Why this painting (and art history) is cool!!

I enjoyed every art history class I ever took (ok ‘cept one but we won’t talk about that here). You usually study not only the art but the cultural history of the time and place it was painted. Here is the write up offered by the National Gallery of Art:

Hendrik Goltzius
Dutch, 1558 – 1617
The Fall of Man, 1616
oil on canvas, 104.5 x 138.4 cm (41 1/8 x 54 1/2 in.)

Hendrik Goltzius was honored across Europe during his lifetime for his extraordinary abilities as a draftsman and printmaker. Born in the Lower Rhine region of Germany in 1558, Goltzius moved to Haarlem in 1576 where he met Karel van Mander, the painter, poet, and art theorist. In 1590-1591, Goltzius traveled to Italy to study classical and Renaissance art. Goltzius, who turned his talents to painting only about 1600, drew inspiration from the classicizing images of his contemporaries Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem and Peter Paul Rubens.

In 1616, Goltzius painted this magnificent image of Adam and Eve reclining like mythological lovers in the Garden of Eden. Traditionally, images of the Fall emphasized shame, punishment, and the origins of humanity’s mortality. Goltzius’ emphasis on seduction through believably represented physical beauty was new in northern painting in 1616. Eve, with her back to the viewer, has already taken the first bite of the apple and turns, with a knowing gaze, toward Adam. Mesmerized by his companion, Adam looks into her eyes with complete devotion. It is clear that they have encountered their first awakening of desire.

Several animals comment symbolically on the pair’s relationship. The serpent’s sweet female face is a visual statement on the deceptiveness of appearances. The elephant, in the distance to the right of Adam’s hand, refers to the Christian virtues of piety, temperance, and chastity and represents a symbolic contrast to Adam’s weakness of the flesh and infidelity to God. Goats, which are sometimes associated with Eve, signify a lack of chastity; Goltzius painted two. According to Van Mander, a cat could refer to an unjust judge. Here, the cat returns the viewer’s gaze, reminding spectators not to enjoy what they should condemn, lest they, like the unjust judge, cause more harm than good. Thus, through these symbolic references, Goltzius suggests that humanity’s fall from grace was tied to Adam’s and Eve’s inability to restrain their physical appetites.

Through his artistic ability to re-create the look of the visible world, Goltzius entices his viewer to become emotionally engaged in this biblical narrative. He placed the almost life-size figures of Adam and Eve so close to the front of the picture plane that they seem to occupy a space coexistent with our own. Details of flesh, hair, even grass and plants are all painted in a bewitchingly believable fashion. The vine covering Adam’s genitals, for instance, is so botanically accurate that it is easily identified as ground ivy. The individuality of Adam’s feet, the boniness of his knees, the fleshiness around his waist, and the convincingly tactile quality of his skin all suggest a living presence. Although no preparatory drawings survive for such motifs, Goltzius must have worked from nature in creating them. Nevertheless the artist based Adam’s pose on a drawing he made in Rome after an ancient personification of the Tiber River, a classical source that helps give dignity and restraint to the scene. Thus, through varied pictorial means, Goltzius created an early instance of what would be called the baroque style, a naturalistic manner of representation that depends upon the viewer’s empathetic response to fulfill its meaning.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Cathy-Cate
    Aug 03, 2007 @ 18:50:56

    Thanks for passing on the art history info! I was just at an art museum for the first time in years, and read pretty much every one of the little paragraphs stuck on the wall. My family buzzed through the same area in half an hour; took me 2 — but it was SO interesting! Only a selection of the works of art had this kind of history and explanation; I wish they all did. Of course, I’d still be in Montreal if so. (See my blog for an epic travelogue if you like that sort of thing, otherwise skip it!” Anyway, I found the painting and the explanation fascinating; thanks for doing this. (I figured Dutch, but that was as far as I got!)


  2. heideho
    Aug 04, 2007 @ 07:50:49

    THank you for the historical and symbolic stories behind this painting! It is indeed fascinating to hear about how and why paintings came to be created.


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