The Beauty of Old Master Paintings
What strikes the observer first about a painting is the subject. People are often attracted to a still life or a marine painting because they have an affinity with ships or flowers. But the subject says little about the artistic quality of a painting.
Naturally, it is up to the observer to decide whether a painting is beautiful or not. But anyone interested in the artistic value of a painting must look beyond the subject matter. This is where the way the artist has portrayed the theme in paint comes into play. Artistic value is a quality in a painting that reflects not what is shown but refers to how it is painted. It is the skill of the artist that determines whether the depiction of the subject is a mere representation or a work of art.
The painter’s skill consists not only of craftsmanship but also of artistic talent. A painter should, of course, exhibit a skilful use of the brush, but equally important is the ability to appreciate the beauty of a subject and a conception of how to portray this. What makes this so exciting is that every artist has a different vision and way of painting, even those profoundly influenced by a particular artistic movement.
In most paintings the actual subject is little more than an excuse to paint. Seventeenth-century still life painters were not enthralled by objects such as a ham or a piece of cheese on a plate, but by their relative position and the way the light caught these objects, by the beautiful combination of colours, the crumbling texture of the mature cheese and the shiny surface of the meat. From this perspective, every aspect of the real world is worth painting. Which is why seventeenth-century Dutch painters found even the most everyday objects picturesque, or in other words, worthy to be painted.
How do artists transfer what pleases their eye into paint? Painters may have their own ideas about this, but the means available to them are the same. In the following review of these pictorial means we would like to show you what we consider makes an Old Master painting beautiful.
Composition (example 1)
Anyone who has ever taken a photo knows what composition is. Nobody just clicks the button. There’s always a moment that you search for the right picture through the view finder. You might experiment with the distance, adjusting your zoom lens, or you may rearrange the objects to make the forms more attractive in relation to each other, you may wait for the sun to provide the right light or perhaps allow a branch to hang in front of the lens to add a little depth to the landscape. In fact, what goes for a photo goes for a painting: composition provides a significant contribution to its beauty.
Seventeenth-century painters would also work out the composition before starting a painting. They believed that the right design was crucial for the success of the painting, since it was closely related to their ideas about the subject and the execution of the painting.
A seventeenth-century composition is always based on a pattern, which would usually be formed by diagonals. Furthermore, the composition determines which part of the painting catches our eye first and how we continue and culminate our viewing of the picture. Repetitions of form and colour within a painting can also guide us through the picture and can subtly create a pleasant rhythm. At the same time, the composition may have its own aesthetic effect, regardless of the pleasing nature of an attractive subject.
Rendering of texture (example 1)
Although shapes and forms may have their own beauty or enhance the beauty of the composition, in an Old Master it is the contents of a shape that is crucial. In the seventeenth century, every form in a painting had to be a reflection of reality. The greater the illusion of reality the better the painter. For every artist, a convincing rendering of texture was an essential objective. It was not simply the depiction of an object in paint; the artist’s aim was to capture the characteristic properties of the object. Any artist worth his salt could paint a country table, but to show the grain of the wood or the rough surface required true skill. When painting a dress the artist would aim to depict the silk as realistically as possible: its shine, its folds and creases, the seams. He would try to portray fur in such a way that the viewer would want to reach out and warm his hands in it. Salomon van Ruysdael succeeded in painting the wind, Aert van der Neer rendered the still of the night and Jan Porcellis suggested the sound of the sea. With their enormous skill and artistic talent the seventeenth-century masters managed to inject credibility and conviction into their paintings. But besides craftsmanship, another important aspect was observation. Many artists made intense studies of the objects they painted, whether these were apples, reptiles or the human body.
Spatial effect (example 2)
Although depicted on a flat surface, seventeenth- century paintings create the illusion of threedimensional space. The effect of space can be suggested in many different ways. It was in the scventeenth century, however, that a publication by father and son Vredcman de Vries appeared on the subjcct of perspective. It explained how lines, vanishing points and a horizon could create a convincing effect of objects in space. This largely replaced colour perspective as used in thc fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by Flemish artists (foreground brown, middle green, back- ground blue). The idea of proportion had long bcen known – that distant objects seem smaller. Movement in a picture, finally, always was and remains difficult to portray: the painter has to suggest that forms are actually moving, while in fact they remain fixed on the picture plane.
Line, plane and shape (example 3)
A painter can depict an object using a line to indicate its contours, or by suggesting its shape with a plane filled with colour. Both methods may bc found in the same painting, even in combina- tion. But to create the illusion of reality a painter needs more than lines or a coloured plane. Both are two-dimensional. Add one dimension and a shape is created. Line, planc and shape may in themselves havc aesthetic value and may affect the beauty of a composition. A tried and trusted artistic shape is the pyramid. It often occurs in compositions as an aid or basic pattern.
Colour (example 4)
To create an illusion of reality, colour is not essential. For example, monochrome paintings can be thoroughly convincing and even a black- and-white drawing can be highly realistic. Colour can, on the other hand, have a decisive effect on the mood of a painting. Monochrome landscapes, with their limited colour-range, can successfully express a contemplative atmosphere, while merry country folk are all the more convincing when depicted in bright colours. Colour is a major factor in composition and an important aspect determining the beauty of a work of art. Some colours clash, others form a pleasing combination. In later times entire theories would be devised on this subject.
Light (example 5)
Without light, we see nothing. An object acquires its shape, colour, shadow and its other visual properties through light. As the nineteenth-century landscape artist Willem Maris remarked: ‘I do not paint cows, I paint light reflected on cows.’ Light is crucially important in the depiction of space, colour and shape. Light can also cause contrasts and so affect the composition. A subtle use of light can give the picture a certain tone, conjuring up a particular atmosphere.
Application of paint or facture (example 6) The manner in which the paint is applied to the canvas is called the facture. The word is now rarely used in English, but is employed in many other languages and remains a useful term. The facture is personal and hard to imitate. It is also referred to as the painter’s handwriting or signature. An Old Master may be executed with an exceptionally fine brush, so that the strokes are barely visible. Or a seventeenth- century work might feature broad ‘impressionistic’ brushstrokes. In either case, the facture serves the illusion of reality. It also dictates to a certain extent whether the painting should be seen from close by or from a distance. Like other pictorial means, the facture can itself provide aesthetic pleasure. The way Frans Hals and Rembrandt apply their paint to the canvas is breathtaking.
All these pictorial means were employed by seventeenth-century painters in their pursuit of a concept of beauty. But an Old Master painting may stimulate more than just our aesthetic senses. When viewing a painting, all kinds of emotions may be aroused. A lushly painted image may fill us with joy, a dramatic composition can demand the viewer’s respect. Alternatively, the still and gentle depiction of a trivial detail, like the fringe of a cloth, may lead us to contemplate about life, just as the elegant gesture of a hand can touch us. When a painting has the power to move emotionally, it is often described as having a soul. In fact this is not as vague as it may seem.
This emotional commitment that the viewer may have, is a reflection of the artist’s emotional exhilaration when first seeing the subject. The artist tries to convey what moved his soul, when seeing a picturesque object. A painter may wish to conjure up tender emotions by choosing a mother and child as a subject for his painting, but with a specific execution he may render the same sweet subject coldly and heartlessly. Similarly, an artist can turn a static subject – like a still life – into a thrilling picture, by employing a dynamic composition, a swift facture with rapid brush- strokes or by letting the light dance on the objects.
The beauty of a painting, or its artistic value, cannot be calculated mathematically. There is always something subjective about the assessment. Some people are more interested in a convincing rendering of texture, while others are attracted by an artistic composition. At the same time, these pictorial means cannot work in isolation; they function together. As a result, they are difficult to measure. Spatial effect can be achieved convincingly with colour, but also with perspective, proportion or light and tone. Facture can also play a role. Which method is the most successful or most beautiful?
Like people, each painting has a particular character in which one or more qualities predominate. Taking this a step further, the subject of a painting is comparable to the outward appearance of a person. It may be attractive, you may even fall for it, but that does not necessarily say anything about the content.
Bartholomeus van Bassen
Interior of a Palazzo
Panel, 47 x 70 cm
signed and dated B. van Bassen, 1626
Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague
Haarlem 1620-1683 Amsterdam
An Evening Landscape with Drovers and their Animals
Panel, 41 x 56 cm
Signed : Berchem (lower left)
Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague
Salomon de Bray
Two Girls with a Bird’s Nest (Allegory of Spring)
Canvas, 73.5 x 60.5 cm,
Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder
Flowers in a Vase on a Marble Plinth
Canvas, 79x 62 cm,
signed bottom right W. Grasdorp,
Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder