Indian Progressive Artists’ Group, New York exhibition

This video from the USA says about itself:

Symposium: The Progressive Artists’ Group — Creating Modern India

NEW YORK, October 25, 2018 — This panel presentation and discussion explores the idea of representing the “progressive” Indian nation through visual, literary, and performing arts by concentrating on the artists included in The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India.

The presenters included University of Washington Associate Professor of Art History Sonal Khullar, Michigan State University Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Art, Art History, and Design Karin Zitzewitz, and The Progressive Revolution guest curator and Courtauld Institute of Art Associate Lecturer Zehra Jumabhoy. The ensuing discussion was moderated by Boon Hui Tan, the vice president of global arts and cultural programs and director of Asia Society Museum. (1 hr., 39 min.)

By Josh Varlin and Evan Cohen:

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India

Modern Indian art at the Asia Society Museum in New York

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India; an exhibition at the Asia Society Museum, New York City through January 20, 2019, curated by Dr. Zehra Jumabhoy and Boon Hui Tan.

Progressive Artists Group exhibition, 1949. Courtesy The Raza Archives, The Raza Foundation, New Delhi, India

The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, an exhibition at the Asia Society Museum in New York City on the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), was a valuable opportunity to view works from one of the most significant groups in Indian modern art. The PAG was founded in 1947 in Bombay (now Mumbai) by several left-leaning artists. After many of its members left India, it disbanded in 1956.

The Progressive Revolution is the first time the original PAG members’ art has been exhibited together outside of India.

The PAG was formed in 1947 and worked in the immediate aftermath of Indian independence and the communal partition between a predominantly Hindu India and an explicitly Muslim Pakistan, during which up to 2 million people were killed in communal violence and 18 million moved across the new borders in the largest human migration in history. The art the PAG produced during this tumultuous period stands as a powerful indictment of communalism, discrimination and the legacy of imperialist domination of the Indian subcontinent.

At the same time, it expresses the hopes of millions that independence would open up a new era of secular and democratic development for India, while articulating limited misgivings about the newly independent India, which saw power transferred to the native bourgeoisie and its Indian National Congress (INC).

This contradictory outlook was a product of the nature of Indian independence. In the last decade of the British Raj, the working class on the subcontinent, inspired by the Russian Revolution, emerged as the major force opposing British imperialism. This process was epitomized in the Quit India movement. This very development caused the Indian bourgeoisie (both Hindu and Muslim) to recoil in terror, relying on communal politics to divide the working class and securing independence via the imperialist-brokered Partition accepted by the bourgeoisie.

The PAG initially included K. H. Ara, S. K. Bakre, H. A. Gade, M. F. Husain, S. H. Raza and F. N. Souza. The Asia Society exhibition also features works by artists who joined the PAG after 1947 or were around it without being members, including V. S. Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and Mohan Samant.

The group included artists from different social and religious backgrounds. Souza, who was briefly associated with the Communist Party of India (CPI) and did much of the writing for the group, was from a poor Roman Catholic family in Portuguese Goa. Souza was also involved in the Quit India movement. Ara was the son of a driver from the oppressed Dalit (“Untouchable”) caste, and he was a domestic servant when he began painting. Raza was the son of a forest ranger. Husain was a secular Muslim.

What brought these artists together amid the tumultuous end of British colonial rule was a rejection of staid academic art and the backward-looking, sentimental nationalist art of other Indian artists of the time, including the influential Bengal School of painting. Instead, they synthesized European modernist, Post-Impressionist and Expressionist techniques and the visual tradition of ancient Hindu, Punjabi, Jainist, Muslim and Buddhist art (and other Indian and Asian influences) into a bold break with the conventions of the Indian and British art worlds of their time.

While the PAG set out to create a new, secular art for the new Indian nation, many of the pieces featured in the Asia Society’s show, and many of the movement’s strongest works, show the failures of the Indian national project and proudly display the international cross-pollination that is fundamental to the birth of modern art.

Throughout the exhibit, paintings that borrow from and update traditional Hindu imagery are exhibited next to historical examples from the Asia Society’s collection. While some of these pairings suggest that the PAG reached back to discover an essential “Indianness”, others suggest that the artists’ influences went far beyond national folk traditions, and combined influences from across Asia and the world. The exhibit’s section “National/International”, for instance, suggests that the PAG’s works, as well as the work of European and American modernists, were valuable products of cultural exchange among sensitive artists expressing the upheaval and the contradictions of the post-war era.

Among the paintings that express the social divisions in post-independence India, some of the most successful are F. N. Souza’s Tycoon and the Tramp (1956) and Ram Kumar’s Unemployed Graduates (1956).

F. N. Souza, Tycoon and the Tramp (1956). Oil on masonite

Tycoon and the Tramp is a large oil portrait of the two title figures: the tycoon is a pallid, corpse-like man in a blue suit and shirt and tie, with a small, bemused smirk perched atop folds of fat; the tramp is a slight man wearing dark red and black clothing, with a thin, wispy beard, his face a deep red, with a blank, removed expression.

Both figures are outlined in heavy, rough, glossy black lines that foreshadow Souza’s later works—his violently crosshatched women and grotesque figures of Christ. They stand against an abstract, light green and sickly yellow textured background, and their eyes, framed by heavy lines and shadows, stare across the center of the image. Souza’s painting is a stark expression of the class divisions between the parasitic bourgeoisie and the working class that remained entrenched in the new India.

Ram Kumar, Unemployed Graduates (1956). Oil on canvas

Kumar’s Unemployed Graduates, completed after his return to India from Paris, is an oil painting of four ghostly young men in suits that hang off their gaunt, elongated bodies. The students’ faces are long and rendered, like the majority of the painting, in dull browns and grays. Of particular interest are the students’ eyes, which are abstracted into white and black ovals sunken into their faces. Unemployed Graduates is a haunting evocation of the economic struggles of ordinary people in post-independence India.

Krishen Khanna, News of Gandhiji's Death (1948). Oil on canvas

Krishen Khanna’s News of Gandhiji’s Death (1948) is a sorrowful depiction of Indians from various backgrounds gathered under a lamppost reading newspapers carrying word of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of a right-wing Hindu nationalist. Reflecting the sectarian tensions Khanna feared, no one is reading together or discussing, but each, with his or her own paper, is reflecting.

The figures have muted facial features, with attention instead drawn to their stooped postures and garb depicting them as Muslim, Sikh or Hindu, all united in their grief over the assassination. The colors are dull, and the scene is surrounded by darkness. The figures holding newspapers are distributed about the canvas to form the rough shape of the Indian subcontinent. While not as emotionally evocative, in these reviewers’ opinions, as The Anatomy Lesson, which would come later, News of Gandhiji’s Death reflects the PAG’s contradictory misgivings about, and illusions in, the Indian national project.

M. F. Husain, Peasant Couple (1950). Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA.

Husain’s Peasant Couple (1950) is a painting of a man and a woman striding forward. The woman seems to be carrying something on her back, while the man seems to hold a tool or farming implement. The color palette is mostly earthen colors, with some vibrant splashes on the woman’s clothes. The unusual, more abstract depiction of the woman’s figure contrasts with the more realist depiction of the man’s, but both figures are distorted as if seen from many viewpoints, the shapes and colors of their clothing and bodies combining with the background into a collage from which the couple are emerging.

Peasant Couple seems to emphasize the Nehruvian ideal of “unity in diversity”, enhanced by the use of people from a rural area and the depiction of a woman, both associated with depictions of India qua India. Though an effort to turn toward the peasantry as a subject matter showcasing an “authentic” Indian national identity, the painting is also a successful and evocative combination of Cubism and Expressionism—a bold leap away from the sentimental nationalist paintings of the Bengal Art School.

V. S. Gaitonde, Untitled (1962). Oil on canvas

V. S. Gaitonde’s work was more abstract, with many of his paintings seeming at once austere and vast. An untitled work from 1962 is haunting, seeming to depict either a bird or a ship in an expanse that threatens to engulf the viewer as well. The subdued grays and blues add to the isolating effect. Gaitonde, like many European artists of an earlier generation, was influenced by Japanese art and ancient calligraphy. Gaitonde combined his influences into non-objective meditations not unlike Mark Rothko’s work, but with an emphasis on single colors and experiments with texture.

Krishen Khanna, The Anatomy Lesson (1972). Oil on canvas

Khanna’s 1972 work The Anatomy Lesson is one of the most successful comments on the bloody wars and partitions of the Indian subcontinent coming from artists associated with the PAG. The Anatomy Lesson was painted in the aftermath of the Indo-Pakistani War, which resulted in the bifurcation of Pakistan, the creation of Bangladesh, the military predominance of India, an intensification of religious and ethnic tensions, and mass deaths and atrocities on each side.

The painting is a menacing update to Rembrandt’s 1632 masterpiece The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

This 2015 video says about itself:

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, oil on canvas, 169.5 x 216.5 cm, (Mauritshuis, Den Haag). Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

The article on the New York City exhibition continues:

Instead of a social event for well-to-do onlookers, Khanna’s work depicts a menacing group of pale, sharp-faced military figures preparing to dissect a shrouded human figure. The work’s cold pallet and monochromatic rendering of military officials condemns the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and its immense human toll.

The PAG expressed in artistic form the genuine democratic and anti-imperialist strivings of the masses on the Indian subcontinent. However, its fate demonstrates the inability of the Indian bourgeoisie—or the bourgeoisie in other countries historically oppressed by imperialism—to achieve the great democratic tasks tackled by the bourgeois revolutions of an earlier era, such as the French Revolution.

When it took power as a result of the communal Partition, the Indian National Congress legitimized its rule in the large, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country by appealing to secularism and the slogan of “unity in diversity”, in contrast to Pakistan, which was founded as a Muslim republic. However, even before the horrors of the communal partition, the INC had incorporated elements of the Hindu Mahasabha, or communalists from the upper classes. …

The result is that the struggles of the workers and peasants on the subcontinent were channeled into a reactionary nation-state structure that hamstrung any efforts at overcoming the legacy of the Raj. This is somewhat brought out in the Asia Society Museum exhibit, which notes the repressive atmosphere faced by the PAG and the role it played in dissolving the group.

Bombay authorities raided Souza’s home and removed two of his works from an exhibition in 1949 on the grounds of “obscenity” for a nude self-portrait, although there were likely political motivations as well. He left for the United Kingdom shortly afterward. Raza, another founding member of the PAG, left for France in 1950. While Souza’s and Raza’s decisions to move exemplify the rich interconnection between different artistic traditions, they also express the difficulties of the period in India.

Also noted in the exhibit is that, after a years-long campaign by the Hindu right, Husain (a secular Muslim who chose to remain in India after the partition) was forced out of the country in 2006. He had faced death threats and legal challenges on the basis of his portrayal of Hindu deities. Husain died in 2011 a citizen of Qatar and had returned his Indian passport.

While the PAG was short-lived, the individuals in and around it are major, lasting figures in modern art in India and internationally. The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India brought these works together for an audience that normally cannot access them.


Why oil paintings deteriorate, new study

This video is called Georgia O’Keeffe: By Myself. BBC documentary 2016.

By Jeremy Rehm, 9:00am, February 16, 2019:

Why some Georgia O’Keeffe paintings have ‘art acne’

A new imaging technique could help art curators track destructive bumps over time

WASHINGTON — Like pubescent children, the oil paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe have been breaking out with “acne” as they age, and now scientists know why.

Tiny blisters, which can cause paint to crack and flake off like dry skin, were first spotted forming on the artist’s paintings years ago. O’Keeffe, a key figure in the development of American modern art, herself had noticed these knobs, which at first were dismissed as sand grains kicked up from the artist’s New Mexico desert home and lodged in the oil paint.

Now researchers have identified the true culprit: metal soaps that result from chemical reactions in the paint. The team has also developed a 3-D image capturing computer program, described February 17 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to help art conservators detect and track these growing “ailments” using only a cell phone or tablet.

O’Keeffe’s works aren’t the first to develop such blisters. Metal soaps, which look a bit like white, microscopic insect eggs, form beneath the surfaces of around 70 percent of all oil paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Francisco de Goya and Vincent van Gogh. “It’s not an unusual phenomenon,” says Marc Walton, a materials scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Scientists in the late 1990s determined that these soaps form when oil paint’s negatively charged fats, which hold the paint’s colored pigments together, react with positively charged metal ions, such as zinc and lead, in the paint. This reaction creates liquid crystals that slowly aggregate beneath a painting’s surface, causing paint layers on the surface to gradually bulge, tear and eventually flake off.

How these crystals combine is unclear. “I wish we had an answer about why that’s occurring,” Walton says, “but it’s still an open research question.”

For Walton and his colleagues, though, the questions of greater interest are about what factors may lead to crystal formation in the first place, such as relative humidity, light levels or temperature. “To be able to answer those questions, we have to look at it from a macroscopic point of view, and we’ve chosen imaging as a way to get there,” Walton says.

Walton’s colleague at Northwestern, computer scientist Oliver Cossairt, designed a computer program that shines particular patterns of light from a cell phone or tablet’s screen onto a small section of a painting, and then collects the reflected light in the device’s camera.

The program then removes color information, which can camouflage small distortions in the painting’s surface. Using machine learning, the software then distinguishes the knobby structures from other textures such as brushstrokes, and creates a sort of medical report by determining the location, size and density of the blisters.

It’s a bit like Star Trek’s “tricorder”, which could diagnose a human illness simply from a scan, Cossairt says.

The team is currently using this imaging technology to observe test paintings exposed to one of several environmental factors, watching how light, humidity and temperature may affect blisters’ sizes and rates of development.

“You see paintings with this kind of knobby, bubbly surface, and you don’t know if that has happened in five years, 50 years or more,” says art conservation scientist Kenneth Sutherland of the Art Institute of Chicago, who was not part of the research. The new imaging technique “starts to give you a way of monitoring how quickly [the bubbles] are forming and, more specifically, answer questions about what factors are influencing it and how we can control or minimize it.”

Although the technique doesn’t solve the dilemma of soap formation, it provides information that can help in protecting iconic works of art. If new bubbles are forming, for example, an art conservator could perhaps change the environmental conditions where paintings are stored. “Maybe this [process] is just an intrinsic vice, and the real solution is to find the right environment to store them”, Walton says.

‘Belgian Africa Museum still neocolonialist’

This 9 December 2018 video says about itself:

Belgium’s Africa museum reopened its doors in the Tervuren Palace outside Brussels on Sunday, after five years of restoration works. The reopening has fueled a debate on whether African artefacts should be given back to their countries of origin, as President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila called for the repatriation of the items. …

The museum was founded by King Leopold II to house items collected in the Congo Free State during Belgian rule, including beheaded skulls of tribal chiefs and stuffed animals slaughtered by hunters.

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

United Nations criticize ‘racist images’ in the reopened Belgian Africamuseum

An anti-racism working group of the United Nations has criticized the Africamuseum in Tervuren, near Brussels. The museum was recently reopened after a thorough renovation, which was decided after a public debate about the glorification of colonization in the museum.

The museum removed statues of King Leopold II and placed signs with additional explanations at controversial texts. However, the changes do not go far enough for the UN.

Belgian Congo was a colony of Belgium between 1908 and 1960. Since 1885, the country had already been a private colony of the Belgian king Leopold II. The country is now called Congo-Kinshasa.

The colonization period is a black page in Belgian history. Under the Belgian administration, millions of people died and the local population was exploited.

The Africa experts working group visited Belgium last week and presented its conclusions in a press release yesterday. According to the experts, the Africamuseum is the most visible post-colonial expression in Belgium. The museum must remove all “racist and offensive” images, they think.

“The Working Group is of the view that the reorganization of the museum has not gone far enough”, says the report. “The reorganization falls short of its goal of providing adequate context and critical analysis. The Working Group notes the importance of removing all colonial propaganda and accurately presenting the atrocities of Belgium’s colonial past.”

The working group also does not like the many statues of Leopold II and his colonial army in the Belgian street scene. The contributions of people with African roots to Belgian society must become more visible, according to the UN group. They also demand that the Belgian government apologize for this period in Belgian history.

The UN working group falls under the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). In 2013, the working group did research on Zwarte Piet [blackface Saint Nicholas holiday character] in the Netherlands. Two years later the UN advised the Dutch government to change the tradition.

In Belgian media, Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo responded surprisedly to the report.

In this 8 December 2018 Dutch language video, Kenyan Belgian Stella Nyanchama Okemwa visits the reopened museum. She notes there is a plaque in the museum commemorating Belgians who died in Congo, but that nothing there commemorates the very many more Congolese who died violent deaths because of colonialism. She also notes sculpture, depicting Africans as small children next to big Belgian Catholic missionaries.

Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, Liverpool, England

The head of Leda, by Leonardo da Vinci, c1505-8

From daily The Morning Star in Britain, 30 January 2018:


Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing
Walker Art Gallery
Until May 6

This free exhibition of 12 Leonardo da Vinci drawings, coinciding with 11 other simultaneous shows nationally, marks the 500th anniversary of the Renaissance master‘s death. It explores the diversity of subjects that inspired his creativity, including painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany.

And it presents new information about his working practices and creative process, gathered through scientific research using ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence.

Painter Frans Hals exhibition in the USA

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (fragment), ca. 1623–25, oil on canvas. 152 x 107.5 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, inv. 4732. ©Roya

This painting is by Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666); Children of the Van Campen Family with a Goat-Cart (fragment), ca. 1623–25, oil on canvas. 152 x 107.5 cm. Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, inv. 4732.

By David Walsh in the USA:

An exhibition of the great 17th century Dutch painter

Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion at the Toledo Museum of Art

17 January 2019

The Toledo [Ohio] Museum of Art recently presented an exhibition featuring works by one of the leading Dutch painters of the 17th century—Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion.

The Dutch “Golden Age” produced a host of extraordinary artistic figures, including most prominently Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), Hals (c. 1582–1666) and Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675). Other brilliant painters, of everyday life, domestic and tavern scenes, of landscapes and seascapes, of still lifes and historical events, included Jan van Goyen (1596–1656), Salomon van Ruysdael (c. 1602–1670), Judith Leyster (c. 1609–1660), Adriaen van Ostade (1610–1685), Gerrit Dou (1613–1675), Gerard ter Borch (1617–1681), Jan Steen (c. 1626–1679), Jacob van Ruisdael (c. 1629–1682), Pieter de Hooch (1629–1684) and Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693).

The Hals exhibition will next run at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels from February 1 to May 19 and later at the Fondation Custodia, an art museum in Paris focusing on works by European old masters.

The exhibition was prompted by the Toledo museum’s acquisition in 2011 of Hals’s The Van Campen Family Portrait in a Landscape (c. 1623–25), along with the recent conservation work done on the Brussels museum’s Three Children of the Van Campen Family.

Remarkably, as the Toledo museum website explains, “These two works [by Hals] originally formed one composition, separated for unknown reasons likely in the late 18th century or early 19th century. The exhibition reunites the sections of the Toledo/Brussels painting along with a third fragment from a private collection.” In other words, this was the first time in some 200 years that three pieces of the original painting were present in the same location.

The curators also offered a proposed reconstruction of Hals’s complete painting as it might have looked when it was painted nearly four centuries ago.

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), Family Group in a Landscape, ca. 1645–48, oil on canvas. 202 x 285 cm. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, inv. 1934.8. ©Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza, Madrid

Additional works by Hals were featured in Toledo, including Family Group in a Landscape (c. 1645–48) from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Family Group in a Landscape (c. 1647–50 ) from the National Gallery in London; Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen (c. 1622) from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; and Portrait of a Dutch Family (mid-1630s) from the Cincinnati Art Museum. Also on display were Portrait of a Seated Man Holding a Hat and Portrait of a Seated Woman Holding a Fan (both c. 1650, from the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio).

A good portion of the catalogue published to accompany the exhibition is devoted to explaining the facts of the Van Campen family painting and proving that the three pieces belong together (along with other still unknown ones). The case seems convincing, but that is a matter for art historians and experts to debate and determine.

The Toledo exhibition was not large, nine paintings by Hals (including the three separate fragments), but the work was all beautiful.

Frans Hals was born in 1582 or 1583 to Adriana and Franchoys Hals in Antwerp, then in the Spanish Netherlands. Starting in the 1560s, the “Seventeen Provinces,” including present-day Netherlands and Belgium, had risen in revolt against the rule of Philip II of Spain, the Habsburg monarch. The struggle lasted for some 80 years. The Dutch uprising was bound up with the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Antwerp became the capital of the Dutch revolt. However, the Spanish forces counter-attacked and their troops, under the Duke of Parma, laid siege to Antwerp in July 1584. The city surrendered in August 1585 to the Spanish, who gave the Protestant population four years to settle their affairs before leaving.

Hals’s parents apparently fled during the siege, some 110 miles, to Haarlem in the new Dutch Republic to the north, where the artist lived for the rest of his life. Hals apprenticed as a painter starting in 1603. In 1610, he registered with the St. Lucas Guild, which, as the museum catalogue explains, “enabled him to establish his own workshop.”

Hals married twice. He had three children with his first wife, Anneke Harmendr, only one of whom survived early childhood. Anneke died in 1615, and two years later Hals married Lysbeth Reyniersdr, who bore 11 children (four of whom became painters).

The painter’s naturalistic work fell largely from favor in the 18th century, as a tendency even in Holland toward more aristocratic and classicistic academicism took shape, and was only “rediscovered” in the second half of the 19th.

Hals is now widely admired. Critics, historians and museumgoers alike are impressed, in the words of one commentator, by his “vigorous, slashing style.” The painter is always “amazing in fidelity, astounding in surety and vitality of draughtsmanship. Among the Dutch [Hals is] inferior in genius only to Rembrandt, [and] his influence was almost as far-reaching.” (Blake-More Godwin, Catalogue of European Paintings, The Toledo Museum of Art)

Another study argues that in Hals’s portraits, “the quick and decisive look of each stroke suggests spontaneity, the recording of one specific instant in the life of the sitter.” The complete picture “has the immediacy of a sketch. The impression of a race against time is, of course, deceptive. Hals spent hours, not minutes,” on his canvases, “but he maintains the illusion of having done it in the wink of an eye.” (A Basic History of Art, H. W. and Anthony F. Janson)

Frans Hals, Portrait of a Seated Woman Holding a Fan, c. 1650, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio

Hals came to specialize in portraiture. The Toledo exhibition had several magnificent examples. Seated Man Holding a Hat and Seated Woman Holding a Fan (the subjects’ names are unknown) are assumed to be a newly married couple. Hals scholar Seymour Slive describes the pictures as among “Hals’s most sympathetic portraits of a husband and wife.” She in particular makes an impression, gazing at the viewer confidently.

The painter made a name for himself with his group portraits. Writing of the famed Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard (1616, not in the exhibition), Lawrence W. Nichols, the Toledo museum’s senior curator of European and American painting and sculpture before 1900, notes that, in contrast “to the stiff formality typical of the genre, Hals’s poses, gestures, and animated countenances—many conveying engagement with one another, and others rendered as peering out at the beholder—all induce the sense of being a firsthand witness to the actual gathering.” A contemporary of Hals’s, the historian of Haarlem, wrote in 1648 that his “paintings are imbued with such force and vitality that… they seem to breathe and live.”

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), The Van Campen Family in a Landscape (fragment), ca. 1623–25, oil on canvas. 151 x 163.6 cm. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, inv. 2011.80

In Hals’s first family group portrait, the work at the center of the Toledo-Brussels-Paris exhibitions, The Van Campen Family in a Landscape, the painter continued—Nichols asserts—“to visually communicate a sense of immediacy … Moreover, he confronted the pressing challenge incumbent on a painter of group portraits of any category: how to capture individuality as well as the collective dynamic of the group and each individual’s relationship to it.” Van Campen, a cloth merchant, his wife and seven children are represented in one of three fragments; a second, narrower picture shows four children; and a third includes the head and torso of a boy (apparently another Van Campen son).

Nichols writes: “Hals’s arrangement is nothing less than the visualization of a household jubilantly being together—their familial cohesion is rendered palpable and is the painting’s very subject. … Gijsbert Claesz [van Campen] gazes out at the viewer as if to proudly present his progeny. Only the two babies … also engage us directly; all the others are involved in or reacting to the spectacle the painter has contrived. … Hals’s vivacious and animated portrait, with its expressive poses, gesticulating hands, and exuberant countenances, was ground-breaking.”

One of the prominent features of the Family Group from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid is the presence of a black child. The catalogue notes that black youths made their appearance as servants in Flemish and Dutch portraits from the 1630s, “not coincidentally after the Dutch West India Company was established in 1621 and took control of Dutch involvement in the Atlantic trade of enslaved Africans.” The individual “in the present work is as much a specific personality as the rest of the family. That Hals represented him with such dignity and humanity, in conjunction with his relatively substantial wardrobe … suggests that he may have been of high birth, perhaps someone from West Africa who came to Holland for his education or part of a trade delegation.”

Frans Hals (Dutch, 1582/83–1666), Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, ca. 1622, oil on canvas. 140 x 166.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, inv. SK-A-133. ©Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

A painting that deserves its own essay is Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, described as “an unmitigated standout in the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.” Mariët Westermann (A Worldly Art—The Dutch Republic 1585–1718) argues that there “are no direct Dutch precedents” for this double portrait.

Massa and Beatrix lean back against a tree or an embankment. He smiles at the viewer. “Beside him to the right,” as a 1910 catalogue of Hals’s works described it, “sits a woman, bending slightly forward, with her head turned three-quarters left. She smiles rather slyly at the spectator.”

Again, Hals is a pioneer in presenting human relationships in a flexible and informal manner. The famed Rijksmuseum observes that the “happy, smiling pair sits comfortably close to each other. Posing a couple together in this way was highly unusual at the time.”

We know something about Massa, born into a wealthy silk merchant’s family and sent to Moscow at 15 to assist the family trade, including the fact that Hals painted him several times. Massa also served as a witness at the baptism of one of Hals’s daughters. They presumably were friends.

Frans Hals, Isaac Abrahamsz. Massa, 1626, Art Gallery of Ontario

Massa, an intriguing figure, belongs to the epoch when the bourgeoisie, in its ascendancy, played a revolutionary role. The Toledo museum catalogue describes him as a “polymath of sorts.” According to historian G. W. van der Meiden, Massa “played a prominent part in the beginnings of diplomatic contact between Russia and the Netherlands. He was a many-sided intellect … Thanks to his eye-witness report on the Time of Troubles he is well-known in Russian historiography.” (“Isaac Massa and the Beginnings of Dutch-Russian Relations”)

Massa authored a famed “Short Narrative” on the events of the “Time of Troubles” (1598–1613), a period of civil war in Russia, which ended with the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty. He also was an eye-witness to the terrible famine of 1601–03, which is estimated to have killed one third of the Russian population. Massa extensively describes the suffering. At one point in his “Narrative”, he writes that “Heaven inflicted on the whole country of Muscovy scarcity and famine of which history records no similar examples.”

Massa also published five maps of Russia, including an effort to render the Siberian coast. Van der Meiden writes that Massa “learnt Russian” and that, although “he had received very little formal education, his curiosity was insatiable.”

The same, of course, could be said about Hals himself.

In 1626, Hals painted a portrait of Massa leaning over the back of a chair toward the viewer in an astonishingly informal and intimate pose. The critic John Berger (“Hals and Bankruptcy” in About Looking ) asserted that Massa’s “expression is another one that Hals was the first to record. It is the look of a man who does not believe in the life he witnesses, yet can see no alternative. He has considered, quite impersonally, the possibility that life may be absurd. He is by no means desperate. He is interested. But his intelligence isolates him from the current purpose of men and the supposed purpose of God.” This appears generally legitimate considering what we know of Massa’s life and some of the terrible things he had seen. Berger, in the same essay, also claimed that no one “before Hals painted portraits of greater dignity and greater sympathy.”

Writing of the larger trend, art historian Arnold Hauser (in The Social History of Art, Volume II) observed that “Dutch art owes its middle-class character, above all, to the fact that it ceases to be tied to the Church. … Representations of real everyday life are the most popular of all: the picture of manners, the portrait, the landscape, the still life, interiors and architectural views.” Such motifs “acquire an autonomous value of their own; the artist no longer needs an excuse to portray them. … It is as if this reality were being discovered, taken possession of and settled down in for the first time.”

The bourgeois conditions of life did not make things easy for the Dutch painters, who were “free” of noble and Church patronage and thrown on the marketplace. The resulting state of artistic production, wrote Hauser, allowed “the boom on the art market to degenerate into a state of fierce competition, to which the most individual and most original talents fall victim. There were artists living in cramped circumstances in earlier times, but there were none in actual want.” The Dutch artists’ financial troubles “are a concomitant of that economic freedom and anarchy in the realm of art, which now comes on the scene for the first time and still controls the art market today. Here are the beginnings, too, of the social uprooting of the artist and the uncertainty of his existence.”

Hals went bankrupt in 1652. Rembrandt was effectively declared bankrupt in 1656. Vermeer left his wife in debt at the time of his early death in 1675. She wrote in a petition that during the “ruinous” Franco-Dutch War (1672–78), her husband “not only was unable to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in.”

Every opportunity should be taken to see the work of Hals and the other Dutch painters.

The author also recommends:

Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston
[29 October 2015]

Rubens sketch discovered

Newly discovered sketch by Rubens, photo Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder

Translated from Dutch NOS TV today:

Sketch by Peter Paul Rubens discovered

Six people look upwards in worship. They stand between two pillars and in the background an angel looks down on them. An oil sketch with this image that was for sale last year at an art shop in The Hague appears to have been painted by the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640).

Art historian Emilie den Tonkelaar, working for art dealer Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, first saw the canvas and soon thought that it might be a Rubens. “First and foremost because of the details, we see an incredible expertise in them. But an infrared photograph made by the owner was decisive. Under the painting the word adorans can be read, which means worshipping. Rubens often wrote on a panel the subject of his sketch, so he knew which image it would be.”

The work has been given the name The secular hierarchy in worship. Rubens painted it as a design for a tapestry series he made at the beginning of the 17th century for a Franciscan monastery in Madrid. That is why we do not see where the people so full of worship look at: that is visible on another work. They look at a monstrance, a holder in which a host is exhibited.

The people in the painting are the political protagonists of that time: Emperor Ferdinand II [of the Holy Roman Empire], King Philip IV [of Spain], his wife Elisabeth of France and the sponsor of this series of tapestries, Isabella of Spain.

Biggest project

The tapestry series, Triumph of the Eucharist, according to Rubens expert Friso Lammertse belongs to the most beautiful works of the painter’s oeuvre. “It was one of the biggest projects in the life of Rubens.” Of the series of twenty tapestries, up to now 17 oil sketches were known. The newly discovered sketch is number eighteen. The tapestry series is still visible in the monastery.

Where the canvas has been for all these years before the current owner bought it is not known. “We know that Rubens found these sketches so important that he kept them until his death”, says Den Tonkelaar. “So what has happened after that, we do not know. But that this is happening is incredibly rare, really very special.”

The sketch is not in good condition. It is partially overpainted. … “What we are going to do first is to contact the owner to discuss what he wants to do with it”, says Den Tonkelaar. “At least we will have to think about a realistic value for insurance.”

The newly discovered Rubens sketch

Meanwhile, the Dutch royal family intends to sell a drawing by Rubens at Sotheby’s. Instead of offering it to a Dutch, or Flemish, museum, for a reasonable prize, this masterpiece may now end up in a private collection where the public won’t be able to see it and experts won’t be able to study it.