You know me, I love my art history. And I write and paint partly because I want to show you so you can love it too. But, I can hear you ask, why bother with the old masters? What's the point? It is all long gone and old stuff; it depicts people and worlds long gone. We don't paint like that anymore and we have moved on.
But see how beautiful it is!
The Old Masters are Timeless
No matter whether it is old stuff or not, it is a fact that a lot of this old stuff simply is beautiful. A lot of these old paintings make you sigh out and relax. They make you fall in love with your spouse again, they make you hug your children, they make you appreciate life, they make you despair that we will never learn. Art does all that. And a lot of it is timeless.
Some of the things shown in an old painting, are not timeless however. I think that is THE big obstacle to appreciating old art.
Old Master Paintings Looks Alien to Us
We cannot connect or identify with the things that look alien to us, the things that are not in sync with our own times . When it comes to portraits these anachronistic things are often the clothes a sitter wears. We find a girl wearing an enormous wig and hat looking a little sillly. And how many men are there nowadays that can identify with that 18th century bloke wearing a powdered wig and a lace cravat?
Yet in 400 years people will probably think the same thing about our 21st century clothes. We might look utterly ridiculous to our great-great-great-grand children. At the end of the day it is just clothes. Inside those clothes is a person; a person like you and me. And that person probably wasn't that different from you and me. That person also had a job, a spouse, kids, a house and had to make sure there was enough money for the groceries. Well, OK, fair enough, those guys rich enough to have their portrait painted might well have had less grocery worries that we do, but you know what I am trying to say.
So those people, buildings, landscapes and still life objects all point us to this life they were leading. Just like in the far future people might stare at images from the 21st century to try and get to know us. And those people are our great-great-grandchildren. And the people we are trying to find in old master paintings are our ancestors or if not them exactly, then at least their world.
Now although that hat on the lady in this painting by Rubens, looks a little ridiculous to us nowadays, why not focus on the timeless bits of a painting like this?
This was a real person at the time, and she did not put that hat on or left her cleavage that exposed because she wanted to look silly. What the picture does show is a coy shyness, a real person, hugging herself in her awkwardness. This portrait was probably painted as a marriage portrait, but she seems a little shy in showing herself and comes across appealingly modest.
What Can an Artist Find in Old Master Paintings?
But as artists we can find even more in a painting like this then just a sense of history. Cut out the silly bits, if you like, and see what you have left. There is plenty.
Edges and Complimentary Colours
Of course my eye is caught immediately by the beautiful drapery in the sleeves. It is a joy to see how Rubens painted all these folds, how his darkest dark reds are contrasted by those bright reds, how edges are fuzzed out but much more clear in other places. He is creating depth by these tricks with the edges. And there is of course the choice of complementary colours red and green; two colours that will enhance each other by nature.
These complementary colours come back around Susanna’s face. Just behind her face is the bluest of skies, contrasting wonderfully with her warm brown/ochre hair, the golden earring and the rosy colour of her cheeks. Her warmth would not have shone so brightly withouth that complementary blue.
Thin Paint Application
We can also see in this detail how thin the paint is applied. There are hints of the canvas (with a pale brown wash on it) everywhere. It gives the painting a fantastic air of immediacy; as if the whole thing was painted quickly, as if she was just there for a moment. Of course Rubens might well have scraped off the paint and restarted many times. We will never know. But by leaving the underpainting visible like this he gives us a fabulously lively portrait. I must remember that trick.
Old Masters are worth it
So yes, Susanna wears a crazy hat, her eyes are huge and her cleavage a little too much, but the colour combinations make the whole thing beautiful to look at. Her facial expression enhanced by the big eyes is very expressive as are the position of her hands. The brush marks are bold and vibrant and the the whole thing sings with life.