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Essay Review of National Portrait Gallery exhibition, Elizabethan Treasures: Hilliard and Oliver; and of Elizabeth Goldring's Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist. The published version had slight changes to PDF.
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  20 TLS  MARCH 29 2019 James Hall on Hilliard I n an era of Facebook and dating apps,Elizabethan portrait miniatures shouldstrike a chord. From the 1580s, rather thanbeing kept in cabinets at home, miniatureswere increasingly encased in jewelled settingswith lids, then fastened to clothing or chained;they were semi-public testaments to fealty andlove, peeked at, cradled, kissed, shared,flaunted. The Virgin Queen was the hub of theexchange of miniatures, benefacting her ownportrait to favoured courtiers (without jewelledsetting), and receiving theirs in return (with jewelled setting). Or in the case of a jewelledportrait of Robert Cecil worn by his niece, jeal-ously snatching it from her as she hesitated toshow it, then tying it to the reginal shoe andfinally pinning it to the reginal elbow. WhenCecil, her Secretary of State, heard about it hedeftly detoxified the situation by writing a songwhich was performed at court. The lyricsexplained that the “Angellike queene” had notmeant to “skorne her servaunt, and to disgracehim”; rather her actions showed that he “toserve her at her elbowe doth ever love to bee”,and “even at her foote to dye”.Despite the potential topicality of miniatures(and the sexy beards), it’s hard to imagine themever trending. Catharine MacLeod, the curatorof  Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hill-iard and Oliver  , laments that while Elizabethanand Jacobean literature remains popular, “min-iature painting has all but disappeared fromview”. There are practical and ideological rea-sons for the eclipse. Pictures not much biggerthan a watch face, painted in the fugitivemedium of watercolour, are hard to display andview in public museums (the National Galleryand Tate Britain own a grand total of zero). Atthe National Portrait Gallery, big cumbersomemagnifying glasses are supplied on request.Size matters in other prejudicial ways. KennethClark of Civilisation  could not consider Will-iam Blake a great artist because of the ‘insignif-icant’ scale on which he worked – more akin toilluminated manuscripts – so there is scanthope for nano-portraits with a 40-something-millimetre diameter. Even MacLeod’s exhibition, despite itsmanifold seductions and fascinations, has aslightly apologetic feel. The ninety-one exhib-its have been crammed into the smaller of theNPG’s temporary exhibition galleries, and thisnumber of works is less than half that of theV&A’s 1947 exhibition also devoted to Hill-iard and his star pupil Isaac Oliver. The cata-logue – like Elizabeth Goldring’s meticulousbiography – is lavishly illustrated, but almostentirely with hugely magnified images, and novisual indication of actual size. The title word“Treasures” makes us think of bullion andbling rather than scintillating pictorial intelli-gence. Still, for the patient viewer with sharpeyesight and sharper elbows, there’s no escap-ing it: Nicholas Hilliard ( c .1547–1619) is oneof the great portrait painters, by turns mesmer-izing, penetrating and extravagantly inventive.The term miniature derives from the Latinverb “miniare” meaning to “illuminate a docu-trait was done in the knowledge that Hilliardwas on hand to make repairs, or a replacement.With most other miniature portraits, whe-ther by Levina Teerlinck (Hilliard’s mediocrepredecessor at court) or the French court mini-aturist François Clouet, you feel that you arelooking at a shrunken, cut-price panel portrait.Even Isaac Oliver’s are mostly pastiche Italo-Flemish, their shaded naturalism compro-mised by enervating, indiscriminate sfumato (see the portrait of John Donne). There’s noslackness, redundancy or lumpiness in Hill-iard: even the hatched detail is tautly rhythmi-cal. There’s an impassioned precision abouthis shape and pattern-making. His genius is toput flat portrait, gold calligraphic inscription,and curved 3-D frame in dynamic symbioticrelationship (sadly, none of the surviving Eliz-abethan portraits with spectacular settings isdisplayed, but the Heneage Jewel can be seenat the V&A). Costume jewellery and lace ruffsare painted three-dimensionally, with blobs of body colour and stained resin, silver base col-ours and highlights, now alas oxidized. Therippling flames in “Young Man against aBackground of Flames” ( c .1600) are high-lighted with powdered gold which catches thelight. This is a kind of Op portraiture, where thesitter is simultaneously shiny bobbly embodi-ment and brooding linear essence.If van Dyck is forever associated with shim-mering silks, and Manet with black jackets,then Hilliard is master of the white lace neck ruff. These state-of-the-art accessories, keptcantilevered by starch, are major   dramatis per-sonae. They are in perpetual dialogue with thecircular and oval frames, the latter adoptedafter his stay in France in 1576–8 where theywere used by the blandly Van Eyckian Clouet.Even more importantly, in France he wouldhave seen plenty of oval faced madonnas byRaphael, the great orchestrator of curved con-tours and foreshortened haloes. The fresh-faced head of the young Francis Bacon,painted in Paris when he and Hilliard were inthe entourage of the English Ambassador, risesto the top of the oval, afloat on an inflated raftof ruff. It’s an Assumption of the Virgin Intel-lect, and as such, the image refutes the insuffer-able Latin inscription: “If a worthy portraitwere granted, I would prefer the mind”. In France, these mega-ruffs were nick-named  plateau de Saint-Jean , because the mise en scène  resembled “the head of John thebaptist on a plate”. This also made them – butonly in Hilliard’s expert manipulative hands –perfect emblems of the male lover’s tormentand sacrifice. A sultrily melancholic head is“served up” on a large plateau in Hilliard’s vir-tually bodiless “Sir Walter Raleigh” ( c .1585),and – to audible gasps – in a portrait of an“Unknown Man” (1616), where his standingcollar resembles the blade of an executioner’saxe, seemingly self-operated since his handally placed in a lidded box of turned ebony orivory. Collectors in Venice had long been dis-membering illuminated manuscripts, framingthe pages as pictures; this practice was only tooeasy to follow after the dissolution of the mon-asteries, and ran parallel with the vogue forvellum portraits. Both Hilliard and Olivermade page-sized vellum portraits in the 1590sfor wall display.Hilliard was born into a staunchly Protestantfamily of goldsmiths in Exeter, and his fatherapprenticed him to the royal goldsmith RobertBrandon in Cheapside, London, where therewere fifty-two goldsmith shops (Goldring, inan absorbing discussion of his apprenticeship,reproduces contemporary depictions of thestreet). No one knows who taught him paint-ing, or why he learned, but Brandon may havewanted to offer clients a package of portrait and jewelled setting. By the 1570s Hilliard was anindependent goldsmith, and in great demand asa miniaturist, especially by the Queen, whose jewel-encrusted image he created and nur-tured. The earliest documented royal portraitwas painted in July 1571 to be sent to theFrench Queen Mother, Catherine de Médicis, avisual aid to successive courtships of her twosons. Hilliard also produced near life size panelportraits in oil, with the same face pattern end-lessly reused, and made medals, sealsand prints. He never fell fromfavour or fashion, butdue to expensivetastes, poorinvestments(notably aScottishgold-minethatwasnational-ized), andthe Queen’sreluctance to pay,was always beingchased by creditors. Herbrutal treatment of Cecil’s por-ment” or “to decorate with red lead”. So srci-nally it had nothing to do with size, but themeaning came to change. Goldring creditsHilliard’s patron Sir Philip Sidney with thefirst recorded use of the term. Circular portraitsmodelled on antique coin profiles had beenpainted into manuscripts from the fourteenthcentury onwards, but it is in sixteenth-centuryFrance and England that independent minia-tures painted on vellum stiffened with a cardbacking proliferated, becoming cen-tral to courtship and kinshiprituals. The mediumwas transparent andopaque water-colour, with agum binder. Super-fine brushes madefrom squirrel orermine furenabled individ-ual hairs and eye-lashes to be painted.Completed portraits were usu- JAMES HALL ELIZABETHAN TREASURESMiniatures by Hilliard and OliverNational Portrait Gallery, until May 19 Catharine MacLeod et al ELIZABETHAN TREASURESMiniatures by Hilliard and Oliver232pp. National Portrait Gallery. £35.978 1 85514 702 7 Elizabeth Goldring NICHOLAS HILLIARDLife of an artist352pp. Yale University Press. £40 (US $55).978 0 300 24142 6  ARTS 21 TLS  MARCH 29 2019 CLAUDIA SWAN orous young Marten Soolmans and his wifeOopjen Coppit represent the sorts of burgherswho could afford to buy art, and the way theywere painted reflects their unabashed interestin material goods. (These pendant portraitswere purchased jointly by the Dutch andFrench states, and shuttle back and forthbetween the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre ona regular schedule.) The bobbin lace collarsthey wear were all the rage at the time thepaintings were made (1634); the rosettes onMarten’s shoes are truly extravagant, as arehis garters, woven with silver thread; Oopjenseems to be wearing at least a surplus yard of black damask and sports a painted beautymark on her temple. The commission for the“Nightwatch”, a fantastically lively groupportrait of members of an Amsterdam civic B anners throughout the city of Amster-dam hold out the promise of  All the Rembrandts , an exhibition mountedby the Rijksmuseum to commemorate the350th anniversary of the Dutch artist’s deathin 1669. The Rijksmuseum (NationalMuseum) competes statistically, if not strate-gically, with its immediate neighbour in theheart of Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum,for bringing in the most visitors annually.Last year more than 2.2 million people passedthrough the doors of each of these signal insti-tutions. Is the offer of “all the Rembrandts”mere show business, intended to lure yetmore visitors to the Rijksmuseum? Like his nineteenth-century compatriot,Rembrandt is a much-loved, widely marketedembodiment of what it means to be an artist,Dutch or not. In their own times and ways,each aimed high; we hold them in the esteemthey desired. Both signed their works withtheir Christian names; Van Gogh may havehad Rembrandt in mind when he signed hispaintings “Vincent”, and Rembrandt droppedhis surname in emulation of the great ItalianRenaissance masters Leonardo, Raphael,Michelangelo. Both are celebrated as ingen-ious, soul-searching artists whose uncompro-mising vision went hand-in-hand with all toohuman suffering. (Rembrandt died a naturaldeath at the age of sixty-three, but in povertyand relative disfavour.) The exhibition andthe biography published in conjunction withit in lieu of a catalogue,  Rembrandt: Bio-graphy of a rebel , by the senior research cura-tor at the Rijksmuseum, Jonathan Bikker,emphasize that the Golden Age master was arevolutionary, a provocateur – and an ordi-nary person. Steering clear of interpretation, let alone alegible thesis about the works on display ortheir interrelationships, what  All the Rem-brandts lacks in curatorial muscle it compen-sates for in scope, showcasing, indeed, all theRembrandts in the collection of the Rijksmu-seum: twenty-two paintings; sixty drawings;and over 300 prints (of the 1,200 in the collec-tion overall). What makes an impressionwhen viewed with other works of art of theirera, is how distinct they are from the work of his contemporaries. Particularly in the com-pany of others, Rembrandt’s painted figuresgaze out of their frames with a special gravity,inviting our engagement. Born in 1606 to the daughter of a well-to-dobaker and a prosperous miller in Leiden,Rembrandt established himself in the cos-mopolis of Amsterdam, where he lived out hisdays, to around 1631. Over the course of hisfirst decade here, he enjoyed notable successas a portrait painter, the rising merchant classfinding affirmation of its wealth and standingin the portraits it commissioned from him.Two of his ritziest sitters are present in theshow: portrayed full-length, super-sized, anddecked out in extraordinary finery, the glam- C Swan on Rembrandtin Amsterdam Standfirst sitters, the portrait painterhas to be equally amo-rous and to feel thesame feelingsas theadmirersforwhom hepaintsthe por-traits. Yethow can thepainter – who hasto stare intently forhours on end, observingthose “lovely graces, witty smil-ings, and those stolen glances which suddenlylike lightning pass” – do his job without “blast-ing his young and simple heart”? Hilliard doesnot give an answer, but lurking in the back-ground is the story of Apelles and Campaspe.According to Castiglione, Alexander the Greathanded his mistress over to his court painterbecause he could see that, by virtue of being anartist, he had a deeper appreciation of herbeauty. For Hilliard, the miniature gives birthto a new kind of artist, who enjoys unprece-dented intimacy with sitters, and whose squir-rel-hair brush caresses the sitter into existence.This new model artist lies behind Bassanio’salarm at seeing the lovely portrait miniature of Portia in The Merchant of Venice : “Here in herhairs / The painter plays the spider”. The NPG catalogue is a succinct introduc-tion to its subject, with an excellent essay onpainting technique. Goldring’s biography is amilestone in Hilliard studies. She distils thelarge quantity of recent scholarship and addsideas of her own, many derived from scouringarchives, especially that of the Goldsmith’sCompany. Her first book was a biography of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was akey patron and mentor of Hilliard, and she isadept at untangling circles of patronage, poli-tics and religion. The account of Hilliard’schildhood in Exeter and peregrinations(1555–9) round Protestant Europe in theentourage of John Bodley, who was escapingthe Marian persecutions, is especially interest-ing. Her striving for documentary complete-ness may sometimes tire the uninitiated,however; she also takes it as a given that Hill-iard is an artist whose reputation has alwaysbeen secure, and she could have done more topersuade us of his artistic virtues. What’sneeded now is for the National Gallery toshowcase some borrowed Hilliards in one of the intimate cabinet galleries more usuallyreserved for Piero della Francesca or Dutchflower paintings.pulls the collar’s strings.Hilliard appreciatesthat on multiplelevels the min-iature por-trait putsthe sit-ter atthe recipi-ent’s mercy, “even at hereye/hande/foote to dye”. In femaleportraits, above all thesublime homage to his pregnantwife Alice (1578), the ruff can appear thick and foamy, her radiant white face and goldenhair bobbing on it like Venus rising from thesea. The tendrils of the gold circumambientinscription further animate these heads, like anexternalized nervous system.This brings us to Hilliard’s eroticism, and tohis treatise on art, The Arte of Limning ( c .1600), which is rarely given its due. It is notonly the first treatise to be written by anEnglish artist, it is the first anywhere to makeerotic engagement between painter and sittercentral to the art-making experience. It is botha conduct book and a technical treatise. Theideal artist needs “true gentility” so he does“not offend their royal presence”. Personalhygiene is vital – and horribly expensive. Thepainter should wear silk, “such as sheddethleast dust or hairs”, and not have dandruff. Heshould neither touch nor breathe on his work,or leave the “least sparkling of spittle”. Hill-iard recommends “discreet talk or reading,quiet mirth or music” to “shorten the time andquicken the spirit” of both painter and sitter. Sofar, so Italian Renaissance.But then Hilliard moves into more treacher-ous nationalist waters. The English are themost beautiful people in the world, “not for theface only, but every part; for even the hand andfoot excelleth all pictures that yet I ever saw.This moved a certain Pope [Gregory the Great]to say that England was rightly called Anglia,of angeli, as the country of angels: God grantit”. This was a longstanding delusion: Erasmushad mocked the self-love which leads theEnglish to believe they are the most beautifulnation. Hence also Cecil’s praise of his“Angellike” near-septuagenarian queen. But for Hilliard not only are the English themost beautiful, they are the most amorous andexpert in the arts of love. This is problematicbecause, in his quest to raise the status of the art-ist, Hilliard believed that (Horatian) empathy isvital for the artist. In order to do justice to these ALL THE REMBRANDTSRijksmuseum, Amsterdam, until June 10 Jonathan Bikker REMBRANDTBiography of a Rebel220pp. Nai010. 25 euros.978 9462084759  22 ARTS TLS  MARCH 29 2019 militia guild for which Rembrandt was verywell paid, was an affirmation of his standing– even if his career took a turn for the insularin subsequent decades. It was in Amsterdamthat Rembrandt scoured the auction housesand sales for the works of art, East Indianobjects and other curiosities he kept in his kunstcaemer   or art room, and on its bustlingstreets that he found the subject matter out of which he made such pictures as the etching of an old woman baking pancakes for a motleycrew of all ages (1635). In Amsterdam, hebefriended prominent members of the various(Mennonite, Remonstrant, Jewish, Catholic)religious communities he portrayed andpainted his group portraits of members of civic guilds. To all intents and purposes,Amsterdam is the city of Rembrandt.But the Rijksmuseum does not own all theRembrandts. (Other collections with roughlyas many paintings attributed to Rembrandtare the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin; theNational Gallery in London; and the Metro-politan Museum of Art in New York.) Nor arethe paintings in  All the Rembrandts represent-ative of the entirety of his oeuvre. A variety of classificatory schemes – chro-nology, for one – could structure the wealth of works on display, but the museum has electedfor thematic organization: the family, theatre,the world beyond the home, biblical subjectmatter. “Selfies”, the theme of the initial gal-lery, offers a “relatable” rubric with abso-lutely no historical traction. Roughly thirtyetched, drawn, and painted self-portraits arepresented in a chronological vacuum: we tog-gle between the shaggy-haired, beardless boytesting his mettle in the c.1628 panel and theenigmatic “Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul”of 1661 while at the same time directing ourattention to the small self-portraits etched anddrawn on paper. (The Director of theRijksmuseum Taco Dibbits described Rem-brandt as “the first Instagrammer”.) Giventhe range of facial expressions Rembrandtcaptured and studied for use in narrative com-positions, what do we overlook when we seethem as pictorial records of the man? Else-where in the exhibition, we encounter Rem-brandt’s signed etching “Beggar Seated on aBank” (1630), a wry work whose identifica-tion as a self-portrait hung in the balance forcenturies. The fact that several of his etchedself-portraits are signed begs the question: inwhat measure is our conception of a selfiepertinent to seventeenth-century practicesand conceptions of the artist?What distinguishes  All the Rembrandts isthe number of graphic works on display. Thatit consists of over ten sizable galleries dis-playing hundreds of small-scale works onpaper may come as a surprise to visitorsattracted by the promise of an overview. Itoffers a unique – if exhausting – opportunityto view almost every known print, in impres-of drypoint, using the etching needle directlyon the plate, and etching widely throughout,in addition to sulphur tinting for effect. Usinga similar combination of techniques fiveyears later, Rembrandt produced what isarguably his most famous print, “Christ Heal-ing the Sick”, also known as “The HundredGuilder Print” (c.1648). An exceptional com-pilation of narrative elements – he tells virtu-ally the entire story of Matthew 19 in a singlescene, allocating disparate episodes to vari-ous figures – is matched by the range of linearand tonal effects. Here and elsewhere in hisprints, the effect of chiaroscuro is stunning: inhis secular imagery, almost the entire surfaceis darkened, but for the face of a contempla-tive figure or a brilliant light source, whereashere the figure of Christ is the light, and heilluminates all of the forms before him. Given Rembrandt’s exceptional facilitywith the materials of art, there is alwayssomething to wonder at; this is no less true of his painted works. In the 1628 “Self-Por-trait”, the 1661 “Self-Portrait as Paul”, andthe “Jewish Bride” (c.1665) direct traces of his characteristically varied application of paint are preserved: he used the back of thepaint brush, a palette knife, and even in somecases his fingers to manipulate wet oil paint.The eighteenth-century critic Arnold Houb-raken mocked the artist for laying paint onwith a trowel, and for using such heavyimpasto that it was possible to pick one por-trait up by the nose. The banners hung around town to advertise  All the Rembrandts reproduce etched self-portraits in vivid blue ink, a close shade to thatwhich also colours walls of many of the gal-leries: Irma Boom, the designer of the exhibi-tion and the book,  Biography of a Rebel ,determined that if Rembrandt were alivetoday, he would scratch out self-portraits andscenes of everyday life in blue Bic ballpointpen, everyman’s tool. As an alternative to themuddy brown of the iron gall ink he used toprint his etchings and in his drawings, the blueis appealing; but the fallacy of recreating howRembrandt would work today is an ahistori-cal stretch. In many of his drawings, he cut hisquill pen wide and rough, and the bold lines of ink are irregular – an effect he sought in hisprints by turning to drypoint. The impositionof design imperatives is particularly unfortu-nate in the book itself, printed on a variety of rough, recycled papers so dark the text isbarely legible. Fortunately, it contains sepa-rate signatures containing superb reproduc-tions, including works by Rembrandt housedin other collections. In a gratuitous gesture of speculationaimed at making Rembrandt relevant, Bik-ker’s biography opens by imagining Rem-brandt coming back to life today . . . andsupposes that he would head straight for theRijksmuseum to see his own work. Would henot have been astonished (or dismayed) bythe asynchronous display? Would he havewondered why his works are not viewedalongside those of the Italian Renaissancemasters he emulated, or the contemporarieshe vied with for fame? Might he dismiss someof the works as not autograph, and correct theimpression that he worked alone and in isola-tion? There are twenty or so shows plannedfor this anniversary year in the Netherlands;perhaps one of these will give us more atten-tive, informative consideration of who orwhat makes a Rembrandt.sions selected carefully from among themuch larger collection of multiples in themuseum, alongside a healthy assortment of his drawings. Rembrandt has long beenrecognized as an experimental printmaker,whose favoured technique was etching – onecopper plate is on view, to illustrate the multi-step process. (Although the print itself hangsfour or so galleries away.) For the breathtak-ing agility of his etched line in the productionof tonal variety, the freedom with which hewielded the needle, the bold use of wideexpanses of unprinted paper as negativespace, unblemished sky, or even the forms of the female body, and his bold use of drypoint,Rembrandt is widely acclaimed. Theseaspects of his art are accessible and virtuosicat once, and in this regard the exhibition is anembarrassment of riches. Rembrandt’s printed biblical compositions– the summa of a life’s work as an aspiringhistory painter – “The Three Crosses” (1653),a magisterial meditation on the death of Christ, and “Ecce Homo” (1655), a grand tab-leau inspired by his fellow Leidenaar and six-teenth-century predecessor Lucas vanLeyden, both in drypoint only, are on view intwo stages each in the final galleries. Whatshines through is Rembrandt’s deep engage-ment with printed images – not as vehicles of finished compositions, but as a vital terrainfor picture-making: he changed compositionsby burnishing and polishing plates and re-in-cising them; a number of prints contain par-tial sketches of figures; there are as manypostage-size prints as there are folio-size. One of Rembrandt’s most beloved printsdates to the year after Saskia’s death and thecompletion of the “Nightwatch”: “The ThreeTrees” (1643) offers a composite, panoramicview of the wide expanse of pasture outsideAmsterdam as a mid-summer stormapproaches – or dissipates. Three dense,wind-tossed trees stand on a shrub-covereddyke at the right; barely visible figures of acouple are hidden in the undergrowth. Scat-tered human figures, cows, horses, a wagon,a mill: quotidian rural detail under a turbu-lent, shape-shifting sky. To describe the com-plex weather conditions, Rembrandtmustered all the techniques at his disposal:this print combines the strict patterns of anengraving burin in the diagonal curtain of lines at the upper left, the velvety effect (burr)
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