I don’t know whether in the pairings below the more recent artists were influenced by the earlier ones, or whether it is simply that engaging subjects recommend themselves to whatever inquiring eye happens to notice them. These are not the Great Themes (The Three Graces, the Last Judgment) in which the elements are dictated by tradition, but the little spritzes of order and delight that surround us every day. There have certainly been similar observations over the last two or three hundred years.
These first two to compare are by John Frederick Peto (1854 – 1907) and Edwaert Collier (active 1663 – 1708). We don’t do letter racks anymore, but they seem to have functioned like refrigerator doors & magnets–cheerful but rather static.
Then William Harnett (1848 – 1892) and Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606 – 1684). (De Heem did his piece when he was twenty-two. He still had a thing or two to learn about the pleasures of color. But even so, it’s full of variety and nicely observed detail.)
And then Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1978) and Cornelius Gijsbrechts ( c.1630 – 1675). The Cornell is an actual box with objects in it, while the Gijsbrechts is a painting, but the sensibility is very similar.
Roy Lichtenstein (1923 – 1997) and Gijsbrechts again–both paintings. The joke still works after 298 years.
It’s good to spend time with a single, really fine piece, letting it sink in. “Old Woman” by Hans Memling (1430 – 1494) repays that attention.
Neither pose nor costume are unusual. Van der Weyden and others did very similar pieces–pose, headdress, hands, red belt. But while van der Weyden’s subject is a lovely woman waiting for her sitting to be over, Memling’s old woman seems beyond time.
Her face is modeled in smooth, light, warm tones–except for the eyes, which are sharp darks, and look inward. The whole face, in fact, seems to look inward. Memling enhances this stillness by the rigor of his design. Her pose is a sharp-edged pyramid rising from the bottom of the canvas. The shapes are clear and stable but not uneventful: her headdress has several very sharp and simple edges, but just as the eye is about to get bored there is some tweak or flurry which is all the more involving because it is so delicate. Follow any shape, any edge, you find the same subtlety. Nothing is just hogged in. The view out the window–a road, a house, a few trees–provides a bit of lively texture to contrast with the broad simplicity of the primary shapes, and also hints at her world.