific data to support this stylistic analysis.

In the early 1980s, IMA conservator David A. Miller examined the surface of the painting with a stereomicroscope and looked below its surface using X-rays (Fig. 3). The high magnification showed the “RHL” monogram to be contemporary with the painting, which means that it was applied while the painting was still wet. The x-radiograph, in turn, provided important insights into the artist’s creative process. It illustrates, in fact, two significant changes below the surface: the beret was originally poised more squarely on the head, and the contour of the proper left shoulder had previously extended further to the right. In other words, the artist had made changes to his painting while working on it, changes that would not have been visible to a student in his workshop or a later artist making a copy. The best of the other versions of this painting, the one in Atami, Japan, shows a strong correlation between the surface and underlying layers – telling evidence for the Atami version being a copy after the Clowes original! (It also omits those pesky pimples.)

Figure 3: X-radiograph of Figure 1

Figure 3: X-radiograph of Figure 1

But could the Clowes panel have been done by a later artist in order to look like a painting by the 17th-century master?

The investigations of Peter Klein, a wood biologist at the University of Hamburg, in 1999 help us to understand more about the panel upon which the painting was executed. It is made of oak and comes from the Baltic region, a profile typical of panels used by 17th-century Dutch artists. Relying on the facts that tree rings grow at different rates in different years and that trees of the same species in a particular region will show similar growth patterns, Dr. Klein has determined that the youngest growth ring in our panel dates to 1581. Add on a few years for the panel to dry and become less porous, and the painting could have been executed as early as 1598. While this may seem quite a few years before our estimated date of c. 1629, it confirms that the panel was ready to be used during Rembrandt’s lifetime.

Combining the stylistic and technical evidence yields the conclusion that our painting is indeed a self-portrait by Rembrandt. What was first supported only by connoisseurship is now augmented by scientific study – a wonderful demonstration of the important role that science plays in the museum.

 

Style and Science: Assessing a Rembrandt, Part 1

Today's blogger is Jacquelyn N. Coutré, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Curatorial Fellow, European Painting and Sculpture before 1800.

Figure 1:  Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Self-Portrait, about 1629 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of the Clowes Fund, C10063

Figure 1: Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Self-Portrait, about 1629
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Courtesy of the Clowes Fund, C10063

A portrait (Fig. 1) hanging in the Clowes Library has charmed visitors for decades with its vivid lifelikeness. The energetic curls, the fleshy and youthful cheeks, the breath that hovers upon the parted lips all evoke the presence of a living man before our eyes. It has long been called an early self-portrait by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), which is substantiated by a monogram (Fig. 2) – “RHL”, for “Rembrandt Harmenszoon of Leiden” – in the lower right corner. But scholars have cast doubts upon the identification of the sitter and the attribution to Rembrandt, calling it a workshop copy after an original by Rembrandt, a portrait of Rembrandt by a fellow painter, and even a self-portrait by one of Rembrandt’s students 30 years after his apprenticeship with the master. Factor in the existence of six painted variations of this work, and the possibilities are dizzying! How has the IMA determined that the Clowes painting is authentic?

Comparison with other paintings from the same period is the first step. Connoisseurs have observed similarities in physiognomy to other self-portraits from Rembrandt’s Leiden period (c. 1625-1631) in works found in Amsterdam, Munich, Boston, and Liverpool. Features like the bulbous nose, penetrating eyes, and slightly cleft chin point clearly to Rembrandt as the sitter.

In the early 1980s, IMA curator Anthony F. Janson saw a resemblance in execution between the Clowes panel and the self-portraits in Boston and Liverpool. He observed the use of scoring with the butt end of the paintbrush in the curls of the hair, the short hairs of the beard, and even in the lower lip to articulate volume and texture, a technique visible in the Amsterdam, Munich, and Boston self-portraits. Janson also drew comparisons between the flesh tones in the Boston painting and our panel, as well as in the execution of the scarf.

Figure 2: “RHL” monogram

Figure 2: “RHL” monogram

Further confirmation was offered by the leader of the Rembrandt Research Project, Ernst van de Wetering, in 2007. Having studied the monograms on Rembrandt’s early paintings, Van de Wetering observed that the monogram on the Clowes panel corresponds to those found on the artist’s works dating to a very short period, between late 1627 and 1629.

But is this enough information to say with confidence that our panel was executed by Rembrandt? Could it have been done by a very talented student, or perhaps a 19th-century copyist? Stay tuned for Part 2, in which scientific evidence is marshaled in support of the attribution to Rembrandt.

 

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