Today, Museum Dogs takes a break from etchings and features a painting—a religious scene with some great dogs and a cat.
Joachim Wtewael was born in Utrecht and worked with his father, a glass engraver, until he was 18. He did a turn in Italy and France, where he developed his painting style, then returned to Utrecht. His body of work includes paintings, drawings, engravings, and stained glass windows. Wtewael painted in a Mannerist style, and he continued to do so even after Mannerism fell out of fashion in favor of a more naturalistic treatment of subjects. Wtewael’s style is rather artificial and features lurid colors and figures in distorted poses (Getty).
In the 16th and 17th centuries, imagery of Moses and the Israelites was very important in the Netherlands and appears in many artistic works as part of a political agenda. The overview on the National Gallery’s page for Moses Striking the Rock neatly sums up the deeper implications of Wtwael’s painting:
The story of Moses and his struggles to lead the Israelites out of bondage had special meaning to the Dutch, who drew parallels between that biblical story and their own quest for independence from Spanish rule. The initial leader and hero of the Dutch Revolt, Prince William … of Orange, became symbolically identified with Moses. Like his biblical counterpart, the Prince, who was assassinated in 1584, did not live to see the realization of his “promised land,” a Dutch Republic independent from Spanish rule. For the Dutch, whose land was both nourished and protected by water, the imagery suggested that God’s beneficence had guided their destiny just as it had that of the Israelites. Wtewael was a fervent supporter of the … quest to lead all seventeen Netherlandish provinces to independence. His decision to paint this scene in 1624 may reflect an effort on his part to revitalize the allegorical connections between Moses and the House of Orange after the conclusion of the Twelve Year Truce in 1621, at a time when … [the Dutch] were renewing their military efforts against Spanish aggression. (Wheelock, Overview)
The episode depicted in the painting comes from Exodus 17:1–7 (http://tinyurl.com/nlk53se) and Numbers 20:2–13 (http://tinyurl.com/kqu5yhf). The Israelites had been wandering around in the desert and couldn’t find any water, so they start to get mad at Moses and Aaron for not taking care of them—Why be freed from slavery only to die of thirst? At his wits’ end, Moses asks God what to do, and God instructs him to strike a certain rock with his staff (the same one that he turned into a snake and used to part the Red Sea). Moses does, and the people drink and are mollified—for the time being.
In the painting, Moses is strikes the rock and the Israelites collect the water in vessels, and they and the animals drink their fill. The scene is arranged in a circular composition and is crowded with people and all manner of animals. Indeed, an influential Dutch artist and art theoretician, Karel van Mander, stated in a book of rules for art published in 1604 that paintings should have variety of figures and “a profusion of horses, dogs and other domestic animals, as well as beasts and birds of the forest …“ (Wheelock, Entry). Wtewael certainly followed this dictum! Among the animals are horses, goats, sheep, a camel, and oxen, and, most important, dogs and a cat. (A preparatory drawing for this painting, in the collection of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, also features some excellent dogs but alas no cats, http://tinyurl.com/l2947v8.)
Down front and toward the right, a lovely tan and white greyhound tentatively sniffs a clay pot that may or may not hold water. Behind him, a black and tan pup with floppy ears laps at the water pooled on the ground. Nearby, an orange and white cat drinks from a metal pan. All three animals, relieved to finally drink, are calmly going about their business. No doubt they were all very grumpy with each other during their thirsty wanderings.
In the left middle ground of the image, another black and tan hound bends to drink from the pool of water, and a pleased-looking tan and white greyhound pauses to take in the scene. Even the sheep next to him look happy!
In the left background is a vignette featuring one of the men calling to the rest of the Israelites to come and drink. At his side is a very excited dog. Relief at last!
These dogs and cat are all Very Good Animals, and they most definitely deserve to live contented lives in the Promised Land. I hope they made it!
Joachim Wtewael – “Marte y Venus sorprendidos por Vulcano” (1601, pintura sobre cobre, 21 x 15 cm, Mauritshuis, La Haya)
Esta diminuta pintura representa el momento en que Vulcano pilla a su señora en la cama con el aguerrido Marte. Cuando los artistas pintan esta escena, lo habitual es que salgan solamente los protagonistas: Venus y Marte (en la cama) y Vulcano indignadísimo (es la figura que está de espaldas enseñándonos el trasero) que va a capturarles con una red mágica.
Lo divertido de este cuadrito es que el pintor incluye también a un montón de dioses cotillas, aficionados a los realities, que han venido corriendo para ser testigos del show: Mercurio levantando la cortina de la cama, Cupido, el hijo de Venus (que va a vengar a su madre disparándole una flecha al indiscreto Mercurio); Júpiter, montado en su águila y con rayos en la mano; Minerva, diosa de la sabiduría, con manto azul y casco; Cronos, personificación del tiempo, con una guadaña; Diana, diosa de la castidad, con su media luna en la frente; y Apolo, tocando un violín rodeado de rayos (justo en la esquina de arriba). Ni idea de quién es el señor de manto amarillo que vuela despatarrado y enseñándonos sus vergüenzas. Los mil y un detalles no tienen desperdicio