Sunday, May 9, 2010

Willem Pietersz Buytewech

Dignified couples courting, ca. 1617-1620

'Dignified Couples Courting' is the title of this canvas by Willem Buytewech, the only painting by the artist in the  Rijksmuseum Collection. This fashionably-dressed group is concerned with love. The couple on the right have already found each other. Courtship does not seem to have completely arrived with the couple on the left. It is not immediately clear where this painting is set. At first sight it seems to be an interior, but a closer look reveals a barred window and an overgrown fountain: the scene must therefore be set outdoors on a terrace. 

Caught in the web of love

The seated woman is playing a game with the man next to her. In each hand she is holding a rosebud. Her partner, without looking, has to choose one of the roses. With this he chooses one of the two women. But, whichever rose he chooses, the woman will make the choice: she is crossing her arms and can therefore call left right and vice versa. 

Whichever way, the man will always be hers. The woman has caught the man in her 'web'. Venus' 'tangled web' as it is called. The spider's web that Buytewech has painted on the barred windows - which can be vaguely seen just behind the coat of arms - alludes to this.  

Roses and fountains

Here roses and fountains are 'weapons' with which the woman catches the man, yet they are also present - in the foreground - as general symbols of love. The thorns refer to the danger and difficulties of love, the flowers to the beautiful side of love. The spouting wall fountain, as the 'source of love' had an sexual connotation in the seventeenth century. The 'fountain of love' had been a fixed element in pictures of love gardens since the Middle Ages. 

Group portrait?

The meanings of some details, such as the barred window, can no longer be traced. The coat of arms also provokes questions: is it a commissioned painting, or does it portray members of a certain family? Despite much research, the answer is still not known. The coat of arms remains a mystery. 

And because the faces appear in other paintings by the same artist, it seems unlikely that it is a group portrait. The costumes and attitudes were also used by Buytewech in other pictures. In the etching 'Lucelle and Ascagnes' a seated man is depicted in similar, fashionable breeches.  


The women too are dressed in the latest fashion. The woman on the right is sporting a silk underskirt and beautifully embroidered bodice. Her clothes are a lovely orange-red. The high collar of fine white lace is especially striking. The long cord around her waist was the height of fashion for women. Keys, scissors or - as is here - a needle case were often hung from it: symbols of the virtuous housewife! Some parts, such as the lace collar and the bodice of the dress, have been precisely painted. Other pieces of material have been painted with broad, visible brushstrokes, for instance the under part of the dress. The swift marks are reminiscent of the work of Frans Hals


The position of the hat worn by the man on the right is rather remarkable: the man is bending forward and turns slightly towards the viewer, while his hat remains perfectly upright. To the right of the hat is a strange patch, a sort of shadow. From this it is clear that Buytewech had at first painted the hat in a different position: moving forward with the man's head. The second layer of paint with which he covered the hat has, with time, become a little translucent. Hence we can see the painter's original intentions. This kind of change made by an artist while working on a painting is called pentimento. 

Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

No comments: