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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Pieter Lastman

When two small streams meet, they very often form a river.  And that river is often more than the sum of its two parts, especially if we apply this analogy to art. During the sixteenth century, there were two mainstreams in art--the Northern Renaissance and the Italian Renaissance. In the North, there was the bare knuckles, no nonsense tradition of German art and its slightly more elegant Flemish neighbor.  Durer on the one hand and Van Eyck on the other. In the South, there was the Italian Renaissance in the grand tradition of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and a bit later, Caravaggio. There was some intermittent communication between these two flowing rivers but for the most part, they flowed parallel until the early seventeenth century. It was then, that a Dutch artist named Pieter Lastman, among others, made his way south to see what all the fuss was about in Italian painting. There he came face to face with Caravaggio and came away a convert to his dramatic use of extreme chiaroscuro. The single light source that became the hallmark of Baroque painting he carried back over the Alps to Amsterdam. In him, the two flowing streams met.

Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io. 1618, Peter Lastman
The river they formed, we call today, Rembrandt. Lastman was Rembrandt's primary source of art instruction. Lastman's work melded the stark precision of Flemish painting with the drama of Caravaggio. Rembrandt became more than the sum of these two parts. The drama is there. So is the Italian painting tradition of Michelangelo. But it's tempered by the realism, clarity, and attention to detail that marks the Northern Renaissance. Rembrandt was a hybrid. In Lastman's work the two styles clash. Rembrandt made them complement one another. We have only to look at Lastman's 1618 Juno Discovering Jupiter with Io to see what I mean. One might think Durer and Caravaggio collaborated in painting it and that it was a turbulent unhappy pairing at that. Juno, at the apex of the diagonal composition, arrives amidst a cloud of dust in her peacock-drawn carriage almost catching her husband red-handed embracing his mistress, Io into a cow. In seeing her coming, Jupiter, with the help of Fraud, changes Io. Realizing what's happened, Juno requests that Jupiter make her a gift of the cow. Jupiter, unable to deny such a seemingly simple request, is thus trapped into making his mistress a gift to his wife.
Abraham on the Way to Caanan, 1614, Pieter Lastman
Fortunately, in his travels in Italy, Lastman picked up a penchant for painting biblical scenes as well, allowing him to rise above such mythological silliness. His earlier, painting, Abraham on the Way to Canaan, depicts the wealthy father of the Jewish nation as he leaves behind in Ur most of his worldly possession to follow the will of God while his unenlightened wife and servants carry on as one might expect, given such an irrational turn of events. And ,while the painting exhibits many of the same wonders and woes as his secular work, this one has the added burden of a scene-stealing (but masterfully painted) goat in the lower right corner, making eye contact with the viewer as if to say, "Can you believe this?"  And despite Lastman's trademark realism, the answer is, no.  We have to wonder, had it not been for Rembrandt, if this meeting of North and South might not have meant a new low in the art and craft of painting, rather than the artistic apex in the painters art which flowered from the brush of Lastman's masterful pupil.

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