Hercules Hits the Metropolitan

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The New York Sun

Pure fortuity has brought two artists named Cornelis into the same gallery of the Metropolitan Museum and into the same column of The New York Sun. They are Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (Haarlem, 1562-1638) and Cornelis van Poelenburch (Utrecht, 1594-1667). “Hercules and Achelous” (1590), by the former, and “A Rocky Landscape with Nymphs and Satyrs near Ruins” (1630-35), by the latter, are now up at the Met on short-term loan.

As such, these two works underscore a delightful, if unsung, practice whereby the museum’s permanent collection of Old Master paintings is periodically enhanced, especially in the summer months, by unanticipated arrivals.

But if fortuity has brought these artists together, several more material considerations unite them. In addition to their careers’ coinciding for more than two decades, these two Dutchmen lived out much of their lives in towns scarcely 30 miles apart. Most important, however, both embodied a decidedly Italianate strain in Dutch culture during its so-called Golden Age (the 17th century). And while that southern influence is hardly news to scholars and connoisseurs, the Met’s new arrivals are sufficiently at variance with the going notions of Dutch art to serve as a useful corrective.

Seventeenth-century Dutch painting is generally thought to be bourgeois rather than aristocratic, to arise out of observable reality rather than mythology, and to favor, in spirit, a dour Protestantism over an exuberant Catholicism. In fact, the practice of its artists was far more nuanced and complex during the lives of the two artists with whom we are concerned. And Utrecht, where van Poelenburch lived and died, was famously a hotbed of the muscular Romanism of the so-called Utrecht Caravaggisti, who had studied in the eternal city and fully threw in their lot with Caravaggio and his followers.

Of the two Cornelises at the Met, the Haarlem native was surely the greater artist. Although his finely delineated — and decidedly Dutch — group portraits inspired similar works by Frans Hals, van Haarlem is more admired these days for his richly imagined mythological and biblical works, of which “Hercules and Achelous” at the Met is a striking example. How startling it seems, in a painting of this date, for a single hue, the caramel-colored hide of the bull Achelous, to overwhelm so thoroughly the composition. Indeed, though the bull is expertly conceived, one could argue that there is a bit more of him in the picture than it really needs. More compelling are the frantic, long-haired Hercules, who seizes the beast by the horns, and various figures in the background who illustrate the hero’s other exploits.

These other figures, gracefully sylphlike and serpentine, populate the other works of van Haarlem and ultimately derive from the International Mannerist style of painters such as Bartholomaus Spranger. But there is one all-important difference. While Spranger’s brand of Mannerism was enchanting and, at times, expertly realized, there was always something irreducibly lightweight about it. But in masterpieces such as van Haarlem’s “Fall of the Titans” (1588) and “Massacre of the Innocents” (1590) — for they are nothing less than masterpieces — the Dutch artist thoroughly reconceives and reinvigorates the figurative type that he had inherited from International Mannerism. If he had painted only a few more works of that caliber, he would be widely hailed as one of the noblest masters of European painting around 1600.

Van Poelenburch initially studied with Abraham Bloemaert, a painter similar to van Haarlem in spirit and form. But van Poelenburch found happiness and success primarily in landscapes — that obsession of Holland’s Golden Age — and he distinguished himself not by painting the flat, sere, monochromatic vistas of the Lowlands, but the hilly terrain of the Roman campagna. Here brilliant blue skies and classical ruins cried out to be inhabited, not by hardscrabble farmers, but by those nymphs, shepherds, and satyrs who, through the centuries, constituted the stock characters of the pastoral tradition. Dressed a l’antica, these figures disport in the painting at the Met in what is surely one of van Poelenburch’s most ambitious landscapes, in size and in the skill, grace, and breadth of its composition. As always in this artist’s work, there is a certain perfunctoriness to the paint textures and to the detailing of the beautifully preserved “Rocky Landscape with Nymphs and Satyrs near Ruins.” But such reservations do little to detract from the allure of this work, which, together with “Hercules and Achelous,” has now shown up so unexpectedly in the galleries of the Met.

The New York Sun

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