Updated: Feb 22, 2021
Once a week we take a painting, or piece of sculpture, that interests us, tell you a bit about it and hope it sparks something with you and your families. We would love to hear of any recommendations.
When we are allowed to travel again, we can't recommend Amsterdam as a family city break enough. Any trip there will include a visit to the Rijksmuseum and, rather than feel overwhelmed, head straight to the Gallery of Honour. The focal point of this corridor is the The Night Watch by Rembrandt but in the alcoves there are masterpieces by the great artists of the seventeenth century which include Pieter de Hooch's wonderful maternal scene.
A Mother's Duty by Pieter de Hooch
c.1660, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684) is an example of Dutch Golden Age painter. He is best known for
his pictures of domestic life of women and children.
If you could take a peek into a seventeenth century Dutch home you might encounter a scene like this one. With great concentration, a mother is delousing her child's hair in a simple Dutch interior, with Delft blue tiles, a box bed ('bedstede') and – on the right – a potty chair ('Kakstoel'). A dog sits on the tiled floor looking towards an open window in the adjacent room. Over the door hangs a small landscape painting.
We can see a backdoor and beyond it a garden. Such glimpses from one space to another ('through-views') are characteristic of De Hooch's work. So also is light painted in a wealth of gradations. The light falls through the right hand window onto the woman – is reflected by the white cushions in the box bed and gleams on the brass bed warmer next to it. Even the tiles are lit differently from the front to the back.
De Hooch never painted large historical scenes but often his intimate domestic scenes include a hidden message. Here the act of combing is a reference to the cleansing of the the soul – also one of a mother's duties!
Anya Waddington 22 February 2021
Shrove Tuesday is tomorrow and so it seems appropriate to take a look at Brueghel's brilliantly detailed masterpiece. Every time we look at it we see something new.
The Fight Between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Brueghel the Elder
1559, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Pieter Breughel the Elder (1525-1530) is considered the most significant artist of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting. He is particularly well-known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. The Fight Between Carnival and Lent was composed in Antwerp in 1559 at the height of the Protestant Reformation.
What can we see?
A busy town square filled with crowds of people dressed in late Medieval costume. To the left there’s a tavern hosting a festive parade; to the right a church with a line of sombre worshippers. In the foreground there is a mock battle between a fat man with a pork pie on his head and a lanky, gaunt figure dressed as a nun on a modest wooden chair. The fat man wields a long skewer with pieces of roast meat on it, the thin woman a long paddle with two small fish on the end. The Figures are dressed up to embody Carnival and Lent.
The painting juxtaposes Carnival (Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday) with all its indulgence and pleasure, and Lent (beginning on Ash Wednesday) a period of deprivation marked by abstinence and fasting.
On the Lent side (right) – there are people dressed in ordinary clothes who are carrying pretzels and bread and there are plenty of fish (food you are permitted to eat in Lent). Amongst numerous details on the Lent side you can spot a woman cleaning windows – careful days – one might say –rather than negligent ones.
On the Carnival side (left) – there are plenty of waffles, pancakes and sausages (meat). The figures are dressed up in fancy costumes and masks and are shown indulging and behaving badly (spot the man vomiting from a window).
There are nearly 200 people in this riotous picture and it is an allegorical delight, rich with symbolism. Have a look at some of the extraordinary details while eating your pancakes and possibly considering what you are going to give up for Lent.
Anya Waddington 15 February 2021
The Laverne Family at Breakfast by Jean-Etienne Liotard
1754, National Gallery, London
It is breakfast time, and an elegantly dressed woman watches a little girl dip her biscuit into a full-to-the-brim cup of milky coffee or maybe chocolate? Both coffee and chocolate were expensive luxuries in the eighteenth century often served at breakfast so it is appropriate that they are being served from finest porcelain and silverware. Although there is little in the background, this, the fashionable high-backed cane chairs and the clothing suggest they are well-off.
Liotard referred to the pair as mother and daughter and has captured this tender moment beautifully. It is early morning and so the little girl is wearing paper curlers and the concentration and hint of a smile on the little girls face is – we think – heartwarming. Liotard's uses wet pastels to create texture and the lavish attention on the still-life elements is remarkable. Look at the dull silver pot with its wooden handle, the ceramic milk jug, the detailed delicate pattern on the Chinese porcelain that are all reflected on the lacquer tray. The sheet music that is poking out from the drawer even has a minute signature and date on it.
The Lavergne Family Breakfast has long been considered Liotard's masterpiece and when the National Gallery opens its doors again you can visit the picture In the main collection.
Anya Waddington 6 February 2021