Given the content and nature of this exhibition, I really hadn’t given this exhibition at the Rijksmuseum Twente much time or thought. I visited it in January; it began in September. The subject of the exhibition is Gerard de Lairesse, is one of the lesser known painters of the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ of the late seventeenth century. It was only on account of the gallery’s proximity to the railway station that I even bothered to go – I was suffering from the after effects of back pain and didn’t want to venture too far. The coffee in the gallery’s restaurant is enough to tempt any mortal soul. That was the real reason for me to go.
Most of the pictures I saw were what I would consider ordinary. Nothing special, even if they were well executed. Even beautiful in their own, plodding sameness. De Lairesse provides good images, but lacks in engagement – something that the previous exhibition about Gainsborough was crammed full of (1).
My own choice is for a painting to come to life when one looks at it; de Lairesse pleases only the eye, not the eye of the mind. Or, come to that, the ear. Tom Thomson’s “Maple Woods” which I saw in Groningen several years ago was so evocative that I could hear the birds sing. The paintings by de Lairesse are merely illustrations.
Nevertheless, I did spot a remarkable painting depicting the expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple in Jerusalem. The focus of the painting shows Heliodorus after he’s been caught in the act by a horseman and an angel, both of whom appeared as the result of prayers by one of the temple’s priests.
Heliodorus In Trouble.
Heliodorus was sent by the Greek king of Syria to take a peek at the temple in Jerusalem, to evaluate its wealth. We can see this depicted in the foreground, with the gold plate and the treasury box that has been flung open. Both show the opulence of the temple’s wealth, and that with a skill in depiction that is the result of long hours behind the brush and a huge native talent.
In the tale, the priest prayed to those on high and was heard. Well, again we have the beneficence of those upstairs on us, we low, humile humans. For someone like de Lairesse, establishing a higher authority is important. No doubt those who commissioned his work thought along similar lines. Thus it was that God intervened to show how higher authority was good for mankind so it came to pass that a horseman and two angels were inspired to come and evict the hapless Heliodorus from the temple.
Suffice it to say that Heliodorus had a hard time of it. You can see his terror, you can imagine why with the horse’s hooves so close to his fragile bones. Heliodorus’ eyes are wide, and de Lairesse has made them the greater with that tiniest of white flecks that brings them to life. De Lairesse certainly knew how to depict terror. It’s easier than the smile that Frans Hals was so adept at capturing, nevertheless, terror isn’t far behind.
De Lairesse expressed his view clearly: only the correct theories could produce art and beauty. Putting this the other way around, for him, art arises through the strict adherence to the rules. This can only mean that he was unaware of the wellspring of his own talents. After all, were he aware of this, he’d not have rabbited on about rules, authorities and all the rest of that clutter.
Communicating emotion is one of the hardest things any artist can do, and each artist does this in their own way. Today, they run away from it as so many do with their abstractions and excuses; Malevich being one such (3).
The painting is wall to wall carpeting, as it were. Every corner of the picture is embellished with the kind of detail that the intellectual mind gasps for. Nothing is left to the imagination, as is the case with the painters already mentioned. Rembrandt or Frans Hals also spring to mind. Leaving nothing to the imagination is great for those who aren’t in the possession of it, but it’s dull stuff for those who do.
But de Lairesse wasn’t selling to me, was he? He wasn’t out to please the likes of me, even if I had the kind of money to buy one of his masterpieces.
Because the Amsterdammers were pleased by it, Amsterdam was immensely rich at the time, and his style which was both colourful and detailed was something that pleased the rich. Some houses in Amsterdam still house his paintings. De Lairesse even found himself employed by the highest in the realm. That is to say, he was asked to do some paintings to decorate the royal palace at Soestdijk.
De Lairesse’s Top Down Thinking.
This was at a time when humanity hadn’t quite grasped the challenges of our modern age. This is hardly surprising when it had barely dawned. Even so, there were those who were embarking on the challenges of our modern age. This demands the equality of all humans, and painters like Rembrandt and Frans Hals demonstrated this because they portrayed ordinary people. Even beggars and black people.
De Lairesse, would have none of this. Betraying his intellectual nature, believed beauty came from on high – as everything else that was good (think about how in our modern times we have ‘trickle down economics’ this is the same ineffective thinking at work). Indeed, the painting by Raphael on this theme took the line that it was wrong to steal from the church.
De Lairesse considered that those who were ‘below’ could not appreciate beauty, nor could they express it. Had I been alive at the time, it is clear that Gerard de Lairesse would have walked past me rather than talk to me. Equality is what makes us human (2).
Gerard de Lairesse lived at a time when running away hadn’t yet dawned on the European mind. He simply got on with the task at hand.
Blue As The Central Motif.
If there is one thing that strikes one, it is the blues of the robe of the angel. Amsterdam was waking from its Protestant monochrome and the rich were delighting in colour. Here, de Lairesse uses blue in a way that is quite at odds with the nature of blue itself: the colour stands out. Usually blue is a modest, retreating colour that is used to emphasize the background. Indeed, in the required opening to the heavens near the top of the painting, the blue is subdued and distant.
In the robes it strikes one with the force that is quite the equal of the red robes of the earthly helpers. Red is a colour that stands out, grabs your attention. But here, it is blue that takes on this role as well. But then, that’s probably why this topic was chosen for a composition…
In our day and age, pigments and the paints they lead to are just another colour. We can daub and splash as we choose, albeit good quality oil paints are still expensive. Only this is late seventeenth century Amsterdam: the seat of wealth itself. Even Londoners were amazed at the richness of the houses along the canalsides – some of which are still adorned with a ceiling by de Lairesse. The point here is that at the time, the pigments were limited to that which the earth yielded. Blue was a particular problem, with some being weak, others not light fast.
This blue, however is ultramarine.
Of course you will know the name, it’s famous. It is the ultimate blue. Now imagine a small tube of paint that in today’s prices would cost around $3,000. Okay, so it would be bought as the raw pigment and ground into the oil to make the paint – a job for the apprentices. It is a slow and laborious process that you can watch today at Rembrandt’s house, now a museum in Amsterdam. Ultramarine was considerably more expensive than gold; anybody who could afford a dab of this blue was showing how rich they were. To use a whole tube of it on one painting was to show a richness beyond the average, even for Amsterdam’s newly found exuberance.
Breaking His Own Rules.
On the whole, even with the striking, not to say unusual use of blue, the painting itself is run of the mill. Hardly surprising given that de Lairesse worked by his self-imposed rule book: rule books are not creative and do not lead to creativity. De Lairesse broke his own rules. He wouldn’t be an artist if he didn’t: creativity knows no bounds nor will it be constrained. But that is largely how we come to form rules for ourselves: they are the vacant hat peg we look at when we’re too busy and too frustrated when looking for a lost hat. The hat that is on our head. We’re simply too busy to have noticed its being there. That it is forgotten doesn’t mean it’s not there – and this is the cornerstone of my posts in my series ‘Beyond Newton’. Newton was not only a contemporary of de Lairesse, he thought along the same lines.
With the same consequences. Living nature is creative, and thus does not fit mechanical, earthly rules (4).
I am certain that de Lairesse was unaware of his ability to depict emotion, and emotions are, if nothing else, impossible to contain by the setting of hard and fast rules of the kind the intellectual mind dreams up. I wonder if he even recognized just how good he was at depicting terror. He probably just thought it part of the day job.
It’s how the intellectual mind works.
The exhibition ‘Eindelijk De Lairesse’ was held at the Rijksmuseum Twente in Enschede and ended on the 22nd January. As you can probably tell, I wasn’t overawed by what I saw.
(1) See my posts on Thomas Gainsborough (click here) and Frans Hals.
(2) My Most Powerful Weapon.
(3) For more on this, see my post: Malevich: The Supremacy Of Pure Feeling
(4) This for a forthcoming post on irrational numbers. No! Don’t run away! It’ll be explained in ordinary English. This stuff might fly over your head, but if you live your life amongst humans, it is they who will evoke a long forgotten thought that you read here. That is why I write this stuff: so that you can be reminded of it in a situation where you can use it for yourself. Reflecting on this as we all do will lead to its becoming conscious. I don’t mind if you forgot it was I who said these things; my wish is that at some point they are remembered.