Where? Gallery 213 of the Cleveland Museum of Art
Commissioned by? Tieleman Roosterman and his wife Catharina Brugmans
What do you see? The 36-year old Tieleman Roosterman looks at us with a serious and confident expression. He is painted in three-quarter length.
Hals pays careful attention in painting his costume, which is not surprising given that Roosterman was an international clothing merchant. Roosterman wears a doublet, which is a short, close-fitting padded jacket. The jacket is decorated in the middle with metal or silver decorations. On top of the doublet, he has a big white ruffled collar. He has slashed sleeves, and on his right sleeve, he has a white cuff with lace edges. He has a glove on his left hand. He wears black breeches, which are a 17th-century type of pants that run just below the knee or till the ankles. In his right hand, he holds a large black hat made of beaver fur (such hats were popular during that time as they could be turned into a variety of shapes). All the items that Roosterman is wearing were very fashionable during his time.
Inscription: To the right of Roosterman’s head, Hals included an inscription reading “AETAT SVAE 36 ANO 1634”. This means that Tieleman Roosterman was at the age of 36 at the time of the painting and that it was painted in 1634.
Roosterman and his wife, Catharina Brugmans, commissioned Hals to paint a portrait of both of them to celebrate their third wedding anniversary. The Portrait of Catharina Brugmans is in a private collection.
When the Portrait of Tieleman Roosterman was auctioned in 1999, it also included a coat of arms and a crest above the inscription. However, by then it was known that the coat of arms contained a pigment that was only available almost a century after Hals painted it. Thus, the coat of arms was removed from the painting by the Cleveland Museum of Art to show its original composition.
Backstory: The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired this painting in 1999 for $12.8 million, a record for a Frans Hals painting at that time. Saint John the Evangelist held the previous record. This work by Frans Hals was sold in 1997 for $2.7 million to the Getty Museum.
Who is Tieleman Roosterman? A rich textile merchant from Haarlem, The Netherlands. He operated internationally and specialized in fine linen and silk. He was born in 1598, married in 1631, and died in 1673, all in Haarlem. Together with his wife, he baptized ten children.
Tieleman Roosterman is probably also the model for The Laughing Cavalier painted in 1624 by Frans Hals. This painting is in the Wallace Collection in London.
Who is Hals? Frans Hals the Elder was born at the end of 1582 (or early 1583) in Antwerp, Belgium, and died in 1666 in Haarlem, The Netherlands. He painted many portraits and was a true specialist in characterizing his subjects. At the beginning of his career he created more colorful paintings but when he got older the colors he used became darker. Many artists (including Van Gogh) admired the many shades of a single color that he used in his works, and the current painting of Tieleman Roosterman is already a good example of Hals using many shades of black.
Fun fact: This painting was sold in 1999 to the Cleveland Museum of Art by the Austrian branch of the Rothschild family. In 1999, the Austrian government returned many items to the Rothschild family after the Nazis seized these items 61 years earlier.
Before 1999, most items were on display in Austrian museums. After their return, the family decided to put many of the items up for sale because their houses were not big enough to properly display all the items.
The painting of Tieleman Roosterman was sold with two other paintings by Hals and many other historical items at the auction house Christie’s in London. Interestingly, among the bidders for the items in the collection were several members of the other branches of the Rothschild family (they form a large and very wealthy family with branches all over Europe). It was reported that members of the French and British branch bought some of the items during the auction.
Interested in a copy for yourself? Poster or canvas.
Where? Room E204 of the J. Paul Getty Museum
What do you see? The Ancient Roman god Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology) is disguised as a beautiful white bull. He just seduced Europa and takes her away on his back into the sea. He has his tail up as an indication that he is happy with the successful abduction.
Europa sits on top of the bull, holding a horn with her right hand, and fearfully looks back at her servants on the shore. They are the Virgins of Tyre (where Europa lived as well), with whom Europa was playing before she got abducted. They watch in disbelief how Europa gets abducted. The woman in blue has dropped the flower garland they made for the bull in her lap and raises her hands up in the air. The other woman looks at Europa while folding her hands as if she resigns in Europa’s fate. In the background is the horse carriage with four horses that had brought Europa to the beach.
The story of Jupiter and Europa? This story is based on the second book of Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid (Amazon link to Metamorphoses). At the end of the second book, in lines 833 till 875, Ovid describes how Jupiter falls in love with Europa. She was the daughter of a king in an Eastern land.
Jupiter asks his son Mercury to go to that land and drive the herd of royal kettle to the beach, where Europa is playing with her servants. Jupiter disguises himself as a tame white bull and puts himself among the royal kettle. Europa recognizes his beauty and starts to play with him. While a bit afraid at first, she eventually climbs on his back, and Jupiter takes that opportunity to walk into the water and escape with her on his back.
This story has also inspired other painters. Titian painted The Rape of Europa in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and Jean-François de Troy painted The Abduction of Europa in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Background: This painting is one of only few paintings by Rembrandt in which he included an extensive landscape. The Getty Museum acquired it in 1995 for about $27 million, which was a new record for a Rembrandt painting at that time. They bought it together with another painting by Rembrandt, Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol Bel, which is also still in the Getty Museum.
Who is Europa? A figure in Greek mythology. She was born as the daughter of a king of a land somewhere near current-day Lebanon. She is primarily known by the story on her abduction by Jupiter who brought her to Crete. She was still a virgin before the got abducted.
Jupiter and Europa get three children together: Minos (who will become the king of Crete), Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. After their death, these three sons became the judges of the Underworld.
The continent of Europe is named after Europa, as Jupiter took her from Asia to this new continent. Also, one of the moons of the planet Jupiter is named after her (many moons of Jupiter are named after lovers of Jupiter).
Who is Rembrandt? Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden, The Netherlands, in 1610. In 1631, he moved to Amsterdam where he initially ran a very successful painting business. He painted The Abduction of Europe in the year after his arrival in Amsterdam. He stayed there for the rest of his life and died in 1665. During his life, he experienced many challenges, like the death of his wife and children and financial trouble, but he always remained productive.
Nowadays, he is considered one of the most famous artists that ever existed. Rembrandt did not paint many mythological paintings during his career. He preferred religious subjects, like Saul and David in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, or portrait paintings of individuals or groups, like he did in his famous The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Fun fact: Rembrandt included some great details in this painting.
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