In Netherlandish art of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, meaning is often hidden or ‘disguised’. This makes it difficult for us to be sure about interpretation. The 20th Century art historian Erwin Panofsky was the first to attempt to decode its iconography in his book, Early Netherlandish Painting. In the famous Renaissance Arnolfini Portrait (above), by Jan van Eyck, there are so many hidden messages, whole books have been written on that one work. In a later painting from the Dutch Golden Age (17th Century), usually called ‘The Proposition’ by Judith Leyster, there are not quite so many hidden symbols, but the whole concept of veiled meaning nonetheless persists. The astounding detail used in Early Netherlandish art which was largely a result of innovations in oil painting techniques, had eased in the Baroque Period and artists generally employed less detail in their work. In this intriguing work by Leyster, detail is replaced by a powerful, almost threatening, murky atmosphere. The virtuous woman (wearing a white shirt – colour of purity, and sewing – symbol of good domestic virtue), is intent on her task, while a dark-clad man who seems to have come from outside, appears to bribe her (he hands her some coins). She’s having none of it, and though he places his hand on her shoulder in an attempt to interrupt her, she refuses to engage with him in any way and concentrates on her needlework. The candle flame could possibly represent the light of Christ, (see the Still Life by Clara Peeters in previous Post), and by extension, the goodness of the woman’s spirit. But the most overt symbol in the work is the foot warmer lodged beneath the woman’s skirt – the fact that it is half visible and her foot is upon it means, according to the language of the time, that she is available – that is, unmarried. Is this a straightforward morality picture, demonstrating the virtue of the pure female resisting the advances of the unwholesome male, even though she is free? The threatening shadow behind the man would certainly seem to propound this. Or is it a portrayal of an innocent courtship ritual (handing coins to a lady was an acceptable convention for opening a courtship)? Why do we assume the man is ‘bad’? (to be continued) . . .
Judith Leyster: The Proposition (so-called); Jan Van Eyck: Arnolfini Portrait 1434