Andreja Brulc's Blog

Illustration: The Life of ‘the Painter’ and the Death of ‘the Girl’ / Margriet de Moor

Posted in Books, Craft, Illustrations by andrejabrulc on 21/04/2013

In the days leading up to the opening of the Rijksmuseum, I was working solidly for five days on this embroidery, collaged with a patchwork, as my response to the book The Painter and the Girl (De schilder en het meisje) by the Dutch writer Margriet de Moor. It does seem rather morbid to have wasted so much time on this time-consuming technique for a subject as gloomy as it appears on the embroidery, but as the story is closely inspired by at least two historical records – visual and textual – I decided to respond as part of my process as closely as I could! At least the time and place of the story gave me the opportunity to have my first go at using a satin stitch, but before I return to the making, I will first set its context against the story (the book has not yet been translated into English) describing the fate of two main protagonists – the life of ‘the painter’ and the death of ‘the girl’.

Girl_crow_reeds

Time and Place: The context for two parallel worlds

Rembrandt_Met_DP800559As the title of the book may suggest, the author uses one of the greatest masters of the 17th century Dutch painting as her main protagonist in much the same way as Tracy Chevalier uses Vermeer for her historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. In fact, when I started reading the book I thought I was entering into the world of the same historical narrative, but the reader soon discovers that the story is in fact placed in Amsterdam instead of Delft, the city of Vermeer. It, therefore, becomes obvious after a few pages into reading that the historical narrative of the male protagonist, although the name of ‘the painter’ is never clearly spelt out, is inspired by ‘a particular part’ in the life of the greatest master of Amsterdam and indeed the highlight of the museum, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). But while Chevalier’s female protagonist comes directly from the Vermeer household of servants, de Moor’s ‘painter’ never meets ‘the girl’ in her life. Her identity is, however, soon revealed as Elsje Christiaens – the subject of two Rembrandt’s drawings, now kept in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, showing The Girl Hanging on a Gibbet, who was identified as Elsje by I.H. van Eaghen in 1969 (see cat. no. 138, Rembrandt’s Women (exh. cat.), Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2001, p. 238).

De Moor first sets the background for her story – a description of Amsterdam as a symbol of the Golden Age in all aspects of life. The city is flourishing due to trade and particularly due to Dutch naval supremacy, and is commissioning art and architecture. As a result of its prosperity, Amsterdam becomes a magnet for artists and travellers from all corners of the world. The town hall (now Royal Palace) on the Dam – an architectural wonder and a symbol of Dutch democracy – is opened in 1655. It is also the palace of justice, where criminals, locked in its dungeons, are given the final verdict by the city councillors.

The story has a precise date – 1 May 1664. The narrative of both protagonists is set into two parallel worlds: both worlds evolve as flashbacks, which in turn lead up to the specific date. But it is the town hall that brings their fate – the life of ‘the painter’ and the death of ‘the girl’ – together.

The painter and the town hall

Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project_WikimediaOn the one hand, we follow the story of ‘the painter’. In 1664 Rembrandt (Self-Portrait, right, from 1659, National Gallery of Washington) was an old man of 58 left with two children – Titus and Cornelia, the first from his marriage with Saskia and the second from his illegitimate liaison with Hendrickje (ex-housemaid). Saskia died soon after giving birth to their son Titus in 1642. In her will, Rembrandt was given a full possession of her property and any benefits from it unless he remarried or died, which would have had a profound effect on his finances, so this must have made his decision never to marry again, including Hendrickje, who died in 1663.

A few years before Rembrandt was commissioned a large oil painting, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661-62), by the city council of the town hall. The painting, now in Stockholm’s National Museum, was returned to him, just before the death of Hendrickje, probably due to a lack of decorum required for a history painting. It seems likely that he was never paid for it – when we meet ‘the painter’ in the story, he is in terrible financial difficulties, probably because by then his style may no longer be in demand  – and when the canvas is returned to him, he cuts it into pieces in order to sell them individually. Also, his household items are confiscated by the city officials in order to raise money to pay off his debts. So, his relationship with the town hall is by no means on friendly terms! At the beginning of the story, on the morning of 1 May 1664, ‘the painter’ even avoids following the flow of people going to the Dam to see the execution of ‘the girl’. ‘The painter’ bears witness to hanging in Leiden but never to strangulation. The full account of the execution is only narrated to him by his son towards the end of the book.

VolewijckIn the final chapter, in the afternoon of the execution, ‘the painter’ sets out with his bag containing art materials in order to meet Elsje ‘in her death’. By then her body is already transferred and displayed on a gibbet on the headland of the Volewijck (now the northern part of Amsterdam) – the public execution field as seen in the print on the left by Anthonie van Borssum (1644), where the criminals were publicly hung and their bodies left to the crows and ravens.

The girl and the town hall

On the other hand, we follow the story of Elsje Christiaens, an 18 years old girl from Jutland (Denmark), whose past and her journey to Amsterdam is created by the author. Elsje, after her older sister suddenly disappears with her sailor but leaves secretly behind five golden coins for her younger sibling, decides to set on her adventure to Amsterdam as she sees the city as the promised land. She arrives to Amsterdam in April 1664. Her dream turns into a nightmare. Rather than finding a job as a maid, she is driven by an unconditional love for her sister in finding her in the city. She fails. Perhaps her sister is already consumed by the bubonic plague that ravages the city. The money runs out quickly. The story from now on follows closely the historical account (see W. L. Strauss, M. van Muelen (eds.), The Rembrandt Documents, New York 1979, 1664/1). On the 27th April the landlady hits Elsje with a broom as ‘the girl’ is unable to pay her rent (in the story the landlady even forces ‘the girl’ into prostitution), but Elsje decides to take a revenge on the landlady and kills her with an axe. As Elsje is being chased out of the inn, she jumps into the Damrak, from where she gets pulled out and saved from drowning. She is locked in the dungeons of the town hall. She shows no remorse during her trail. She meets the verdict for her crime and is sentenced on 1 May 1664 – according to the historical record, it is stated that the executioner is to strike her on the head ‘several times with the same axe with which she killed the woman’ (in the book the execution is by strangulation) and it is ordered that her body then be ‘brought to Volwyck and fastened to a pole with an axe above her head, to decay in the air and to be devoured by birds’. Both drawings from the MET show Elsje with the axe dangling down next to her left shoulder and with her skirt tied with a rope in order to spare her from further humiliation in death.

The Making of the Embroidery: The Presence of the Artist and the Absence of the Sitter

As the threads of the two parallel worlds lead to a culminating point – the meeting of ‘the painter’ of ‘his sitter’ in death – it would, therefore, seem obvious that the illustration required a response to Rembrandt’s drawing as a starting point.

I decided to use the technique of embroidery on canvas in order to replicate the drawing as a kind of ‘painting in stitch’. This old technique reminds me of the woven effect reminiscent of tapestries – Dutch tapestries of the 17th century were considered of the highest quality in Europe, with Amsterdam and Delft being the main production centres. Also, Rembrandt was certainly interested in embroidered fanciful ‘antique’ costumes – whether he actually kept them or painted them from his imagination or even used Old Master prints as a source of his inspiration – as it is evident from some of the female costumes depicted in his historical paintings showing women wearing heavily embroidered textiles. As Marieke de Winkel points out, according to the list of his possessions from 1656 (see ibid., The Rembrandt Documents, 1656/12), Rembrandt did not own a large collection of old costumes but he rather kept ‘a quantity of ancient textiles of diverse colours’, acquired for his study of patterns and colours, and of the fall of drapery (‘Some Interpretations of the Dress of Rembrandt’s Women Re-evaluated’, in Rembrandt’s Women, pp. 61–63). Using the satin stitch as a preference for my piece, I was not only able to outline the figure of ‘the girl’ and fill the shapes of her clothing using threads varying in colour – red for the dress, purple for the overcoat, browns for the boots made of reindeer skin – as described in the book but also to follow the folds of her dress using threads varying in lengths, thus reinforcing the idea of light and shadow in the fall of the drapery.

It is not known whether Rembrandt, like ‘the painter’ in de Moor’s story, did actually draw Elsje from life – her lifeless body is heavily isolated from any surrounding background of the Volewijck. Also, the two MET drawings on Japanese paper are considered very rare drawings by Rembrandt recording a particular event. However, it does seem that Rembrandt was acquainted with the surrounding area as he did a landscape drawing of the Bend in the Diemerdijk looking towards Nieuwendam around 1649–50. As de Moor’s description of the execution field is very close to the print by van Borssum – ‘the painter’ has to take a boat to reach the place surrounded by water and reeds – I decided to recreate the world around ‘the girl’ in much the same way. I created a patchwork using three different kinds of fabrics representing the headland (brown) surrounded by the sea (two blues). Different sorts of reeds were then stitched onto the patchwork, with the crow flying out of the reeds in the direction of ‘the girl’. In other words, I imagined the world for the embroidery as it is (was perhaps) seen through the eyes of ‘the painter’ (Rembrandt) – ‘the on-looker’ – of ‘the girl’ (Elsje Christiaens) in her death as ‘his absent sitter’.

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