Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mistaken Identity

When Ferdinand Bol died in 1680, he most likely believed that he’d been a much greater success than his teacher, whose erratic behavior, eccentric painting style, and poor relationships with the powerful resulted in a life of poverty, despite his amazing talent. Bol’s teacher was Rembrandt, whose influence can be seen in Bol’s Portrait of Elisabeth Bas (above, from 1640). Baptized June 24, 1616, Bol painted the rich and powerful, like Rembrandt. And, like Rembrandt, he painted them in all their finery and frills, even if they were outdated by this time. Unlike Rembrandt, however, Bol treaded lightly in his depictions, making sure to build and burn bridges that might further his career later. Because of their very similar styles and subject matter, many of Bol’s works were mistaken for those by Rembrandt in the nineteenth century, including the Portrait of Elisabeth Bas. In many ways, Bol presents what Rembrandt’s life could have been if he had lived it a little differently. In those differences, however, lay the seeds of greatness versus near-greatness.

In 1652, Bol joined the ranks of the burghers in Amsterdam. A year later, he married the daughter of a man who held powerful guild positions in the city, thus opening the door to more and more lucrative commissions. Bol never frowned at charges of nepotism, playing the game that Rembrandt refused to. Perhaps the sight of Rembrandt suffering from his choices in the name of integrity steeled Bol in selling himself out as much as possible. Bol’s Venus and Adonis (above, from 1657), although beautifully rendered, played to the tastes of the wealthy merchant class who looked to adorn their homes with art. Bol makes the scandalous nude acceptable with the mythological label, allowing the owner to feel a vicarious thrill without the whispers of neighbors. Two turtle doves placed in the foreground drive home the obvious fact that the pair are lovers with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Boll played to the crowd, regardless of how low he had to sink.

Bol grew successful enough to retire from painting and enjoy his last years in luxury. When Bol married well for a second time, he presented a grand Self-Portrait (above, from 1667) to his bride. The curly wig, elegant robe, and velvet cloak attest to his success—all set within a hand-carved, gilded frame Bol ordered himself. The sleeping Cupid that Bol leans on symbolizes his dormant passion at 53 years of age, an interesting fact to point out to your new wife, even if he did mean it as a sign of fidelity. Contrast this self-portrait in your mind with the late self-portraits of Rembrandt, who seems heavier and wearier with each depiction. There’s no denying the quality of Bol, whose rendering of fabrics and highlights in his self-portrait show that he learned his lessons well from Rembrandt. There are many good reasons why the two artists were so long confused. However, it seems to me that there’s something missing from Bol’s works—an unexplainable spark that Rembrandt couldn’t teach. Suffering for your art shouldn’t be a requirement for greatness, but the easy road that Bol chose may have made all the difference between him and his teacher, making telling them apart easier today.