I painted this series while I was living in Belgium. They were painted “on site” inside my kitchen apartment, -a long narrow corridor ending in a high window beneath which stood a small breakfast table with a two-burner stove. Immediately in front of the table was an enormous footed bathtub.
I was pursuing independent post-graduate studies in Northern Renaissance painting and techniques under grants from the Fulbright Commission and The Belgian Ministry of Dutch Culture. As an independent “unaffiliated” grantee, I designed my own course of studies; which in addition to studying historical painting techniques involved working on my own paintings which were evolving, enriched through the experience of being intensely immersed in all the marvelous art and the dramatic physical and cultural environment that produced it.
I was interested in The Northern Renaissance’s unique way of translating what they saw. Their artists painted from direct observation using their eyes to find their own personal perspectives and forms. Their people look like real people and their sense of space was more intimate and intuitive, as opposed to the Southern Renaissance where an idealized human form and a mathematical perspective was held up as a standard to strive for.
Additionally in the North the light was rarer, therefore moments of light were more strongly felt, more personal. Colors are often more intense and the light more intimate.
Although I was studying many great Belgian painters, Ensor, Rubens and Pieter Bruegel,to name a few; I was especially interested in the visionary Jan Van Eyck, for his enormous original vision and the unsurpassed spiritual intensity and intimacy with which he depicted, in jewel-like colors and minute brushstrokes, the many details of the world in which he lived. A world illuminated and suffused by Van Eyck’s vision in combination with the Northern Lowlands very unique light and atmosphere.
Religious painting was no longer purely devotional and now included views of the natural world purely for visual pleasure. There was a religious and spiritual intensity behind Van Eyck's paintings that made every detail important; everything seen by God was good.
My apartment on St. Josefstraat, Antwerp was within walking distance of my studio in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and the train station. I commuted to Brussels several days a week to paint in the Royal Glass Houses. Among the collections of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, I particularly admired Jan Van Eyck’s Madonna at the Fountain, a mere 7.5 in x 4.7 in masterpiece. I made an 8 in x 5 in copy of the Madonna at the Fountain as a way to learn Van Eyck’s technique and to study intimately this tiny masterpiece. I worked for many months inches of this amazing painting. I worked on a prepared oak panel; cut from the center of the tree outward, bisecting all the growth rings for maximum stability, -then sized with many layers of chalk gesso, each layer sanded to a glassy surface.
I did the under-drawing with a sepia ink, using a snipe feather (!) attached to a thin reed, before sealing the surface with hide glue and applying the paint; -glazing with tiny sable brushes, layer after layer of transparent oil color straight from the tube; mixing the color through layering in an effort to follow as closely as possible the method that this great master, and inventor of oil painting, would have used in 1439.
One procedural difference was that I had to use contemporary oil colors from tubes instead of grinding the pigments from organic materials which would have included semi-precious stones such as malachite and lapis lazuli (used for the deep blue of the Virgin’s cloak). My finished painting was brighter than the original but probably closer to what Van Eyck’s painting would have looked like in terms of color. The original is now quite changed after six hundred years. I am continually amazed by the power that this small painting still holds after all those centuries; like all great art, it is still alive and profoundly moving and inspiring today. Its small size irrelevant to its infinite power.
The great masters of the Northern Renaissance, and Van Eyck especially, created these intensely alive miniature worlds within worlds; with exquisite, intuitively felt spaces of intimate glowing light, color, and spirit; all things I was aspiring to capture in my paintings. I love the sense that something very powerful and significant doesn’t have to be huge; as in William Blake’s “to see a world in a grain of sand.”
The Belgian Kitchen, The Night Kitchen, and the Royal Greenhouse are all inspired out of this great tradition. Perhaps the kitchen pairings most of all, as they are very tiny pieces into which I poured hundreds of hours of light and color through direct observation. Although the painting of the bath shadows is of a different level of density, it’s inspired by that amazing northern light. Light and atmosphere that is completely and truly unique to that area.
I have always been interested in reality as it is perceived and felt directly through seeing; -how light and color transforms what you see and the spirit and serendipitous poetry that occurs in the process.
- Tamara Elizabeth Krendel