Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Man of Contradictions

Where: National Gallery of Art

When: through October 4, 2015

In addition to the Caillebotte show, the National Gallery has an exhibit of Joachim Wtewael paintings and prints on display on its Main Floor.  It's closer to the 4th Street entrance than the 7th Street entrance, so if you enter on 7th Street, you'll have the opportunity to walk through the museum and see what else is on the walls as you make your way to this show.

Joachim Wtewael was from the Netherlands and worked in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  The first pieces you see in this show are family portraits, and they show a typical Dutch group; the men all have Van Dyke beards and ruffs; the women caps and Bibles close at hand.  A very proper gathering of merchants, you might easily think.

Not so fast.  Once you move past these offerings, you'll see quite the display of fleshy delights.  You get a hint of this in a Shepherd and Shepherdess set, that are far more earthy in tone than the rest of the portraits.  It's believed that Wtewael's daughter and son-in-law were the models for these.  If so, one wonders what the proper matron identified as Wtewael's wife would have thought of this.  One can only imagine that years of looking at her husband's mythological paintings made have inured her to art with sexual overtones.

But on to the non-family work, which is extensive and interesting.  Some of it is religious in topic.  Saint Sebastian gets some play, as well as Moses, the Christ Child and various shepherds.  If works of art inspired by the Bible are not your cup of tea, have no fear; there's plenty else to see.  Several takes on Mars and Venus being surprised in flagrante delicto by Vulcan are in the show, as examples of Wtewael's work on copper.  It was amazing to me that paintings completed over 400 years ago should be so vibrant and colorful today, but apparently copperplate does that.

There are also numerous scenes of mythological merry-making.  Lots of handsome gentlemen and voluptuous ladies behaving in ways that gentlemen and ladies are not supposed to behave.  It's all very sumptuous, no dour Dutch propriety here.  Something I noticed in all of these paintings is Wtewael's incredible attention to detail.  The smallest objects are rendered with fantastic precision.  My favorite work in the show is entitled Woman Selling Vegetables, and the fruit in the picture are so realistic, you want to reach right into the picture and pick them up.  It's not just the people who are sensuous.

The one jarring note is the way Wtewael paints feet.  There are any number of barefoot men and women depicted, not to mention various cupids, and everyone of them has big, ugly feet.  One expects this on men, especially if they're meant to be working men, but even on quite beautiful women, there are those big, ugly feet again.  What's up with that?  I understand that he was a Mannerist painter, and they do go in for distortion, but I'm pretty sure the distortion is meant to be elegant, not misshapen and hammer-toed.

Verdict: Feet aside, this is a good show, one I enjoyed and would recommend.

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