Van Eyck Brothers as “Just Judges”

Earlier this week I discovered a new(ish) Smarthistory video about Karel Van Mander, an early 17th-century biographer of painters who is sometimes referred to as the “Northern Vasari.” The video spends some time featuring a print which depicts the painter Jan Van Eyck. This portrait appeared in Van Mander’s publication Het Schilderboeck.

Karel van Mander, Het Schilder-Boeck (Haarlem: Paschier van Wesbusch, 1604), first edition in two volumes with added illustrations, 21 x 16.7 x 5.8 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Image courtesy of Steven Zucker and Smarthistory via Fickr.

The video reports at 3:33 that this portrait is based off of Van Eyck’s painting Man with the Red Turban, but I don’t think that I agree. Karel Van Mander’s own account of Jan Van Eyck clearly describes a self-portrait of the artist that is nestled among the Just Judges panel of the Ghent altarpiece. It would make sense that the portrait in Van Mander’s publication would match Van Mander’s own description. Also, it is clear when comparing these two portraits that they are similar in composition, not just due to the angle of the heads but also the angles of the turban folds and the inclusion of rosary beads.

Jef Van der Veken’s modern copy after Jan Van Eyck’s “Just Judges” panel, from the Ghent altarpiece, original from 1432.

Van Mander’s description of the self-portrait is nestled among descriptions of panels of the Ghent altarpiece. Van Mander explains that the two Van Eyck brothers who worked on this altarpiece, Hubert and Jan, are both depicted in the Just Judges panel (the panel on the lower left of the open altarpiece). The description by Van Mander, translated into English, is as follows:

On the other panels are figures on horseback…the two painters, Hubert and Jan. Hubert sits on the right-hand side of his brother in accordance with his seniority; he looks, compared to his brother, quite old. On his head he wears a strange hat with a raised, turned-back brim at the front of precious fur. Jan wears a very ingenious hat, something like a turban which hangs down from behind; and over a black tabard he wears a red rosary with a medal.1

If we follow Van Mander’s description, then Hubert is likely the figure in profile view, who is at the right of Jan Van Eyck. I don’t think Hubert was pinpointed to be the figure immediately next to Jan. A photograph of the original, now-lost Just Judges panel shows that figure was partially covered up with the “precious fur” that Van Mander described. The modern copyist, Jef Van der Veken, ended up reducing the size of the fur brim, as can be seen in this comparison:

Photograph of Van Eyck’s original Just Judges panel vs Van der Veken’s copy of the Just Judges panel. Image via Catchlight blog

If Van Mander is correct, this panel is extra special because it contained depictions of not only the two Van Eyck brothers, but possibly other notable people too (Van Mander mentions a “Count of Flanders” and other speculations abound as to the identity of the figures). Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that this was the panel that was stolen in 1934 and never recovered. If you are interested in reading more about this stolen panel, I recommend Noah Charney’s book Stealing the Mystic Lamb (which I have discussed in a previous post).

1 Karel Van Mander, Het Schilderboeck, Haarlem, 1406. English translation Eric Fernie’s Art History and its Methods (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), p. 51.

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Ansel Adams, Structure, and Music

Ansel Adams. The Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. 1942. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Earlier last week, I taught my students about Ansel Adams’s photography. In preparation for our class discussion, I watched this documentary on Ansel Adams from the Master Photographers series (1980). I learned while watching that Adams had trained to become a concert pianist but ultimately decided to become a photographer.

It was interesting to hear him discuss photography in comparison to music. In explaining the range of light and dark contrasts in his photographs, he made an interesting comparison to the piano and its division into octaves:

“It’s like the piano, you have 88 keys, you can go from the lowest to the highest, or you usually work within a few octaves. Oh there were some magnificent things, but they were just an octave or two” (10:35-10:49).

If Adams likes the structure provided by the piano as a tool for making music, then it makes sense to me that he would like the structure provided by the technology of photography and the camera as a device. This interest in structure also extends to how he perceives his photographic shots as a type of framework that is akin to a musical score. In this same interview, he said, “I’m guilty of creating a cliché which I use very often, because in actuality the negatives are like the composer’s score. All of the information is there. And then the print is the performance, see. So you interpret the score at the varying aesthetic emotional levels, but never far enough away to violate the essential concept” (13:23-13:48).

Even Adams’s own musical tastes tend toward those which have structure. In a 1984 interview with Milton Esterow, Adams agreed with how Esterow’s observation of how Adams has a preference for composers with a large structure, such as Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Scriabin. Adams continued and said, “Yes, there’s some evidence of precision and structure, nothing amorphous. I don’t react to Debussy.”

Learning about Adams and his relationship to music has made me think of his black-and-white photographs in a new way. I’m reminded of the black and white colors that are used for piano keys, or the the black and white used for a printed musical score. The shiny gloss his photographs makes me think if the shine of grand piano or the elegant “concert black” attire at a classical performance. Even this 1958 short film of Adams playing the piano is in black and white, which complements his work so well. So now, even though Adams’s best-known photographs are those which depict the great outdoors, I like thinking about how his photographs can also remind me of something metaphysical and intangible, like music, or the indoor spaces of a symphonic hall.

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Artists and Candle Hats

This school year I’ve been volunteering at my child’s elementary school, making videos for the Meet the Masters curriculum and helping out with art projects in a few classrooms. So far we have done the Van Gogh unit as a school, and I’ve also created some videos for the Hokusai project coming up in January. It’s been fun to do, although I have been finding some errors and misleading information in both the Van Gogh and Hokusai units. Someone needs to hire an art historian to fact-check the Meet the Masters curriculum!

The Van Gogh unit inaccurately states that Van Gogh wore a hat with candles, in order to paint at night. This is a myth that dates back to 1922, when it first appeared in by a book by the art critic Gustave Coquiot. In fact, Van Gogh actually explained in one letter that he completed a painting at night by using a gas lamp.

However, I know of one 19th-century artist who did paint at night with candles in a hat: Francisco Goya. The candle holders in the hat can even be seen in this image (and perhaps even better in this cleaned detail image of the painting):

Francisco Goya, "Self-Portrait in the Workshop," 1790-95. Oil on canvas, 42 x 28 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid. Image via Web Gallery of Art

Francisco Goya, “Self-Portrait in the Workshop,” 1790-95. Oil on canvas, 42 x 28 cm. Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid. Image via Web Gallery of Art

Goya’s son, as well as his biographer Laurent Matheron both explain that Goya would use this hat. Goya’s son Javier wrote, “He painted only in one session, sometimes of ten hours, but never in the late afternoon. The last touches for the better effect of a picture he gave at night, by artificial light.”Matheron also commented on this practice in 1858: ‘He was so jealous of the effect that – like our Girodet who painted at night, his head crowned with candles – he gave the last touches to his canvases by candlelight.”2

Goya’s candle hat has inspired contemporary artist Von Sumner, as well as this poem “Candle Hat” by Billy Collins, which is inspired by the self-portrait by Goya shown above:

In most self-portraits it is the face that dominates:
Cezanne is a pair of eyes swimming in brushstrokes,
Van Gogh stares out of a halo of swirling darkness,
Rembrant looks relieved as if he were taking a breather
from painting The Blinding of Sampson.

But in this one Goya stands well back from the mirror
and is seen posed in the clutter of his studio
addressing a canvas tilted back on a tall easel.

He appears to be smiling out at us as if he knew
we would be amused by the extraordinary hat on his head
which is fitted around the brim with candle holders,
a device that allowed him to work into the night.

You can only wonder what it would be like
to be wearing such a chandelier on your head
as if you were a walking dining room or concert hall.

But once you see this hat there is no need to read
any biography of Goya or to memorize his dates.

To understand Goya you only have to imagine him
lighting the candles one by one, then placing
the hat on his head, ready for a night of work.

Imagine him surprising his wife with his new invention,
the laughing like a birthday cake when she saw the glow.

Imagine him flickering through the rooms of his house
with all the shadows flying across the walls.

Imagine a lost traveler knocking on his door
one dark night in the hill country of Spain.
“Come in, ” he would say, “I was just painting myself,”
as he stood in the doorway holding up the wand of a brush,
illuminated in the blaze of his famous candle hat.

I keep thinking of this glowing hat at this time of year, due to Santa Lucia traditions that lead up to Christmastime and the long nights that we are experiencing. We all need more light right now! Do you know of any other artists who painted with anything like a candle hat?

1 Javier Goya wrote, “Los últimos toques para el mejor efecto de un cuadro los daba de noche, con luz artificial,” (see Pedro Beroqui, “Una biografia de Goya escrita por su hijo,” Achivo Español de Arte III (1927), p. 100).

2 Laurent Matheron wrote, ‘”tait tellement jaloux de l’effet, que, – semblable a’ notre Girodet, qui, la nuit, peignait la tête couronnée de chandelles, – il donnait au flambeau les dernières touches à ses toil.” Quoted by Enriqueta Harris, “Goya in Madrid” in The Burlington Magazine 125, no. 965 (August 1983): 512.

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The 1928 Flood in the Tate

Paul Delaroche, "The Execution of Lady Jane Grey," 1834. Oil on canvas, 246 cm × 297 cm (97 in × 117 in). National Gallery, London. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Paul Delaroche, “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey,” 1834. Oil on canvas, 246 cm × 297 cm (97 in × 117 in). National Gallery, London. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Yesterday I was watching an episode of “Fake or Fortune” that discusses a flood of the Thames River in January of 1928 (see 31:05 in the video episode linked above). The flood filled the lower galleries of the Tate up to eight feet of water and many paintings were damaged. One of these paintings was The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (shown above) which did sustain some damage and tears, but clearly was not destroyed. Instead, the painting rolled up and was forgotten until 1973, when a researcher at the Tate discovered it was rolled up in another painting that was presumed lost in the aftermath of the flood: John Martin’s The Destruction of Pompeii and HerculaneumI think there is an element of irony that a painting about the eruption of Pompeii was nearly destroyed in another force of nature, albeit rising water instead of falling volcanic ash.

Although eighteen paintings were listed as damaged beyond repair, these two paintings by Delaroche and Martin turned up decades later. The “Fake or Fortune” episode considers the possibility of finding another one that may have been lost in the aftermath of the flood (a painting by Edward Landseer), although I won’t divulge a spoiler here! Luckily, many other works of art escaped damage or experienced minimal damage, including the new murals by Rex Whistler which had been completed for the Tate restaurant only the year before in 1927.

The Tate has a list of the paintings partially damaged and damaged in the flood (as well as some photographs of the event), It looks like at least one painting, Frederick Lord Leighton’s Helios and Rhodes  (see below) has been kept in the collection but is unable to be restored.

Lord Frederic Leighton, "Helios and Rhodes," 1830-1896. Oil on canvas, support 165.8 × 109.9 cm. Tate. Creative Commons License

Lord Frederic Leighton, “Helios and Rhodes,” 1830-1896. Oil on canvas, support 165.8 × 109.9 cm. Tate. Creative Commons License

This flood has had an impact on contemporary art, too. Artist Julia Fullerton-Batten used photography and digital tools to create a scene of workers carrying a painting out of a flooded gallery within the Tate. More information about this image and the step-by-step process used by Recom Farmhouse to help Fullerton-Batten create the scene, “Tate Britain Flood,” is found here.

This flood of the Thames in 1928 reminds me of the flood of Florence in 1966, which also created considerable damage to art. Do you know of other works of art that have been damaged or destroyed due to floods?

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William Morris and Children’s Classics

Yesterday I finished listening to an audiobook of The  Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I have loved that story since I was a girl and it was fun for me to revisit the book. While I was looking up some favorite quotes from the text, I came across a Puffin classic collector’s series which incorporates William Morris designs into the covers of the books. All of the covers are designed by Liz Catchpole, who collaborated with the V&A Museum in order to choose Morris designs from the museum’s collection. This is the cover for  The Secret Garden in the series:

Cover of "The Secret Garden," by Frances Hodges Burnett, illustrated by Liz Catchpole

Cover of “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, illustrated by Liz Catchpole

The William Morris design chosen for this cover is “Flower Garden” from 1879, which is a very appropriate title for a book about a garden! However, it should be noted the flowers in the Morris design differ from the ones mentioned in the book. The Secret Garden book mentions lots of flowers, including snowdrops, roses, daffydowndillys (daffodills), crocuses, irises, delphiniums, primroses, poppies, and cherry blossoms. By contrast, the “Flower Garden” design includes stylized flowers that look like snakeshead (fritillary) and borage. There doesn’t appear to be any ivy, so the quote on the back of the book cover about the “swinging curtain of ivy” is less relevant to the Morrisian design.

William Morris, "Flower Garden," 1879. Furnishing fabric of Jacquard-woven silk and wool, made at Queen Square Workshop and at Merton Abbey Workshop, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Used with permission.

William Morris, “Flower Garden,” 1879. Furnishing fabric of Jacquard-woven silk and wool, made at Queen Square Workshop and at Merton Abbey Workshop, England. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Used with permission.

All this being said, though, I still love the use of the Morris design for this book cover. I think that having the “Flower Garden” pattern used as part of Mary’s dress is clever in two ways: 1) it complements how this design by Morris was used to make 19th-century textiles at Merton Abbey and 2) the thriving foliage foreshadows the positive growth and internal change that Mary Lennox experiences as she lives as Misselthwaite and cares for the Secret Garden.

The V&A Store explains on their website how each of the books in the collector series are held within the National Library. These are the other books in the series, along with the Morris designs chosen:

  • The Wind in the Willows  cover is Morris’s “Willow Bough” design (1887). I think this choice is so appropriate, especially because the leaves overlap and curl as if they are being moved by the wind.
  • The Anne of Green Gables cover is Morris’s “Bird” design (1878). This design reminds me a little of a quote that Anne says while she travels with Matthew to Green Gables from the train station: “If you were out in a great big woods with other trees all around you and little mosses and June bells growing over your roots and a brook not far away and birds singing in you branches, you could grow, couldn’t you?”1
  • The Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  cover is appropriately decorated with Morris’s “Brother Rabbit” design (1880-1881) to reference the White Rabbit.
  • The Little Women cover is Morris’s “Larkspur” design (1875). I don’t see a clear connection between the design and Jo on the cover. But larkspur is mentioned in the book at the beginning of Chapter 10, in a description of the different flowers that the four sisters grow in their respective quarters of the garden plot.
  • The Peter Pan cover is Morris’s “Marigold” design (1875). I don’t see a direct connection to the book, although the dense foliage could perhaps evoke the forest of Neverland.
  • The Jungle Book cover is the “Indian” design (produced 1868-70) used by Morris & Co. The V&A website explains that this design was not made by Morris, but was copied from an 18th-century wallpaper or may have been designed by architect George Gilbert Scott, whose company Watts & Co. produced some wallpapers. I can see why this cover was chosen, as the dense and spiky plants evoke a sense of a warm climate and jungle.
  • The Treasure Island cover design is “Strawberry Thief” (1883). While the birds in the design only loosely relate to the parrot on Long John’s Silver’s shoulder, I think that the theme of thievery can serve as a loosely appropriate parallel between the design and the pirate rogues in the book.

And in case you are curious, the William Morris designs are only on the covers of the books, and not part of any illustration within the texts themselves. (One reviewer has wondered if it would be possible for Liz Catchpole could illustrate the pictures within the text too.) I know Liz Catchpole has done a few other designs for books that include William Morris patterns, including The Twelve Days of Christmas, William Morris ABC and William Morris 123. If you know of other children’s books which incorporate William Morris designs, please share!

1 L. M. Montgomery, Anne  of Green Gables, first published 1908. Quote is from Chapter 2 and found online here.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.