A Limited Collection – Part III

Anytime I come upon something like this display of 18th century ceramics in the Rijkmuseum my first reaction is something like “wow”; my second is “I wish Ron were here!”  As much as much as I did get a good deal of enjoyment from seeing the “limited” pieces on exhibit from the collection I know I would have have gain so much more with him beside me.  Ron is a recognized authority on Chinese Export porcelain and in demand for his talents as a speaker on ceramics in general and the booming trade between the various “East India” companies and China  during the 18th and 19th century in particular.  And he’s one of those lecturers who makes things come to life, the best sort of lecturer there is.  One of the first things I did when I got back to the apartment in Amsterdam was to send him a copy of this photo.  It would have been more fun to share it and the other wonders on display with him in person

As I mentioned religious objects were not as prominent in the art of Holland’s Golden Age but that did not mean that they were entirely absent.  Any upstanding householder would want to have something on display to both inspire devotion and signal the devoutness of their family.  This plate from the late 1600s was one of four by an anonymous artist depicting Biblical scenes (in this case The Entry into Jerusalem).  The broad white border acting as a frame clearly indicates it wasn’t meant for the family dinner table but to be hung on the wall for all to see, admire and perhaps even meditate upon.

This violin is also meant only to be decorative.  It could be assumed that any sound coming out of it would be less than mellow however it is one of the finest examples of the work being done at Delft at the beginning of the 18th century.  Again the painter and modeler are unknown but indications are that it was made between 1705-1710.   The front depicts a ballroom or dance hall in the city with couples elegantly dancing while others gossip or just look on.  Unfortunately the reverse was not on display but according to the Museum catalogue it shows how country folk in a tavern enjoy the dance as much as their city cousins.  I particularly love the antic – almost demonic – head on the scroll, it could almost be singing Dance Dance Dance Little Lady in manic glee as couples whirled around him.

More often than not the painters who worked in Delft – like the creators of the two previous pieces – were unknown however  Frederik van Frijtom was a free-lance painter who style was immediately recognizable.  He would often sign special pieces and his unique style make even unsigned works recognizable as his.  Unlike many of his fellows who painted over the glaze Frijtom did not use the sponge technique which depended on stencils for the initial design.  He hand painted scenes of his own creation on the base layer before the glazing was done.

And he painted on the white ground using a unique style – he set out his design with thin contour lines using various shades of blue. He then filled them in and built them up with thousands and thousands of tiny dots.  By varying the intensity of the blue he was able to add dimension and depth to his landscapes that were often lacking in that of his contemporaries.   His wall plaques were popular with the merchants (and their wives) throughout the Netherlands.  This large plaque (62cm x 105cm – 2’x3.5″) is a stunning example of the work Frijtom was known for and is a good indication of why he, unlike so many, was not to remain anonymous.

In the late 16th and 17th centuries a craze for tulips engulfed much of Europe and led to, as difficult as it may be to believe, a financial crises in Holland.  The tulip made its initial appearance from Turkey around 1593 and Holland was the main

centre of cultivation and distribution.  Tulips became so popular that at the peak of the craze people were trading their entire estates for one bulb.  But after the crash in 1634 the price of a bulb was no more than that of the common onion that they so closely resembled.  Meanwhile fortunes had been made on speculation then lost when the bubble burst and the depression that followed effected the Dutch economy for several years afterwards.  But during the boom (or bloom?) years tulips appeared in all the finest homes and if you were planning to have blooming gold in your home you needed a container worthy of these precious bulbs.  Tulip vases became – and stayed even after the crash – all the rage and this pair of six foot tall tulipieres (though created sometime after the crash had wreaked it financial havoc) would have displayed 36 individual blooms each.  As beautiful as these may have been gracing the entrance hall of a good burger’s home, investors of the time learned the hard lesson that it is better to stop and smell a flower than stake your fortune on one.

The Dutch East India Company had a lucrative trade with the Chinese and imported millions of pieces of Chinese porcelain in the 17th century.  These pieces became popular for their workmanship and detail but were available only to the very wealthy.  At first the ceramic studios in Delft did little other than admire the imported items however when trading abruptly halt in 1620 with the end of the Ming Dynasty they began to make copies of Chinese pieces and adapt Chinese designs.

Though I know that Ron would have told me straight off that one was the import and the other the Delft “rip-off” I was hard pressed to tell the difference.  The notes in the gallery referred to the top piece as being of Chinese origin – a piece brought in as one of those many during the late part of the 1600s.  Not more was given in the way of information.

The bottom piece is from the de Ross factory founded by Arendt Cosijn in 1675 and dates from the period of the 1705-1720.  It is attributed to Dammas Hofdijck who also created that intriguing flask I posted about last week.  Though the dish gives the appearance of having been made in China the painting is fuller and the surface more lustrous than the Chinese original. The painter used a wider palette of colours including red and black, which given the techniques of the time were difficult to fire. 

Though the Delftware is the more colourful my own preference is to the original – perhaps because of its delicacy and muted colours. I may be reading too much into it but the Dutch version seems to cry out “look-at-me” in the spirit of an emerging wealthy merchant class.

08 July – 1822:  Chippewas turn over a huge tract of land in Ontario to the United Kingdom.

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A Limited Collection – Part I

The recent trip to the Baltic was bracketed in a way by visits to two of the most famous museums in the world – Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum at the beginning and the Hermitage in St Petersburg towards the end.  Both have unparalleled collections though the Russian museum has to win hands down for size. With over 3 millions pieces it is estimated that only a third of its acquisitions are on display and that a lifetime could be spent going from room to room and still there would be things left to see.

Though smaller in size the Rijkmuseum collection is as rich in its own way with art and artifacts reflecting the Golden Age when Holland was a centre of commerce and world trade, an exceptional Asian collection and a unique collection of drawings, litho and photo graphs.  The collection long ago outgrew its 19th century building and a ten year expansion and renovation programme has been on-going since 2003.  But during that period the Phillips Wing of the Museum has been the location of The Masterpieces – an exhibition that presents all the most important paintings in the collection together with selected items reflecting Dutch culture in the glory years.  And there is even room for special exhibits and currently they are showcasing a selection of the work of master engraver Hendrick Goltzius and a fantastic series of Japanese surimono prints that are part of a collection recently been donated to the Museum.

For anyone who has been accustomed to the museums in many other European countries the most striking difference at the Rijksmuseum is the rarity of images of Christian iconography in theircollection.  Not that they are not there just that when entering a gallery you aren’t confronted by painting upon painting of annunciations, virgin births, crucifixions, transfigurations or martyrdom.   During the Golden Age glory was given to God in the word and it was the bounty he had showered upon the good upright burghers of the Netherlands that became the major subject of its art and artisans.

Enter a ceramic gallery in the Bode or the Prado and you will be confronted by Madonnas, Apostles, Saints, Patriarchs and Prophets as well as the usual figures from mythology.  At the Phillips Wing enter the gallery devoted to the ceramics of the Netherlands – the majority from Delft – and the paucity of religious subjects is immediately apparent.  The famous white and blue tin-glazed earthenware ranges from everyday household items to elaborate decorative panels and table pieces with fanciful landscapes, seascapes, flowers and elaborate curlicues.

Perhaps it was the paucity of religious subjects that drew me to one piece amongst the trove of white and blue that gave the gallery a particular glow.

This picture from the Rijkmuseum website gives a clearer picture of St Mathew and a partial view of St Luke that can’t be seen in the current display.  It is strange that something like this is not put on a turntable so that all aspects of the artwork and all eight figures can be seen.

 It is difficult to determine the exact purpose of this octagonal flask – perhaps it was meant to be used in a Catholic church (a flagon for sacramental wine) or it may have just been for use in a Catholic household to remind the family of its religious heritage.  Fired somewhere between 1700 and 1710 it features 8 figures (sadly only 5 were visible in the display case) Christ (Ecce homo -Behold the Man), Saint Mary, St Peter, St Mathew, St Thomas, St Bartholomew, St Luke and St John the Baptist.  Each carries their iconic attributes (which denotes it as intended for a Catholic audience) however the other decorations are typical of Delftware: leaf wreaths, lily motifs, putti and angels heads. 

The work of Dammas Hofdijk of the De Witte Starre factory it is intriguing in its choice of Saints: the norm would have been the four Evangelists, Saints Peter and Paul as well as the Virgin, John and Christ.  Here only Peter is included with two of the Evangelists and St Thomas the Doubter and Saint Bartholomew also known as Nathanial.  Perhaps for the Church or family it was intended for these Saints had a particular relevance.

An interesting website devoted to Delftware gives a detailed description on how it was produced.

27 June – 1898: The first solo circumnavigation of the globe is completed by Joshua Slocum from Briar Island, Nova Scotia.

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