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Sunday, November 16, 2014

Gerard de Lairesse

Allegory of the Five Senses, 1668, Gerard de Lairesse.                           
Gerard de Lairesse was a Dutch "Golden Age" painter born in 1641. If you follow the writings here with some regularity, you're probably saying to yourself, "oh, no, not another one." If you're tired of seeing and reading about the Golden Age painters, let it be known I'm just as tired of writing about them. That's not to say they weren't great artists; far more worthy of study than many who were to follow them, it's just that there were so damned many of them, and once you get past Rembrandt, van Ruisdael, Hals, Potter, Steen, and two or three others, they all begin to look alike unless you're really "into" Dutch painting to an alarming degree.

An Image from The Art of Drawing, ca. 1700, Gerard de Lairesse
Gerard de Lairesse, 1665, 
Rembrandt van Rijn
If you take one look at de Lairesse's Allegory of the Five Senses (top) you're probably wondering, how was this guy any different from all the others? The answer is, that as a painter, he wasn't much different from all the others. However, as a man, as something of a "Renaissance man" at that, in the mold of Leonardo da Vinci, he stood well apart and above the ranks of his painting countrymen. Yet, even in observing his etched figure study (above), though there's much to admire, it really doesn't suggest talent in the realm of Leonardo, and certainly not the "glamorous" nudes of Michelangelo. Although de Lairesse probably didn't study under Rembrandt, he was highly influenced by the greatest of the "Dutch Masters," and it's likely they were good friends. Rembrandt painted a portrait of him in 1665 (right).
The title page from de Lairesse's
comprehensive "how to draw" book.
After Rembrant's death in 1669, de Lairesse became one of the most notable painters in Amsterdam. However, if you look carefully at the portrait Rembrandt left us, you'll notice that de Lairese had what was called a "saddle nose" (a flat area just below the bridge). The effect is to give his face a somewhat childlike appearance. But beyond that, it was also a symptom of hereditary syphilis, which caused him to go blind around 1690--perhaps the worst fate, short of death, which can befall an artist. That is to say, it would be for most artists, those minus the broad range of talents possessed by de Lairesse. He was also an expert on music, theater, and poetry. After he could no longer paint, de Lairesse combined this latter talent in writing to author first a book on drawing, Grondlegginge der teekenkonst ("Foundations of Drawing," left), published in 1701, and later an even more important book on painting, Het groot schilderboeck ("Great Book of Painting"), published in 1710. The books proved so popular that, despite his blindness, de Lairesse, with the help of his son, held lectures on drawing, painting, and virtualy all other aspects of art.
The Abdomen, from Lairesse's 1685
Anatomia Humani Corporis.
Anatomy Child’s Skeleton,
Gerard de Lairesse
An etching of the spinal column
by the anatomist, John
Bibloo, based upon a Gerard
de Lairesse drawing.
Those who have had the good fortune to study art in college will probaby recall with special fondness sitting in class before a nude model under circumstances where it was not impolite to stare. But had you been an art student in de Lairesse's time, you would have first learned to draw the human body from a book, and beyond that, you would have done so from the inside out, becoming as familiar with what was beneath the skin and muscles as many physicians at the time. The books you would have used would most likely have been written by Gerard de Lairesse, illustrated with drawings and etchings made before his blindness. The illusrations were highly functional and extremely detailed to the point some might not even consider them art. Fortunately, they were not in color. Had they been, many painters (those with weak stomachs) might well have switched to landscapes.

Anatomical drawing from
Anatomia Humani Corporis,
1690, Gerard de Lairesse,

Gerard de Lairesse's opinions on art were often the soul of simplicity. He distinguishes two types of painting, good and bad. Both begin with the imitation of reality. The right choice is to look for beauty and grace, selecting the most perfect manifestations of natural phenomena. He disparaged the idea of simply copying nature at random. His method, he claimed, would produce art that exerts a strong effect on the mind of the viewer. It is based on knowledge, understanding, power of judgement, and natural gifts. De Lairesse preached that the artist must learn grace by mingling with the social and intellectual élite, allowing his subject matter to teach the highest moral principles while all the time striving for ideal beauty. During his lifetime (he died in 1711), de Lairesse had many students and for a hundred years thereafter many followers. However by the 19th-century he was considered passe--both his work and this ideals. He was often blamed for the decline of Dutch painting. Whether such harsh criticism is justified, is a matter of taste and theory, but we can all be thankful that figure drawing today is taught by seeing and doing, not from de Lairesse's anatomical textbooks.

Principles of Drawing,
Gerard de Lairesse,
"How to Draw Feet."
Many of the illustrations in
de Lairese's Principles of
Drawing, would be quite
helpful and appropriate today.


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