Erotic Visions of a 17th-Century Dutch Artist
Non gloria sed memoria (Not glory but remembrance.)
— The motto inscribed on Wtewael’s self-portrait.
They greet us as we walk into the gallery — the artist, Joachim Wtewael (pronounced “oo-te-val”), and his wife, Christina. They look like a typical Dutch couple one may see in the portraits of Thomas de Keyser or Franz Hals. Dressed in black from head to toe, wearing a fashionable white ruff which gives an impression that the head is resting on a plate, they are sitting in a dark interior enlivened only by a faint glimmer of a few metal items: the studs on the chair frame, the coat of arms over the mantel, the scales on the table, the point of the maulstick.
In accordance with the tradition, the sitters are holding or pointing to the objects that represent their social status and/or moral character. Wtewael portrayed himself with the tools of his trade — a palette with brushes and maulstick. At the same time, his attire and the coat of arms speak of his high status in the society which was not typical of an artist in his days. Indeed, he was a prosperous flax merchant, a member of the town council in his native city of Utrecht and a prominent member of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Christina Van Halen-Wtewael is portrayed as a model wife of a wealthy Dutchman. A prayer book in her bejeweled left hand indicates piety while the scales on the table symbolize her thriftiness and also her ability to keep a balance between her feelings and reason.
However, there are small details that make these portraits unusual. There is a streak of crimson red at the bottom of Christina’s portrait — maybe the lining of her skirt? Whatever it is, it seems out of place in a formal setting. In his self-portrait, the artist is holding a brush which has been dipped in red paint of the same hue as if he has just added this final stroke to his wife’s picture. Red was symbolic of war and also of love. Is there a hidden message about the relationship between the husband and wife?
This idea is not as far-fetched as it may seem. A very close observation of the coat of arms in the artist’s self-portrait reveals that it is flanked by two satyrs holding a cornucopia between their legs in a rather suggestive manner. The Van Halen’s coat of arms in Chistina’s portrait is equally flanked by two figures, of a man and a woman, straddling a cornucopia with its point facing outward.
Obviously, these are more than formal portraits of a respectable couple. They are statements of their passionate union and the fruit of their love — their children, whose portraits are displayed in the same gallery.
The exhibition “Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael” at MFAH brings to the fore one of the undeservedly forgotten Dutch masters of the early 17th century. We are much more familiar with later generations of Dutch artists of “the Golden Age” — Hals, Vermeer, van Ostade, de Hooch, Metsu, van Ruisdael, and, of course, Rembrandt. Painted with painstaking realism, their landscapes, portraits, genre scenes and still-lifes are windows into the way of life in the Netherlands at the time the country moved into the age of independence and prosperity.
Wtewael was not interested in the mundane. Born in 1566, he traveled to France and Italy in his early twenties where he embraced the then-prominent style of Mannerism and stayed true to it till the end of his days. Mannerism was characterized by artifice, decorative arrangement of forms, elongated figures and contrived poses, and a sophisticated indulgence in the bizarre. Mannerists preferred classical subjects to contemporary life and populated their canvases with ancient gods, heroes and characters from writers like Ovid and Horace.
Walking through the exhibition at MFAH, one cannot stop being surprised by Wtewael’s unbound imagination which united in a strange harmony an unabashed eroticism and a deep religious sentiment. “Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” is probably the most striking example of his religious paintings.
According to the story, Saint Sebastian, a Roman officer who secretly converted to Christianity, was shot full of arrows, as a punishment, by men under his own command. However, instead of the showing the traditional image of a naked young man with arrows sticking out of his body, Wtewael presented the moment before the execution.
Saint Sebastian, portrayed life-size, is standing in an exaggerated contraposto pose, flaunting his ideal physique with an ease of a male stripper, with no hint of acknowledgment of the terrible fate that awaits him. He is nude except for a thin, half-transparent loin cloth which is sliding off his well-toned hips, just enough to give a glimpse of his reddish pubic hair.
Two soldiers are busy tying Saint Sebastian to the tree, but their grinning faces look salacious rather than menacing. Anyway, the young man does not seem to be hurt or even inconvenienced by their actions. His expression is sensuous, even rapturous. One wonders if Wtewael, a staunch Calvinist, was deliberately mocking the Catholic tradition of veneration of saints. It is more likely, however, that the artist was more attracted to the idea of showing a perfect male nude and used the religious subject as an excuse.
Not all Wtewael’s religious paintings are so overtly sexual. “The Annunciation to the Shepherds” shows the well-known moment from the Gospel of Saint Luke when an angel appeared to the frightened shepherds to tell them that the Savior was born. In the painting, the strangely contorted figures in the sky and on land create a powerful magnetic field. An androgynous golden-haired angel appears like a flash of lightning among the dark ominous clouds, surrounded by pudgy putti in a frenzied flight. Wtewael translated into the pictorial language the passage from Saint Luke: “suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God.”
The scene in the earthly domain is equally dynamic, although in this instance the artist used his imagination rather than the Scripture. The large canvas (66 ¼ x 53 ½ inches) can hardly accommodate numerous characters: men, women and various animals. The shepherds and shepherdesses are dressed in fancy clothes, some are wearing elegant broad-brimmed hats. For sleeping and awakening people, they seem to have too much energy. Muscular limbs, contrived torsos, outstreched arms, and bent heads create bold diagonals which convey the sense of a powerful movement. The composition foreshadows later Baroque paintings with multiple figures whirling through space like a human tornado.
The exhibition features two versions of “The Annunciation to the Shepherds,” one from the collection of MFAH and the other from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. It is not an at easy, although an exciting, pursuit to look for differences between the two paintings. For visitors’ convenience, the Museum provided two monitors on which compositional and color changes are explained in full detail.
A separate gallery showcases paintings on classical subjects, many of them from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” presented by Wtewael with a lot of joie de vivre, good-natured humor and sexual references.
A life-size figure of the ravishing Andromeda, waiting to be rescued by Perseus who is flying across the sky on Pegassus, serves as a female counterpart of the sexy St. Sebastian. Standing in a similar contraposto stance, she is displaying her naked loveliness, the transparent veil over her genitalia leaving almost nothing to the imagination.
With her left foot, Andromeda is playfully touching a conch, its pearly pink opening conveying a not-so-difficult-to-interpret metaphor for the vagina. The foreground is filled with sea shells of all shapes and forms, mixed with a few skulls and bones. It provides the artist with an opportunity to demonstrate his skill in painting a highly naturalistic still-life and also sends the message of pleasure and mortality.
While large-size canvases showcase Wtewael’s extensive knowledge of the human anatomy and are delightful in their compositional complexity, color refinement and attention to detail, it is his small paintings on copper that leaves one awe-stricken. These paintings range from 4 ½ x 3 ½ inches to 15 x 11 inches, and they look like jewels.
Painting on copper was popular in the 16th and 17th centuries in Italy and Northern Europe. Working with the smallest brush, the artist would apply oil directly on the smooth metal surface. With no corrosion, the colors remained vivid and the details sharp forever.
Such paintings were supposed to be held and admired close up and were typically kept in curiosity cabinets, along with precious objects and rarities of all kind. It is believed that one of Wtewael’s works in the exhibition, “The Golden Age,” was once owned by the Holy Roman Emperor and famous collector, Rudolf II.
However, there may be another reason why Wtewael’s copper paintings were safely locked in the cabinet of curiosities. Many of them are quite risqué in their contents and were intended exclusively for the eyes of the owner, typically, a middle-aged man, who may have occasionally shared this special experience with his male friends.
In this group of paintings, the story of the divine adulterous lovers, Venus and Mars, was obviously Wtewael’s favorite subject. According to Ovid, Venus and Mars were carrying on an affair which became known to Venus’s husband, Vulcan. He crafted a thin metallic net and trapped the unsuspecting lovers, thus exposing them to the ridicule of all Olympian gods.
The exhibition features a number of scenes showing Venus and Mars in a pre-coital, coital or post-coital situations. The milky-skinned Venus is pressing passionately against the tanned, muscular Mars who typically continues to wear his helmet, even when they are in the middle of love-making. Apparently, the artist preferred to keep the helmet as the attribute of the god of war instead of presenting a more realistic scenario. Venus’s mischevous son Cupid, with his bow and arrow at ready, is usually present as well, as a constant companion of the goodess of love.
While it is fascinating to follow the lines of the intertwined bodies of Venus and Mars depicted by Wtewael with an utmost realism, one cannot help admiring numerous tiny details of the interior. In “Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan,” only 8 x 6 ¼ inches, the eye revels in a variety of textures and shapes of diverse objects, all of the artist’s time, painted with meticulous precision. Here is a richly ornate cornice with a shiny green canopy over the bed; miscellaneous toiletries on the bedstand covered with a gold-trimmed scarlet cloth — a metal ewer on a plate, a comb, a sponge, a pair of scissors — and also Venus’s necklace; on the bed, crumpled bedsheets, with a blue-striped mattress peaking out and a corner of the blue sheet fallen into the chamber pot; and on the floor, Mars’s armor and a partisan, a piercing weapon used for ceremonies in the 17th century.
For centuries, the graphic eroticism of Wtewael’s paintings made them objectionable in the eyes of later collectors. For example, a drawing with the same subject as described above was censored, with the sexual act cut out and a new paper added, on which a cloth covering the lovers’ loins was drawn. Even 20th century museum curators felt uneasy about displaying Wtewael’s most explicit works in the galleries. The exhibition at MFAH is the first one to present this exceptional artist to American public. One hopes that now, in the 21st century, we are mature enough to appreciate his multifaceted talent which compelled him to celebrate life and love every time he picked up the brush.
The exhibition “Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael” is on view at MFAH through Jan. 31.
For more information visit www.mfah.org.
By Elena Ivanova
ISSUE staff writer