Sunday, October 9, 2011

Paintings As Scientific Documents?

After Frans Hals, Malle Babbe
Dutch, Second quarter of 17th century
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
This past week has seen me sick with some viral bug that is making the rounds of New York City. So, this essay is a bit late and for that I apologize. I was going to write a review of the small exhibition of the work of the 17th-century Dutch painter Frans Hals that is currently at the Metropolitan Museum.1

The exhibition is primarily based on the Met’s own collection of his works. I have visited it several times and had been saving writing a review until a period when subject matter might be scarce. Unfortunately, I waited too long. When I checked the exhibition dates today, I discovered that—gasp—it closes on Monday (October 10, one of the Met’s rare holiday Monday openings). So, unless you are in the New York area and can get to the Met by closing time Monday, it will be too late.

Since that is the case I am going to shift this essay from a straightforward review of the Hals exhibition to some musings on an issue that arises from one painting that is included in the show. This is the picture known as “Malle Babbe”. Once considered to be the original it was reassessed some time ago and is now considered to be a copy after Hals.

Frans Hals, Malle Babbe
Dutch, 1631-1633
Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie
A nearly identical portrait of the same person now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin has been recognized as the true Hals original (click for high resolution image). The two paintings are extremely closely related, as a side by side comparison between details of the Met’s version and the Berlin version in the final room of the exhibition demonstrates (the Berlin painting is represented only by reproductions of details). If a copy, the Met’s painting is the work of an artist who was able to copy not only Hals’ composition, but his technique as well. It is an intriguing problem for the connoisseur.

However, what I’ve been reflecting on is not the painting itself, but its subject matter. Malle Babbe was the popular name for a woman who was an inmate in the workhouse in Haarlem, the town where Hals lived. The owl on her shoulder, a symbol of wisdom in classical antiquity, had become by this time the symbol for a fool. 2 The fact that there are several versions or copies of this painting is very suggestive. It accords with other paintings of such human oddities found in the work of other 17th century painters.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Red Hat
Dutch, c. 1665-1666
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art
Clearly, there was an interest in recording the appearance of unusual people during this century that sets it apart from earlier periods. And this accords with the rise of scientific inquiry in the 17th century. This is the century that begins with the work of Galileo. It also includes the Vatican led reform of the calendar (change from the old Roman Julian calendar to the more scientifically correct Gregorian calendar, named for Pope Gregory XIII) and the development of complex mathematics such as calculus by Leibniz and Newton. It concludes with the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia (1687).
Johannes Vermeer, Woman with a Water Jug
Dutch, c. 1662
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the world of 17th-century Dutch painting, it also includes Vermeer’s experiments with the camera obsura that give his work such immediacy.

It would appear that part of the burgeoning of science in the 17th century was an interest in human diversity. And this is true not only in the Protestant Netherlands but also in Catholic Italy and Spain. Paintings exist whose subject matter is not just the insane, but dwarfs and other human oddities.

In Spain, Diego Velazquez painted several portraits of the dwarfs who served as members of the Spanish royal household.

Diego Velazquez, Dwarf known as
Don Antonio el Ingles,
Spanish, 1640-1642
Madrid, Prado
Diego Velazquez, Dwarf known as
Sebastian de Morra
Spanish, 1641-1642
Madrid, Prado

In the 17th century many “little people” served in this capacity, as entertainers and as servant “pets” to royal masters.  Today, this may seem undignified and even cruel but, in the world 400 years ago, for a small person unable to find work in occupations that required stature, strength or stamina, this may have been a blessing.

Jusepe Ribera, Boy with a Clubfoot
Spanish, 1642
Paris, Louvre

In addition, in southern Italy, the transplanted Spanish painter Jusepe Ribera painted the portrait of a boy with a clubfoot.  His deformity is clearly visible, but so is his engaging, cheeky personality. 

Jusepe Ribera, Magdalena Venturi with
Her Husband and Son
Spanish, 1631
Toledo, Museo Fundacion Duque de Lerma

Ribera also painted the portrait of a most unusual family, a bearded woman with her husband and baby.

Today these paintings may seem bizarre, but we ourselves are barely removed from the carnival freak show in which people like these would have been on exhibit.

Rather than viewing these pictures with disdain or anger I suspect that we should view them as interesting documents of a burgeoning scientific point of view.

1. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frans Hals in the Metropolitan Museum, July 26 – October 10, 2011,

2. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catalogue Entry,

© M. Duffy, 2011

No comments: