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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Arnold Houbraken

Commemoration of King Mausolus by Queen Artemisia, Arnold Houbraken
Jacob Houbraken, by his father,
Arnold Houbraken
In writing on the lives and times of artists, one feature I like to include is what we've come to call today a "selfie." If only pocket digital cameras weren't an exclusively modern-day invention from the past ten years or so, my job would be a lot easier. As it is, I'm reliant upon self-portraits. In some ways that's good. Never is an artist more introspective and technically astute than when painting a "selfie." The only problem is, some artists never painted a portrait in their whole lives and, indeed, perhaps couldn't paint a portrait of anyone, themselves included, if their lives depended on it. That was definitely not the case with the Dutch engraver, painter, writer, art historian, and publisher, Arnold Houbraken. He specialized in portrait etchings, and did dozens of them, including one of his son Jacob (right), who was also a talented artist, helping his father illustrate his De groote schouburgh der Nederlantsche konstschilders en schilderessen (The Great Theatre of Dutch Painters) first published in 1718. Yet the man neglected to draw himself.

Jacob Houbraken Self-portrait, 1770
It would not be a great exaggeration to say that I could make a career writing about artists from the Dutch "Golden Age" (basically the 17th century). There were hundreds of them and they were, for the most part, quite good at what they did, though in most cases, what they did was highly specialized. Arnold Houbraken was born in 1660 and died in 1719. As a painter he was well trained, reasonably adept, and left behind a modest legacy of religious, historical, and mythological works to prove it (top). Yet this artist was nothing out of the ordinary for his time. What lifted Houbraken and his son, Jacob, as well as daughter, Antonia, from the exalted ranks of Golden Age artists was their talent and prodigious output of etched portraits of their collagues and peers. In some cases, had it not been for the Houbrakens (Arnold fathered ten children), we would have no idea what some of these outstandiing artist looked like.

The Wife of King Candaulus, Arnold Houbraken. Dutch nudes
often seem to have a starkly "naked" quality. Also, in this case, the head is 
somewhat out of proportion to the body...not that most Dutchmen would notice.

Portrait of a Young Man, Arnold
Houbraken. The Dutch seldom
painted nude males.
It wouldn't be going to far to suggest that Arnold Houbraken was the northern version of the famed Italian art historian, Giorgio Vasari (whom Houbraken admired, and at times, copied). Although Vasari lived and wrote roughly a hundred years before Houbraken, in some ways Houbraken's tome, The Great Theater of Dutch Painters, might be considered superior. Modern day art historian's, for instance, take Vasari's dates with a grain of salt. Houbraken's are invariably found to be quite accurate. Like Vasari, Arnold Houbraken knew many of the artists about whom he wrote personally, and when he didn't he is said to have been a stickler for details, checking and double-checking his facts methodically.

Arnold Houbraken's portrait etching
of Erasmus. The images in
Houbraken's book were all
composite renderings such as this.
That's not to say Houbraken's writings are faultless. Some have criticized his biographical sketches as lacking details and in some cases being outright slanderous. Moreover he sometimes got tangled up in the spelling of the names of his "theater" of Dutch painters while stretching the geographical limits of "Dutch" to the point historians today have taken to refering to them as "Netherlandish." However, modern scholars have dismissed both shortcomings as largely unavoidable, given the plethora of Dutch family trees literally dripping with artists, and their incorribible penchant for sometimes spelling names phonetically (I've gotten tangled up in that morass myself). Likewise, political boundaries during this period were uncertain, even "flexible" with frequent migrations by artists from country to country. I guess we writers of the 21st century, in delving into the Dutch Golden Age, are fortunate that all ten of the Houbraken offspring didn't become artists.

 Houbraken was hardly in his grave before later Dutch artists were
copying in oil, etchings of his naked ladies, as seen here in 
Nicolaes Verkolje's 1690 A Painter and His Model.


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