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Monday, June 6, 2016

Pieter Aertsen

Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt, 1551, Pieter Aertsen
We don't often think about it, or maybe even realize it, but the rules we've been taught (and taught others) about painting have never been etched in stone. Take, for example, the painting Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt (above), painted by the Dutch artist, Pieter Aertsen, in 1551. Keep in mind, first of all, this is not a work from the Dutch "Golden Age" of the 17th-century, of which I've written so much about in the past. It's a work from the century before, more than fifty years before Dutch painting reached it's zenith. More aptly it could be considered a Mannerist piece, though that's usually used in the context of Italian painting. In any case, the so-called rules painters came to embrace during the next several hundred years, and even today, had yet to be decided upon, much less etched in stone. Pieter Aertsen was, so to speak, making up the rules as he went along.

The religious and the genre scenes from the painting above, seen at left, are nearly lost in the overwhelming detail of the meat stall. One can al-most smell the raw meat.

Although the painting is often referred to as The Butcher's Stall or simply The Meat Stall, the correct title, Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt says a lot about the ambivalent nature of the "rules" (or lack of them) during the Northern Renaissance, which extended well into the latter years of the 16th-century. Aertsen was mixing genres, something later Dutch artists decided was very much against the rules. During the following century, religious painting came to rest at the top of the content pyramid; still-lifes were several layers below that, and what we've come to call genre painting (the depictions of peasant life) was at, or near, the bottom. Seldom did they meet. As one can plainly see in examining Aertsen's composition, he had it all (as we Americans sometimes say) "bassackwards."

Aertsen apparently knew his limitations and considered self-
portraits one of them. The detail figure at left is problematical.
The engraving is by Hendrick Hondus.
Although it's probably not the case, Aertsen seems to have been literally painting the content pyramid--religious scene at the top, still-life and genre toward the bottom. His formula of still-life and genre figures in the foreground, with small religious scenes in the background may have been his own invention, It did, in fact persist for the next generation or two, as Joachim Wtewael painted some similar works. Likewise history paintings with very prominent still life elements in the foreground were produced by Peter Paul Rubens and his generation, well into the 17th-century and can be seen in Flemish Baroque painting, before Dutch Golden Age painters decreed the separation of content areas and eventually the extreme specialization of painters, which was only occasionally seen in Aertsen's day.

Aertsen's original version is at the top, his biblical depiction relegated
to the background while the peasants and their vegetable market
dominates most of the scene.
Perhaps the more noticeable instance of Pieter Aertsen's penchant for playing fast and loose with the "rules" (what few there were) can be seen in one of his other (so called) religious works, Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (above-top), painted in 1559. The religious scene is stuck in the background, occupying barely one-fourth of the canvas while the "farmer's market" completely dominates the rest of the painting. Years later, knowing and following all the rules, another Dutch painter (above-bottom), not only painted a better version, but dispenses altogether with the genre peasantry and their veggies.

The Apostles Peter and John, 1575, Pieter Aertsen
In Aertsen's The Apostles Peter and John (above), we once more see the artist mixing genres, this time to the point that it's difficult to ascertain the apostles from the mélange of genre figures populating virtually every square inch of his canvas. Worst of all, even allowing for the fact he's transported the biblical scene to Amsterdam, its nearly impossible to tell exactly which apostolic scene Aertsen may be trying to depict. The title is certainly no help.

The Adoration of the Magi triptych, 1560, Pieter Aertsen.
Martha Preparing Dinner
Cooking Birds, Pieter Aertsen
Even when the subject is so iconic as to be perfectly obvious, Aertsen populates his compositions with so many peripheral figures as to burden the eyes of the viewer in trying to separate the stars of his show from the supporting cast. Even art experts aren't sure if the right-hand wing of the triptych (now lost) depicts the Presentation at the Temple or The Circumcision of Christ. In a similar manner, even when the title, Martha Preparing Dinner Cooking Birds, names the biblical figure depicted, the genre figure and setting tends to cast the event into the realm of Bible trivia. Martha who? Okay, so it's probably not Martha Stewart. Meanwhile, in the dining room, Aertsen attaches a biblical reference to Christ at the House of Martha and Mary (below), to what would appear, for all the world, to be the 16th-century Dutch equivalent of a lively dinner party complete with a sumptuous buffet. It quickly descends into silliness.

Christ at the House of Martha and Mary, 1553, Pieter Aertsen
For the time in which he lived, 1508 to 1575, Pieter Aertsen was not a bad painter. His figures are somewhat stylized and stiff, and his penchant for splattering content details over literally every square inch of his canvases is atrocious by modern-day standards (rules); but he knew how to handle both his still-lifes and his genre scenes in an expert manner. His color is nothing if not exciting, even to our eyes. Aertsen is at his best when he paints to his strengths and does not try to mix it all up, hoping to please everyone. His Market Scene (below), painted around 1560-65, is a delightful peek into the joyful pastime known as "shop till you drop." Aertsen's The Egg Dance (bottom), from 1552, is Dutch genre painting at its best. I'm not sure what egg dancing is, but it looks like fun.

Market Scene, 1560-65, Pieter Aertsen
The Egg Dance, 1552, Pieter Aertsen


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