The exhibition dedicated to Joachim Wtewael in Utrecht, Washington and Houston richly illuminates this painter’s work, including surprisingly great differences in scale and subject. Wtewael’s reduced portrait of his daughter needling lace stood next to life-size panels of his two sons and not far from bust-length images of both himself and his wife as shepherd and shepherdess. The Old Testament theme of Lot and his Daughters was treated in both life-size (no. 10) and diminutive scale. One often forgets these enormous differences of effect when viewing reproductions.
Also unexpected was how Wtewael, a strict Calvinist who met criticism for dancing at his daughter’s wedding, could have specialized in intensely erotic images of the gods cavorting. His small, finely painted panels present in miniature revealing scenes of Mars and Venus caught in the web of Vulcan during their adulterous act (nos. 16, 21, 26). As Liesbeth M. Helmus points out, depictions of copulation were quite rare in Netherlandish art. Wtewael’s finely executed panels translate what was essentially a court idiom, introduced by Spranger to the Habsburgs in Vienna and Prague, into an elite bourgeois genre.
Nor were these paintings produced solely on a small scale, safe objects that might be easily concealed. One monumental nude Perseus and Andromeda (Paris, no. 30) chained before the approaching sea monster, offers a nearly life-size representation, playing with the erotic appeal of both subject and presentation. Her body becomes one of a series of objects of desire along with the exotic shells at her feet. The vulvic conch with its rosy mother-of-pearl interior links the marine naturalia with Andromeda’s flushed skin. To distribute shells as curiosities, mixed with the bones of the sea monster’s previous victims, emphasizes the picture’s status as collectible. Hendrik Goltzius’s contemporary portrait of Jan Goverts (Rotterdam, 1603) shows the sitter proudly displaying his shell collection; Balthasar van der Ast’s early still lives also foreground glistening shells with the same cultural values.
Although he had traveled to Italy and France, Wtewael clearly engaged with the local Netherlandish traditions of painting. The well-known kitchen scene with the banquet of Lazarus (Berlin; no. 23) appeared as one of a series of paintings that reviewed the art of Joachim Beuckelaer and Pieter Aertsen. These included a life-size Kitchen Maid holding a chicken on a spit (Utrecht, no. 35) – very much a reprisal of the innovative Antwerp pictures of a half century earlier. Wtewael thus took part in the general revival of this art around the beginning of the seventeenth century, as also practiced by Pieter Pietersz (1540–1603), Pieter Cornelisz van Rijck (1567-ca.1637), and Cornelis Jacobsz Delff (1570–1643).
The introduction by Helmus presents Wtewael as Utrecht’s principal Calvinist painter opposite the Catholic Abraham Bloemaert. Helmus tells us that Wtewael became wealthy from his business ventures, which may have freed him from the need to work full-time as a painter. He kept many of his pictures within his family, and both Karel van Mander and Aernout van Buchel lamented the fact that Wtewael had not been more active in his profession. As has been conjectured for several artists, Wtewael’s relative freedom from the need to paint for his livelihood may have permitted him greater leeway in departing from established conventions of iconography and style. We learn from Helmus that Wtewael was also an important politician, a member of the town council and a founding member of Utrecht’s painters’ Guild of St. Luke.
Anne W. Lowenthal, a pioneer researcher into Wtewael’s art, investigates his early patrons, many of whom are reported by Van Mander. She also discusses Wtewael’s use of copperplate as a support, which gave his pictures a luminous surface with a luster approaching that of gemstones; fully one third of his surviving oeuvre is on copper. Perhaps his father, a glass painter, introduced him to this miniaturist technique and material, but Wtewael more likely came upon it in northern Italy, where he would have encountered pictures on copper by Jan Bruegel and Hans Rottenhammer. Paul Brill, Lowenthal observes, further popularized this reflective support. Van Mander praised Wtewael’s works as being “entirely full of subtle small details and as precise as the eye is capable of discerning.” Lowenthal also notes Wtewael’s remarkably variable styles. In the early 1590s he produced paintings of Parnassus (formerly Dresden) and The Deluge(Nuremberg) along with the design for the Gouda stained glass window, Allegory of the Freedom of Conscience – all of which demonstrate different approaches to composition and the rendering of the body.
Arthur K. Wheelock’s article, “Wtewael’s Historical Reputation,” concedes that many Wtewael paintings “just do not look Dutch.” This view results from attitudes, deriving from nineteenth-century French critics, which imagine Dutch art as an image of bourgeois society. Only with attention to Mannerism in the last century, especially with the 1970 exhibition on Dutch Mannerism curated by Wolfgang Stechow, did this phase of Dutch art attract critical attention. Since eighteenth-century taste for the miniature, the delicate, and virtuoso craftsmanship idolized the fijnschilders Gerard Dou, Frans van Mieris, and Adriaen van der Werff with their porcelain surfaces, Wtewael enjoyed a reception in that culture.
Most of the authors mention the close relation between the work of Wtewael and that of Abraham Bloemaert, his Utrecht contemporary. Attribution of several paintings from the late 1590s has, in fact, oscillated between the two artists. Bloemaert, too, practiced in different stylistic modes. Despite his eminent patronage and long career, his place in Dutch art is no more assured than that of Wtewael. This neglect may stem from the concept of Mannerism. After avid discussion across the twentieth century – especially in the 1960s – the term has generally fallen out of favor. Recently, art historians like Stephen Campbell have revived the concept for Central Italian painting with a meaning very much like the general definition of the word: an emphasis on a manner, which itself, becomes the subject rather than any external referent (any object represented). While this usage may be fruitful in analyzing the reception of Michelangelo in mid-century Tuscany, it is unclear how helpful it is when applied to the painters of Utrecht, Haarlem, or Prague around 1600. The Wtewael exhibition should encourage further consideration of this issue and many other topics central to this painter’s works.
Ethan Matt Kavaler
University of Toronto