Other Ways to Listen
Tap or click on “Transcript” under each track to read or download the full transcript of each audio commentary.
>> My name is Maxime Valsamas and I am the Curatorial Assistant, European Art at Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University, and I am the curator of from Tudor to Hanover: British Portraits, 1590 to 1800. One of the works in the show that I am thrilled to highlight is Godfrey Kneller’s A Scholar in His Study, painted around 1668. Of the three works on display in this exhibition, this is the earliest example of Kneller’s work, and it shows exciting connections to two Dutch masters, Rembrandt van Rijn and Ferdinand Bol.
>> While Kneller is not an artist whose name is well known today, he was a sensitive and celebrated portraitist during his lifetime. In this audio guide, we will hear from experts from diverse fields from within the Queen’s community who will delve into the deeper connections and meanings found within this early work, focussing primarily on the connections it has to 17th-century Dutch art and society.
>> So, who was Godfrey Kneller? He was a German-born artist and completed this painting while studying art in the Netherlands. He was in both Leiden, and later in Amsterdam, where he studied under the celebrated artists, Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt van Rijn. The impact that these two Dutch masters had on Kneller’s stylistic development are apparently in A Scholar in His Study, in both composition and subject.
>> After his studies in the Netherlands and a stint in Italy, he established himself in England during the mid-1670s, becoming the dominant portraitist of his time and as the court painter to the English monarchs, following the footsteps of such notable artists as Hans Holbein the Younger and Anthony van Dyck. In England, Kneller received a tremendous amount of praise and was hailed as the Shakespeare of English painting. A Scholar in His Study shows his tremendous talent as a young artist and also demonstrates a key moment in his early career when he painted in a Dutch Rembrandtesque style.
>> Looking in depth into A Scholar and His Study, will draw attention to the importance of this painting, its subject matter and iconography, and the artistic ties between Kneller, Ferdinand Bol, and Rembrandt. I’m joined by art historian, Professor Stephanie Dickey; historian, Professor, and Principal Emeritus, Daniel Woolf; and conservator, Natasa Krsmanovic.
>> Of the three Godfrey Kneller paintings on view in the exhibition, this is the only painting from his earlier period, and that shows a strong connection to the Dutch masters, Rembrandt van Rijn and Ferdinand Bol. Stephanie Dickey, Queen’s Professor and Bader Chair in Northern European Baroque Art, explains.
>> Very little is known about Kneller’s early period. We know he was born in Lubeck in Germany. And he first went to the Netherlands to study mathematics at the University of Leiden, probably intending some kind of a career in something like military engineering. But like many artists do, discovered that their real passion was art. So, in the case of Kneller, in 1662, he left Leiden and went to Amsterdam to study art. And there are different sources from the early period that describe what happened. Some say he worked with Ferdinand Bol. Some say Rembrandt. But by 1662, Rembrandt was in the last stages of his career. And I honestly don’t think he was taking in students who still needed to learn the nuts and bolts. So, it seems to be more likely that he either only worked with Ferdinand Bol, or he started with Bol and then maybe spent a period of time with Rembrandt.
>> Kneller’s Dutch art training with Bol and Rembrandt gave him the skills necessary to masterfully convey his subject’s through art. Bol embraced Rembrandt’s style, and he encouraged Kneller to follow a similar artistic path. The influences of Rembrandt and Bol are seen in the use of colour and handling of paint in Kneller’s A Scholar in His Study.
>> Well, if you think of paintings like ours, the clearest connections are the rich Earthy colours, very warm, ready colour scheme, and strong dramatic effects of light. And those are things that both of them learnt from Rembrandt. You can see Rembrandt’s impact also in some of the painterly touches, for example, in our painting, the gold brocade along the edge of the curtain has a really textural effect, thick paint treated in an almost sculptural way. That’s something that Rembrandt did. That’s something that he taught his students to do, including Bol, and including Kneller. In our painting particularly, the golden robe that the figure is wearing, a very similar robe can be seen in a number of paintings by Kneller, depicting scholarly figures, including one in the National Gallery in London. And the interest in these scholarly figures is also something that they share. It’s mysterious who this figure is exactly meant to be. The costume and the hairstyle are not typical of what a scholar, in contemporary terms, would have been wearing in the 1660s. So, it’s likely that Kneller is trying to make him look like a historical character. He has a large book, kind of dog eared book. He as a globe, which doesn’t necessarily identify him as a geographer. Globes were a mark of learning in generic terms for scholars. Every scholar worth his salt owned a pair of globes in those days, a celestial and a terrestrial globe. You had to have those in your study if you were a scholar of any note. We could also mention that Kneller’s style changed quite radically when he moved to England. He stopped painting in that very textural way. And his colour scheme also changed quite a lot. He pretty much transformed himself into a portraitist. And when he did that, he was deeply impacted by the work of the Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck, who had also come from the Netherlands to England, but a generation earlier, and had worked for the Court of Charles I. Van Dyck’s impact in England was profound. You can see his impact in English portraits right through to the 18th century to people like Reynolds and Gainsborough. Tastes were changing. Rembrandt’s style was really becoming old fashioned. And a lot of the younger consumers of art wanted something that was more suave and more dignified. And so he really gave them what they wanted.
>> The 17th century saw increased literacy during a time of economic prosperity within the Dutch Republic. Books and the scholars that wrote them were an important element of society and, thus, significant enough to document in art. Godfrey Kneller painted several scholars and literary figures over the course of his career. This painting is emblematic of the interest in scholarly figures that caught the imagination of his contemporaries, and of Queen’s History Professor and Principal Emeritus Daniel Woolf, who provides some insights into the subject and historical context of the work.
>> Scholars, philosophers and scientists or natural philosophers, as they were known then, were pretty much the rock stars of the late 17th and early 18th century. Particularly in a place like the Netherlands, and elsewhere, obviously in England, but they made excellent subjects for study partly because, for the very first time in Europe, people who were reading works by scholars, historians, literary figures, actually had a curiosity as to what they looked like. Well, I particularly like this particular portrait because, from the point of view of somebody who is actually a historian of scholarship and historical writing and literature in the period, it has just about everything one could want. It’s got a lovely collection of rare books that we do not know what they were. But the portrait of a scholar is, I think, a very, very good and detailed portrait of a scholar actually at work and comparing that to, say, some earlier portrait of scholars, for example the classic medieval pictures of St. Jerome. It’s a much more lively portrait. You can almost see this particular scholar with his pen thinking about what it is he’s actually going to take from the book that he is reading and transcribe into his own book. I find the depiction of the scholar himself quite interesting. We don’t know who it was. It’s a fairly typical pose, but I find interesting the cap and particularly the shawl, while such garments were not uncommon in [inaudible] studies of the day, suggests to me that this might well have been a Jewish scholar being depicted. The iconography is very interesting. One of the most interesting things is what is not there. The books in the background, which are shelved by their fore-edge which is pretty common in the era, are not discernible as to subject or title so Kneller was obviously not concerned to depict particular books or particular branches of knowledge rather than simply to create a mise-en-scene of knowledge and scholarship. It’s also much darker than the foreground, so your eye is instantly drawn to the scholar himself and to the other items that are in the foreground. The globe itself is an important piece, partly because in addition to being such a mecca for scholarship and philosophy and art, the Dutch Republic at this period of time was also among the earliest of imperial powers. So I think the globe probably signifies the outward looking aspect of the Republic, but it also signifies that whatever else the scholar is doing, writing from one book into his own notebook, he is somebody of probably the multiple disciplines of the period in an age when there really were not disciplines as we came to know them which really is something of the 19th and 20th century.
>> In the 17th century, the Dutch Republic was a land teeming with scholars and books, yet because so few of the books in circulation from this time have survived, conservators have looked to artworks to find evidence of them. Books have an important place in Godfrey Kneller’s A Scholar in His Study, and they offer insights into the display of books and bookbinding practices of the time. Natasa Krsmanovic, the conservator at the W.D. Jordan Rare Books and Special Collections Library here at Queen’s tells us more.
>> When an object like a 17th-century book enters a museum, it has artifactual value, and so that’s what I find so compelling about these kinds of portraits. It’s interesting to see how the book-as-object is depicted, and often artists are so meticulous in terms of the details that they want to capture within a painting that we can do a lot of evidence-based looking to try and find aspects of techniques or details used in the book-binding trade within these items. One of the things that we might notice in the painting are actually how the books are stored on the shelf, for example. We think of the spine out as commonplace now in terms of the way that we store these materials, but actually within the painting, you can see that the fore-edge is what’s facing out towards the audience. This was a very common way of displaying 16th- and 17th-century books. You can also see that the books that are displayed on the shelves have clasps whereas the book that’s displayed in the foreground has these what are either leather or alum-tawed or maybe vellum tongs that come out, which would have been used as kind of ties for the book, so it’s really interesting to see how maybe working copies of books are depicted. So, a book that has a leather cover and gold decorative tooling would line, you know, the walls of your study, but these were probably books that you wouldn’t be breaking the spines of and laying flat and working with, and so they were beautifully ornate, and so they would be placed kind of on display, whereas the books that you’re kind of seeing in the foreground, you can see how they’re draping, they’re limp, and so the book boards aren’t hard. They’re actually quite soft, and that’s more indicative of potentially like a soft leather, a soft vellum, a soft paper cover. It’s really hard to find examples of books that have these kind of soft paper covers because books have such a longstanding history of being re-bound, and so we don’t have a lot of historic evidence in terms of some of these early binding structures, because they just either haven’t survived, or the tradition of re-binding was so prolific that we don’t have very many examples.