Friday, January 29, 2016

Low Tide, by Simon de Vlieger (c. 1652)

Here is a suitably calming image to close out our week of snow, flooding, bad weather and a media Spike-d by phony outrage.

This lovely painting, done on board (as are the majority of de Vlieger’s work), can now be found in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Strasbourg.  Painted when de Vlieger was around 50 years old, Low Tide is an atypically calm moment in the painter’s oeuvre, and a restorative balm for the end of our week.

Once again, the artist underscores his mastery of the sea by demonstrating his mastery of the sky.  Water is notoriously difficult to paint.  Most non-painters take it to be little more than a dab of blue paint, perhaps buffeted by some white to delineate waves. 

Water, however, is best represented as an inversion of whatever is above it.  Those finest representations of water are those that mirror the sky above.  De Vlieger’s sky is a medley of cool blues, off-whites and warm-ochre clouds (reflecting the setting light).  He then copies this color scheme in the calm, reflected ocean pools surrounding the distant ships and the nearby shoreline.  De Vlieger also creates mirror images of the ships, which almost seem to shimmer in the gloaming; especially clever is one that seems as though it’s reflecting off of the muddy sand.

What do we see in this picture?  Fishing ships (note the nets) at low tide, day over.  The sun sets brilliantly in the distance, the lit sky is quietly celebratory.  As with Seascape in the Morning, there is almost an undercurrent of grace to the moment.  A fisherman treks through the wet sand, looking at the beached boat pulling up its nets.  Here is a stunning realization of the quiet beauty of our every day lives.

It’s important to note, in this last entry for the week, de Vlieger’s capability at capturing fine details.  We saw from his drawing of the Ruins of Brederode that his initial thoughts were of light and dark, value and color.  But take a moment to look at the boats here.  The sails are not Impressionist dabs of color, but real hunks of canvas with different folds, weight pulling them from different directions.  Note the rigging, the beached anchor, the fine network of ropes in the distant-left ship.  These are not throwaways, but carefully captured detail that bring the picture more fully to life.

Though in a minor key, this is no minor picture.  Its sweet solemnity, its sense of closure and quietude, along with the evocation of light and color against actual objects, creates a minor masterpiece.

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