May 07, 2006

De Gheyn

The painter and graphic artist Jacques (or Jacob) de Gheyn was born in Antwerp in 1565. His father, also called Jacques, was a glass-painter, printmaker, and miniaturist. Jacques Jr. ‘lived in Haarlem between 1585 and 1590, where he trained as a printmaker with Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), the standard-bearer of Dutch Mannerism’ and ‘in Amsterdam from 1590 to 1595, where he consolidated his own career as a printmaker and publisher and trained various disciples,’ foremost of whom was Zacharias Dolendo, who made the print shown in the detail below, Saturn as Melancholy, after a design of de Gheyn’s, ca. 1595/6. Dolendo is said by a contemporary biographer as having ‘drank and danced himself to death;’ de Gheyn, too, is supposed to have led a rather dissolute life while in Amsterdam.

Detail from 'Saturn as Melancholy,' an engraving by Zacharias Dolendo, after a design by Jacques de Gheyn, ca. 1595/6.

In 1595, Jacques married, and moved to the university city of Leiden, where he developed contacts with such notable figures as the jurist Hugo Grotius, the botanist Carolus Clusius, and the poet and emblematist Daniel Heinsius. During his time in Leiden, de Gheyn gradually turned from printmaking to painting, developing a particular interest in (and aptitude for) painting flowers and animals naer het leven, ‘from the life.’ In 1600 he finished his first still-life painting in oils, and, over the subsequent few years, he produced a remarkable ‘series of nearly two dozen exquisite watercolours of naturalia, now bound in an album housed in the Lugt Collection at the Institut Néerlandais in Paris.’ The following pair of details show two of these watercolours.

Detail from 'Still Life with a Fritillary and Three Tulips in a Terra Cotta vase, a Snail, and Four Insects,' a painting in watercolour and gouache by Jacques de Gheyn, 1600, part of the 'Lugt Album.'


Detail from 'Insects and Flowers,' a painting in watercolour and gouache by Jacques de Gheyn, 1600, part of the 'Lugt Album.'

The Lugt Album, as it is now known, was purchased in 1604 by ‘Europe’s most renowned collector of natural and artificial wonders,’ the emperor Rudolf II. In these paintings, de Gheyn employed the techniques of miniature painting he had learned from his father. As painstakingly-observed but seemingly ‘unfinished’ compositions, they would seem to form an elaborate ‘model book,’ were it not for their having been set down on costly vellum, and decorated with gold leaf—suggesting that de Gheyn had hoped all along they might catch the eye of a wealthy collector. In style and execution they resemble the miniatures of Hans Bol and Joris Hoefnagel. By the time of the album’s completion and sale, de Gheyn and his family had moved to The Hague, where he was to spend the rest of his life.

Detail from 'Witches in a Cellar,' a pen & brush drawing by Jacques de Gheyn, 1604.'

My source for these images, by the way, is a book entitled Art, Science and Witchcraft in Early Modern Holland, by Claudia Swan. This volume takes as its starting-point the contrast between de Gheyn’s painstaking renderings of naturalia done naer het leven, and the same artist’s drawings and prints of ‘foreboding landscapes, gypsies and witches,’ done nyt den gheest, ‘from the mind or spirit.’ The detail above, of a 1604 drawing entitled Witches in a Cellar, is an example of the latter category. These twin threads in de Gheyn’s work are never seen together, with one particular exception: a fascinating page on which a lifelike study of a hermit crab is juxtaposed with a sketchier group of grotesque figures—the following pair of details show two portions of this one page.

Detail #1 from 'Study of Hermit Crab and Witchcraft,' a watercolour painting and pen & ink drawing by Jacques de Gheyn, ca. 1602-3.'


Detail #2 from 'Study of Hermit Crab and Witchcraft,' a watercolour painting and pen & ink drawing by Jacques de Gheyn, ca. 1602-3.'

While it could simply be that de Gheyn sketched the crab with the bizarre group just to save paper, Swan suggests a possible (although tenuous) link between them, inasmuch as crabs were often portrayed as symbols of inconstancy and contrariness, and specifically linked by some contemporary writers with witchcraft. One is quoted as explaining that witches ‘turn their backs toward the Demons when they go to worship them, and approach them sideways like a crab.’ More generally, Swan speculates that de Gheyn’s portrayals of witches are partly founded in the belief, then gaining currency in the United Provinces, that these women were the pitiable victims of delusion, rather than malignant agents of the devil.

Detail from 'Gypsy Fortune-Teller,' engraving attributed to Andries Stock, based on a design of de Gheyn's, ca. 1610.


Detail from 'Crossbowman with a Milkmaid,' engraving attributed to Andries Stock, based on a design of de Gheyn's, ca. 1610.

Beyond his successes as an engraver and a flower-painter (at which he was reckoned by many of his peers as the superior of Jan Bruegel the Elder), de Gheyn also painted historical scenes, and allegorical still lifes. He died in The Hague in 1629. His son—a third Jacques—had become a successful artist in his own right. Even near to his death, de Gheyn was still looking at ways of mirroring nature in paint, and was considering a project to depict, with the aid of a microscope, ‘those smallest objects and insects with a very fine brush,’ intended for compilation in a book to be entitled ‘The New World.’

Posted by misteraitch at May 7, 2006 12:30 PM

Felt rather self-conscious that I have enjoyed reading yr blog on an infrequent basis. Your area of interest is quite fascinating, especially given my own penchant for Robert Burton. cheers - jon

Posted by: jon on May 8, 2006 02:40 AM

The watercolour of Insects and Flowers, in their uncanny resemblance, is an excellent one.

Posted by: Loxias on May 8, 2006 02:12 PM

Thinking of the plates in Robert Hooke’s book, can you imagine a whole collection of microscope-aided illustrations by De Gheyn? One of the great books that never were!

Posted by: Michelangelo on May 8, 2006 09:43 PM

I am born in Atwerp a 395 years later...
very nice weblog.

Posted by: maharal on May 9, 2006 08:13 AM

the Clusisus garden in Leiden still exists and is open to the puiblic:
alas this page is only in dutch. It is a lovely little garden to sit in and read.

Posted by: antonia on May 9, 2006 10:47 PM

Ah, the Clusius garden. A student in Leiden myself, I have used it to take pictures in. If you'd like to see them, send me a message.

Also, re: witches in 17th century Holland. Though witch-hunting was popular in rural areas, most of Holland was not fanatic about it- they saw it as an expression of mania not to be encouraged. Furthermore, woman were precious in Dutch society as they participated in work a lot more than in many other countries. Hence they made the Heksenwaag (witch scales) on which women were weighed to prove they were not witches.

Posted by: Hanna on June 17, 2006 10:54 PM


Posted by: Imani on June 22, 2007 02:44 PM
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