Books that focus attention on unheralded masters of talent and historical significance are rarities these days. For that reason alone, Rudi Ekkart’s Deaf, Dumb & Brilliant deserves special notice. This handsome production reconstructs the life and work of Johannes Thopas (c. 1626-1688/95), a singular Dutch draftsman and painter who was, until very recently, unknown even to most specialists in the Dutch field. It puts Thopas on the art-historical map, where he very much belongs. The book consists of three richly informative essays outlining Thopas’s life story, artistic development, and place within the history of drawing, followed by an illustrated catalogue of the artist’s extant and lost works. The entire book is printed in English with the essays reappearing at the end of the volume in their original Dutch as well as in German translation.
The book opens with a documented biography based in large part upon archival discoveries recently published by Bert Koene (“Portrettist Johan Thopas en de zijnen,” De Nederlandsche Leeuw 127 (2010), 62-73). As Ekkart painstakingly shows, Johannes Thopas lived a peripatetic existence from his earliest days. Born in Arnhem, probably in 1626, he likely dwelled in Emmerich for a time as a young child. When he was about fourteen years old, the future artist moved with his family to Utrecht, where he resided until 1656. He then relocated to Amsterdam and, sometime in the 1660s, to Haarlem. Thopas spent his later years in Assendelft and, probably, Zaandam.
Koene’s research further revealed Thopas to have been both deaf and mute, conditions that, Ekkart demonstrates, profoundly shaped his life and career. Deemed unable to live independently because of his disorders, the artist remained under the legal guardianship of various family members throughout his life. He neither married, nor, it seems, supported himself financially. Nevertheless, Thopas found regular if not copious opportunities to work in his field, encountered many well-healed and distinguished clients, including the famous Amsterdam surgeon Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1593-1674), and joined at least one professional organization, the Haarlem painter’s guild, in 1668. Moreover, Thopas appears to have achieved some measure of literacy. As Ekkart observes, the master’s “almost calligraphic” signatures are “evidence that a seventeenth-century deaf mute Dutchman could learn the art of writing extraordinarily well.” (15)
Throughout his artistic career, which stretched from the mid 1640s to the mid 1680s, Thopas specialized in producing portrait drawings using plumbago (leadpoint) and wash on vellum. About 70 such works are present and accounted for today largely owing to Ekkart’s own scholarly efforts; quite a few others remain lost. These portraits share some nearly unmistakable stylistic qualities. Almost without exception, they are small, microscopically conceived and finished productions that recall miniature paintings. They endow their subjects with placid and ruminative facial expressions, large heads and hands that seem a might out of scale with their seemingly undersized bodies, and often possess subtly curvaceous outlines that interact musically with the simple frames that contain them. To be sure, Thopas’s style developed over time, a phenomenon that Ekkart takes pains to emphasize. The earliest portraits set their subjects against backgrounds of unmarked vellum. Works associated with the artist’s Amsterdam period often show sitters in front of detailed architectural backdrops, some washed in several colors. Those produced in Haarlem and Assendelft frequently feature finely constructed landscape settings behind their main subjects.
Although drawn portraiture was always his primary focus, Thopas did on occasion make representations of other kinds. At least once, the artist copied a history painting, replicating a lost Venus, Mars and Cupid by Cornelis van Haarlem, using his favored plumbago technique (Cat. 25). He also painted in oil: an exceptional panel representing a deceased girl (Cat. 66) has survived. Thopas invested these ventures with the same controlled, detailed execution and psychological sensitivity encountered in his portrait drawings.
Ekkart shows Thopas to be historically significant from a number of angles. As portrait drawing was still rarely practiced in the seventeenth-century Netherlands, the artist, who made almost nothing but works of this type, must be regarded as something of a pioneer in a genre that was only then just beginning to coalesce. He was also, it seems, one of only a small number of seventeenth-century artists to favor the leadpoint technique above all others, employing it in every one of his known drawings. Most importantly from the point of view of the social history of art, Thopas’s sustained activity provides evidence that hearing and vocal impairment did not preclude a career as a portraitist in seventeenth-century Holland.
Deaf, Dumb & Brilliant was published to coincide with an identically named exhibition comprising about 40 of Thopas’s most sparkling gems held at the Suermondt-Ludwig Museum in Aachen earlier this year. A slight variation of the show, happily retitled “Brilliantly Drawn: Portraits by Johannes Thopas” (“Briljant Getekend: Portretten van Johannes Thopas”) is on view in the Rembrandthuis until October 5. Arranged chronologically within a small exhibition space, the selection beautifully represents Thopas’s development and overall artistic achievement. In Amsterdam, a short film intended to introduce Thopas to the public, thoughtfully featuring a signer for the hearing impaired (posted on YouTube at http://youtu.be/C8Po4mdlmFY), runs on a continuous loop on one wall of the diminutive gallery. The video’s loud musical soundtrack may exasperate some visitors interested primarily in looking at the drawings, as it did me well before hearing it repeated twenty or thirty times in succession. This slight miscue should not, however, dissuade anybody interested in Dutch art from seeing this stunning and important show.
David A. Levine
Southern Connecticut State University