Sunday, March 6, 2011

Larger Than Life: Ter Brugghen's Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene

Where: National Gallery of Art, West Building

When: through May 15, 2011

Sometimes, the National Gallery borrows paintings from other museums and puts them in with their regular collections on a temporary basis. About a year and a half ago, I saw a Manet painting this way. This offering by Hendrik ter Brugghen, on loan from Oberlin College, is hung with other Dutch pieces, including another ter Brugghen. Going to see these single painting exhibits gives me the opportunity to wander among the permanent collection, which I don't often get to do, as I focus my attention on special shows.

This piece is, frankly, pretty gruesome. It really gave me the willies to look at Irene pulling out the arrows from St. Sebastian's flesh. I suppose that's a sign of a great painter - the ability to paint something so realistic that it makes the viewer's skin crawl.

I didn't realize that St. Sebastian survived his encounter with the arrows; I'd always assumed he was a martyr. Well, you learn something new every day!

Once I got past my squeamishness, I noticed the use of the color red in the painting, both in the blood and in the brocade. A noticeable color, red. It draws your attention in a way other colors don't. I was reminded of Norman Rockwell's use of the color in so many of his paintings. Mind you, I'm not about to compare this piece to Rockwell - even I can't make that connection. I will keep this use of the color to draw the viewer's eye in mind when I look at other paintings, however. Cherchez la rouge.

I also noticed the expression on Irene's face. It shows both tenderness and competence - good qualities in a nurse. Still, not the sort of thing I'd want hanging in my living room - all the sweet visages in the world can't make up for the realism of those arrows.

Verdict: Go see this painting, and the other ter Brugghen, The Bagpipe Player, together. It's easy enough to fit into a lunch hour, with plenty of time to stroll around the rest of the Dutch galleries.

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