Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dark Landscape, by Simon de Vlieger (1640)

We thought the current weather makes a perfect opportunity to look at the work of under-appreciated artist Simon de Vlieger, starting with this suitably dark and brooding landscape, painted in 1640.

Many readers aren’t familiar with painter Simon de Vlieger, who was born in Rotterdam in about 1601.  (In a 1648 letter, he described himself as 47 – so 1601 or so would be right.)  Very little record of his early training as an artist survives, but historians believe he may have been a pupil of Jan Porcellia (c. 1584-21632).

He married Anna Gerridts van Willige in 1627, and the couple would return to Rotterdam throughout their lives, buying a house on the Schilderstraat in 1637 that served as an occasional retreat.  They moved in 1634 to Delft, where De Vlieger joined the Saint Luke’s Guild of painters.  

The peripatetic De Vliegers would become citizens of Amsterdam in 1643.  The artist’s decision to move there was undoubtedly related to a commission he received to provide two designs for the festivities honoring the arrival of Marie de Medici into the city on August 31, 1638.  He would also receive important commissions between 1638 and 1645 from the city of Delft for tapestry designs, for etchings, and to paint the organ doors for the Grote Kerk in Rotterdam, for which he received the considerable sum of 2,000 guilders on January 7, 1645. 

Although he may have lived in Rotterdam sporadically during these years, in September 1644 he sold his house there. Early in 1648 he received a commission to design the stained-glass windows for the south side of the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam, a project that earned him 6,000 guilders.  In January 1649 De Vlieger left Amsterdam and bought a house in Weesp, a small town 10 miles southeast of the city. He died there in 1653.

The artist was one of the most important and influential painters of the 17th century, and while the scope of de Vlieger’s commissions indicate his considerable success as an artist, his currency in contemporary art history is surprisingly low.  De Vlieger painted mostly dramatic seascapes – filled with stormy seas and grotesque outcroppings of rock.  Born long before the advent of Romanticism, de Vlieger can still be seen as a spiritual brother of the Romantics.  He cannot paint the placid, the peaceful or the ordinary; his imagination is larger-than-life, melodramatic and uncanny.

For today’s picture, we exchanged a seascape for a dark and stormy landscape.  If ever there was an evocative picture that speaks volumes with minimal detail, it would be this.  Look at what de Vlieger achieves with his restricted palette of blues, whites, and a little ochre.  The overcast sky promises storms and cold weather, while the trees – both living and dead – list to one side in the coming wind.  The massive roots of the trees are spread wide, as if wrapping a powerful grip into the earth itself to keep from blowing away.

The wind also affects the meagre scrub at the side of the road.  This powerful sweep of wind is underscored by the minimally depicted bird, whose wingspan and trajectory illustrate the wind.

Other brilliant touches abound.  The left-most tree spreads its dead fingers against the light-most part of the sky, while the leafy trees occupy the darkest; hence the details of both are not lost to the viewer.  The tree dead-center actually bucks the wind, shifting the other way to some degree.  Its mid-height branches almost give the tree the semblance of human resistance, as if its arms were spread and it refused to be swayed.

De Vlieger counterpoints the trees with the solitary figure making his way through the windy night.  There is a hint of a cane carried in his hand, which also accentuates the sturdy efforts of the trees around him.

More de Vlieger tomorrow!

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