Michael Bergeron
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Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael

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What: Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638).

Where: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. November 1, 2015 through January 31, 2016.

Why: Wtewael, pronounced “Ooh te vaal” was a premiere artist in Utrecht at the turn of the 17th century. Another Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, who followed in Wtewael’s footsteps decades later, has overcome Wtewael’s reputation. Both Vermeer and Wtewael were successful in other fields, in Wtewael’s case a prosperous flax merchant, and they created art as a hobby, perhaps an escape from their position and wealth.

Wtewael was a Calvinist yet painted by commission for Catholic and Protestant clients regardless of his personal beliefs. One example, a depiction of Christian martyr Sebastian just astonishes the viewer with its suggested sexual imagery.

Joachim Wtewael, Netherlandish, 1566–1638, Perseus and Andromeda , 1611, Oil on canvas, Canvas or panel: 70 7/8 x 59 1/16 in. (180 x 150 cm)Frame (outer): 82 5/16 x 70 1/16 in. (209 x 178 cm), Musée du Louvre, Paris, France, EX.2015.JW.12.2,

Joachim Wtewael, Netherlandish, 1566–1638, Perseus and Andromeda , 1611, Oil on canvas, Canvas or panel: 70 7/8 x 59 1/16 in. (180 x 150 cm)Frame (outer): 82 5/16 x 70 1/16 in. (209 x 178 cm), Musée du Louvre, Paris, France, EX.2015.JW.12.2,

While Wtewael worked in large canvas formats the exhibit also has a section devoted to paintings Wtewael did on small copper plates. A vision of the Garden of Eden with man, woman, snake and a bevy of animals including unicorns is about the size of an iPad, yet the painstaking detail astounds with its clarity. This part of the show has an iPad interactive device that utilizes hands-on examination of the works of art on display. This lets you blow up the image of, say, the small copper plates, and allows you to see the excruciating detail at which Wtewael worked his magic.

There are perhaps 100 extant works by Wtewael and this exhibit has about three-dozen items on display. The galleries are divided into three section that reflect portraits, religious themed, and mythical themed paintings.

Another interactive offering has a comparison of two similar paintings Wtewael completed titled “The Annunciation to the Shepherds.” Two different versions exist, one possessed by the MFAH’s own Blaffer Foundation and the Dutch Rijksmuseum, and they are displayed side by side. Nearby a large screen video display depicts the subtle differences in composition and color between the two seemingly identical works of art.

It seems infrared reflectography and X-ray analysis allows penetration of previous layers of paint and shows the progression of Wtewael’s ideas. In one painting Wtewael uses blue cloaks and in the other he uses red. Maybe a hat has textured detail in one version not evident in the other.

Joachim Wtewael, Netherlandish, 1566–1638, Self-Portrait , 1601, Oil on panel, Canvas or panel: 38 9/16 x 29 in. (98 x 73.6 cm)Frame (outer): 45 11/16 x 36 1/4 in. (116 x 92 cm), Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands, EX.2015.JW.14.5,

Joachim Wtewael, Netherlandish, 1566–1638, Self-Portrait , 1601, Oil on panel, Canvas or panel: 38 9/16 x 29 in. (98 x 73.6 cm)Frame (outer): 45 11/16 x 36 1/4 in. (116 x 92 cm), Centraal Museum, Utrecht, Netherlands, EX.2015.JW.14.5,

Wtewael displays virtuoso art skills in his use of color and the spectacle of the scene. Wtewael served on the Utrecht city council. He was a mover and shaker. Any yet after walking through this exhibit I can’t help but think that Wtewael was a visionary who found the best vent for his ideas in the seclusion of artistic expression.

The first gallery has Wtewael with a self-portrait and his wife’s portrait framing the entrance to the second gallery. If you look closely you see Wtewael and his wife have multiple pinky rings on their fingers. Also, Wtewael is holding a paintbrush tipped in red. On his wife’s painting there is a swath of red. Detail is the code word.

As you progress into the second and third gallery you witness an attention to history, detail and color, both on a scales large and small, which takes on significant meaning.

Wtewael’s imagery takes in sexual explicit subtext while at the same time covering the borders of symmetry. Aphrodite takes equal stage with Lot and his daughters.

— Michael Bergeron