On looking at Dutch paintings and Rest on the Flight to Egypt

by J. Streker

Every art history student has to take a class on the history of viewing art, and the frameworks used by practicing art historians.  The readings discussed on this blog for the past week were jumping into the deep end of just a few of these frames and how they can be applied to Dutch painting.  While the approaches of Berger, Protschky, Zemel, Brusati, and Grootenboer may seem disparate they all are striving for the same thing, a greater understanding and appreciation of works of art.  No singular approach or theory can hold the key to the absolute truth of a piece of work.  However, certain theories reveal things that other cannot, and are able to build on each other.  In this essay, I will be looking at the approaches of the scholars we have read this week and how they apply to a work of art that is different from any of the works discussed in the articles.

In the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a small painting called Rest on the Flight to Egypt painted in the manner of Jan Bruegel, and even bearing a false signature of the famous artist.  This was one of the paintings I took notes on earlier this week, and I am choosing to write about it here because of how different it is from the works looked at by any of the scholars, and I want to push the limits of their approaches and see how their theories and frameworks apply to pieces, that perhaps they’re not meant to be applied to.

The painting depicts two adults, one baby, and a donkey resting by the trunk of a giant tree than takes up the majority of the composition.  The central tree is actually two trees that have grown together and the branches have intertwined as such it is difficult to decipher which leaves and branches belong to which trunk. A small stream runs behind the central tree and the rest of the background is occupied with other trees and flora, save a small bit of sky that peaks in from the right edge of the painting.  At the bottom of the bit of sky are two more large tree trunks, these two, however, are either the trunks of two destroyed trees, or the one on the left is the trunk and the right bit of tree is from the same trunk but has fallen over the stream and created a natural archway.  The juxtaposition of the two growing healthy tree and the two bits of old, rotted, destroyed bits of tree is very intriguing.  The trio of figures appears to have found the only non-densely populated area of the forest they are in to take a short break so the mother can nurse the child.  Initially the humans seem to bee the only signs of non-vegetal life in the forest, but upon closer looking the viewer can see three small birds scattered throughout the painting and camouflaged in with their surroundings.  Given that the size of this painting is only 16 x 12 centimeters the detailing of the birds, the texture of the trees, and the readability of the scene is a sign of the ability of the artist.

Berger’s emphasis on complete understanding of the history of a scene in order to understand a work takes an interesting turn when applied to biblical scenes.  The Flight to Egypt is the story of the Holy Family, Mary, Jesus, and Joseph, fleeing to Egypt after learning of King Harod’s plan to kill all the infants in the area.  This is a scene and a story that would have been known by pretty much all residents of the Netherlands in the 17th century, as it was a popular story and artistic trope.  Berger’s method is limited to historical scenes, commissions by guilds, portraits to an extent.  Knowing the history of a biblical scene was not that uncommon at the time, but nowadays it is less and less common, so knowing what the Flight to Egypt was is important for modern viewers.  Applying Berger’s methods to this painting is a funny balance of knowing the story being depicted which is grounded in religious history but doesn’t require the same amount of research and understanding that Berger goes through in his own article.

Here is when we begin to see two frameworks find common ground.  Protschky also focused on history, in her case history of colonial Dutch Indies and the still lives produced there, but instead of just focusing on the history of fruits, she looks at the history of their depiction in art, merging the more historical approach of Berger with the art historical context.  The “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” was a common scene in art history what makes the one in the Rijksmuseum stand out is the diminutive size of the Holy Family versus their surroundings, and the environment they are set in.   Only dated sometime in the 17th century, we can’t pinpoint exactly when this image occurred in the history of landscapes, but the 17th century did see the rise of nature in art and paintings of landscapes for landscapes sake.  Landscapes have always served an important role in art, whether or not they have were the focus of a particular work.  Landscapes serve to situate a scene in geography, and as we see in the painting, this is clearly not the landscape of the Middle East.  The artist is placing the Holy Family in a northern European forest, a setting that would have been familiar to any Dutch viewer, taking the trio out of their own time and placing it in his own the artist is making the meaning and message of the Holy Family’s flight more immediate to his own viewers.  The story of a family fleeing because of persecution would have made a lot of sense in the early 17th century when the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation was still volatile.  Protschky’s approach to looking at a work through comparisons to other contemporaneous works, and by acknowledging and discussing contemporary events and views on life is extremely applicable to Rest on the Flight to Egypt.

Zemel’s focus on the ghosts of Van Gogh’s depictions of Brabant weavers also brings an interesting view to the table. Zemel goes out of her way to look at figures that have been marginalized in the paintings and in history.  Certainly, the Holy Family has not been marginalized in history, one could argue they are amongst the most influential people whoever graced this earth, but in this painting, they could be easily overlooked in favor of the artist’s beautiful rendering of nature.  Not only dwarfed by the great tree at the center of the composition, Joseph almost seems to be enveloped in shadow in comparison to his wife and their newborn who have a gentle light on them.  This light isn’t even centered on the Virgin Mary or the Christ Child.  It comes in from the left of image and hits the tree and the dirt just to Mary’s right, the light that hits her and her child is just the edge of this sunbeam, and the sun beam almost seems to put focus on the tree and the mysterious hole between the two trunks.

Brusati’s method of looking at Dutch paintings is a little harder to apply to this paintings as the perspective and movement is a little stagnant.  It is not completely inapplicable though.  The stream that runs through the image brings the viewers eye across the Holy Family incorporates them as part of a holistic scene.  The eye is drawn to the light patches of the piece including the bit of the steam in the left of the composition, the eye then moves to the center patch of light in front of the central tree, moving up from the rumpled fabric on the ground, to the figure of Mary, then to Joseph and finally connected back to the end of the stream the goes through the fallen trees in the background.  While not initially super apparent the atmospheric perspective of the darkness behind them and the light in front does enforce the hopefulness, and the light at the end of the family’s present predicament.  I don’t know if I would have noticed this artistic device if I wasn’t applying all the methods to this painting.  It’s subtle but effective in its use of perspective and lighting to create movement in an otherwise steadfast scene.

Finally, Grootenboer.  Grootenboer’s argument is focused solely on the theatricality of portraits.  Rest on the Flight from Egypt is far from a portrait.  The “sitters,” if we even feel comfortable using that term, are known individuals but they are not there for the artist to reference, nor can he use his memory of previous encounters as they lived around 1600 years before this was painted.  The Holy Family does not have an intention in how they are portrayed in this image, the intention is purely on behalf of the painter.  Mary was only painted from life by one artist, St. Luke, and I would be interested in looking at portrayals of that portrait sitting now looking as Grootenboer did.  Grootenboer’s argument simply cannot be applied to non-portrait paintings.  However, the notion of theatricality and actors on a stage I think sheds an interesting light on the use of northern landscape discussed earlier.  The actors, the Holy Family, are set on an unfamiliar stage, almost like how theatre groups today set Shakespearean plays in the 1930’s, 60’s, 2000’s, or the dystopian future it established the meaning of the play in something the audience is more familiar with making it easier to understand what is going on during that awkward time at the beginning of any Shakespeare play when you have to get used to the language being used.  The artist of this painting sets familiar players on a stage that is alien to the subjects, but familiar to the contemporary viewer.  While not a direct application of Grootenboer’s thesis or methods, the theatre is an interesting framework to look at figural paintings beyond just portraiture.

Not every method of viewing is a natural fit.  I myself felt like I was stretching the scholar’s initial intentions and methods when applying some of them to this painting, but that is the great thing about looking and applying new frameworks, you begin to see new things in a work of art you may not have noticed before and trying to apply something that doesn’t seem to fit exposes the limits of all the other methods as well.  Viewing isn’t a one size fits all type of thing.  Everyone’s brain works differently sees certain aspects first, no matter how much an artist tries to manipulate the viewer everyone in this class can look at the same piece of art and walk away feeling something different.

 

References

Berger Jr, Harry. ‘Supposing Rembrandt’s The Night Watch.” The Virginia Quarterly Review. Winter 2007. Vol. 83. No. 1. ProQuest. Web.

Brusati, Celeste. “Perspective in Flux: Viewing Dutch Pictures in Real Time.” Association of Art Historians. 2012. Web.

Bruegel, Jan (in the manner of).  Rest on the Flight to Egypt.  1600-1699.  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.  Web.

Grootenboer, Hanneke. “How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits,” Association of Art Historians. 2010. Web.

Protschky, Susie. “Dutch Still Lifes and Colonial Visual Culture in the Netherlands Indies, 1800-1949.” Association of Art Historians. 2011. Web.

Zemel, Carol. “The ‘Spook’ in the Machine: Van Gogh’s Pictures of Weavers in Brabant.” The Art Bulletin. Vol. 67. No. 1. 1985. Jstor. Web.

 

 

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