Monday, February 29, 2016

Imagining the Real Stories behind Old Dutch Portrait Paintings (no. 28)

 by Larry Witham


AT THE GREAT art museums of the world, we typically find a northern European section with a sampling of large, dark portrait paintings of a man dressed in black with a white collar “ruff.” Beside him, his wife is similarly dressed in the austere manner of a Dutch business family of the seventeenth century.
            These are the past family momentos of the wealthy mercantile class of Amsterdam’s trading empire, the sorts of people who kept Rembrandt, Franz Hals, and other now-famous painters in business with commissions.
            Novelist Deborah Moggach has taken two such (fictional) husband-wife portraits and created an entire story of the two couples, the two painters, and a year-long drama that surrounds their lives. She has done so not only in an elegant, economical prose, but in a symmetrical plot that is as tight as the composition of these kinds of portraits.
            And to add flavor to what essentially is a love-triangle story, the novel is set during the brief rise of the Dutch tulip market, which enriched Amsterdam for a few years, at least until the speculative “tulip economy” crashed. Thus the novel’s title, Tulip Fever (2000).
            One day the painter Jan arrives at the home of the wealthy merchant Cornelius to paint him and his much younger wife, Sophia. The marriage is a pact of sorts: she wants to escape her dull, impoverish life at home, and Cornelius desires an heir. While painting, Jan lusts for Sophia, and later she reciprocates. They need to find a way to extricate her from the marriage.
            The die is cast. From the start, also, the novel’s many short chapters each represent the point of view, or activity, of one of the five or so main characters. Sophia’s voice is in the first person “I,” and so her viewpoint—at first devious and later remorseful—is the primary guide through the entire story.
            Another perspective is given through Maria, the maid, who is young Sophia’s best friend, despite the social chasm between them. Maria has just gotten pregnant by her bow, Willem. Fortunately, though, Willem has saved enough money to propose marriage and save Maria from an unwed scandal.
            Then a misunderstanding ruins everything. One night, Sophia sneaks off to make love with Jan. She is wearing Maria’s maid cloak. Willem sees the cloak, thinking it is Maria, and follows. Peaking in the window, he thinks his Maria is having an affair with the painter. Distraught, Willem goes down to the docks, joins the navy (which is battling the English for maritime supremacy), and disappears.
            Nobody knows what happened to Willem. But Sophia, with her adultery, and Maria, with her pregnancy, each have a problem. They arrive at a bizarre solution, prompting Sophia to say, “We are two reckless young women; we are in love.”
            Their gambit: Sophia will pretend to be pregnant, Maria will hide her pregnancy, and when the child is born (apparently to Sophia) old Cornelius will believe that he has his heir. In such manner, Maria escapes community shunning. And Sophia, meanwhile, can fake her own death at childbirth. After that, she and Jan will escape to the East Indies.
            All the while, author Moggach reminds us that painters are working all around Amsterdam. Jan is among those who will become less famous in art history, but still a painter whose work will, one day, hang in museums. Jan also has a student, Jacob, who feels betrayed when Jan plans to close his studio; this means Jacob will not receive the certificate necessary to join the guild, putting his career in jeopardy. Jacob wants revenge (and later delivers).
            Jan’s plans now unravel. Taken by the tulip craze, he decides to invest all his money in the speculative tulip market. He also neglects his painting. Jan hopes to earn enough money for the East Indies escape. All might have turned out well until his drunken assistant eats a prize tulip bulb—“the most valuable tulip bulb in the world”—thinking it is an onion. “We are ruined,” Jan tells Sophia.
            As Jan looks for a solution, Sophia has a sudden religious awakening and Maria bears the child. They have successfully fooled old Cornelius. Grieving at her sin, Sophia goes to the canal in a storm and (seemingly) drowns herself.
            Back at home, Maria tells Cornelius the truth—it is her child. Also, Willem suddenly returns from the seas, now a tough soldier with money. Cornelius acknowledges Willem as the true father and stands aside. Cornelius then pursues Jan and Sophia on the ship they are supposed to be booked on (according to informant Jacob, the betrayed student).
            And the plot now comes full circle.
            Maria and Willem marry and inherit wealth from Cornelius. The rising talent Jacob paints their family portrait. Stranded on board the ship (where Jan and Sophia did not show up), Cornelius ends up in the East Indies. He goes primitive and takes up with a young native woman (never to return).
            Having lost Sophia and his tulip wealth, Jan returns to painting, and indeed, in hindsight, he will become one of the great Dutch masters.
            “Out of suffering he creates great art,” the narrator tells us. Jan becomes known for his Dutch genre paintings, typically great still lifes that feature the vanity objects of the wealthy classes. In one painting, he has a book opened to a page that reads in Latin, “We played, we gambled, we lost.”
            Then one day, six years later, Jan is crossing the market square and a nun in a grey habit walks by. A gust flutters her veil, and Jan thinks he sees Sophia. She disappears into the monastery. By now, however, Jan is unable to know whether it is really Sophia, or, as the narrators concludes, “has dreaming her into life, into paint, so possessed him that he can no longer separate art from illusion?”
            As museum guides tell us, the old Dutch family portraits are of real people who once, long ago, were civic leaders. Today, the paintings can be a bore. A novelist such as Moggach, however, has created a story that reminds us how improbable some of these lives—both of the portrait sitters and the painters—might have been.

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