Friday, 15 May 2020

Monkeys and tulipomania

Greed is part of human nature and, from time to time, this is exploited in schemes that promise enormous wealth - and thus status. In recent times we’ve had explosions in the value of bitcoin, and giddy prices paid for shares of profitless technology companies in the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. In 1969, there was large-scale speculation in a mining company called Poseidon, rumoured to have struck it rich; and going much further back, we had the South Sea Bubble, when a raft of speculative investments rose spectacularly in value. All were followed by slumps and, while some people made large amounts of money by timing the market, many who were sucked in to the speculation lost a large part of their investment.

There are many other examples, but perhaps the oddest was the huge prices paid for certain types of tulips in Holland in the early 17th Century. Anna Pavord’s excellent book The Tulip describes what happened in the speculation and this is a brief excerpt [1]:

..tulip prices continued to rise inexorably. By 1623 the fabled flower “Semper Augustus” was already selling for 1,000 florins a bulb (the average income was about 150 florins).. ..”Semper Augustus” held its price over a long period.. ..In 1624 only twelve bulbs of the variety were known to exist, valued at 1,200 florins each; by 1625 the asking price had more than doubled. By 1633 though, estimates of 5,500 florins were floating round each bulb, almost doubling to 10,000 florins at the height of the tulipomania. The highest price ever asked for “Semper Augustus” was.. ..more than the cost of the most expensive houses on the canals at the centre of Amsterdam

“Semper Augustus” (see above) was prized for its “breaking” (the patterns of many types on an otherwise single-coloured bloom) that resulted from the action of a virus that could not be transmitted by seed, but only from offsets produced after flowering. These tulips were thus limited in numbers, as propagation took time, and there was also no guarantee that the flower produced in the next generation would be the same as the parent, as the expression of the virus attack could vary.

All was therefore set for exploitation by speculators and that is what is shown in the painting by Jan Brueghel the Younger, where humans have been replaced by monkeys. The use of monkeys to represent humans was made popular by Jan Brueghel the Younger’s grandfather, the innovative, and justly famous, Pieter Bruegel the Elder (shifts in the spelling of their name were used by members of the family) in a painting entitled Two Monkeys. Jan’s father, Jan Breughel the Elder also painted Feasting Monkeys, so he would have known about this satirical device. It became popular among Flemish painters of the time and led to the Singeries of early 18th Century France, that featured monkeys in a range of settings [2]. Monkeys were not depicted because of any allusion to human evolution; more to their usefulness as symbols of exaggerated human behaviour.

Jan Brueghel the Younger’s painting Satire on Tulip Mania, from the collection of the Frans Hals Museum (see above and [3] for a larger-scale version), depicts the fate of various players involved in tulipomania. Flowering tulips, including examples of “Semper Augustus”, are displayed in front of a large mansion, where the owners are enjoying the high life, supported by the vast sums of money being paid for tulips. A sale is being prepared for a noble monkey who is determined not to be left out, and the price to be paid is being negotiated, agreed, and formalised by a contract. To the right of the picture we see gamblers (tulipomania was a form of gambling), a monkey urinating on tulips (clearly ones that were not deemed good enough after they had been purchased – the monkey holds a contract note), and other monkeys being led into a courtroom dock (for getting into debt by speculating in tulips). In the background, it appears that a duel is being fought, and a lonely funeral procession moves away in the distance. Both indicate the folly of being drawn into such a strange competition for status.

As satire, the painting reminds us of some of the works painted by Hogarth to point out the mores of society. Tulipomania was certainly a strange event, but the desire to become rich, and having possessions that convey status, is always with us. It’s just that sometimes these desires get out of control and we lose our powers of reasoning.

[1] Anna Pavord (1999) The Tulip. London, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Castles in paintings

Castles were built for defence and also acted as symbols of power. Moats and drawbridges added to the fortifications, and walls were massive, and built to withstand attack by all manner of weapons, from rocks slung by trebuchets to iron balls fired from large cannon. Even if the outer walls were breached, or undermined, there were inner defences like keeps. If all attacks failed to result in surrender, then there was always siege and the starving of the castle occupants into submission.

There are hundreds of paintings that feature castles, but let me give six examples, grouped into three categories:

Castles as safe retreats

St George and the Dragon (1502) by Vittore Carpaccio

In The Golden Legend, Jacobus da Varagine (ca. 1230 -1298) describes how St George killed a dragon that terrorised the people of Silene, and rescued a princess who was to be the latest victim. In this painting, Carpaccio shows us the three principal characters in the drama, with the foreground strewn with the remains of previous victims, including humans, other vertebrates, and invertebrates. Among the remains is the shell of a large marine snail that the dragon must have captured from the nearby sea.

In the background, we have ships and other craft (being a Venetian, Carpaccio was familiar with these), and the town from which the princess has become isolated. There are several castles that would provide protection, but they are too far away, something that would have been perceived readily by mediaeval viewers of the painting.

Madonna del Prato (1505) by Giovanni Bellini

Bellini shows Mary in a pastoral setting, cradling the infant Jesus. As we look to the middle distance, we see cows and a cowherd, and a crane with wings partially outstretched, resembling the wings of an angel. Another bird sits in the branches of a dead tree, acting as a contrast to the crane, and this bird is black and is a symbol of death, a device sometimes used in paintings. On the right, we see the town from which the Madonna and Child are isolated, the castellated walls emphasising that it is a place of refuge. All viewers know Jesus’ eventual fate.

Castles as impregnable fortresses

The Enchanted Castle [Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid] (1664) by Claude Lorrain

The story of Cupid and Psyche is told in Metamorphoses by Apuleius, written in the second century of the common era. It is a complex story of love and passion, with Psyche falling hopelessly in love with Cupid, even though she had only met him in darkness. After she lit a candle to see what he looked like, Cupid ended the relationship and Psyche attempted suicide. The story did have a happy ending though, as they were reunited and Psyche became immortal.

In this painting we see Psyche yearning to see Cupid, who is in an impregnable castle and is thus unattainable. The symbolism is powerful and the melancholy atmosphere created by Claude certainly adds to the tension of the scene, with the luminosity of the background highlighting the adjacent landscape and casting the castle into shadow. It is a powerful painting.

Château de Chillon (1874) by Gustave Courbet

Château de Chillon was built on a rocky island on the shores of Lake Geneva, near Montreux. From the 12th to the 16th Centuries it was occupied by the Counts of Savoy and was then captured by the Bernese and, later, by the Vaudois. It has a commanding strategic position on the lake and alongside a trade route. In Courbet’s painting, we feel a sense of impregnability and the castle is the only obvious sign of human influence in an otherwise natural landscape.

The slope of the mountains in the background emphasises the isolation of the castle and the sunlight falling on one wall, echoed by the light on the distant mountainside, draws our attention to its massive construction. Further emphasis comes with the luminosity of the background behind the castle, focussing our attention on its imposing strength. The castle symbolises the power of the Counts, and also shows that humans can produce buildings whose grandeur matches that of Nature. However, we know that castles are only transient.

Castle ruins and despair

The Ruins of Castle Landskron in Pomerania (ca. 1825) by Caspar David Friedrich

Best known for his paintings of remote figures in harsh landscapes, Friedrich shows us how a ruined castle can convey a haunting sense of loneliness. It is isolated within the landscape, and what was once a bustling place, is now empty, with extensive damage around the windows, as well as to the main walls. We are left to wonder what life was like at Landskron, and what happened to its last residents: any power and influence has certainly gone and we are left with just a vestige, as successive owners neglected the castle and allowed it to fall into ruin. Painted in watercolours, Friedrich uses a light palette and we focus solely on the castle, and what became of it.

Hadleigh Castle. The Mouth of the Thames – morning after a stormy night (1828-9) by John Constable

If we get a sense of loneliness and quiet melancholia from Friedrich’s picture, we get rather different feelings from Constable’s painting of Hadleigh Castle. We know from the full title of the work that it shows the castle after an earlier storm, with the turbulent sky conveying the impression that it is still very squally. Being painted in oils, it has a much more disturbed feel than the watercolour by Friedrich, and both the castle and the sky convey a sense of anger. This is not surprising, as Constable’s wife had died in 1828 and anger is part of bereavement. The portrayal of a ruined castle, painted this boldly, gives an insight into how emotionally vulnerable Constable must have been when he painted it. Hadleigh Castle is all about pain and we can feel it.

There are so many other paintings that feature castles and it was difficult to choose six. My three categories for the symbolism of castles is not exclusive and it is interesting that castles are among the buildings that we most like to visit, whether intact or in ruins. They certainly stir the imagination.

 Large-scale illustrations of these works can be seen in these links:

St George and the Dragon (1502) by Vittore Carpaccio

Madonna del Prato (1505) by Giovanni Bellini

The Enchanted Castle [Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid (1664) by Claude Lorrain

Château de Chillon (1874) by Gustave Courbet

The Ruins of Castle Landskron in Pomerania (ca. 1825) by Caspar David Friedrich

Hadleigh Castle. The Mouth of the Thames – morning after a stormy night (1828-9) by John Constable