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Monday, September 5, 2016

Bartholomeus van Bassen

Delft Nieuwe Kerk nave. Be sure to count the number of pews
before starting your painting, wouldn't want to leave one out.
Sometimes, over the course of several centuries, once-popular painting subjects lose their popular appeal, both with artists and their clients. We no longer see large-scale group portraits of stogie old men sitting around trying not to look posed. We no longer see paintings of surgeons teaching anatomy using an open corpse as a visual aid. That's probably good. The advent of modern-day photography relieved the painter of such odious content. Just as the coming of portrait photography during the 19th-century put miniaturists out of business, entire painting specializations have simply died off. For instance, how would you like to be commissioned to paint a detailed, highly realistic view of the Delft Nieuwe Kerk nave (above)? Only the very most masochistic devotees to linear perspective, or perhaps painters in need of a sizable chunk of money would ever even consider such a challenge. I know I certainly wouldn't. In all likelihood, I'd probably never live to see it finished. The Dutch painter, Bartholomeus van Bassen, however, painted little else.
Bartholomeus van Bassen not only painted actual church
interiors but invented some imaginary ones as well.
Bartholomeus Corneliszoon van Bassen was born around 1590, probably in The Hague, Holland. Other than the names of his parents, little is known about the artist's early years. That's not unusual for Dutch "Golden Age" painters. Most simply "popped up," left behind a few outstanding paintings, then were once more got lost in the crowd of would-be famous painters from this era. During the 16th-century, the Netherlands probably had more artists per square inch than any other country in the world. We know van Bassen joined Delft Guild of St. Luke in 1613. As he became more prominent, he moved on to The Hague in 1622 where he not only joined the local guild but became its dean in 1627, then headman in 1636 and again in 1640.
The Tomb of William the Silent in an Imaginary Church,
 1620, Bartholomeus van Bassen
Van Bassen's painting an imaginary Gothic church interior (above) is the setting for the tomb monument of William the Silent. The scene is viewed from the choir, whose stalls occupy the left foreground. The monument has been placed in the crossing, partially obscuring the view into the nave, To the right of the tomb the transept opens into a side aisle or a chapel. The plain white walls and the absence of any religious imagery suggest that the church is a Protestant. The man dressed in fine red attire in the foreground faces away from the viewer drawing us into the scene, while the other well-dressed people casually move about. The figures have been attributed to Esaias van de Velde (1587-1630), with whom Van Bassen frequently collaborated. While retaining the single-point perspective favored by his Flemish colleagues, Van Bassen introduces light and atmospheric effects as a means of articulating architectural space. Some have observed that Van Bassen's interiors appear more realistic than those of his Flemish predecessors. This is mainly a result of his realization that light and atmosphere are as important as perspective drawing for producing a convincing illusion of a three-dimensional space. The actual setting of the tomb of William the Silent is in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft (top). The tomb was not finished until 1623, by Hendrick's son, Pieter, some three years after the date of Van Bassen's painting. The painting is the earliest rendering of the monument. Since the figures on the top of the monument were never completed, Van Bassen probably worked from designs or a model.
Renaissance Interior with Banqueters, 1618-20,
Bartholomeus van, Bassen, probably his most famous painting.
Although van Bassen was one of Holland's best at what he did, he was not what we'd call a versatile artist. He was well-known for hiring other artists to paint "staffage" into his many architectural paintings. Staffage, by the way, refers simply to unimportant human (or animal) bystanders, included mostly to suggest the overwhelming scale of the architecture. Either van Bassen wasn't very good at painting people, or he simply couldn't be bothered. Either would account for the fact that there is not one single portrait of the man, painted, drawn, or etched, much less a self-portrait. Van Bassen also developed a second specialty in painting lavishly decorated palace interiors with elegant figures as seen in his Renaissance Interior with Banqueters (above), dating from about 1618-20. Characteristically, the room is box-shaped with a tile-floor and a coffered ceiling lit by rows of clerestory windows along the left wall. The general atmosphere is one of sumptuous luxury. Ornamental embellishments and decorative objects abound. Hardly any space is left uncovered. There are elaborately carved pieces of furniture and doors, a floral frieze along the top of the walls, along with two enormous marble columns bearing composite capitals. A sideboard with an ostentatious display of precious-metal plates and goblets on a dais sits beneath a canopy. The effect of wealth and luxury is enhanced by the elegantly dressed men and women who seem to enjoy each other's company. These staffage figures have been attributed to Esaias van de Velde. Twenty-eight paintings by van Bassen with staffage by Van de Velde have been identified, all dating from the first half of the 1620s.
The Nieuwe Kerk, The Hague, 1650, Bartholomeus van Bassen
It should come as no surprise, given the content of his paintings, that Bartholomeus van Bassen was also something of an architect. In 1638 he became city architect of the Hague. He worked on the summer palace Huis Honselaarsdijk for Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange (torn down after having been used as a military hospital during the War of 1812). Van Bassen also took part in the restoration of the City Hall; and from 1649 until his death, he was involved with building the Nieuwe Kerk. In this regard, van Bassen was probably mostly an advisor to the church's primary architect, Peter Noorwits. Van Bassan died in 1652, four years before the project was completed in 1656. The church is considered a highlight of the early Protestant church architecture in the Netherlands. The one surviving building which Van Bassen designed on his own is the Boterwaag (below), on the Prinsegracht canal. It was built as a weigh house for butter.
The Boterwaag, The Hague, 1650-81,
Bartholomeus van Bassen, architect.
As seen earlier, Not all of van Bassen's paintings depicted church interiors. Protestants were okay with paintings of church interiors, they simply didn't believe in painting on church interiors, which may have been how the genre came to develop in the first place. In any case, van Bassen seems to have done a booming business in painting the interiors of homes belonging to wealthy Dutch traders. He was also painted a few civic interiors such as Interior of the Great Hall at the Binnenhof (below) from 1651. The bill from some other artist paid to handle the staffage in this one must have been tremendous.

Interior of the Great Hall at the Binnenhof, 1651,
Bartholomeus, van Bassen
Though the interior design and architecture are hardly authentically Jewish, van Bassen's painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son (below), from 1618-20 would suggest that he (and his collaborating "people painter") sometimes delved into religious works other than churches, so long as the setting was primarily architectural.

Return of the Prodigal Son, 1618-20, Bartholomeus van Bassen
Interior with a Merry Company, 1622-24, 
Bartholomeus van Bassen

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