For this Dutch master, a cigar is rarely just a cigar
Four centuries later, Joachim Wtewael can still shock and delight
The first major exhibition devoted to the Dutch mannerist painter Joachim Wtewael is full of works that “just do not look Dutch,” admits Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., curator of northern baroque paintings at the National Gallery of Art. That’s the challenge he and the gallery confronted when introducing Wtewael— a fascinating, versatile and virtuosic artist — to the broader public. But the 50 some works gathered together in “Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael” are absolutely part of a Dutch artistic history that is richer, and more bizarre, than we usually credit.
Wtewael pursued his exuberantly overstuffed style, full of serpentine bodies, intertwined wreathes of muscular flesh, ribald humor and eroticism, well into the 17th century, but by the time he was wrapping up his career in the mid-to late 1620s, the Golden Age of Dutch painting was already on the horizon. The new painting, from artists including Rembrandt, Vermeer, Frans Hals, Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu, would look very different, devoted to a psychological, social and material realism that made the mannerism of Wtewael feel hyperbolic, overheated and rhetorical.
But the National Gallery’s Wtewael exhibition comes only a half-year after the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s major survey of Bartholomeus Spranger, a mannerist artist who served the royal court of Rudolf II in Prague, and whose work was emulated throughout Northern Europe. It was an encounter with engravings of works by Spranger that inspired Wtewael’s exuberant vision.
Even today, the style of Spranger and Wtewael is slightly shocking, and finding delight in the work of these artists requires intellectual effort. But it is an effort worth making. Our temperament is more aligned with the artists who would follow, painters who celebrated the earthy peasant, quotidian scenes of courtship and marriage, landscapes of simple rusticity, and portraits of people whose unaffected self-presentation feels organically connected to our own democratic, bourgeois sense of self. This is the comforting and familiar dialect of Dutch art.
By contrast, the high style of mannerism, its mythological allusions, conflation of time and intricacy of design, is disconcerting, even alienating. But we owe the past, especially the artistic past, more than an a la carte appetite; and in an anti-intellectual age, immersion in a disorienting style is a form of protest, even a duty.
The exhibition includes both large-scale works on canvas, including a magnificent “Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian” (1600) and “Perseus and Andromeda” (1611), and an abundance of works painted on copper. The latter were a specialty of Wtewael, highly prized by collectors including Rudolf II, and a medium that flattered the artist’s talent for detail and precision. Copper not only gave painted works a brilliant luminescence, but it also was a highly stable medium, which means many of the works by Wtewael that have come down to us are almost as vibrant as the day they were painted.
“The Golden Age,” a 1605 work on copper that is likely the Wtewael painting owned by Rudolf, exemplifies the artist’s work. Naked bodies are pushed into the foreground, some stretched luxuriantly on the ground, others reclining on fabric-strewn rocks, yet others reaching to the sky or perched in trees. They form an organic horseshoe-shaped frame around a peaceful vision of water, grass and trees, stretching deep into the picture, where the landscape turns blue and is illuminated through a clearing by shafts of sunlight. Dogs play, cats skulk, cows graze and birds fish in a placid pool.
The human forms are so stylized that they almost blend together into a single garland of skin and muscle, which in turn shifts the focal point of the picture to a solitary bird, perched on a leafless branch, glimpsed in a halo of light. The utopia implied by the painting isn’t individualized, or particularly human; rather, it is gathered up in that bird, as if the pleasure of the image, and the pleasure of its pastoral fantasy, is to be a solitary observer, on high, connected to but not a part of the proceedings. We experience the Golden Age as an avian interloper.
The bird seems about to fly into the blue beyond, an act of freedom that also suggests that the human Golden Age, gathered in the foreground, is only one surface manifestation of absolute delight. And yet, from Ovid, we know that the Golden Age was perfect in part because humans hadn’t yet learned to travel, to hew down timbers for boats, to leave their own shores, to go to distant lands. So the bird and its promise of flight into the blue distance also is a slightly ominous presence. He, or she, might be saying: “This is the last time you’ll all be here.”
The whole painting is only slightly larger than an 81/ 2- by-11 inch piece of printer paper, and you might think it would be impossible to stuff anything more into it. But Wtewael is a master packer of images, and “The Golden Age” is relatively modest inits abundance. The 1612 “Wedding of Peleus and Thetis,” a popular mythological subject that invited artists to indulge excess, also is richly stocked with bodies, and narrative paraphernalia. Every last god and nymph and satyr has been sum- moned to the event, bringing their taste for carnal excess, wine and lascivious embrace. They make music, cavort and imbibe, while in the distance we see a darker future. Placed in a similar light as the bird in “The Golden Age,” and in almost the exact same position relative to the frame of the picture, is the goddess of discord, Eris, who brings the golden apple that Paris will present to Venus in the most calamitous beauty contest in pagan history.
Seen simultaneously in the distance, the Judgment of Paris will lead directly to the abduction of Helen, the wrath of Juno and the carnage of the Trojan War. So once again, a small image is full of ominous vectors, and all assembled might well say: “Enjoy the feast, for trouble is coming.”
These works are presented along with portraits Wtewael made of his family, and there is a striking contrast between them. Wtewael also was a wealthy flax merchant, an investor, a prominent citizen of Utrecht and an important player in the religious and political life of his home town. The portraits reflect all of that and bear only a trace of the whimsy and froth of his other work. In a paired set of images, Joachim holds a painter’s palette and brushes, while his wife gestures toward him, with a set of scales near her right hand (a sign of her domestic frugality and good sense). Wtewael depicts himself as intelligent, well dressed, with perhaps just the slightest trace of an ironical cast of mind evident in his eyes, brows and lips. He is a man of parts.
Rendering himself, and his family, has brought him down to earth, for a bit. But these works also demonstrate his enormous facility, and his mastery of more than just one style, mood and mode of design. Their presence in the larger exhibition underscores the sense that painting was a pleasure, was about pleasure and was an outlet for remarkable reserves of intellectual and manual virtuosity.
It is unlikely he will become anyone’s favorite Dutch artist any time soon. We live in humorless times, and Wtewael is a funny artist. Just explore the rumpled bedsheets in his three different versions of “Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan,” an episode of divine adultery, mockery and laughter unthinkable in our dour, monotheistic world. What a mess these gods have made, what a racket their discovery creates in heaven. Wtewael returned several times to this subject, which says a lot about what he thought was interesting, and what his clients wanted from him.
Some artists, wondering how to depict this moment, would call on only the props absolutely necessary to tell the tale; Wtewael seems to have chosen the story in part because it invites him to stuff in an unlimited panoply of material things, fabrics, wood, metal, glass, skin, hair and fire. It is builtupa bit like the last scene of a Rossini comedy, a carefully constructed image of cacophony and motion, and cruel humor sending sparks in all directions.
The painters who succeeded Wtewael, and who supplanted memory of his work, had a very different sense of humor, and often no evidence of humor at all. Their workis beloved, and rightly so. But it’s good to see the wider range of Dutch sensibility, the learning, wit and pure delight in visual things practiced almost like a sport.
Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael is on view through Oct. 4 at the National Gallery of Art . For more information, visit www.nga.gov.
Joachim Wtewael’s “TheWedding of Peleus and Thetis” is a bacchanal of Olympic proportions, but a sobering chain of events is unfolding in the background.