Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Schalcken lights the way

A Young Boy Holding a Candle Behind a Halloween Mask  

The mysterious chiaroscuro effects in the work of 17th century Dutch artist Schalcken so seized writer Le Fanu's 19th century Irish imagination, that he worked the painter into two of his Gothic tales. From a passing mention in Green Tea to an entire story as a romanced character in The Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, the artist surely played a part in situations he had not foreseen through the bravura of his paintings.

'There are some pictures,' said I to my friend, 'which impress one, I know not how, with a conviction that they represent not the mere shapes and combinations which have floated through the imagination of the artist, but scenes, faces, and situations which have actually existed. When I look upon that picture, something assures me that I behold the representation of a reality.'

from The Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter
Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Boy blowing on a fire brand to light a candle  

I was very touched by the Schalcken painting of Ceres looking for Proserpina of my last post, stumbled across in museum in Bourges. It was just the right moment to come upon it, when the days had begun to shorten and fade into a grey mist and so, I looked for more. Now that I know that Schalcken made a specialty of flame lit pictures, indeed, painted scene after scene of illuminations contained in the darkest of surroundings, I'm once again contemplating of how diffferent we would all be without our wonderful, but sometimes glaring, electrified world. Just one wavering candle seems to reveal the generosity of darkness better than anything else.

Gottfried Schalcken 1643-1706, self portrait  image: Wikipedia

Here he is, quite the devil.  Part of the Leiden Fijnschilder's, or fine painter's, movement, Schalcken was a genre painter  who worked in an exquisite and highly polished manner. His master was Gerrit Dou, himself a student of Rembrandt. Reputed to be rude and uncouth with just the right nasty temper to set off his ill-mannered ways, it was no wonder the Dutch painter had problems getting along in society.  He didn't really fit into England where he lived from 1692–1697 and where he painted William III. Most known as a virtuoso of the candle lit painting and all the fuliginous obscurity which that implies, Le Fanu imagines him like this in his story:

"There are few forms upon which the mantle of mystery and romance could seem to hang more ungracefully than upon that of the uncouth and clownish Schalken--the Dutch boor--the rude and dogged, but most cunning worker in oils, whose pieces delight the initiated of the present day almost as much as his manners disgusted the refined of his own; and yet this man, so rude, so dogged, so slovenly, I had almost said so savage, in mien and manner, during his after successes, had been selected by the capricious goddess, in his early life, to figure as the hero of a romance by no means devoid of interest or of mystery."

That romance was writer LeFanu's fantasy, enflamed most likely by the view of not one particular painting, but several--and of his own imaginings.

Girl at the Window  image: National Museum Cardiff

"I had often been struck, while visiting Vandael, by a remarkable picture, in which, though no connoisseur myself, I could not fail to discern some very strong peculiarities, particularly in the distribution of light and shade, as also a certain oddity in the design itself, which interested my curiosity."

 Maiden with a Candle image: Repro-tableaux

"In its hand the figure bears a lamp, by whose light alone the form and face are illuminated; the features are marked by an arch smile, such as pretty women wear when engaged in successfully practising some roguish trick..."

Lady admiring an earring by the light of a candle  image: Repro-tableaux 

  "Your fancy has not deceived you, my good friend, for that picture is the record, and I believe a faithful one, of a remarkable and mysterious occurrence."

Sheridan Le Fanu's color sense and close interplay with the painter's art are demonstrated when at the end of his fiction he states that by limiting his literary palette he has chosen a starker focus.
"This tale is traditionary, and the reader will easily perceive, by our studiously omitting to heighten many points of the narrative, when a little additional colouring might have added effect to the recital, that we have desired to lay before him, not a figment of the brain, but a curious tradition connected with, and belonging to, the biography of a famous artist."

One artist shows just as much virtuosity as the other.

and a BBC production: Schalken the Painter


  1. To create the effects of moving light on a flat canvas is a gift. Thank you.

  2. HOW do they do it?????
    i paint,
    and this blows me away.

    these are such wonderful paintings.


  3. Jane: I saw so many of these candle paintings, I wondered if it hadn't become a gimmick. I decided that it had not!

    Renée: Copying the masters is said to reveal many a secret. It's up to you!!!

  4. These pictures with the candlelight are truly enchanting and captivating. I particularly like Schalcken's self portrait.

  5. Columnist: I'm so glad you enjoyed them. You can see his impertinence in that self portrait, can't you? It makes him pretty dashing!