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Joachim Wtewael: Myths, Monsters, and Mannerism

The astonishing art of Joachim Wtewael, full of wild imagination, shows a little-seen side of 17th-century Dutch painting.

Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Lot and His Daughters, circa 1597–1600

Joachim Anthonisz Wtewael, Lot and His Daughters, circa 1597–1600, oil on canvas, 64 x 81 inches.

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When we think of Dutch Golden Age painting, we automatically envision homey scenes of everyday life, sumptuous arrangements of foodstuffs and flowers, or portraits of respectable burghers, all rendered with close attention to naturalistic detail. With those expectations in mind, the works of Joachim Wtewael come as a shock. A riot of mythological activity unfolds in his pictures, with Greek gods and goddesses disporting themselves without regard for the censors; sea monsters, satyrs, and putti popping out of nearly every corner; and lovers embracing passionately while floating by on clouds. There are scenes from the Christian religion, too, but painted with such sensuality and dynamism that they seem more like pagan dreams. Wtewael (pronounced OO-te-val), though very successful during his lifetime (1566–1638), became obscure in subsequent centuries, partly due to his style and subject matter but also for other reasons—obscure enough, in fact, that he had to wait the better part of five centuries for his first retrospective exhibition.

That overdue event is now under way, opening on November 1 at the Museum of Fine Art, Houston, after runs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, the city where Wtewael was born and spent his life. Through January 31, visitors to “Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael” will have the opportunity to be astonished by the variety and verve of the artist’s oeuvre. Over 50 works will be on view—a sizable number in light of the fact that this artist was not particularly prolific—oils on canvas and panel, oils on copper (a favorite medium of Wtewael’s), and drawings in both ink and chalk. Through these, a fuller and more nuanced picture of Dutch art at the turn of the 17th century begins to emerge, a picture that takes in the diversity of cultural, religious, and artistic trends that came together at that pivotal time.

In 1581, when Wtewael was still a teenager, the Netherlands declared independence from Spanish rule and set up a Republic, under terms defined by a treaty ratified in the artist’s home town. While Spain would not formally acknowledge Dutch independence for nearly 70 more years—during which time war was intermittently waged—the tenor of life in the Low Countries changed forever, from an aristocratic, Catholic- and foreign-dominated one to a nationalist, fundamentally bourgeois, and religiously tolerant society in which Catholics and Protestants shared power and co-existed more or less harmoniously. A change in the arts went along with this political and cultural shift, reflected in a new enthusiasm for everyday-life subjects drawn from the bourgeois environment. But as with most times of transition, there was no rigid line, and there was much overlap between the new styles and subjects and those that were an inheritance from the previous era.

The art of Wtewael falls under the general category of Mannerism, an international style that was very popular in both Southern and Northern Europe during the second half of the 16th century and can be recognized easily by its penchant for elongated, even distorted, figures in exaggerated postures; its use of unnatural pastel colors; and an emotional tendency toward dramatic moods, eroticism, and general artifice. Today the most famous Mannerists are Italian and Spanish, like Parmigianino and El Greco, but Wtewael’s principal inspiration came from the Flemish Mannerist Bartholomeus Spranger (himself the subject of a monographic show at the Met earlier this year), a court painter for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II at Prague whose work became widely known through reproductive prints made by the Dutch engraver and painter Hendrik Goltzius. Haarlem, Goltzius’ base of operations, was one of the two main centers of Mannerism in Holland, where he and Cornelis van Haarlem held sway. The other was Utrecht, where Wtewael and Abraham Bloemaert championed the style. And even though Wtewael turned out to be the last great Dutch Mannerist, at the time none of these artists was thought of as a throwback.

Wtewael’s first teacher was his father, Anthonis, a glassworker who also practiced painting on glass. At the age of 20, after a two-year apprenticeship with another local artist, Joos de Beer, Wtewael set off for Italy and then France, where he was no doubt exposed to international contemporary art, though it is not clear with whom he studied or even if he did. When he returned to Utrecht six years later, he joined a guild, set up a workshop, and started accepting apprentices of his own. Before long, major collectors throughout the country were acquiring his works. But painting was never to be Wtewael’s only pursuit—or even, arguably, his main pursuit. In the true Dutch entrepreneurial spirit, he went into business as a flax merchant and made so much money at it that he no longer needed to sell paintings to live, or even to maintain a high standard of living. By 1596 he was able to afford a house large and luxurious enough to remain in for the rest of his life. There he raised four children to adulthood, at least one of whom, Peter, carried on his art practice.

With the money he made from flax dealing, Wtewael bought municipal bonds as well as shares in the United Dutch East India Company, and he more than dabbled in real estate. He also involved himself in Utrecht politics, serving on the town council more than once. And while his art might suggest otherwise, Wtewael was a staunch Calvinist and a pillar of the Dutch Reformed Church who filled a number of offices in two congregations—deacon, regent, churchwarden, first warden, and dispenser of the poor box.

Despite these diverse and energetic extracurricular activities, Wtewael made such an impact as a artist, and so soon after opening his studio, that by 1604 Karel van Mander, the most influential Dutch critic and art historian of the era, felt comfortable calling him one of Holland’s best painters. In his Schilder-boeck (“Book of Painting”), a key text published that year, van Mander praised Wtewael’s “excellent judgment and intellect” and noted that he was one of those artists who painted from the imagination (uyt den gheest) rather than from nature or life (naer het leven). He also noted, with a touch of humor, that Wtewael’s work was so diverse that it was hard to imagine that one artist could be responsible for all of it. On the other hand, van Mander did take the opportunity to chide him for not fully devoting himself to his art, writing that it was surprising that the goddess Pictura had so favored Wtewael, since he clearly assigned painting second place in his life.

Be that as it may, Wtewael seems to have had no regrets about his life choices. He was secure enough about both his art and his financial standing that he felt no pressure to sell his works and in fact held quite a number of them back from the market, keeping them for his own enjoyment and that of his family and his intimate circle of friends. According to Arthur K. Wheelock, curator of Northern European Painting at the National Gallery and a co-author of the exhibition’s catalogue, this practice of Wtewael’s is one reason for his later obscurity. So many works remained in the possession of his descendants—the last one died childless in 1972—that much of the rest of the world remained not-so-blissfully ignorant of the wonders of Wtewael.

Those wonders are on full view in the current show, which includes all phases of Wtewael’s work—mythological scenes, biblical narratives, portraits, and the occasional genre picture. The mythological ones make the strongest impact, in terms of sheer pictorial virtuosity and storytelling powers. The Apulian Shepherd (circa 1600–1605) is emblematic in many ways. For one thing, it is an oil on copper, which Wtewael favored because the smooth, burnished surface of a copper plate allowed him maximum precision with tiny brushstrokes and yielded a particularly lustrous finished product. For another, it manages to fit an almost unbelievable amount of narrative detail, a dizzying number of figures, and several distinct textures of painting into one very small frame (the object is only about 6 by 8 inches in size, typical for copper paintings, which were meant to be held in the hand for the close contemplation of connoisseurs).

The story being told here comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the favorite font of Classical myth for centuries’ worth of European artists and poets. The Southern Italian shepherd has stumbled upon a group of nymphs, some clothed, some nude, who having been ousted from their cave by the god Pan, are passing the time by dancing in a glade. Instead of paying the supernatural beings due respect, the crude shepherd mocks and abuses them, and in return they transform him into an olive tree. Out of this simple yet powerful little mythical anecdote, Wtewael has made a very strong visual statement that is also a pretext for showing off pretty much everything he could do with paint and brush. The choreography of the nymphs is so palpably full of motion and grace that it seems to incarnate the very essence of Mannerism. Every figure, from the shepherd at far left, already sprouting olive branches from his arms, to Pan holding his pipes in the cave at the lower left, to the lute-playing musician at the far right, seems to be in motion. The dynamism of the figures corresponds to the dynamism of the entire composition, in which multiple spaces coexist without any loss of clarity or meaning. The whole painting has a narrative drive that makes it seem like a window on a world that just might be more real than our own.

Another oil on copper—Wtewael’s largest, at around 12 by 16 inches—takes this exuberance to the limit and beyond. The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (1602), a depiction of a joyous event that nonetheless prefigures the disaster of the Trojan War, is so crowded with swirling divine, semi-divine, and human wedding guests, suspended on clouds seemingly miles above the landscape, that the eye can barely take it all in. We experience this painting as a generalized explosion of pagan energy. In Perseus and Andromeda (1611), the cavorting sea monster and the winged horse flying overhead convey a similar sense of a magical universe in perpetual motion. In other mythological works, however, Wtewael took a calmer approach. For example, Without Ceres and Bacchus, Venus Grows Cold (Sine Cerere et Baccho Friget Venus), an oval-shaped oil on copper from around 1600–05, places the wine god at the center of a tight composition, one hand raising a full glass and the other wrapped around the shoulders of Venus. One his other side is Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, holding a cornucopia, while a little Cupid with rainbow wings emerges from the bottom, being hugged by both goddesses. Here there is nothing to distract from the message of the picture, a sentiment taken from the ancient Roman playwright Terence: Love needs food and drink in order to thrive.

Even in his Christian paintings, Wtewael deployed both sensuality and a sense of fun that sometimes belies the topics at hand. In his Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (1600), he chose to portray the saint in the moment before he was riddled with arrows by his Roman executioners. Instead of a pitiable pincushion, we get a graceful, well-muscled figure, posed in contrapposto against a thick tree trunk in a densely forested landscape. Over his head a rosy, plump putto hovers, while the executioners crouch in shadows at the bottom of the frame. In an Old Testament subject, Lot and His Daughters (circa 1597–1600), Wtewael chose to emphasize the fruit, cheese, bread, and wine with which the sinful girls plied their hapless father, also dwelling rather intently on their perfectly Mannerist nude bodies, complete with alabaster flesh and elongated necks.

The appeal of pagan myth in Christian Europe is a long story. It begins with moralistic reinterpretations of Ovid in the Middle Ages, goes through the passionate embrace of Classical culture in the Italian Renaissance—abetted by the widespread belief that myths were an expression of Platonic philosophy—and devolves into a more lighthearted appreciation of the myths’ imaginative power and ability to reflect aspects of human nature, not excluding the erotic. This is the spirit in which the sophisticated Dutch art aficionados and litterateurs of the 17th century seem to have taken them.

In a magisterial self-portrait, done in a realistic, un-Mannerist style in 1601, Wtewael gave subtle expression to the meaning of myth in his own life. The artist, holding his palette and brushes, dressed in black with a huge white ruff, stares challengingly out at the viewer, his pointed beard seeming to deliver a little jab of its own. In a catalogue essay, Liesbeth Helmus observes that typically, a self-portrait of this type would show a dab of white paint on the tip of the artist’s brush. Here, however, Wtewael has made the paint blood-red, which Helmus argues is a covert reference to Mars, the god of war, with whom Wtewael deeply identified.

One of Wtewael’s favorite stories was the one in which the cuckolded god Vulcan surprises his wife, Venus, in flagrante delicto with Mars. He painted it in 1601, and then again a few years later. These two pictures (both in the current exhibition), which are among the very few from the 17th century in which sexual intercourse is openly depicted, were intended for the private viewing of collectors. The later one, dated to 1604–08, was long kept hidden in various ways. In the early 19th century it was placed in a hinged frame behind a more innocuous painting by another artist, a portrait of a viol player. Sometime after that, it was enclosed in a folding dark-brown leather case, like the binding of a book, and surreptitiously stored in a bookcase. Only in 1983, when the Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired it, were Mars and Venus allowed to see the light of day again. Wtewael’s oeuvre has had a similar fate, and now, after centuries on the shelf, it can be revealed in all its splendor.

By John Dorfman

Author: John Dorfman | Publish Date: October 2015

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