The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus, Twice
Entry 36 April 7, 2016
I’ve come across three paintings so far in the Louvre book that depict the marriage of Thetis and Peleus, the parents of Achilles, but I’m only going to write about two of them in this entry, the ca. 1606 painting by Hendrick de Clerck (1570-1629) and the ca. 1618 painting by Hendrick van Balen (1575-1632). The other one by Bartolomeo di Giovanni (ca. 1488-1501) from ca. 1480-1500 is also lovely, but it’s very different from the other two, and it’s their similarities that interest me.
I saw a line in a newspaper story recently that said a particular painting wouldn’t have been painted the way it was if it hadn’t been for photography. I wrote the line down because it struck me as peculiar: photography influencing painting and not the other way around?
But it occurs to me that the idea of the camera—a mechanical device that would accurately generate images of objects—lived in the minds of at least some painters before cameras were invented. For example, Canaletto (1697-1768) may have welcomed the help of images cast by a camera obscura (an elaborate pin-hole camera) in his ten very similar paintings of the Doge’s Palace, which I wrote about in Entry 28. He could have been motivated by a desire for accuracy or, at any rate, accuracy that could be consulted in the studio; it might also have been a way to satisfy flattering demands from the tourist trade for precisely the same, striking image of a Venice landmark. Whatever the reason, the camera wasn’t necessarily only prized as an alternative to a painted image but prized for its potential to help make painted images, not just accurately but over and over again.
It may go against an ideal of painting as a unique creation from the genius of a single person, and yet the Louvre book has already provided evidence that not all paintings can be traced to such a unique source. It isn’t only duplicates of the same painting that suggest it; the Louvre also provides considerable evidence that assembly line methods were used by which artists specializing in different features, e.g., human figures and landscapes, worked on the same canvas. I’ve written about this in Entry 26.
The two paintings by de Clerck and van Balen present a curious variation on this phenomenon. They were both created by two artists, each working in his own specialization, but de Clerck and van Balen are both figure specialists. In both cases, the same artist, Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), provided the landscape expertise. In fact, in both cases, Brueghel provided an extraordinarily similar landscape. The organization of the painting, a forest grove with a long table placed horizontally in the foreground and the guests arranged around it, is much the same. In particular, the glimpse of blue sky on the left, between the tree branches and the rise of ground, made me curious about how they happened to be so similar.
The answer, that Brueghel did both the landscapes, is not mentioned in my Louvre book. Neither of the paintings is accompanied by a commentary, which is disappointing but not too surprising, since only 400 of the more than 3,000 paintings reproduced are accompanied by material beyond basic facts about the work’s origin and location in the Louvre. I discovered Brueghel’s contribution when I visited the Louvre website to learn more about van Balen, whose name doesn’t even appear in the book’s Index of Artists. The website also made things difficult by failing to mention The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus when I searched for the artist by his full name; that search only gave me the name, Air or Optics. A search for “van Balen” and “Balen” alone returned two results, one The Marriage of Thetis and Peleus and, again, Air or Optics. I discovered that both the marriage painting and the other one, Air or Optics, are actually collaborations of van Balen with Brueghel. The Air or Optics painting, interestingly, appears in the Louvre book but under Brueghel’s name, rather than van Balen’s. At some point in my searching for van Balen, I looked for the marriage painting in the Index of Works and was reminded that only 19 pages before it another painting on the same subject, the one by de Clerck, was presented. A search of the website established that this one, too, had a landscape provided by Brueghel.
When I look at them now, after so much remarking on their similarities, I notice differences: the de Clerck has a heavenly orchestra above the table, while van Balen doesn’t. De Clerck’s triangle of blue is larger and contains a landscape of water and shoreline with buildings, while van Balen’s is smaller and contains some shapes of darker blue that may be clouds or mountains only.
And yet there’s one more similarity, perhaps linked to the triangle of blue and yet a part of the figures rather than the landscape, to mention. Did you notice the blue robes on three members of the feasting party positioned very similarly in the two paintings?