"The creation of art is not the fulfillment of a need but the creation of a need.
The world never needed Beethoven's Fifth Symphony until he created it. Now we could not live without it."

-Louis I. Kahn, Architect

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Oliver Cromwell's portrait: “Warts and all” (2011)

ZOOM image HERE.

Doing the portrait of a historical figure such as Oliver Cromwell requires having a sense of History.
This painting was submitted to Huntington's Cromwell's museum.

Who was Oliver Cromwell?

Oliver Cromwell (25 April 15993 September 1658) was an English military and political revolutionary leader best known in England for his overthrow of the monarchy and temporarily turning England into a republican Commonwealth.
His rise to power was a consequence of the English Civil War (1642–1651), a series of armed conflicts and political machinations between Parliamentarians (Roundheads) and Royalists (Cavaliers), partisans of King Charles I (1600 –1649).
After the first Civil War ended, Cromwell tried to negotiate a “limited monarchy” but Charles’s intrigue with the Scots and perfidy led to a second Civil War (1648–1649) which he lost. He was tried and beheaded. His son was exiled and English monarchy was replaced with first, the Commonwealth of England (1649–53), and then with a Protectorate (1653–59), under Cromwell's personal rule.

Controversy around Cromwell’s legacy: his head

When Charles’ I’s son, Charles II returned in 1660 to restore the English, Scottish and Irish monarchies, he demanded that Oliver Cromwell's body be exhumed, along with those of two others implicated in the execution of his father. The bodies were removed from Westminster Abbey on 26th January 1661, to be tried and found guilty of high treason as revenge against Cromwell’s treatment of Charles’s father.
Four days later, on the anniversary of the execution of Charles I they were dragged to Tyburn. After a macabre hanging from the gallows all day before being taken down and having the heads severed from the bodies. It took more than one blow to remove Cromwell's head. Their heads were placed on poles on Westminster Hall as a warning to others. Another Cromwell ‘s death mask was then made and copies sent to every town and city that had been most loyal to the monarchy.
Cromwell‘s embalmed head was so displayed for 25 years.
At some point soon after 1684 the head either fell or was taken down. There is a strong tradition that it was blown off in a gale, retrieved by a sentinel, and hidden for many years. There is some evidence that it was in a private museum in London as early as 1710. It later passed to its next owner one Samuel Russell an actor manager, who had the head by the early 1770's and tried to sell it to Cromwell's old Sidney Sussex college in Cambridge, but it was refused.
It seems his head was later sold many times until it came into the possession of the Wilkinson family from the nineteenth into the twentieth centuries. Canon Horace Wilkinson, agreed in the early 1930's to allow two scientists full access to the head. Their conclusion was that the head was that of Oliver Cromwell (Pearson and Morant study).
Following Canon Wilkinson’s death, a suitable home was sought for the head.
It was again offered to Sidney Sussex College in 1960 and accepted by the College Council. The head was finally re- buried almost 300 years after it had been dug up from Westminster Abbey. It now rests somewhere within the ante-chapel at the College, the precise spot unmarked to ensure that it is left in peace.

Controversy behind Cromwell’s first image: his wax death mask

Cromwell’s wax death mask
Cromwell’s “wax” death mask is probably the best-known death mask of English history.
It was originally owned by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) whose collection contributed to the founding of the British Museum where it is still displayed.
When Cromwell died, his actual body was initially secretly interred in Westminster Abbey. But unknown then to those coming to mourn and before it began to putrefy, a wooden effigy of Cromwell with a wax mask that lay in state at Somerset House. The funeral effigy depicted Cromwell as a King, a title which he had refused in his lifetime.
The “wax” death mask of Oliver Cromwell was taken after the embalmment of his body and it shows the cloth bound around his head to cover the cincture.
I decided to keep it instead of a traditional puritan hat or helmet, adding I believe more modesty to his memory. This way also reminds me of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)‘s  self-portrait as “St Paul”.
Rembrandt van Rijn ‘s  self-portrait as “St Paul”.
Death masks were widely distributed through private and public collections and were also used as models for posthumous portraits. By using his to realize his portrait, I decided to keep this old tradition alive... as his opening eyes witness this.

“Warts and all”… a Dutch “Vanity”

Commissioning a portrait was at the time as still is, intended to flatter the sitter. Cromwell was well-known for being opposed to all forms of personal vanity.
The first record of that famous “Warts and all” phrase as being attributed to Cromwell’s comes from Horace Walpole's Anecdotes of Painting in England (1764). It is said to derive from Oliver Cromwell's instructions to his painter Sir Peter Lely, and was reported in a conversation between John Sheffield, Duke of Buckingham, and the house's architect, Captain William Winde. Winde claimed Cromwell saying that:

"Mr Lely, I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it."

Following his posthumous instructions, I decided to paint his portrait as truthfully to his real appearance, not based on his portraitures. I therefore decided to paint him after his death mask, i.e. his most faithful image. His last image too.

I chose to do his portrait in manner of a Ducth Vanitas painting.
Vanitas is a type of still-life that became popular in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands during Cromwell’s time.
Vanitas by Pieter Claesz (1772)
The term “vanitas” comes from the Latin word meaning “emptiness. The primary themes were impermanence, mortality, the meaninglessness of earthly life and delights when compared to the everlasting nature of faith. The idea comes from the Bible: "Vanity of Vanities, saith the preacher, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8). Vanitas often have a human skull and a candle as a direct reference to man’s temporary existence on Earth.

I also thought that a 17th C Dutch style would be more appropriate than say Flemish Baroque painter Anthony Van Dyck’s (1599 –1641) who is most famous for his portraits of Cromwell’s enemy; King Charles I, his family and court.
Van Dyck was one of the most influential 17th-century painters in England. He set a new style for Flemish art and founded the English school of painting to be the dominant influence on English portrait-painting for the next 150 years. The portraitists Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough of that school were his artistic heirs.
But Van Dyck was born in the Southern Netherlands, a region recaptured from the Dutch Republic by Habsburg Spain (1581–1713). It is now called Belgium, a country where I come from.
To highlight the Dutch influence over Cromwell, I decided to paint him in the style of this Dutch contemporary painter Rembrandt van Rijn.
As an artist I am deeply influenced by his “light and shade” technique and painted using his style/technique for many years. Rembrandt was never about flattering his subjects and used to paint rough with thick paint.

Cromwell’s Dutch card?

When William II, Prince of Orange and head of the Dutch Republic died in 1650, it gave hopes to Cromwell that the Dutch Republic might join the Commonwealth in a military alliance against Spain.
Cromwell’s hopes may have also been supported by the contribution some Dutch did to the draining of the “Fens” from East Anglia to gain more land over the sea, a region he knew well as MP of Huntingdonshire and Isle of Ely (where I live now). Their draining was initiated by one Cornelius Vermuyden (1595 –1677) a Dutch engineer who introduced Dutch reclamation methods to Britain.

To this purpose, Cromwell sent in 1651 Oliver St John to The Hague in Holland as one of the envoys to negotiate a union between England and the Dutch Republic, a mission in which he entirely failed, leading to the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-54).
However, Cromwell had another card up his sleeve; he also wanted to attract the rich Jews of Amsterdam to London so that they might transfer their important trade interests with Spain from Holland to England. Contacts were made with Amsterdam’s chief rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel, a client and friend of Rembrandt. Cromwell invited the rabbi to come over to London in September 1655, after the end of the Anglo-Dutch war, to negotiate the return of the Jews to England (expelled by King Edward I in 1290).
My Cromwell portrait is a kind of posthumous gratitude from the Jew I am.


No comments:

Post a Comment