A forgotten artist: de Lairesse at the Rijksmuseum Twenthe

The Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede, the Netherlands, excels in exhibitions which introduce its visitors to interesting but often lesser known artists. Its exhibition on Roslin was a fabulous one and remains one of my favourites. Now this museum hosts an exhibition on a totally forgotten artist.

Unless you are a specialist, you can hardly be familiar with Gerard de Lairesse. After visiting the exhibition, sprawling over several museum rooms, I can reveal he was a contemporary and rival of Rembrandt van Rijn and other famous painters of the Dutch Golden Age. There is one simple reason we are no longer familiar with his name and works: de Lairesse was written out of the canon of Dutch Golden Age art during the 19th century. His style was not deemed Dutch enough and worse … there is his face …

Rembrandt's portrait of Gerard de Lairesse

Rembrandt’s portrait of Gerard de Lairesse

Like me, you may be flabbergasted: what has a face to do with knowing how to paint, draw, etch and create fabulous art? In the exhibition’s first room, there are two pictures of Gerard de Lairesse. Admitted: his self-portrait shows there is something wrong with his face. Rembrandt’s portrait shows it even more clearly.

De Lairesse was marked by congenital syphilis. This was of course totally not his fault and certainly did not influence his great abilities and talents as an artist. Yet, in the exhibition, one can read several quotations from such lights as a 19th or early 20th century director of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum about de Lairesse’s marked face … which obviously shows what a nasty character he must have been … which in turn is apparently a good excuse to forget all about the man’s talents, success, importance and art.

De Lairesse was certainly no saint. Born in Liège, he had to leave in a hurry when he got into a fight after breaking a promise to marry someone. He ended up in Amsterdam. There, Gerrit van Uylenburgh, an art dealer and related to Rembrandt through Rembrandt’s wife Saskia, discovered de Lairesse. De Lairesse soon struck out for himself.

The first few works in this exhibition already show how different de Lairesse’s style of painting is from Rembrandt’s. The paintings are smooth. De Lairesse had outspoken ideas and his ideal of beauty was based on idealised classicism. His style was favoured by the Amsterdam elite and his patrons even included William III and Mary Stuart.

You now probably think, de Lairesse had totally made it and died rich. In 1690, he suddenly became blind. Undaunted and like Milton, he dictated works about painting and his theories to his children. Some of these books remained important works till the 19th century. Nevertheless, like Rembrandt, Gerard de Lairesse died totally impoverished.

All this is told in this exhibition’s first room. Here are also the early works with catholic themes, though some already show classical palaces, arches, statues. Further into this exhibition, there are portraits of Amsterdam burghers portrayed like Roman and Greek heroes and heroines. Towards the end of the exhibition, there are exquisite scenes from Roman or Greek history like Anthony and Cleopatra at a banquet.

It is not just a brilliant rendering of golds and silks or an eye for details, including the right arms and helmets, which impress De Lairesse also took into account where his painting or paintings would be hung. There is the beautiful painting which once hung in Mary Stuart’s bedroom. The light of the moon illuminates Semele or Diana from above, but light from below shines on Endymion too. For this painting hung above a fire-place, where flames would cause light to illuminate it from below.

De Lairesse also created scenes for the Amsterdam theatre, illustrated a book on anatomy, and painted grisailles imitating marble for various Amsterdam canal houses. The room full of these larger than life paintings depicting statues is simply stunning.

Part of a de Lairesse grisaille

Part of a de Lairesse grisaille

The same can be said about the two huge organ shutters which can be found in the same room as the Endymion painting created for Mary Stuart’s bedroom. These huge shutters usually hang on each side of the organ of Amsterdam’s Westerchurch and were detached and transported to the Rijksmuseum Twenthe for this exhibition.

As mentioned in earlier posts, Enschede and this museum are not exactly next door to Amsterdam. On the other hand: this exhibition is worth a visit – even if only to make one aware that Rembrandt had an important rival painting in a totally different style. This exhibition is also one of several one can visit in this museum. It also hosts a modern art one.

A word of warning though: as usual in this museum, the explanatory texts are in Dutch and German. On the other hand, an audio tour is included with your ticket  and is available in several languages.

All the museum’s exhibitions are on ground floor level and the rooms easily accessible for people needing walking sticks or wheelchairs. Throughout the de Lairesse’s exhibiton, there are benches where visitors can sit and admire works. Near the museum is free parking space and busses run between the museum and Enschede CS. Personally, I preferred to walk to the museum from the station, which should take about 10 minutes though the route is not clearly sign-posted.

The museum has a small shop, where one can also buy a few regional products. Cards, catalogues and art books are also on sale in the museum’s large café. It was lovely to have a reasonably priced coffee with a slice of buttered regional raisin and current bread called Twentse Krentenwegge . Moreover, the museum café’s terrace was open, allowing access to the peaceful museum garden with pond and more art

Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede “At last! De Lairesse” opened 10th of September 2016 and can be visited till the 22nd of January 2017. There is an extra charge of 2.50 Euro on top of the ordinary entrance fee during this exhibition.

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