Still Life with Bouquet and Skull | Art for Proper 13C

Still Life with Bouquet and Skull
Adriaen van Utrecht: Vanitas –
Still Life with Bouquet and Skull
(c.1642, Oil on canvas, 67 x 86 cm;
formerly attributed to Pieter de Ring and Pieter Adrienszoon van der Venne)
Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Vanitas Still-Life with Bouquet and a Skull, oil on canvas, c.1642, Adriaen van Utrecht, 1599-1652

In a book titled, The Painted Word, Tom Wolf gives an account of a New York Times art critic who was unable to comment on a painting because he did not know the theory behind it. Instead of a picture being worth a thousand words, today it may take a thousand words to help us understand a painting. This often is true of abstract art but it may be true of “realistic” paintings as well. Art is created in an historical time period and understanding the context in which it was made is essential to its meaning. A person looking at Adriaen van Utrecht’s “Vanitas Still-Life with a Bouquet and a Skull,” without regard to the wealthy merchant class and the Protestant Reformation in The Netherlands during the seventeenth century, may think the skull is very much out of place and that it ruins an otherwise perfectly pleasant still-life.

In van Utrecht’s painting we see some of the recurring themes and objects of the vanitas genre (the term vanitas is Latin for “vanity”). Although these paintings were created more than four hundred years ago, they continue to have a message for us today. A bouquet of lovely flowers is featured in this still-life. If we were to be asked why flowers exist, it is likely we would agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson (said of a rhodora), “If eyes were made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being.” Flowers bring pleasure but even while enjoying them, we are aware of their short “shelf life.” In a vanitas, flowers symbolize the cycle of life and often they will be shown in their various stages – bud, full bloom, and faded. They remind us that like flowers we too come forth, mature, blossom, and then fade. Contained in the painting also are objects that represent the passing of time; thus they are reminders of the transient nature of life and our mortality. On the table is a chronometer (a portable timekeeping instrument) and an hourglass in a wooden case (in the background). A smoking pipe and drinking glasses represent time spent in empty pleasures.

Items in the painting also represent treasures that were possessed typically by the wealthy Dutch merchants of Antwerp; a string of pearls, a gold chain, a ring, and money. The wealthy often displayed items such as rare sea shells; a nautilus is on the far right. A decorative pedestal serving dish above the nautilus denotes luxury.

As a reminder of the folly of acquiring treasures, vanitas often contained a skull; the universal symbol of death. In van Utrecht’s still life it is placed prominently atop a book that represents the limits of human knowledge. The skull’s presence among earthly treasures serves as a message, “As I am, so too you will be.” A crown of laurel leaves is placed over the skull to remind viewers that for the Christian there is victory over death.

There is irony in the fact that vanitas were expensive works of fine art and like other objects they too became commodities possessed by the wealthy.

Hovak Najarian © 2013

Nathan rebukes David for his adultery | Art for B Proper 13

2 Samuel 12:7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man!

Nathan rebukes David for his adultery
Nathan rebukes David for his adultery
Copper engraving
Luiken, Caspar
(Dutch, 1672-1708)
Published 1712

Click image for more information.

Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Previous post July 29, 2012

At the time Caspar Luiken was born, Amsterdam was still aglow from its golden age of art and commerce. During those years it was the wealthiest city in Europe and an important center for the arts. His father, Jan Luiken, was a contemporary of Rembrandt and Franz Hals during their latter years and was a very successful illustrator and publisher. This was a time before photographs were known; a time when highly skilled engravers such as Jan and his son Caspar filled a need for images used in publications. Caspar learned engraving from his father and it was hoped he would carry on the family business but after working with him initially, he went to Germany to be on his own. Six years later he returned to help financially support his father but then died at the age of thirty-six. A book of Caspar’s engravings of Old Testament events, including Nathan Rebukes David for his Adultery, was published posthumously.

In the Second Book of Samuel (Chap. 12), the prophet Nathan was sent by the Lord to visit David and upon his arrival, told him a story of two men; one rich and the other poor. In the story, the wealthy man used his position to take advantage over the poor one. When David heard what the rich man had done he was furious but then Nathan said to him, “You are that man.” Nathan then reminded him that he had “…murdered Uriah the Hittite with the sword of the Ammonites and stolen his wife.” At this, David became remorseful and confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord.” He then listened as Nathan told him what the sad consequences of his actions would be. In Caspar’s engraving, David is crownless, his head is downcast, and he is slump-shouldered as Nathan points his finger at him in a scene reminiscent of a Greek tragedy.

Although Caspar Luiken lived during the Baroque period, the architectural setting gives this illustration a classical quality. Ornate aspects of the print are limited primarily to the drapery, robes, carpet, and the two covered storage vessels. In keeping with what had become standard practice for an artist of this era, a strong light source defines the folds of the robes and fills the space with high contrasts. Caspar also demonstrates his skill in creating an illusion of pictorial depth. Through an accurate use of linear perspective, our attention is taken back to a brightly lit space and then a window takes us back even farther into a distant landscape.

In an illustration created more than 175 years after master engravers Albrecht Durer and Lucas van Lyden were active artists, Caspar’s print is an excellent example of the subtle values (a range from black to white) that can be achieved with simply a burin, copper plate, ink, and paper. An actual continuous gradation of tone (as in a photograph or ink wash) is not a technique that is inherent in the engraving process. To make gray tones an artist must place lines close together in a technique called hatching. In the architecture directly above Nathan’s head, the simple “parallel hatching” produces a light gray value. At the very bottom of the print the dark area is rendered in “crosshatching.” The fine parallel lines are engraved horizontally and then crossed by lines in the opposite direction. Areas that are crosshatched carry more ink and produce a darker value in the print. Through skillful use of hatching, Caspar is able to control the lightness and darkness throughout this illustration.

Jan Luiken completed more than 3,200 works and his son Caspar produced over a 1000 engravings; all in exquisite detail. Yet today the name, Luiken, seldom appears in art history books. It is unfortunate that today’s critics and art historians tend to value art that is on a wall or a pedestal more than they do small prints made for an audience that appreciates the intimacy of a book.

[A brief description of the engraving process is given in the note following the Art Commentary for: “David Playing the Harp before Saul | Art for B Proper 7.”]

______________

© 2012 Hovak Najarian

Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes | Art for A Proper 13

Matthew 14:16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes

Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes
1536
 Drawing, black chalk and white on prepared paper, 217 x 335 mm
 Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Click image for more information.
Click fo artist bio.

B Proper 13, Art for August 5, 2012

LUIKEN, Caspar (Dutch, 1672-1708)
Click to explore other works by this artist.

Artwork: Nathan rebukes David for his adultery
Artist: LUIKEN, Caspar (Dutch, 1672-1708)
Date: Published 1712
Technique: Copper engraving
Click to open Biblical Art commentary page. Click ‘IMAGE’ link for large view.

Related art commentary by Hovak Najarian.

Nathan Rebukes David for His Adultery, Published in 1712, Copper Engraving, Caspar Luiken (1672-1708)

Commentary by Hovak Najarian

Related post B Proper 13, Art for August 5, 2012

At the time Caspar Luiken was born, Amsterdam was still aglow from its golden age of art and commerce. During those years it was the wealthiest city in Europe and an important center for the arts. His father, Jan Luiken, was a contemporary of Rembrandt and Franz Hals during their latter years and was a very successful illustrator and publisher. This was a time before photographs were known; a time when highly skilled engravers such as Jan and his son Caspar filled a need for images used in publications. Caspar learned engraving from his father and it was hoped he would carry on the family business but after working with him initially, he went to Germany to be on his own. Six years later he returned to help financially support his father but then died at the age of thirty-six. A book of Caspar’s engravings of Old Testament events, including Nathan Rebukes David for his Adultery, was published posthumously.

In the Second Book of Samuel (Chap. 12), the prophet Nathan was sent by the Lord to visit David and upon his arrival, told him a story of two men; one rich and the other poor. In the story, the wealthy man used his position to take advantage over the poor one. When David heard what the rich man had done he was furious but then Nathan said to him, “You are that man.” Nathan then reminded him that he had “…murdered Uriah the Hittite with the sword of the Ammonites and stolen his wife.” At this, David became remorseful and confessed, “I have sinned against the Lord.” He then listened as Nathan told him what the sad consequences of his actions would be. In Caspar’s engraving, David is crownless, his head is downcast, and he is slump-shouldered as Nathan points his finger at him in a scene reminiscent of a Greek tragedy.

Although Caspar Luiken lived during the Baroque period, the architectural setting gives this illustration a classical quality. Ornate aspects of the print are limited primarily to the drapery, robes, carpet, and the two covered storage vessels. In keeping with what had become standard practice for an artist of this era, a strong light source defines the folds of the robes and fills the space with high contrasts. Caspar also demonstrates his skill in creating an illusion of pictorial depth. Through an accurate use of linear perspective, our attention is taken back to a brightly lit space and then a window takes us back even farther into a distant landscape.

In an illustration created more than 175 years after master engravers Albrecht Durer and Lucas van Lyden were active artists, Caspar’s print is an excellent example of the subtle values (a range from black to white) that can be achieved with simply a burin, copper plate, ink, and paper. An actual continuous gradation of tone (as in a photograph or ink wash) is not a technique that is inherent in the engraving process. To make gray tones an artist must place lines close together in a technique called hatching. In the architecture directly above Nathan’s head, the simple “parallel hatching” produces a light gray value. At the very bottom of the print the dark area is rendered in “crosshatching.” The fine parallel lines are engraved horizontally and then crossed by lines in the opposite direction. Areas that are crosshatched carry more ink and produce a darker value in the print. Through skillful use of hatching, Caspar is able to control the lightness and darkness throughout this illustration.

Jan Luiken completed more than 3,200 works and his son Caspar produced over a 1000 engravings; all in exquisite detail. Yet today the name, Luiken, seldom appears in art history books. It is unfortunate that today’s critics and art historians tend to value art that is on a wall or a pedestal more than they do small prints made for an audience that appreciates the intimacy of a book.

[A brief description of the engraving process is given in the note following the Art Commentary for: “B Proper 7, Jun 24, 2012.”]

______________

© 2012 Hovak Najarian