Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer

As usual, I didn’t make it to the latest big exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts till the next-to-last weekend, on a rainy Sunday where everyone else in the city seemed to have the same idea.

It was great, although the crowds made it a bit exhausting.  They wouldn’t let you take photographs, so here are images from the Internet.

Here was my favorite Rembrandt, “The Ship-Builder and His Wife”:

I like paintings where you’re not quite sure what’s going on.  This is almost always true of Vermeer paintings.  There were two Vermeers in the exhibit.  Here is “Lady Writing a Letter”:

Is she thinking about her next sentence?  Is she looking at someone?

And here is Vermeer’s “The Astronomer”:

I’ve seen both of these Vermeers before, in Washington and Paris, so I didn’t add to my Vermeer life list.

My favorite painting at the exhibition was this one by Pieter de Hooch, “The Courtyard of a House in Delft”:

Which reminds one of Vermeer’s similar painting, “Little Street”, viewing Delft houses from the street rather than from the courtyard:

Here is an interesting essay comparing both of these great paintings:

Vermeer’s Street in Delft is a greater painting than de Hooch’s, but far harder to write about. Where de Hooch is essentially a moralising painter, an artist for whom images define correct or incorrect social behaviour, Vermeer’s ethical credentials have always seemed somewhat suspect. Reticent, forever withholding or obstructing easy reading of his pictures, Vermeer remains a thoroughly enigmatic artist.

He appraises the houses that are his subject in Street in Delft not from the back but from the front, and at a greater distance than de Hooch in his Courtyard. Although Vermeer’s picture includes genre-like details – the two children in front of the gabled house to the right, playing knucklebones; the woman sewing in the doorway; the other woman, seen through the open doorway to the right, bending over a tub – their diminished scale robs them of the aura, so strong in the de Hooch, of role models, figures meant in some way to instruct. Their faces, moreover, are left blank. This is possibly the most striking example of where Vermeer’s painting differs most fundamentally from de Hooch’s: namely in the daring quality of its realism, its intermittent, inconsistent, variable nature.

Hokusai and Picasso

Returning to Hokusai:

I liked his painting of Japanese warriors:

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For some reason (the verticality of the construction, I guess) it reminded me of Picasso’s “Rape of the Sabines”, which was one floor up from the Hokusai at the Museum of Fine Arts:

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Compare and contrast.

It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem in 1917 at a hospital where he was recovering from shell shock.  He died the next year, at the age of 25. Is there any more vivid description of what it is like to die for one’s country?

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

And here is John Singer Sargent’s large painting “Gassed,” completed in 1919 and on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Gassed© IWM (Art.IWM ART 1460)

Goya and more

We visited the massive, crowded Goya exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts yesterday.  What’s amazing about Goya is the prodigality and variety of his output–everything from standard portraits of royalty to antiwar prints to pure weirdness.  I couldn’t take photos, but here are some images that stuck with me.  First, an allegory of time:

Here’s the lovely Duchess of Alba (pointing to the ground, where “solo Goya” is written–Goya alone could have painted this: And here’s the luminous “Last Communion of Saint Joseph of Calasanz”:

The reproduction, alas, doesn’t give you any sense of the size and power of the image (in particular, it cuts off the celestial light shining down out of the endless black space about the scene).

Since I had my iPhone with me, I took a photo of an MFA favorite: “Boston Common at Twilight” by Childe Hassam:

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And here’s one of a pair of weird sculptures now displayed at either side of the museum’s Fenway entrance.  They’re called Night and Day and they’re by a contemporary Spanish painter. This one, with her eyes closed, is night:

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