To optimally experience the precious creations of the Dutchfijnschilders – those tiny painted worlds, rich and dense with an obsessive attention to detail – one should view them in an environment that embraces, rather than denies their insistent charms. Alas, most of us rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to examine these objects under perfect circumstances – holding them in our hands, slowly devouring the image and teasing out its manifold beauties and visual puzzles. We must content ourselves with those rare museum galleries that are designed to encourage close looking and that recreate (insofar as is possible) the warm domestic environments for which these pictures were originally created. Happily, the intimate rooms of the Mauritshuis, and the Dutch Cabinet galleries at the National Gallery of Art, are such conducive spaces, and provided beautiful settings for the recent exhibition of paintings and drawings by Frans van Mieris. (It is to be regretted that the permanently installed glass-fronted cases at the latter location hamper viewing of the paintings installed within them.)
This captivating show presented the full range of Frans van Mieris’s genius with roughly three dozen judiciously chosen paintings at each venue, accompanied, at the Mauritshuis only, by a selection of drawings by the master. Frans van Mieris can be regarded as the quintessential fijnschilder: descended from a family of goldsmiths (and originally trained as one), he was regarded by his teacher Gerard Dou as “the prince of all my pupils.” Even in Leiden, a city noted for its roster of particularly skilled and learned artists, Van Mieris stood out. Lauded for his meticulous, virtually invisible brushwork, brilliant coloristic sense, and near-perfect rendering of materials, his works were avidly collected and commanded astronomical prices at home and abroad. In contrast to the consummate control demonstrated in his drawings, etchings, and paintings, Van Mieris’s personal life swung to bohemian extremes. Intimations of his lifestyle are given on page 16 of the exhibition catalogue, where in less than a dozen words we segue from his “drinking problems” to the “ant-like industry and saintly patience” demonstrated in creating these fine paintings. One of his most loyal and prestigious patrons was Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany; the grand duke’s agent in the Netherlands, Giovacchino Guasconi, expended considerable time and money sobering the artist up, bailing him out of debt, and extracting the grand duke’s finished paintings from him.
The catalogue to the exhibition was written by Quentin Buvelot, with essays by Otto Naumann and Eddy de Jongh, and contributions by Pieter van der Ploeg, Bieke van der Mark, and Carol Pottasch, who conducted a fascinating study of underdrawings in the paintings of Van Mieris. The exhibition and catalogue appear almost exactly a quarter-century after the publication of Otto Naumann’s exemplary monograph on the artist (Frans van Mieris [1635-1681] the Elder, 2 vols. Doornspijk: Davaco, 1981), and constitute an interesting reflection on the evolution of the study of Dutch painting over the last thirty years or so.
Perhaps because of Van Mieris’s extraordinary fame and rarified clientele (and thanks to Naumann’s pioneering research), we are better informed about his life and work than about many of his contemporaries. Buvelot’s essay provides a succinct and lively introduction to the artist’s work and its significance, deftly constructing a vivid image of one of the most highly regarded artists of his age. In the essay and throughout the catalogue, Buvelot provides a wealth of enticing details about the formal sources, iconography, provenance, or technique of these voluble images, and gracefully draws it all together with consistently perceptive analyses.
Naumann’s essay on Van Mieris’s personal style draws on his long study of Van Mieris’s work, and demonstrates an almost instinctive understanding of the artist’s intent and the means employed to achieve it. Precise formal analyses draw our attention to the artist’s uniquely sophisticated use of color and light. Naumann also addresses the issue of the artist’s rather mannered late works, which can be frankly unpleasant in their pneumatic distortions and acid colorations. These are, we learn, the product of a conscious evolution towards an ultra-refined style rather than a precipitous falling-off in artistic skill. The artist responded to contemporary admiration for his depiction of materials by tightly juxtaposing even more of them, and rendering them with almost supernatural clarity. He imposes classical elegance on scenes of modern life by elongating proportions and exaggerating the sinuous contours that unify the composition – often, it must be said, at the expense of anatomical accuracy.
Eddy de Jongh’s essay (“Frans van Mieris: Questions of Understanding”) is a concise apologia for the interpretation of subject matter in paintings by Frans van Mieris. Citing the seventeenth-century’s love for metaphor, enigma, humor, and a particular ambiguity that invites a multiplicity of responses, De Jongh broadens our view of what these paintings might have meant to a contemporary audience, in part by blending the “reading” of a picture with a conscious appreciation of its sensual visual appeal. Accordingly, throughout the catalogue the symbolic language of Van Mieris’s paintings is presented with a light touch, suggesting rather than imposing interpretations and ultimately inviting the reader/viewer to take a more participatory role in their unraveling.
The catalogue demonstrates impressive knowledge and understanding of Van Mieris’s achievements, but avenues for research still remain. One such concerns the possible existence of autograph copies of paintings by Van Mieris, discussed in Cat. 33, A Woman Feeding a Parrot, and elsewhere throughout the catalogue. Contemporary copies by Frans the Elder’s son Willem van Mieris and other artists can be identified (and are exhaustively catalogued by Naumann 1981). In the case of Woman Feeding a Parrot, the primary version, unmistakably by Van Mieris himself (private collection, England), is painted on panel; the second version, the authorship of which is in question (National Gallery, London), is on a more costly copper support. Might the master’s primary version have been kept as a studio exemplar to show prospective clients, who could then opt for a more extravagant rendering on copper?
The catalogue itself is beautifully produced by Waanders. The English translation was expertly done by Beverly Jackson, who must be commended for capturing delightfully nuanced descriptions. One or two quirks must be noted, however: the translation of the opening phrase of Coenrad Droste’s couplet in entry no. 25 (Teasing the Pet) renders “Wie heeft met Turks tapyt, bont en fluweele kleeren” as “Who has ever contrived, with Turkish rugs, colors velvet and bright.” Perhaps a more appropriate translation might be “Who has ever contrived, with Turkish rugs, fur, and velvet clothing”? And the title of Cat. 46 manages to be misleading in both Dutch and English: “Dubbelportret van een Echtpaar op een Bordes” or “Double Portrait of a Couple Standing on a Flight of Steps,” when there are no steps in evidence and at least one of the figures is seated. But these are miniscule hiccups in an otherwise intelligent, thought-provoking, and handsome catalogue.
Marjorie E. Wieseman
Cincinnati Art Museum