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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Dutch Mona Lisa: Portrait of Isabella Brant

There's a distinct quality to Dutch/Flemish portrait painting from the epoch of the late 1500s and the mid to late part of the 1600s that is familiar and easy to recognize.  This premise is (as a basic statement) obvious enough, while the complexity behind it often remains hidden in the fear of being overly elemental.  I remember years ago being sort of look down upon by colleagues when confessing my love for J.S. Bach, or (apparently a worse admission) W.A. Mozart.  Back in those days, the composer du jour was Gustav Mahler, and to speak of anything besides Mahler's "sweeping harmonies" or (what I consider an even more over-used cliche) "haunting melodies" was academic sin.  The same, I think, applies to visual art.  There are names that come and go in vogue according to the intellectual tides; I suppose that's a normal enough pendulum swinging process.  What I find rather tragic is how the academic pendulum swings one way or the other often relegating certain names to obscurity or oblivion.  While I don't consider Peter Paul Rubens to be in the "forgotten category," I do fear that this inclusive/exclusive process (whether real or imagined) can do more harm than good to artists like Rubens.

The portrait of Isabella Brant, Rubens young wife, sits at the Cleveland Museum of Art among portraits of better known figures.  What the portrait reveals is an intimate look into a marriage that is known to have been as happy as it was tragically short.  At the time of the painting, Rubens and his wife Isabella had four children.  Much like the better known "Mona Lisa," Rubens masterpiece depicts a knowing smile, a confident and serene intimacy that draws the viewer in to the precise moment when that intimacy is created and known to both artist and model.  The character of Isabella Brant is opposite to that of da Vinci's insomuch as it carries with it a different angle; that is to say, we are made intimate to a much less complex moment, less charged with exterior interpretation.  Isabella Brant's smile and responsive look conveys a matronly acknowledgement, as opposed to a sexually-charged codified gesture.  The Cleveland Museum of Art suggests that "[t]he informal, sketchlike character of the present portrait suggests that Rubens painted it for his own enjoyment.  The picture was enlarged only later, by van Dyck, to a more conventional format, allowing space for Isabella's right hand."  I don't know about van Dyck's addition but I have read some about Rubens' other portraits of his wife but I have not yet had an opportunity to study them.

The theory that academic circles sway with trends and tastes is one that I have strong opinions about.  I apologize ahead of time for those who feel the statements made here offend.  It is difficult to understand why academia functions in such manner.  I can only assume that this is so due to the strong opinions of academics and the often conflict-generating nature of the discourse.  There are times when I feel intensely grateful to be out of there.

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