Where? Room XIII on the First Floor of the Kunsthistorisches Museum
What do you see? Perseus has just cut off the head of Medusa which is lying on top of a cliff. The edge of the cliff is on the right, and in the background is the rest of the mountain and some vegetation. The face of Medusa is very pale, her lips are black, and her pupils rolled down. A substantial amount of blood comes out of her neck. Before she died, the hair of Medusa consisted of snakes, and most of the snakes are still attached to her (if you look carefully you can see some snakes growing directly from her head). Some other snakes have detached and are trying to get away.
There is a variety of snakes with different skins, shapes, and folds. On the top right, two snakes are biting each other, which may be part of a mating ritual. On the left, many snakes are wrestling with each other. From the blood that pours out of Medusa’s neck, small snakes are born. In the middle foreground, a small yellow snake has no tail but two heads instead. This snake represents the mythological amphisbaena, which is an ant-eating snake with two heads. The rolled-up snake to its left has the head of another animal. In the left foreground is also a beautiful fire salamander, to its right are two spiders, and further to the right a scorpion.
Backstory: Frans Snyders, a specialist in painting animals, painted the snakes, other animals, and insects in this work. Snyders also assisted Rubens with several other paintings over a period of thirty years. For example, he painted the eagle in Rubens’ Prometheus Bound in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
According to the mythological story on Medusa, the snakes on her head are venomous. However, Snyders used the nonvenomous European grass snake as the model for the snakes in this painting. Some people, however, identify the two snakes on the right who are mating as vipers (and the viper is a venomous snake). A copy of this painting is in the Moravian Gallery in Brno, Czech Republic.
Who is Medusa? She was a Gorgon in Greek mythology. The term Gorgon is often used to refer to the three sisters, Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, who looked like monsters and killed many people. Several sources describe them as the children of Phorcys and Ceto, though one source mentions that their father was called Gorgon. All three sisters had brass hands, sharp teeth, and their hair consisted of living venomous snakes. Whereas Stheno and Euryale where immortal, Medusa was not.
Medusa was killed by the Greek hero Perseus, who was sent by Polydectes, a king of a Greek island, who wanted to marry the mother of Perseus. Killing Medusa was not easy because everyone who would look at her would turn into stone. Perseus was able to kill Medusa by looking in a mirrored shield that he received from Athena. After he cut off Medusa’s head, the head could still be used to kill people who looked at it.
Medusa in art? In 1596 and 1597, Caravaggio painted two versions of the head of Medusa on a shield. The first work is privately owned and the second Medusa is in the Uffizi Museum. Leonardo da Vinci also painted Medusa, as discussed in a book by Vasari, but this painting is lost now.
Perseus and Medusa have also been the subject of some well-known sculptures of which the most famous example is probably Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Antonio Canova. The original version of this statue is in the Vatican Museums, and a copy is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Who is Rubens? Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was a Belgian painter during the Baroque period. Baroque painting differs from Renaissance painting by the increased use of color and emotions, and Rubens is one of the most important examples of that.
When Rubens was 23 years old, he moved to Italy where he spent the next eight years of his life. He traveled to places such as Florence, Rome, and Venice, and learned from the works of the great Renaissance artists. He returned to Belgium in 1608 where he set up his large studio. He had many students and often collaborated with other great artists such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Some other examples of the work of Rubens include Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery in London and Daniel in the Lions’ Den in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Fun fact: After Perseus cut off the head of Medusa, the head was involved in a variety of events:
Where? East Galleries II on the first floor of the Wallace Collection
What do you see? A party to celebrate the arrival of a newborn baby. In the middle, a father holds his newborn. He wears a so-called kraamherenmuts, a typical cap worn by new fathers. On the left, the mother lays in her bed (below the canopy on the top left).
Friends and family surround the father and baby. The scene is chaotic but happy. People engage in all sorts of activities, and bowls, pans, plates, egg shells, and food are scattered throughout the room. In the foreground, a maid is shown from the back. She is dressed in happy colors and holds a red chair for the father to sit in. The woman standing on the right side (from our point of view) from the father will receive some money from the father who puts his left hand in a money bag.
In the right foreground, a smiling woman is stirring in a large pot and holds up her hand to receive some money as well. Another woman helps her pouring sugar into the pot. The maid on the right is getting a sausage that hangs from the chimney. On the left, two people are paying attention to the mother, and one of them feeds her some soup. To the left of the table, a pregnant woman sits next to a crib. She holds a glass in her left hand and conceals her belly with a white apron.
Backstory: This painting has been known under several titles, including The Christening, The Christening Feast, and The Gossiping. Steen signed the painting by writing JSteen.1664 above the door. In addition, the long-haired man behind the father may be a self-portrait of Jan Steen.
The painting has been altered a bit over time, but a large cleaning in 1983 removed some of the 19th-century additions. For example, you can still see that the plate in the hand of the woman on the right (getting the sausage) was originally larger.
Sir Richard Wallace acquired the painting on May 15, 1872. Jan Steen made several other paintings about the celebration of the birth of a child. For example, in 1668, he painted Twin Birth Celebration, which is in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg.
Symbolism: The marriage between the husband and wife is not good as there are hints that both are cheating on each other (see the fun fact below for more on this). The broken egg shells in the foreground could both symbolize the lack of sexual intercourse within the marriage and sexual intercourse outside the marriage (also notice the bits of egg yolk on the floor). The eggs were also used to produce an alcoholic cinnamon-based drink which was a traditional drink for the mother to recover from the childbirth.
The item on the bottom left, which looks like a frying pan, is a bed warmer. It refers again to the bad state of the marriage as the bed warmer indicates the only warmth there is in bed. Furthermore, the sausage hanging on the top right is also a sexual reference. Steen wanted to remind people with this painting of the importance of a good marriage.
Who is Steen? Jan Havickszoon Steen (1626-1679) was a painter from The Netherlands who is best known for the comical and ironic themes in his paintings. His works often include chaotic scenes from everyday life. Typical examples are The Merry Family in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Rhetoricians at the Window in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. However, he was quite versatile and also created mythological, religious, still-life, and portrait paintings.
Jan Steen was the son-in-law of Jan van Goyen, a successful landscape painter from the 17th century. Steen did not always earn enough money with his paintings and ran a brewery and an inn at different points in his life. Observing people having some drinks must have been a great inspiration for Steen as this is a theme that he frequently incorporated in his paintings.
Fun fact: Typical for Jan Steen, this painting contains some comical details, but at the same time these details completely change the meaning of the painting. For example, look right above the head of the baby. A man is raising his two fingers, which was a sign of infidelity. It is a sign that the man raising his fingers is the birth father of the child, while the man holding the baby is only the official father (as his wife has cheated on him). The woman on the right with the large breasts jokingly opens her hand to receive some money from the father. She may be the midwife, but also a little bit more than that…
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room 9 of the Mauritshuis
Commissioned by? Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and the guild of surgeons in Amsterdam
What do you see? Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the central figure with the hat, is giving an anatomy lesson to the guild of surgeons. The body that he analyzes is from the criminal Aris Kindt. His body is partly shaded to indicate that he is dead (see also the black lips), which is a technique called umbra mortis (which means shadow of death).
Dr. Tulp (which means “tulip” in Dutch), has an instrument (a forceps) in his right hand and shows how the muscles in the arm are attached. With his left hand, he illustrates to the audience the movement that the left arm and hand are capable of. According to the knowledge of today, Rembrandt’s depiction of the arm was surprisingly accurate, though there are some minor mistakes.
The surgeons are all looking at a distinct place, although several of them seem to look at the open book on the right. The book is probably De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Fabric of the Human Body) by Andreas Vesalius and contains medical information that supplements what the surgeons hear and see in this anatomy lesson.
Have a look at the white starch collars of the surgeons, which have been painted in great detail. It was very difficult to keep these collars this white and to iron them to appear in this perfect form. In this painting, they show the distinctiveness of the surgeons.
Inscriptions: The man in the center back is holding a piece of paper, which contains the names of the seven spectators present on this painting. Just to the left of the top middle of the painting, you can see the text “Rembrandt f. 1632”. This text means that Rembrandt made this painting in 1632 (“f.” stand for “fecit”, which is Latin for “he made”).
Backstory: This painting is part of a series of group portraits for the boardroom of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. On January 31, 1632, Dr. Tulp (38 years old) gave a public anatomy lesson, which was open to surgeons, students, and the general public (who had to pay an entrance fee) and was held in a theater. Such an anatomy lesson was given once a year during the winter to reduce the deterioration of the body and its smell because it was not yet possible to refrigerate the body. By law, they could only use a body of an executed criminal for this event. Surgeons were required to attend this anatomy lesson to increase their understanding of the human body.
Who is Dr. Nicolaes Tulp? Dr. Tulp (1593-1674) was born in Amsterdam and studied medicine in Leiden starting in 1611. He was born as Claes Pieterszoon but changed his name as an adult to Nicolaus Petreius, which was a more credible name for a physician and surgeon. After he established a successful practice in Amsterdam, he changed his name to Nicolaes Tulp (after the beautiful tulips that he saw near his house).
Dr. Tulp became a surgeon specialized in anatomy, and in 1628 he became the lecturer of Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, which made him responsible for the yearly public anatomy lesson. He was a very successful surgeon and published a popular book on anatomy. In 1653 he became the mayor of Amsterdam, where he signed the official document with the stamp of a tulip. He was reelected as mayor three times.
Who is Aris Kindt? The body of the criminal that is dissected in this painting belongs to the 28-year old Adriaen Adriaenszoon, usually called Aris Kindt (which means Aris the child) and sometimes referred to as Aris ‘t Kint. Earlier that day – some sources mention one hour before – he was publicly hanged and died.
Just like Rembrandt, Aris was born in Leiden. He was a thief and had already been caught many times before. Most recently, he was accused of violent robbery; he had mugged a gentleman to steal his cloak. He was convicted to death and was involuntarily paying back his debt to society by serving as the subject for an anatomy lesson.
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) is one of the greatest painters of this world. He was born in Leiden, The Netherlands. In 1631, he relocated to Amsterdam, which was one of the most important cities in the world at that time. Rembrandt was a master of using the contrast between light and dark in his work.
Rembrandt was a very productive artist, and much of his work involved religious scenes, self-portraits, and portraits of others. He has created almost 100 self-portraits in his life. Together with Caravaggio, Rembrandt is by many considered to be the greatest painter of the Baroque period. This painting was one of the first assignments that Rembrandt got when he moved from Leiden to Amsterdam and immediately increased his reputation.
Fun fact: This painting became quite popular in the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century as it was featured on the packaging of the Dutch Masters cigar brand. Dutch Masters is one of the most popular cigar brands in the United States. The use of this painting for branding is one of the early examples of how art can successfully be used to build a brand. The managers of Dutch Masters were smart enough to remove the dead body and the forceps from the painting before displaying it on their packaging (the complete painting, however, would not be such a strange choice in today’s tobacco packaging with all the warnings on the packages).
Featuring a piece of art from Rembrandt on the packaging gave some sophistication to this relatively inexpensive cigar brand. Nowadays, another picture of Rembrandt, Syndics of the Drapers' Guild is featured on the packaging of Dutch Masters cigars.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? The Eregallerij on the second floor of the Rijksmuseum
What do you see? A happy household in a messy living room. The mother is sitting in the middle of the table and holds a young child on her lap. She is singing with her own mother next to her and shows a large amount of cleavage. The father on the left of the table is singing loudly as well and raises his glass while holding a violin in his left hand.
The boy outside the window is smoking a pipe while he is holding a horn in his right hand. In the foreground, the young boy in green is drinking wine, which is provided to him by his sister who is holding a jug of wine. Both of them look older than their height would indicate. Two other children are playing music. The boy on the right with the red hat is playing the flute, and the boy in the left background is playing a kind of bagpipes. On the right background, a boy and a girl are holding pipes with tobacco.
The dog is standing in front of the table which is filled with bread and meat, and he hopes that some of the food will fall off. The floor in the living room is messy, and we can identify a frying pan, half an eggshell, a large bowl, two jugs and a spoon. In contrast, the objects on top of the painting are neatly organized. On the top right, Steen included a piece of paper stating: ‘“Soo d’ oude Songen, Soo Pypen de Jonge.’ This means ‘As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young.’
Backstory: Jan Steen sometimes used his own family as models for some people in his paintings, and it is suggested that some of the children in this painting are modeled after his kids.
Steen created quite some paintings of families or groups of people in a messy environment. These paintings were not necessarily a realistic depiction of life in The Netherlands during the 17th century, but for Steen, it was a way in which he could include his style of humor and irony, but still provide a moral message. For example, some comparable paintings to The Merry Family are As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young in the Mauritshuis in The Hague and The Feast of Saint Nicholas in the Rijksmuseum.
Moral message: Steen usually included a moral message in his paintings and he more often used children to convey this message. The behavior of the children in this painting is not intended to make you laugh, but to make you evaluate the behavior of their parents.
The message written on the piece of paper emphasizes that as it mentions that children are just copying the behavior of their parents. This message refers to the behavior of both parents and the grandmother, but primarily to the mother as, during that time, she was the main responsible for the moral values in the family. So, the moral message of this painting is that the people should be careful in the way they behave as it may have a big impact on (their) children.
Who is Steen? Jan Havickszoon Steen (1626-1679) was born in Leiden in The Netherlands. During his life, he lived in various other Dutch cities, including The Hague, Delft, Warmond, and Haarlem. While Jan Steen also painted biblical, historical, and mythological scenes, his most popular works are the scenes from daily life.
Steen is known for his humoristic style of painting, and he often included a moral message in his paintings, sometimes based on proverbs from his time. He is also considered to be an expert in accurately incorporating light into his paintings. While Steen has not had any known pupils, two of his sons were painters, but none of their works have survived.
Fun fact: In Dutch, there is an expression for a messy and cluttered interior, which is still used nowadays. The Dutch expression is ‘een huishouden van Jan Steen’, which means ‘a Jan Steen household’. The people living in such a household are often depicted as happy people, just like in this painting. Jan Steen created quite some paintings that show these messy scenes, either depicting a family household in the living room or a group of people in a tavern.
Jan Steen's messy households are in stark contrast to the very calm and organized paintings by his contemporary Johannes Vermeer, known of paintings such as Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis and The Milkmaid, which is also in the Rijksmuseum.
Where? Room VIII of the Galleria Borghese
Commissioned by? Unknown; Caravaggio probably used this painting to market himself for commissions.
What do you see? A self-portrait of Caravaggio. He poses as the Roman god Bacchus, the god of grape harvest, wine, and intoxication. He is half-naked, wearing a white robe, and the ribbon around his robe lies on the table. We can see his muscular shoulder and arm. However, Bacchus does not look healthy. His skin is yellow and the white part of his eyes as well. Also, he has bluish lips. He wears a crown of ivy leaves on his head. He folds his hands and holds a bunch of white/yellow grapes between them. Bacchus sits at a stone table with on top a bunch of healthy black grapes, two peaches which have a similar color as Bacchus’ skin, and some vine leaves.
Backstory: This painting is also known as ‘Sick Bacchus’ or ‘Self-Portrait as Bacchus.’ Caravaggio used a mirror to paint this work as he did more often later in his career. He probably painted it between 1593 and 1594. In 1607, the painting was confiscated by the Pope because of tax evasion by its owner, Giuseppe Cesari. The Pope gave the painting to his nephew, Scipione Caffarelli-Borghese. The painting was still reported to be in the Borghese collection in 1693.
As the painting does not have a signature of Caravaggio, over the next centuries, it was attributed to several other painters. In 1927, it was attributed to Caravaggio again, and the large majority of people believes that this is a real Caravaggio.
Who is Bacchus? Known in Greek mythology as Dionysus, Bacchus was the son of Zeus and Semele. He was the god of ecstasy, fertility, grape harvest, wine, and winemaking. He was a popular subject for artists as it allowed them to depict earthly pleasures. Around 1595, Caravaggio painted another painting of Bacchus which is in the Uffizi Museum. In contrast to his first painting, Bacchus looks quite healthy in that painting. Another example of an artist who has used Bacchus as the subject of his art is Diego Velázquez. He painted The Triumph of Bacchus in the Prado Museum.
Symbolism: The crown of ivy leaves is a symbol of Bacchus. Ivy was a sacred plant for Bacchus as it was thought to possess the power of preventing intoxication. The bunch of grapes also contains some rotten grapes. This is a symbol of death which is always looming and must have been in the mind of Caravaggio when he was in the hospital for a long time before he created this painting. At the same time, he holds the bunch of grapes close to his mouth suggesting that he is available for some intimacy. This suggestion is also emphasized by the ribbon of his robe, which is explicitly shown on the table and is ready to be opened. Moreover, the two peaches on the table symbolize a desire to be together with someone else.
Who is Caravaggio? Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610) was born in Caravaggio near Milan, Italy. In 1592, he fled to Rome due to some trouble with the police. He arrived in Rome with almost no money and no place to live. Moreover, he got seriously ill and spent six months in the hospital. Luckily, he was a very talented painter. During his recovery, he painted Young Sick Bacchus.
At the beginning of his career, he focused on naturally and realistically depicting human subjects and other elements in his paintings. This was very uncommon and makes the work of Caravaggio unique. To emphasize the imperfections of life, Caravaggio would get the models for his paintings from the streets (like beggars and prostitutes) and would buy some fruit on the market, accepting the fact that the fruit did not look perfect.
Early in his career, Caravaggio also painted The Fortune Teller in the Louvre and the Capitoline Museums, and The Musicians in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fun fact: Caravaggio was recovering from a serious illness when he painted this work. There are several theories on why he was in the hospital, ranging from a serious kick of a horse to malaria. However, during his recovery, there were still signs of sickness as we can see in this painting. He has jaundice, which leads to a yellowing of the skin and the white part of your eyes. It makes sense that Caravaggio used himself as the model for this painting. He was very poor in the beginning of his career (and also not rich during the rest of his life), and Caravaggio himself was the cheapest model he could find for this painting.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Gallery 210a of the Statens Museum for Kunst
Commissioned by? Probably Augustijn Bloemaert, a Catholic priest and friend of Descartes.
What do you see? A portrait of the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes. Hals paints him in three-quarters view. Descartes looks at the viewer with a confident, thoughtful, and inquisitive expression. The fingers of his left hand are visible in the bottom right. He holds his had in this hand. Someone has scratched this portrait by Hals after he completed it. There are zigzagging scratches in Descartes’ face. Probably this was done by someone who did not agree with some of the revolutionary ideas of Descartes.
Backstory: In 1648, while Descartes lives in the Dutch Republic, Queen Christina of Sweden invites René Descartes to Sweden. Descartes accepts the invitation but does not move right away to Sweden. One of Descartes’ Dutch friends is the Catholic priest Augustijn Bloemaert. He is afraid that he may never see his friend again and invites Descartes to Haarlem where he lives.
Being familiar with Frans Hals, Bloemaert commissions Hals to paint a portrait of Descartes. However, Descartes does not have much time to sit, and Hals needs to paint the portrait quicker than he usually does. He decides to use a small wooden panel of 5.5 x 7.5 inch (14 x 19 cm). It is the smallest painting he created during his life that was not on a copper background.
Other Portraits of Descartes: Several versions of Hals’ portrait of Descartes are known, though Hals has painted only one of them and the rest are copies. One of those copies hangs in the Louvre. For a long time, the Louvre thought that they owned the original portrait by Hals, but nowadays the majority of art experts believes that the original is in the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen.
Hals was not the only one who portrayed Descartes. Between 1642 and 1649, the French painter and engraver, Sébastien Bourdon, also painted a portrait of Descartes. Compared to the painting of Hals, Bourdon’s portrait is static and lifeless. It is not surprising that Hals’ portrait of Descartes is the portrait that most people have in mind nowadays when thinking of Descartes.
Who is Descartes? René Descartes (1596 – 1650) is one of the greatest philosophers and scientists ever. He was born in France and lived in the Dutch Republic between 1628 and 1649.
In 1641, he published his influential book Meditations on First Philosophy. In this book, he figures out what can be known for sure. Descartes describes that people cannot trust their senses. People acquire knowledge through their senses, but they can be deceiving. Descartes asks himself questions about all sorts of beliefs, and if he even finds the slightest amount of doubt, he removes that belief from his mind. The result of that exercise is that only mathematics is true. Using that base level of knowledge as a starting point, he starts to build up his knowledge again. He argues that a person has to exist by writing “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Through the publication of this book and his other books, Descartes became one of the most influential philosophers ever.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals was born by the end of 1582 or early 1583 in Antwerp, Belgium. He died in 1666 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. He was a very talented and productive painter. About 80 percent of his works consists of portraits, among which The Laughing Cavalier from 1624 in the Wallace Collection and his 1634 Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Hals had a loose painting style, which means that he used relatively few brush strokes to depict something. You can often see the brush strokes in his paintings and particularly so in his Portrait of René Descartes.
Fun fact: Soon after Hals portrayed Descartes in 1649, Descartes leaves for Stockholm to teach Queen Christina of Sweden. Descartes has to wake up very early there to teach the queen at five in the morning. This made him fairly miserable because Descartes was used to waking up late, around noon, most days. The reason was that he believed that the best thinking could be done while in bed.
At a young age, Descartes already convinced his teachers that he should only leave bed very late. He was often sick, and some extra sleep was beneficial to his health. He used this time in the morning to think and reflect on his ideas. Descartes’ time in Sweden was not successful. Besides his early mornings, the Swedish Winter had a negative impact on his health, and he died in February 1650.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster
Where? Palatine Gallery in the Palazzo Pitti
What do you see? Jesus is shown just after he has risen from his grave. On top of his head are bright rays of light shine to indicate his holiness. Light shines brightly on most parts of his body to emphasize that Jesus is alive again. You can still some remains of the wounds that he suffered during the crucifixion (see the middle of his left foot and arm, and the wound, partly in the shadow, on his right side which was pierced by a lance).
On the top left, two small angels are waiting to put the crown of thorns on Jesus (some people say that they took this crown from Jesus, but the head of Jesus is still covered). The large angel on the left, dressed in orange, lifts the cloth in which a dead person is wrapped for burial (also called a shroud). You can imagine that the right hand of this angel is behind the top right of the cloth. On top of the tomb are pieces of wheat that symbolize the bread used in the Holy Communion, which in turn symbolizes the body of Jesus.
Backstory: This painting by Rubens is known under various names, such as ‘The Easter Tomb,’ ‘Christ Resurrected,’ ‘The Resurrection of Christ,’ ‘The Triumph of Christ over Death and Sin,’ and ‘Resurrected Christ Triumphant.’ The reason for some of these alternative names is that Rubens created several other paintings based on this original version.
In several of these versions, there is a skull and a snake under the feet of Jesus, which is why some people have also started to refer to the original of Rubens as the triumph over death and sin. One of these later versions is in the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Ohio, another one in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg, France, and other versions are, among others, in Vienna (see above) and in a private collection.
Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, acquired this painting in 1713, and it entered the collection of the Palazzo Pitti in 1723.
Why the Resurrection? Three days after Jesus is crucified, he rises from the dead. That Jesus died for the sins of humanity and that he rose from his grave are both predicted by the Old Testament and central to Christian faith. The Resurrection is celebrated every year at Easter Sunday. Because of its central importance in Christian faith, it is not surprising that people wanted to have paintings to remind them of such a pivotal moment in the Bible.
The Resurrection was also, more than once, used as the topic for a painting next to a tombstone in a church, to remind the mourners that this person would one day come back to life again (on the day of the Last Judgment).
Who is Rubens? Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was one of the most important painters of the Baroque period. Rubens was well-educated and spend eight years in Italy during his twenties, where he got inspiration from great Italian painters, including Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and Veronese.
After Rubens came back from Italy, he became the court painter in the Low Countries and based his studio with many assistants in Antwerp, Belgium. He painted many mythological and biblical themes. One great example of a mythological work is his Head of Medusa in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A wonderful example of a biblical work is Samson and Delilah in the National Gallery in London.
Fun fact: Many people have asked themselves whether Jesus has an erection in this painting or whether it is just a ‘random’ fold of the sheet around him. It is not unlikely that Jesus has an erection in this painting as this was something that was not that uncommon in depictions of Jesus in the Northern Renaissance.
Sexuality was considered a normal human trait in the 16th and 17th century and also something that Jesus would have experienced. Showing the erection was a way of communicating that Jesus was really a man that walked around on Earth. While in this painting, the erection is not that explicit, it is a bit clearer in a painting from Maarten van Heemskerck.
Where? Room 26 in the Palatine Gallery in the Palazzo Pitti
Commissioned by? Ferdinando II de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany
What do you see? In the middle of the painting, you see Mars (the god of war) with his armor, helmet, red cape, shield, and bloody sword. Mars is stepping on top of a book and a drawing. To the left of him, you can see Venus (the goddess of love) who clings to his arm. She tries to seduce him and to pull him back from the war. Venus is largely naked and has a red cloth between her legs. To her left and above her are two small Cupids with wings who try to help her. Below the standing Cupid, you can see some arrows, a caduceus, and an olive branch laying on the ground.
To the right of Mars is Alecto, one of the Erinyes whose job it is to punish the moral crimes of humans. Alecto has a torch in one hand and is pulling the left arm of Mars to engage him in the war. To her right are two evil-looking figures that add to the aggressiveness of war in this painting. Below Alecto is the goddess Harmony holding a broken mandolin while being pushed to the ground. To her right is an architect laying on the ground holding a compass and some of his other tools have fallen. Above them are a mother and a child.
On the left, you can see a despaired woman dressed in black with her arms up in the air. This woman represents Europe and you can also see her in the middle of Rubens’s earlier painting Massacre of the Innocents in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. To the left of this woman is an angel holding a globe with a small cross on top of it. Above this angel is the Temple of Janus which is on the Roman Forum in Rome.
Backstory: Rubens received a commission for a painting for the Grand Duke of Tuscany through an intermediary in Florence called Justus Sustermans. Rubens was allowed to pick his own topic, and following his desire for peace, he proposed to create a painting on the consequences of war. He created a couple of sketches on his ideas for the painting which the Duke approved.
Rubens painted the work while he was in his studio in Antwerp. This painting is sometimes also referred to as the Horror(s) of War. The painting reflects Rubens’ views on how the Thirty Years’ War between 1618 and 1648 affected Europe.
Symbolism: Venus, the goddess of love, tries to persuade Mars, the god of war, to end the violent war, but Mars is not listening. So, this painting symbolizes the victory of warfare over peace.
The gloomy woman dressed in black, who is not wearing any jewelry, represents Europe, which has suffered from war, abuse, and looting during the Thirty Years’ War. The door of the Temple of Janus is open, which was only the case during wartime as the door was closed when there was peace. The globe with the cross on top of it represents the Christian world.
The arrows, caduceus, and olive branch represent the absence of peace. In addition, there are also several symbols present to indicate the consequences of war. Specifically, war has bad consequences for life (indicated by the woman holding the baby), culture (indicated by Mars stepping on a book and a drawing), arts (indicated by Harmony being pushed to the ground while holding the broken mandolin), and crafts and architecture (indicated by the man on the right holding a compass.
What is the Thirty Years’ War? This very complex war took place between 1618 and 1648 and involved the area which is currently Germany. Many different countries were involved at different stages of the war, including Austria, Denmark, England, France, Spain, and Sweden. There were a total of eight million casualties in this war. This war started as one between Catholic and Protestant areas in Europe but developed later into a war between some of the most powerful European countries.
Who is Rubens? Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was born near Cologne in Germany where his family was exiled. When Rubens was ten years old, his family returned to Antwerp where they were originally from. Antwerp was one of the bigger cities in Europe at that time.
Rubens received a good education and traveled throughout Europe to learn about art. He spent several years in Italy and was impressed by the art that he saw in Florence, Rome, and Venice. He got inspired by artists such as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Titian. For example, the Venus in this painting shows quite some similarities to the Venus as painted by Titian in the Venus of Urbino which is in the Uffizi Museum.
At age 29, Rubens returned to Antwerp where he built a large Italian-style house which served as his house and his art studio. The house has survived and is now called the Rubenshuis and serves as a museum about Rubens.
Fun fact: Throughout his life, Rubens traveled all across Europe to complete different commissions. He was the court painter for several kings and queens. Rubens did not like war and was passionate about creating peace. So, during his trips through Europe and while visiting the leaders of several countries, he started to act as a peace negotiator between the different countries involved in war.
As an example, Rubens was very active as a diplomate between 1627 and 1630 trying to bring peace between England and Spain. However, he always combined his diplomatic trips with studying art in the different countries as he was first and foremost an artist.
Where? Room 10 of the Mauritshuis
When? Between 1651 and 1658
What do you see? King Saul is depicted on the left. He has a curtain in his left hand and a spear in his right hand. Saul suffered from melancholic moods.
The young David is shown on the right. He is sitting a bit lower than Saul and plays the harp to calm down Saul when he experiences one of his depressive moods. David is absorbed in playing the harp and does not seem to notice Saul. However, Saul cannot contain his tears and is drying the tears in his left eye with the curtain. With his right eye, however, he is looking intensely at David, thinking about ways to kill him. Rembrandt offers us a view into the future of this story as not much later Saul will indeed throw his spear at David.
Backstory: David has just beaten Goliath and the Philistines and is back in the palace of King Saul, who is afraid that David will take his position as king due to his enormous popularity.
The story in the painting is based on 1 Samuel 18:10: “The next day an evil spirit from God suddenly took control of Saul, and he raved in his house like a madman. David was playing the harp, as he did every day, and Saul was holding a spear.” Saul was considering to kill David, but he also knew that if he did that the people would turn against him. Saul threw the spear twice at David, but David could dodge it both times. His next move was to send David to war in the hope that he would be killed there, but David was very successful in the war as God protected him.
Symbolism: The painting reflects how Rembrandt imagined the scene in which David was playing the harp for the depressive King Saul. Most elements in the painting come directly from the 17th-century translation of the Bible, but most notably Rembrandt added the curtain. It allowed him to express two different emotions of Saul at once. The tears in his left eye because of the beautiful music and the anger and jealousy of David’s growing popularity in his other eye.
More generally, Rembrandt expresses in this painting how music can help to diminish depressive moods. Rembrandt painted an earlier version on this same topic in which he did not express these emotions that clearly.
Why David and Saul? David has been a popular topic in art. One reason for his popularity is that his life and his experiences are described in great detail in the Bible, providing plenty of inspiration for artists. Another reason for his popularity in art is the range of emotions and roles that he fulfilled. He started as a young boy who was chosen by God to be the future King of Israel. Next, he became a hero by killing Goliath. Right after that, he was described as the great harp player who could calm down King Saul. Later he becomes king and even gets involved in an adulterous affair and murder.
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) is one of the great painters of this world. He was born in Leiden, The Netherlands, but spend most of his adult life in Amsterdam. Rembrandt was a master of using the contrast between light and dark in his work.
Rembrandt was a very productive artist, and much of his work involves religious scenes, self-portraits, and portraits of others. He has created almost 100 self-portraits in his life. Together with Caravaggio, Rembrandt is by many considered to be the greatest painter of the Baroque period. Some of his famous works include The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp which is also in the Mauritshuis.
A real Rembrandt? For a long time, this painting was considered a real Rembrandt painting. However, in 1969, doubt was cast on whether Rembrandt had painted this work. Art historian Horst Gerson published a book about all the paintings of Rembrandt and did not believe that Saul and David was painted by Rembrandt, but rather by one of his pupils. The interest in this painting suffered a lot because of this doubt.
Proving that this was a real Rembrandt or not turned out to be a rather difficult task. Only in 2007, the Mauritshuis started an 8-year long investigation, which eventually proved that the painting was, in fact, a real Rembrandt. The proof was difficult because the painting has been created in two different phases. In the first phase, a very precise painting technique was used (for example, look at David and the harp). In the second phase, the brushstrokes were less precise (for example, look at the cloak that Saul is wearing).
Fun fact: This painting has been a mess over time. It has been cut into pieces and other people have painted on top of the original painting. If you look at the painting, you can see that it consist of three different pieces (this is much clearer in this picture of the painting before the restoration started). A big piece with Saul on the left, a smaller piece depicting David on the bottom right, and another smaller piece in the right top corner with just a dark background.
The most probable reason for why this painting has been cut into different pieces is that the top right of the painting got damaged and that the owner has decided to create two rectangular painting out of it (one piece with Saul and another piece with David). However, this remains speculation.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas
Where? The Nachtwachtzaal in the Eregallerij on the second floor of the Rijksmuseum
Commissioned by? The Guild of the Sharp Shooters under the command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq
What do you see? The Amsterdam Guild of the Sharp Shooters which consists of eighteen people. The painting is full of action and movement. In the center, you can see Captain Frans Banning Cocq (the man with the black hat) and his lieutenant Ruytenburch (dressed in white) stepping into the light. The captain is dressed in an elegant black outfit with a red sash. He holds a cane and a glove in his right hand and stretches his left arm forward to indicate that the guild members should start marching.
The lieutenant indicates with the lance in his left hand the direction in which they should march. On the right, the drummer confirms that the guild should start marching by hitting the drum. The other men are grabbing their weapons, which include muskets, lances, and pikes.
Behind the young girl to the left of the captain is the flag carrier. On the complete left of the painting is the sergeant who is carrying a, so-called, halberd. The man in red is filling his musket with gunpowder. In between the captain and the lieutenant is a man firing his weapon (you can just see the smoke to the left of the hat of the lieutenant).
Over the years, the paint in this work became darker, and that is the reason that in the 18th century the painting was called The Night Watch. However, there is no clear evidence that this scene is set in the night.
This is the largest painting by Rembrandt. It cost the guild at least 1600 guilders and each member contributed their share of money to pay Rembrandt. Not all members of the guild were happy with the final painting. The captain and his lieutenant were obviously happy with their prominent position, but the other members were not as happy as they were shown in the dark.
In 1715, the painting was moved from its original location, and pieces from each side of the painting were cut off, whereby the painting lost about 20% of its original size. A copy of the Night Watch by Gerrit Lundens provides an indication of the missing pieces.
In his personal life, Rembrandt suffered a lot of setbacks. For example, around the time that this painting was finished, the wife of Rembrandt died. However, this did not affect his productivity as in the following years he seemed more productive than ever. He also lost three children shortly after birth.
Rembrandt was able to create a wide range of different paintings, including genre paintings, biblical paintings, mythological paintings, landscapes, and even animal paintings. Some other well-known works by Rembrandt include Saul and David and The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which are both in the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Fun fact: The painting has been damaged on several occasions over time.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas (Amazon links)
CC BY-SA 3.0 NL Nationaal Archief