The Speed Art Museum of Louisville boasts a very fine collection of European religious, landscape, and portrait art. Some of the collection has been loaned to Singletary Art Museum in the Singletary Center at U.K. here in Lexington, and my Mom and I went to peruse the exhibit, and came away impressed.
Above, for example is a very fine portrait of St. Jerome at his writing desk. This rendering was done by Hendrick von Somer, a Flemish painter, and it probably dates to about 1651. von Somer is following the tradition of ‘realism’ of the type that was perfected by Caravaggio. You also note a certain Rembrandt like insistence on a strong contrast between dark and light which gives a certain mystical quality to the painting, making Jerome more saintly, or bathed in light. But since every picture tells a story, you need to know the back story to fully appreciate this painting. Jerome is translating the Bible into what was then the vernacular— into Latin, making it more accesible to ordinary people, hence the look on his face of doing something that helps spread the Good News. Some scholars would say that Jerome’s translation helped assure the ascendancy of Christianity in the western part of the remains of the Roman Empire.
Our second beautiful painting is unfinished, but it tells some of the story of Hagar, here seen at the point of fleeing into the desert with her child Esau. This painting is by Cristoforo Savolini and dates to about the 1670s. The title of the painting is the expulsion of Hagar, and the patriarchal figure in the painting on the right is of course Abraham. What is especially interesting about this painting is it reveals how the artist worked— first paint a reddish brown background, then paint in the main figures, then go back and finish the background, which did not happen in this case. Savolini has captured some of the heartbreak in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in this painting.
This painting, entitled Adam Naming the Animals, is from the 1680s and is by Carl Andreas Ruthart who was a German painter, and painted in a very different style and tradition than von Somer. Known as one of the great animal and nature painters of the 17th century, Ruthart was under commission from princes in the tiny kingdom of Lichtenstein. One may wish to compare Ruthart’s work with that of Jan Van Brueghel. You can tell of course that the artist is trying to present us with as many exotic animals as possible, he’s more interested in the variety of species than in representing what an ancient near eastern scene involving animals and humans might actually have looked like. No, this is a European vision of what might count as exotic animals. Of course one of the major things that happens when you study art is you notice the anachronisms, the things from a later time period or a different geographical area that make the art accessible and somewhat familiar to the artist and his contemporaries, but in the process falsify the historical distance between how the Biblical figure or story was imagined much later and how it would have originally appeared. One could say, the artist is interested in hermeneutics, not history, making it accessible and interesting in his own day, not historical accuracy.