Marten Looten, 1632 by Rembrandt van Rijn
July is a month in art history that has produced some of the most idiosyncratic, passionate, sensitive and rebellious artists of all time. If you don't believe me, consider these names: Rembrandt, Artemisia Gentileschi (and her father Orazio), Camille Pissarro, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Edgar Degas, Salvator Rosa...all born in July. All rebellious in their own particular way. All brilliant. Let's explore a few of these great painters and find out why...
Marten Looten was a wealthy Dutch merchant from Leiden who commissioned this portrait. Although understated compared to some of his less formal portraiture, Rembrandt creates here a likeness that is painted with such sensitivity and depth that those penetrating eyes, tight lips, and thick hands convey a person who breathes through the paint. Normally Rembrandt loved using texture in his sitter's clothing to describe and identify their very soul, yet here the man appears very austere and formal in his body language, not letting us in except for that vulnerability in those eyes, something both the Dutch and Flemish were true masters of. Despite this Rembrandt conjures a tactile quality to this otherwise monochromatic palette. Note the way the folds of his cape drape snuggly over his shoulders. Rembrandt also scumbles a reddish tone on the lower half of the cape to suggest a worn, leathery texture over his very traditional Dutch garments. In his hand he holds a letter, another Dutch portrait convention, but here Rembrandt focuses on the face as the doorway to this man's inner world. Note also the heavy shadow atop of the portrait and the way the light falls on his face, an effect photographers and cinematographers would emulate centuries later for its quiet drama.
Judith and Holofernes, 1621 by Artemisia Gentileschi
It staggers the mind that some of the goriest paintings in history were painted by a woman, and at a time when women were barely even considered seriously as artists at all. Deeply influenced by Baroque painter Caravaggio, this very subject was first painted by Caravaggio only twenty years earlier but here Artemisia shows a very forceful Judith, cutting away methodically as if the head were a piece of mortadella. Holofernes is completely vulnerable in his drunken state here, with his blood dripping down the sheets, whereas in the Caravaggio version he is taken by complete surprise and despite his muscular body cannot stop the carnage. Artemisia's bitterness against men and her former lover is blatantly obvious here. Yet it also serves to illustrate the power of a biblical story told with the elements of passion, fiery light and colors, and the moral of excessive pride and overbearing militancy being punished...with another allegory of the Church conquering Protestantism. It is a painting rich in meaning and interpretation.
Summer, 1896 by Alfons Mucha
Czech painter of the Art Nouveau, Alfons Mucha was an incredibly versatile artist and illustrator known for his distinctive ornate, feminine style. What makes Mucha so appealing visually is the instinct he had for depicting women with such grace and natural composure that lacked formality. Note the choice of color palette here, contrasting warm and cool in a way that blends so naturally yet glows with warmth. Although this piece is more of an illustration it was still painted in oils. Mucha's whimsical sensibility here is really musical, and the overall impression this allegory conjures up of a warm summer afternoon with a beautiful woman personifying a season is both charming and apt. Despite the simplistic skin tones Mucha was as much a competent painter as any other artist, and wanted to be taken more seriously for his fine art but his advertising work became so popular during the late 1800's that he became an icon of an era that would foreshadow the consumerism of decades to come. Here, however, the innocence of his time is immortalized and improves, like a fine wine.