Zach Lehan: August 7th, 2020
My museum visits have always involved a typical pattern:
Step 1: Get a guidebook and note the highlights (cannot miss these or I did not get my money’s worth);
Step 2: Upon museum entry, get a map and plan an efficient way through all of the highlights;
Step 3: Read any museum labels before observing the paintings and other art, mostly at face value.
I think the best way to describe this process is that I have minimized the potential of my museum visit because I have considered the visit akin to a task. In retrospect, a visit dedicated to a few (or even one or two) pieces of art would have been more interesting. Additionally, my primary focus, the notoriety of the art, should not have been the deciding factor. What is relevant is how the art resonates in my core.
Does it make me think? Do I consider history? Do I consider how the artist is using perspective to convey a message for me to decode?
Jan Weenix’s painting of Admiral Gilles Schey inspires me to consider these prompts.
Allison Blakely’s, Blacks In The Dutch World, tells us that through Dutch art, we can learn how Black people are perceived in Holland in the respective times of the artist’s depiction. She goes on to consider how this has evolved from pre-slavery to post-slavery. Weenix’s painting was from 1693. At this time, slaves were common in Holland. We know this because the Dutch slave coast was established in 1660. The Dutch Slave coast was essentially a series of trading posts in modern-day Ghana and Nigeria that were used to capture, enslave, and transport Black people to the Americas and Europe (including Holland). Slavery was common throughout the Western World until the mid to late 1800s. In 1814, the Netherlands halted their slave trade and in 1863 they abolished their last slave colony.
Using Blakely’s analysis, we look at the young boy at the feet of the Admiral. He is frail, cowering, submissive, and he is dismissed by the Admiral. Even the dog at the Admiral’s feet exudes dominance over the poor boy. Using Blakely’s lessons, we understand that at this period of time, Dutch society views Black people as inferior to White people.
Looking beyond the historical meaning of this painting, it is revealing to consider Weenix’s perspective. Celeste Brusati provides great context on the Perspective Theory of Dutch Art. Brusati tells us that in order to fully appreciate artwork, one must immerse oneself in the art. An individual must consider the details from all perspectives. A great example of this is Ludolf Bakhuysen’s 1696, Warships During a Storm, created three years after the painting of the Admiral. In the picture above, it was tough for me at first to determine the perspective and wind direction. Why does Bakhuysen paint in such a complex way?
We learned that Bakhuysen was so focused on perspective that he would paint a single picture from several different perspectives. In this case, this serves to convey a sense of ultimate chaos. This chaos is amplified by the use of varied light in the sky, and in the churning sea. The small seagulls serve to add further perspective and scale to the size of the ships and the waves.
Bakhuysen’s depiction of wind in Warships During a Storm is used to amplify the sense of ultimate chaos. At first glance, I initially thought that the wind was coming from a singular direction. As my analysis continued, I began to suspect that there were two different wind directions. I used this assumption to further my analysis of the chaos, potentially as a passage of time in the portrait. I consulted with a friend, a much better sailor than I, and he agreed with my conclusion of two different wind directions. We looked more into the ships of the time, the physics of how they sailed, and considered how the true wind and apparent wind would shape the luff of each sail and the flags. After a lengthy back and forth, we concluded that while there could be slight wind shifts, the overall direction is consistent. This was a very interesting process for me. I do not have much of a background in art, but I used what skills I did have to help my analysis. Ironically, my initial assumption was the same as my final conclusion. Even if I stopped at my incorrect wind analysis, this process allowed me to gain a further understanding of the Bakhuysen’s painting and perspective.
Weenix also uses important perspective cues to convey a message of the Admiral’s power. The Admiral, though only in his office, is donning a nearly full suit of armor. This is certainly used to establish a sense of power. We also see a globe in his office. This is telling us that this is a worldly man. The Admiral is also holding a telescope in his right hand, poised next to a battleship that is visible through his window. These are additional cues of power. One has to wonder how Weenix views his works of aristocrats. He is known for his portraits of hunting scenes and dead game. However, his talents drew the attention of many elites in Europe. In this case, is this ostentatious display done to appease the Admiral or as an act of subtle sarcasm? The irony being that a man so fixated on his outward appearances, like the Admiral, would only be pleased to see any additional displays of power and wealth. He would only see them at face value.
Brusati tells us that perspective is not just physical. The use of color to illustrate perspective is a prime example of this. In the painting of Admiral Gilles Shey, Weenix wisely uses dark black to evoke emotions of fear and gloom emitting from the powerful Admiral. The Admiral clearly has the potential of power but is seemingly holding back. His gauntlets lay on the floor, while his feathered helmet is next to the globe. The dog, while fixated on the boy, is heeled back towards the Admiral. The light source comes in from the left, highlighting Dutch colonies on the globe and reflecting off of the Admiral’s dark armor. The horizon under the dark clouds is also brightly lit. Interestingly enough, the source of light leaves a bright circle around the left leg of the boy. There are also white flowers that hover next to the boy’s leg, separating him from the rest of the painting. In Dutch art, white flowers often symbolize purity and humility. I wonder if Weenix is indicating that the boy is pure or if he is furthering his submission?
Both paintings present contrasting views on the limits of man’s power. Weenix tells us that this powerful man, the Admiral, is the master of all: his ship, his crew, the seas, his dog, and the boy. The boy, sadly, is objectified and under the control of the master Admiral. Can a man truly be the master of all? Warships During a Storm shows that even the world’s greatest warships are at the mercy of the elements around them. Without the wind, the ship’s are powerless. Without his crew, the Admiral could not sail. Despite Weenix’s portrayal of the Admiral, no one can be a master of all- especially nature. Sailing necessitates a harmony between the wind, water, and surrounding features. One has to wonder how the Admiral would fare if he left the safety of his harbor and was caught in Bakhuysen’s storm.
I must admit that prior to reading Allison Blakely and Celeste Brusati, I probably would not have given Weenix’s Admiral Gilles Shey a second glance during a visit to a museum. I would have glanced at the Admiral, called him sinister, and felt sorrow for the boy. I would have reviewed Warships During a Storm and imagined the horror of sailing in a storm like that. I would have spent less time looking at both paintings in total than I spent analyzing the wind in Warships During a Storm.
I now know that a museum visit is not a task or checklist, it is a wonderful opportunity to learn about history and to immerse yourself in a work of art. A great experience is not fully felt just by seeing the most famous painting. A great experience is a personal exploration of the artist’s perspective. This can require a reflection of your own perspective and knowledge, even if they are limited. This is similar to the satisfaction of solving a puzzle with one great difference, there is no correct answer. The best answer is the one that resonates in your core. That being said, a face-value analysis is not necessarily invalid. However, it can only scratch the surface with artists like Weenix and Bakhuysen who paint with such intention. When I look at artwork in the future, I will make sure my reflections and analysis extend (and possibly change) following my visit.