Zooming-in #1: the selected flesh palette

June 2nd, 2009

zoom what is it?Gerrit van Honthorst, like a number of 17th-century Dutch painters, knew his trade and worked well in different genres. He was equally comfortable in history painting, raucous bordello scenes and refined portraiture alike. Although sought-after in his own age, few average museum-goers are familiar with his work even though he was far more influential in his age than Vermeer. He was also far richer. In 1654, he sold his house in The Hague for the astronomical sum of 14,000 guilders (an average Dutch house might have gone for 1,000 or less) and lent Elizebeth, Princess of Hohenzollern no less than 35,000.

zoom what to look for – Although the present canvas may not be particularly inspiring, it is nonetheless a solid piece of 17th-century painterly skill.

The most informative detail is the painter’s “selected” palette on which are disposed two rows of perfectly ordered paints blobs. The top are all the pigments conventionally used for mixing flesh tones. The bottom row presents the ready-to-use basic mixtures. If you don’t believe flesh can be so miraculously evoked with a hand-full of different tones, scroll up and inspect the faces of the lovely painter, the putto and her sitter. Analogous flesh palettes were employed by Rembrandt and Vermeer.

The choice of representing the selected flesh palette was far from random. From the very beginning of European tradition of easel painting, the depiction of human flesh was given great importance and it still constitutes one of the most telling technical challenges until this day. Willem Beur, artist and art writer of Vermeer’s time, wrote: “Just as we humans consider ourselves the foremost amongst animals; so too, are we the foremost subject of the art of paintings, and it is in painting human flesh that its highest achievements are to be seen, whenever a painter succeeds in rendering the diversity of colors and strong hues found in human flesh and particularly in the faces, adequately depicting the intricacy of the diversity of people or their different emotions.”

For the painter and the technically-minded, the top row of pigments probably are (left to right): lead white, yellow ochre, vermillion, red ochre, red madder, raw umber, black and a last unidentified pigment.

Selected palettes were the norm in 17th-century painting when complicated compositions were worked up in a piecemeal fashion, area by area. Painters laid on their palettes only those pigments which were strictly necessary for the day’s work in order to avoid waste of grinding time and raw materials.

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