30 June 2015

Rembrandt - Old and New Testament

No other old masters, in any country or any century, showed as much interest in Jewish people or Jewish themes as did Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) in the Netherlands. Other painters, eg Grunewald, Durer and Bosch, did occasional Old Testament scenes, but almost always from a Christological point of view. Their Old Testament stories were only important in as far as they could prefigure New Testament events. So I take note of the mid C17th in the Netherlands; it was one of those very rare periods in art history when Jewish images were beautifully painted by stout Calvinists. As we can see in Rembrandt and colleagues: the Book of Esther.

Comm­erce had exp­an­ded to the ext­ent that the Dutch Republic had become the cul­turally and eco­n­om­ically most flourishing country in Europe. Much of the wealth and beauty of this city emerged be­cause of the Iberian Jews escaping op­p­ress­ion in their own lands. They set­t­led around Waterloo­p­l­ein, to the southern part of Amsterdam, and helped est­ab­l­ish a number of important in­dustries. Fortunately by the begin­ning of the C17th, Jews in Holland were al­lowed to pr­actise their religion freely.

Rembrandt had painted in Amsterdam before, but he only moved permanently to the capital in 1631 where he was learning with Pieter Lastman (died 1633). Lastman did a number of fine Old Testament subjects and it will not surprise us that Rembrandt's early work took much from the old artist - his themes, and also his sense of light and scale. See Lastman's Triumph of Mordechai 1624, for example.

Rembrandt married Saskia van Uyl­en­­burgh, a wealthy wo­m­an. This allowed him to live a life of comfort and joy, and to buy a house in the main Jewish area of Amsterdam: Jod­en­breestraat. Rembrandt was a Calvinist in good standing with his own church and, at the same time, was socially and geographically very close to the city's Se­phardi commun­ity. 

Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1631
58 × 46 cm.

Normally at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

St Peter in Prison, 
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, 1631
59 × 48 cm.

Israel Museum, Jerusaem

The exhibition "Rembrandt from Amsterdam and Jerusalem: A meeting of two masterpieces at the Israel Museum" was introduced in artdaily. Two very early Rembrandt master-pieces are displayed side by side. The Prophet Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem is on special loan from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam for the Israel Museum's 50th anniversary. St Peter in Prison 1631 is from the Israel Museum's own collection.

There is an obvious resemblance between the two paintings. The modern viewer is drawn to the figure in the centre, an elderly bearded man whose face was filled with sadness and despair, raising an intriguing question: Did Rembrandt wish to draw attention to a special connection he noted between the prophet and the apostle, or is it simply that he had painted the same elderly model in both paintings?

Exhibition curator Shlomit Steinberg noted a 650-year gap between the two events described in the paintings. Nevertheless both took place in Jerusalem near Mount Moriah, and they both showed a great personal crisis that had implications of a historical and fatalistic nature. The prophet Jeremiah mourned the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, while Jesus’ senior apostle St. Peter found himself locked up in gaol. As Peter entirely dependent on the whims of the Roman soldiers, he had good reason to fear for his future.

It is quite possible that the great similarity was mainly due to the fact that Rembrandt worked from the same model, probably a neighbour or acquaintance. Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, his studio partner, regularly painted this particular elderly man. His face was full of expression thanks to his white beard, high forehead and his bleary eyes, befitting the figure of a prophet or of Jesus’ tormented emissary. In both paintings, Rembrandt clearly described the moments of anxiety, doubt and desolation of the protagonists.

In both of these small oil paintings on wood, Rembrandt worked in his typical style, creating a high contrast between light and dark. This helped in deciphering his messages, both explicit and implicit, religious and human. Another important motif was the monumental pillar which appeared in both paintings, standing for the steadfast belief of those sitting at its feet. The artist's reference for the symbol were the pillars in Peterskerk in Rembrandt’s old hometown of Leiden.

Because it is important for the modern viewer to grasp some of Rembrandt's sources of inspiration, the exhibition includes examples of Rembrandt's prints on Biblical and New Testament themes by his teacher Peter Lastman. And because it is important to examine other artists who were in turn inspired by Rembrandt, the exhibition includes works by his pupils and followers like Gerrit Dou, Ferdinand Bol, Govaert Flinck and Gabriel Metsu. In particular the viewer should examine The Dismissal of Hagar, a large oil painting by Rembrandt’s pupil Jan Victors and Portrait of an Old Man by his contemporary Salomon Koninck, whose style was clearly influenced by Rembrandt.

"Rembrandt from Amsterdam and Jerusalem: A meeting of two masterpieces at the Israel Museum" is on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem throughout June, July and August 2015.

27 June 2015

Catherine the Great, The Hermitage and Melbourne's winter blockbuster

Russian Empress Catherine the Great reigned from 1762-1796, a period of cultural renaissance for Russia. She was regarded as the nation’s foremost patron of the arts, literature and education and founded The Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. It is now one of the most visited museums in the world and is renowned for holding the world’s finest collection of the arts.

Works from the Hermitage, gathered by Catherine the Great herself, will go on show at the National Gallery of Victoria as part of the blockbuster Melbourne Winter Masterpieces exhibition series. Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great will feature 400+ works, including paintings by Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rubens and Titian. My personal favourites are the stunning decorative art pieces that display the life and loves of the 18th century's second most important Russian ruler. The programme opens on 31st July and will close on 8th Nov 2015.

Catherine the Great,
by Alexander Roslin,
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

This Melbourne exhibition will concentrate on Catherine's commitment to the arts as a tool for education, dip­lomacy and cultural exchange that heralded a long period of enlightenment in Russia. The commissions and purchases during her 34-year reign created the foundations for the Hermitage AND, it would be no exaggeration to say, contributed to nation building and cultural identity.

I knew quite a lot about Russian collecting patterns in the 18th cemtury, but Mikhail Dedinkin* from the Dept of Western Art at the Hermitage added far more information. From the beginning of her reign in 1762, Catherine the Great became a very knowledgeable person in the field of fine arts, without visiting Italy, France or Germany. She educated herself slowly, step by step, starting with the first load of paintings that arrived from a Berlin collection: 13 Rembrandt paintings, 11 Rubens, 7 Jacob Jordaens, 5 Anthony van Dycks, 5 Paolo Veroneses, 3 Frans Hals, 2 Raphaels, 2 Holbeins, a Titian, 2 Jan Steen and other Dutch artists. She had enough treasures to open the Hermitage in 1764 in a small way, separate from her own residences.

Some collections came to Russia in toto. In 1779 the Empress acquired 200 paintings that had belonged to the British statesman-collector Robert Walpole. Inspect the very large David Teniers II painting, The Kitchen 1646, which arrived in Russia as part of this Walpole collection. Two years later a set of 120 paintings arrived from the French collector Comte de Baudouin. Melbourne visitors can examine Rembrandt's portrait of the Young Woman With Earrings 1657, acquired by the Hermitage in 1781 from the Comte's treasures.

Young Woman With Earrings 
by Rembrandt, 
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

There was no systematic approach in the early years, and the first catalogue was not published until 1776. Catherine was guided by her team of advisers, based in either St Petersburg or abroad. Prince Gallitzin, who was the Russian ambas­s­ador in France and then in the Netherlands, was the greatest adviser of them all. He knew the most important artists of his time, as well as the critics and dealers, and Catherine absolutely trusted him.

If Catherine put her individual stamp on any particular part of the collection, it was in the library. It became the greatest library in Russia, con­sis­t­ing of 40,000+ volumes, together with the archives of significant writers and philosophers. Her most famous collections were the comp­lete libraries of Voltaire and Diderot. She remained closely connect­ed to Voltaire until his death, and when Diderot had a problem publishing his encyclopaedia in Paris, she purchased his library and appointed him as her official librarian there.

Catherine had quite broad tastes, so along with the very fine oil paintings, there were also sculptures, Chinese treasures, archit­ect­ural works and decorative arts. Peter the Great and his daughter Empress Elizabeth both loved Chinese art, especially since there were important trading connections between Russia and its neighbour to the east. Catherine, very naturally, continued this interest. Her Chinese collection was not huge, but it was magnificent. 

Part of a porcelain table setting of 60+ pieces that Catherine the Great commissioned 
from the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory in Paris
for her lover Prince Grigory Potemkin in 1777
Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

In conjunction with the art exhibition, the Consort of Melbourne will perform harmonies of European choral music from the C18th. The live performances will include the works of composers Vedel, Berezovsky and Bortniansky. *Readers may want to find Mikhail Dedinkin's article which appeared in Gallery Magazine, published by the National Gallery of Victoria, July-August 2015.

23 June 2015

Savile Club Mayfair and the British-American connection

Each gentleman's club, at least in London, wanted to appeal to a particular population. The Carlton Club, for example, had a strong interest in Tory politics while the Garrick Club loved the theatre.

The Savile Club was a gentlemen's club founded in London in 1868 by a group of distinguished writers and artists. So famous were they that Garrett Anderson* wrote in the club’s history: The Savile has provided a welcome haven for some of Britain's leading poets; Hardy, Bridges, Newbolt, Kipling and Yeats were but the forerunners of a disting­uish­ed line which continues to the present day. Christopher Isherwood, John Betjeman, Cecil Day-Lewis, Stephen Spender, W.H Auden and their colleagues came later. Mayfair may not have been the main centre of London's gentlemen's clubs, but the literary set loved it.

At first called the New Club, the space overlooking Trafal­gar Square became too small. So the premises were moved to 12 Savile Row in 1871 and the organisation started to call itself the Savile Club. Later still, in 1882, they moved to 107 Piccadilly. The gentleman enjoyed the views over Green Park, whiskey in hand.

The final move came in 1927 when the club settled into its present home at 69 Brook St, part of the Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair. The Duke of Westminster had granted leases to build in Brook St Mayfair way back in the 1720s but now I want to focus on three important families who were connected to the house from the 1880s on:

1] The house had been beautifully renovated and decorated in the 1850s. Nonetheless when American banker Walter Hayes Burns acquired the Brook St house in 1884, he redesigned it to his own taste. The old Mayfair home became a modern Edwardian town house, a combination of Nos 69 and 71 Brook St. Burns had wanted to rebuild in red brick but the Duke thought this might make the adjoining houses look bad, and it was therefore agreed that the front should not be red. Painted cement was adopted instead, as was the same rather ordinary classical style. The only feature of marked individuality is the rectangular first-floor bay window projecting on brackets and the window ironwork.

2] Walter Burns married Mary Lyman Morgan, the daughter of the ext­remely wealthy American banker, Junius Spencer Morgan. She was also the sister of John Pierpont Morgan, the staggeringly wealthy Amer­ic­an financier, banker and art collector. Walter Burns later became a par­tner in his father in law’s bank and his representative in Britain.

3] After Walter Burns died in 1897, his daughter Mary married 1st Viscount Harcourt and made the Brook St house their marital home. A Liberal cabinet minister under H H Asquith and a trustee for the British Museum, Wallace Collection, London Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, Lord Harcourt suicided in the house in 1922. He was trying to avert a scandal soon after his secret life as a rampant paedophile and sex offender had been publicised.

Savile Club bar

Savile Club dining room

Savile Club's grand staircase

The Brook St house as enjoyed by Americans Walter & Mary Burns

Burns used the Dutch-French architect William Bouwens van de Boijen of Paris, a man who specialised in Classical styles. I am assuming that as Paris was the centre of the civilised world, Burns wanted his London home to be very civilised. The flashy C18th-type interior warmed Burns' heart; he had adapted it for his wife so that she could entertain in the manner befitting her station in life. It thus included an elegant hall, a grand staircase and a lavish ball­room. I have no doubt that the presence of twenty comfortable bedrooms influenced the committee's decision to adopt 69 Brook Street as The Club's new home in 1927.

The Club’s motto of Sodalitas Convivium suggests sociable comp­an­ion­ship. The advantages of Savile membership included special food and drink, good conversation, bridge, poker and snooker. The dining room included two long club tables, derived from the Club’s original layout. Perhaps the men of the 1920s liked to reminisce about their days back at Oxford and Cambridge, before the nightmare of WW1.

Garrett Anderson* wrote Hang Your Halo in the Hall: History of the Savile Club in December, 1993. Anderson’s writing must have been made more difficult because of a fire in the 1970s that destroyed many of the club's records. Clive Aslet discussed the phenomenon of the rich American couple, travelling for long periods between the cultural highpoints of Europe. Perhaps Edith Wharton had Walter Hayes Burns and Mary Morgan Burns in mind when she was writing her novels.

Left: Walter Hayes Burns
by Hubert von Herkomer
140 x 109 cm, 1895
Collection: National Trust

Right: Mary Morgan, Mrs Walter Hayes Burns
by James Sant, 
200 x 126 cm, date? 
Collection: National Trust