Painters of the middle class

There’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.
Two chattering housewives, 1655, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
If I weren’t in Buffalo, I could fly to see Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age, opening on February 22 at the National Gallery in London. (London and Los Angeles are roughly equidistant from my house, so that’s not as daft as it seems.)
The Dutch Golden Age (the 17th century, roughly) was when trade brought prosperity to the Netherlands. That, in turn, fostered a flowering of scientific thought, military might and culture. The conditions that made this possible were the nation’s recent liberation from Spanish rule, a solid Protestant work ethic, and the development of a new kind of business: the corporation.
The Dutch East India Company was founded in 1602. It was the first multinational corporation and it was created by exchanging shares on the first modern stock exchange. This may seem humdrum to us, but at a time when for most of the world wealth and poverty were inherited conditions, it allowed for the creation of thriving merchant and middle classes.
The Eavesdropper, 1657, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Dordrechts Museum
Until the Dutch Golden Age, great art was commissioned by extremely wealthy people, who essentially dictated the tastes of the times. Suddenly, middle class people were buying art. This radically changed what artists painted.
The Dutch Reformed church and Dutch nationalism informed the aesthetic of Golden Age painting. Catholic Baroque was out; simplicity and Calvinist austerity were in. Dutch art concentrated on reality and ordinary life at all levels of society. The focus on realism is why the period is sometimes called Dutch Realism.
Always that realism was invested with meaning. Significant in this worldview was a rapid growth in landscape painting, particularly as it represented unique Dutch values and scenes. A windmill on a flat plain or a boat at sea may seem like tropes today, but they were symbols of heroism to the audience of the time.
The Dutch painted lavish still lives that seem overly full and overripe to modern eyes. They were simultaneously objects of beauty, symbols of abundance, and full of symbolic meaning. Among these are floral vanitas paintings, done with scientific accuracy while warning us of our ultimate destiny.
The Virtuous Woman, c. 1656, Nicolaes Maes, courtesy Wallace Collection
Genre painting underwent a renaissance, because home and hearth were as important to these middle-class buyers as they were irrelevant to princes elsewhere. Nicolaes Maes was among the most important of these genre painters. After studying with Rembrandt for five years, he hung out his shingle, first in Dordrecht and then in Amsterdam. Like so many artists, he didn’t specialize in the beginning, painting whatever was necessary to make a living. After about 1660 he focused on lucrative portrait paintings. It was a good strategy, because he died a very wealthy man.
The contemporary American artist has two broad market paths open to him. The first is to produce conceptual art that is meaningful to high-flyers in New York. The second is to produce work that appeals to middle-class buyers. If the latter is your target audience you can learn a lot by studying the careers and subjects of Maes and his peers.
There are those who sneer at plein air painting even as it develops into the largest modern movement in painting. But the critical message of the Dutch Golden Age is that there’s no shame in painting what people love, as long as you do it well.

Global art

Trade has been with us for longer than we have written records. We trace it through art and craft.

The Meagre Company, 1633-37, Frans Hals and Pieter Codde. Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. One of the most important Asian imports to Europe was silk.
We think of global trade as a modern phenomenon, but trade has been part of human civilization since long before there were written records. Artwork is a primary tool for tracking that.
Glass beads were a high-status item in the late Bronze Age. Their manufacture was restricted to Egypt and Mesopotamia and traded as finished goods. By 1300 BC, raw glass itself was in international trade. The oldest glass ingots on trade routes were found in a 1300 BC shipwreck off the coast of Turkey.
The Riace Warriors, Greek, c. 460-50 BC, discovered in the sea off Calabria, Italy
Egypt didn’t invent this process, but it controlled it. All three ancient-world glass furnaces for raw ingot manufacture were in Egypt. This is where cobalt Egyptian blue glass and copper-based red glasses were first made. The Amarna Letters (c. 1350 BC) detail the military and other relationships between Egypt and its vassal states in Syro-Palestine; they contain frequent requests for glass. Glass beads were nearly as precious as gold and silver.
13th Century Statue of Saint Maurice, Magdeburg Cathedral. Maurice was the leader of a legion of “six thousand six hundred and sixty-six men” who converted en masse to Christianity and were martyred together. By the time this was made, there was enough European trade with Africa that the unknown artisan could represent African features.
By the eighth century BC, the Greeks and Etruscans were part of an active trade network around the Aegean and Mediterranean. One side effect was the Orientalizing of Greek art. Massive imports of raw materials and an influx of foreign craftsmen introduced new skills into Greece. Its influence was felt in Italy, Sardinia and the Iberian Peninsula. This trade network expanded to include the entire Mediterranean. Greek pottery has been found in Marseilles and Carthage to the west, Crete to the south and Sardis to the East.
Saint Jerome in his Study, 1480, fresco, Domenico Ghirlandaio, courtesy chiesa di Ognissanti, Florence.
The Roman Empire was built upon trade. No tariffs, a common currency, and secured trade routes led to world domination. They imported raw materials from as far as Britain to the west, Asia (along the Silk Road) to the east, and from Germanic and Slavic tribes far outside the empire. In return they exported Roman culture. Today we find Roman ruins, roads, coins, and mosaics across Europe.
When the Roman Empire was snuffed out, so were their trade networks. Trade was controlled by the Caliphates until the Renaissance. This brought middle eastern art into Iberia, but cut Europeans off from Asia and Africa. These networks weren’t restored until the Age of Sail.
A fifteenth-century painting by Domenico Ghirlandaioof St. Jerome is a map of contemporary global trade. The oriental carpet, glazed albarelli (drug jars) and crystal vases were all trade goods at the time. Note his spectacles, invented in Florence in the 13th century.
Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, distemper on linen, Andrea Mantegna, courtesy of the Getty.
In Giovanni Bellini’s The Feast of the Gods, there is blue-and-white Chinese porcelain, painted from the family collection of the patron, the Duke of Ferrara. Porcelain from the same collection is visible in Andrea Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi, c 1500. The reservation of porcelain to gods and princes tells us just how precious it was.

In 1603, the Dutch seized a Portuguese carrack off the coast of Singapore. Its manifest is a record of the goods then being traded with Asia: 1,200 bales of raw silk, many chests of damasks and embroideries, innumerable sacks of spices and sugar, and 60 tons of porcelain.
The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies, 1599, oil on canvas, Hendrik Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
By the 16th century, the Netherlands was the center of free trade, which now ranged across the world. This can be seen in images of the boats they used, and the goods they brought home, including silk, spices, sugar and fruits.

If it was good enough for my grandfather

Was litharge in earlier paintings, or did Rembrandt just get lucky?
Rembrandt’s impasto.
I’m constantly railing about using time-tested technique in your painting. Painters have been experimenting with weird additives in their paints for centuries. The results are often disastrous. Rembrandt van Rijn may be the exception that proves the rule.
Now, 350 years later, we tend to think of Rembrandt as the model of traditional art. That’s especially true since, through most of the 20thcentury, his indirect painting techniques were taught as a sort of ‘purer’ painting in reaction to the volatility of Abstract-Expressionism.
It’s easy to forget that he and his Dutch Golden Agefellows were highly innovative, creating whole new genres of painting and challenging the Baroquestatus quo.
Portrait of Marten Soolmans, 1634, is one of three Rembrandt paintings in which plumbonacrite has been found. Courtesy of the Louvre.
Rembrandt’s is probably the most-studied technique in art history. We know his palette: lead white, ochre, Cassel earth, bone and ivory char, vermillion, madder lake, yellow lake, lead-tin-yellow and very limited use of azurite and ultramarine blue.
We know that, in his later paintings, he used moody glazes of dark color punctuated by fat impasto passages of pure light, often modeled with a soft brush after they were laid down. These impasto layers were then glazed with color.
Susanna and the Elders, 1647, is one of three Rembrandt paintings in which plumbonacrite has been found. Courtesy of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
For that he needed a thick, fast-drying white. The danger with that is brittlenesss and cracking. Adding lead and heat-treated oils kept the paint layers more pliable over time. So Rembrandt used a combination of lead white, chalk, and smalt (ground glass). His paintings look great today.
Recently, researchers have found traces of a lead carbonate mineral— plumbonacrite—in three of Rembrandt’s best-known paintings. They’re terrifically excited, because the previously earliest-known appearance of plumbonacrite was in Vincent Van Gogh’s Wheat Stack under a Cloudy Sky (1889).
Wheat Stacks under a Cloudy Sky, 1889, Vincent Van Gogh, Kröller-Müller Museum
Since lead is cheap and plentiful, it’s been used in paints since antiquity. But it can darken or fade other pigments. In 2015, chemists were trying to figure out what was damaging the red lead pigment in Van Gogh’s picture. In the space between the sample’s reddish-orange Pb3O4 core and the light blue PbCO3 layer that surrounds it, they found plumbonacrite. That was the first time it was ever seen in a pre-20th-century painting.
How did Rembrandt manage to get plumbonacrite into his paintings two centuries before it came into common use? “[O]ur research shows that its presence is not accidental or due to contamination, but that it is the result of an intended synthesis,” wroteVictor Gonzalez of the Rijksmuseum and Delft University of Technology.
Bathsheba at her Bath, 1654, is one of three Rembrandt paintings in which plumbonacrite has been found. Courtesy of the Louvre.
Their best guess is that it came from litharge, which is an oxide of lead used to refine silver. In the seventeenth century litharge was made by pumping a set of bellows to send very hot air across molten lead, creating the oxide and sending it flying into a nearby receptacle. If this sounds dangerous, it is.
Litharge did create some pretty colors. Litharge of gold is litharge mixed with red lead, which may have been how Van Gogh acquired it. Litharge of bismuth is a brownish silver color—just the kind of color that would appeal to Rembrandt, in fact.
Why would Rembrant have even considered adding litharge to his paint? The most obvious possibility is that it was in use all along, and appears in other, earlier paintings that scientists haven’t examined yet. Or, Rembrandt was messing around and got lucky.

A common footman in the army of art

Plein air painting isn’t highbrow, but it speaks to my soul.
La casa de los abuelitos, by Carol L. Douglas
“You’re lucky to love to do something that people love,” Clif Travers told me soon after we’d met. He meant that sincerely. It’s easier to sell landscape paintings than the large-scale installation piece he’s working on.
The earliest known “pure landscapes” (with no human figures) are Minoanmurals dating from around 1500 BC. Landscape flowered in Rome, Egypt and China. It died out in western art and was rediscovered in the Renaissance.
Rocky, by Carol L. Douglas
In China, the mountain-water ink painting was traditionally the most valued form of picture. Here in the west, landscape occupied a low position in the accepted hierarchy of genres, which went:
  1. History, including all that allegorical stuff;
  2. Portrait;
  3. Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life;
  4. Landscape;
  5. Animals;
  6. Still life.
This hierarchy was established in 16th century Italy. It elevated those things which rendered the universal essence of things (imitare) over the mere mechanical copying of appearances (ritrarre). While the Impressionists did much to knock this on its head, there’s still a decided whiff of lowbrow to landscape painting, particularly the plein air variety. I think it’s because people actually like it.
Some days it rains, by Carol L. Douglas
The 17th century Dutch Golden Agepainters were among the first artists with middle-class customers, so it’s no surprise that they painted lots of landscape. But they were conflicted about it. Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was the century’s most important art critic. He called landscape paintings “the common footmen in the army of art.” But he also recognized that landscape “provides scope for artistic freedom, for coloristic virtuosity and for chance: for a dialogue between Mother Nature and the artist’s own innate ability.”
It’s surprisingly difficult to find data on what genres of art sell the best, but I did find this top-ten list from Art Business Today. It’s for the UK art market, but ours isn’t much different:
  1. Traditional landscapes
  2. Local views
  3. Modern or semi-abstract landscapes
  4. Abstracts
  5. Dogs
  6. Figure studies (excluding nudes)
  7. Seascapes, harbor, and beach scenes
  8. Wildlife
  9. Impressionistic landscapes
  10. Nudes

Beach Grass (Goosefare Brook) by Carol L. Douglas
Obviously, none of us invented landscape painting, but each of us invents ourselves as landscape painters. When we start out, there’s absolutely no market for our work. We create that market through dialogue. We produce our first paintings, gauge the audience’s reaction (through sales and critiques), and then refine our message and reenter the fray with new work. That’s an ongoing process throughout our careers. It’s no different from many other lines of work.
There are artists working out there in splendid isolation, not caring what the audience thinks, but they’re very rare. For most of us, painting is a dialogue, and the other half of the dialogue is the buying public.
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
Most artists don’t shape their work because a certain kind of landscape painting will sell better (although we are influenced by our peers and gallerists). But the best feedback we get is often in the form of a purchase.
I don’t paint en plein air because I think it’s somehow higher on a hierarchy of landscape. I do it because it appeals to me on a soul level. My friend Brad Marshall once said, “My clients don’t care if I did it in the studio or out. They only care about the quality of the work itself.” Plein air is not, in itself, a virtue. It’s only when it helps the painting become transcendent that it matters.

Culture of Excess

Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt, 1551,Pieter Aertsen
My friend Dan Gowing was writing his Sunday school lesson this week when he realized just how efficient Jesus was with the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. The Gospel of Mark records that there were twelve baskets left after feeding 5,000 men and their families. Dan’s conclusion is that you can’t actually get anything you want from Jesus’ restaurant but you just might find you get what you need.
My holiday motto generally is, “What’s worth doing is worth doing to excess.” In that I am a typical American. Our Thanksgiving dinner alone usually has about twelve baskets of leftovers.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Rudolf II as Vertumnus, 1590, takes “you are what you eat” to its ultimate level. It’s not mere whimsy, but symbolizes “the majesty of the ruler, the copiousness of creation and the power of the ruling family over everything.” (Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann) He’s not Dutch, but he sure is good.

In November, I postedabout Norman Rockwell’s iconic Freedom from Want and how its table is almost bare by modern standards. When Rockwell painted this a mere 70 years ago our self-identity was still Puritan. Today we wallow in outsized appetites, and we’re all pretty fat. In fact, we’re far more like the Dutch Golden Age than our own recent ancestors. Of course, back then the Dutch were rich like us.
On the other hand, most of us miss the point of those Dutch paintings entirely. If we see them just as a celebration of bounty or a cock’s crow of vanity, we’re missing the warning sign buried in them.
Shop, with the Flight into Egypt, top, is in fact an allegory. The Holy Family, inset in a window frame, distributes alms to the poor as they leave. A merry group is seen eating shellfish (a symbol of lust) through the other window. The sign at the top tells you that the land is for sale, leading you to understand that all of this is available at a moral price.
Still life, 1644, Adriaen van Utrecht. This canvas includes almost all the elements common to great Dutch still lives. The presence of so much exotica points to the great wealth of the Dutch Republic. However, within this epic are buried memento mori:  the seashell represents human frailty; the spotted fruit, our own aging and decay; the music, the brevity of life. Like life, the peeled lemon is pretty to look at but bitter to taste.

Several cultural forces in the Dutch Republic led to their love of still life. The rise in interest in natural science in the 16th century supported a concurrent rise in realism in painting (trompe l’oeil being the highest expression of this). By the 17th century, the Dutch Republic dominated world trade and had a vast colonial empire. They operated the largest fleet of merchant ships in the world.
But while they were rich and famously religiously tolerant, they were also strictly Calvinist. Icons were forbidden in the Dutch Reformed Protestant Church. Painters were forced to deal with religious subjects through symbolism. Their vanitaspaintings point out the transience of our earthly pleasures.
Flowers in a Silver Vase, 1663, by Willem van Aelst, includes a pocketwatch (time), poppies (death), roses (Christian faith), tulips (folly), dragonfly (transience), and butterfly (resurrection).
This was particularly easy with flowers. A language of flower symbolism had developed through the Middle Ages. These were both positive (such as the rose and lily representing love in both its divine and human manifestation) and negative (the poppy representing death). 
The presence of symbols of impermanence, such as candles, hourglasses, a book with pages turning, or buzzing flies, reminded the viewer that sensory pleasures are ephemeral.
The modern equivalent, of course, is the food photograph. Its similarity is in the excess, but it lacks self-awareness.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!