Monday, December 4, 2017

More than Meets the Eye

The central piece of this exhibition—the piece that inspired the theme—is The Dissolute Household, a painting by Dutch artist Jan Steen. Upon first glance, this portrait may seem like an innocent, candid portrayal of the life of an average 17th century family. However, upon closer inspection, the viewer will realize that there are several things going on in the scene to be wary of. The dining room that the family is seated in is in complete disarray, complete with broken dishes, an overturned board game, and a cat eating the remains of the meal straight from the platter. Other things to pay attention to are the actions of the individual family members: the mother is so focused on her drink that she does not seem to notice her husband holding the hand of the maid, or her child harassing the sleeping woman who is probably his governess or his tutor.
Like The Dissolute Household, the other paintings in this exhibit are all portraits of two or more people. The portraits are all rendered in a naturalistic style, and they all seem to be harmless, mundane scenes. However, the unifying theme between all of these works is that they contain more than initially meets the eye. Through imagery and symbolism, each artist is actually expressing thematic material that is less than wholesome. The works in this exhibit bring fresh meaning to the old adage, “First impressions are not always what they seem.”

Artist: Jan Steen (Dutch, Leiden 1626–1679 Leiden)
The Dissolute Household
Date: ca. 1663–64
Medium: Oil on canvas
Accession Number: 1982.60.31

This scene is centered around a family seated in the dining room. While the painting may initially seem to be of a mundane family affair, viewers soon grasp the underlying chaos that is prevalent throughout the picture. There are shattered dishes, a broken instrument, and a book being trampled under the foot of the mother. In addition, each of the figures is involved in questionable behavior—the mother is completely focused on the drink on her hand, while the father is focused on the hand of the maid. One of the children is pestering the governess, while another is involved in a conversation with a man standing outside the window. Perhaps the most interesting element of the scene is the basket that hangs precariously above everyone’s heads, holding an assortment of items, including a sword.

Artist: Frans Hals (Dutch, Antwerp 1582/83–1666 Haarlem)
Young Man and Woman in an Inn (“Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart”)
Date: 1623
Medium: Oil on canvas
Accession Number: 14.40.602

This painting shows a young man accompanied by his “Sweetheart,” standing in the entrance to an inn. These two figures fill the majority of the frame, with another, less prominent figure standing in the background. In the lower right corner, the man’s hand is shown petting a dog. Rather than being a symbol of faithfulness and loyalty, in this context the dog implies more of an impulsive sort of love. This kind of infatuation is associated with the superficiality and carefree attitude of youth, a theme often used in the work of the artist and his contemporaries.

Artist: Gabriël Metsu (Dutch, Leiden 1629–1667 Amsterdam)
A Musical Party
Date: 1659
Medium: Oil on canvas
Accession Number: 91.26.11

In this painting, the central figures are the maiden in orange and blue and her male suitors. In addition, there is a maid bringing refreshments to the lady and her guests. The scene seems a bit disorganized, particularly because of details like the trunk overflowing with papers and the sword lying on the floor. However, if the viewer digs through the clutter a bit, some of the symbolism comes to the surface. The bound figure in the background represents bondage and slavery to carnal pleasure. The audience the work was intended for would have likely been entertained by this visual imagery.

Artist: Francis William Edmonds (American, Hudson, New York 1806–1863 Bronxville, New York)
The New Bonnet
Date: 1858
Medium: Oil on canvas
Accession Number: 1975.27.1

Judging by the plain clothes of the figures and the modest design of the home, this is likely a scene of lower- or middle-class family life. The young woman in the center of the frame is showing off her new accessory, while the older couple on the right—probably her parents—and the young delivery girl on the left appear to be less than thrilled at the idea of the woman’s new bonnet. Although this painting came from a slightly later setting than the other works in this exhibit, the artist was impacted by 17th century Dutch painters like the ones featured in this exhibition. The actions and expressions of the figures give the work a didactic tone. The frivolous spending of the daughter is contrasted with the faults of her parents: drunkenness and vanity, represented by the father’s bottle and the mother’s mirror, respectively.

Artist: Frans Hals (Dutch, Antwerp 1582/83–1666 Haarlem)
Merrymakers at Shrovetide
Date: ca. 1616–17
Medium: Oil on canvas
Accession Number: 14.40.605

This work contains a crowded scene full of jovial faces. In the foreground is a table containing a variety of food and drink, and directly behind the table is pictured a young girl and two men who seem to be positioned especially close to her. The rest of the figures which make up the background seem to be shouting, laughing, and generally having a good time. The occasion being shown in the picture is Shrovetide (or Mardi Gras), a festival occurring before Lent and centered around food and immoral behavior. The gesture of the man on the right, along with other visual cues, form a string of sexual innuendos.

Artist: Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, Tournus 1725–1805 Paris)
Broken Eggs
Date: 1756
Medium: Oil on canvas
Accession Number: 20.155.8

The scene portrayed here is of an unhappy young woman who is upset because she has apparently just dropped her basket of eggs. She is accompanied by an older woman, a young man, and a child, all of whom seem to have disapproving expressions. The older woman is even pointing at the mess of broken eggs contemptuously. Although this appears at first to be a mundane scene of family life, the broken eggs represent the loss of the girl’s virginity. This is emphasized by the poses of the other figures.

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