Dark Impressions By
At the beginning of the year, the river that runs through the town freezes over. People skate across the ice or push their friends in toboggans. The January sky is dotted with black birds in flight. Barren limbed trees bend in the wind. One woman with a high starched collar warms her hands in a muff.
She alone stares directly into the eyes of the artist Jan van de Velde II, the most arresting character in his series of prints The Twelve Months 1616.
You'll find her In a small dimly lit upstairs gallery at the Cantor Arts Center. The exhibition The Wonder of Everyday LIfe: Dutch Golden Age Prints is an intimate celebration of 17th century Dutch artistry. Rembrandt van Rijn is the star player here. Of course you'll find at least one self-portrait amongst the room full of black and white etchings. But Self-Portrait with Saskia 1636 suffers against the memory of his oil paintings.
In this starker medium, his religious-themed prints compel the eye. Two in particular—The Flight into Egypt 1651 and The Star of the Kings: A Night Piece c. 1651—are so black that it looks like ink has accidentally saturated the paper, swallowing up the original image. To encourage close engagement with the prints, the curators smartly provided several handheld magnifying glasses throughout the gallery. With the glass in hand, secret worlds emerge from inside all that darkness. The unseen narrative reveals itself like a sacred mystery.
Viewers can marvel at the skill with which Rembrandt evokes the feeling of deep night on such a small framed square or rectangle. In comparison, Jan de Baen's approach in The Burning of the Town Hall in Amsterdam 1652 feels contemporary in its reportorial depiction of a building on fire. After this year's election season, de Baen's print is ominously prescient. If it's not a literal rendering of a government house burning down, it certainly works as a sad and moving allegory of one.
In the midst of these colorless portraits, landscapes and biblical scenes, Johannes Teyler's A Bird of Paradise and a Lizard 1680-1690 is a brightly hued stand out. In the 1680s, Teyler developed, and patented, a method to print etchings in color. The anatomical correctness of his bird and lizard may be questionable, as are their open-mouthed gleeful expressions, but it's hard to ignore the bird's rich red breast and the green lizard's pink tongue. It's a primitive but delightful precursor to the work of John James Audubon.
But it's the details of Rembrandt's portraiture and the bucolic village settings by van de Velde that most emphatically reference the "everyday life" of the show's title. The Portrait of Jan Uytenbogaert, Preacher of the Remonstrants 1635 is actually two portraits of the preacher placed side by side. Without a magnifying glass, they appear to be the same. With it, there are subtle changes in the shading of the face and clothing. It was typical of artists like Rembrandt to produce a series of "states" that collectors could buy to see the evolution of a particular work. In this case, Uytenbogaert's status and personality are that much more alive with the slight refinements to his fur-trimmed coat, the ruff around his neck and the shape of his right hand at rest on an open book.
In March, van de Velde's woman returns to the same position on the print as she did in January, with her upright posture and quizzical gaze. He etches her face like a mask. Her eyes, like black pinpoints, are fixed upon the artist sketching her into a harvest scene. She isn't drawn with great complexity but she means something to him. As the months go by, he shows us an agrarian way of life with groups of people at work and at play. There are sheep, bonfires and carriages. Picnics in fields in summer and autumn. And when December arrives, the river has once again frozen over. This time the woman has her back to us, to the unseen viewer. She's on the ice holding hands with a man. Is that van de Velde with her or did she find someone else to skate next to her in the cold? In these small but arresting prints, he and the other artists make everyday life in the 17th century look achingly familiar.
The Wonder of Everyday LIfe: Dutch Golden Age Prints
Thru Mar 20, Free
Cantor Arts Center