National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 26, 1975

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A Poelenburgh in the National Gallery of Canada

by Malcolm Waddingham

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A further mark of Poelenburgh's maturity in this early narrative picture is his refusal to copy blatantly the style of distinguished Italian artists such as Annibale Carracci and Caravaggio, and his willingness and resolve in developing his own northern, independent manner. One can also admire that, in a country enthusiastic for large and heroic forms, Poelenburgh portrayed all the drama and strength of a subject without relinquishing a modest cabinet scale. It must not be forgotten that Elsheimer, who died in 1610, had left behind outstanding examples of history and religious subjects on panels of notably modest dimensions: Poelenburgh admired his method but remained suitably independent. (11)

The organization of many figures in Clarinda Saving Olinda and Safrania from the Stake into a convincing design, with bodies and forms manipulated in various directions, was not without problems for Poelenburgh, and some of these have survived in pentimenti. (12) A careful examination of the base below the columns on the left - in a spot just above the bubbled crown of the bonnet of the bearded man - reveals a shadowy, overpainted, earlier version of the head and shoulders of the middle rider of the foreground group. This suggests that the successful positioning and relationships of the three cavaliers and their horses required experiment and trial. In connection with this it is worth noting that the legs of another horse can just be glimpsed beneath the stomach of the white horse; they may be supposed to carry the bearded figure behind who is profiled to the right, though the relation of these equine legs to rider is not satisfactorily defined. It should also be pointed out that another strange weakness, or omission, is the configuration of the legs of the slave with the bundle of branches who approaches Sofronia from the left: perhaps one is expected to imagine his left limb completely obscured by the smoke of the fire. Admittedly, such curiosities are noticeable only after close observation and they scarcely detract from the excellence of the final impression.

At this point it may well be asked how one can be sure that Poelenburgh painted the Olindo and Sofronia and that it was done in Italy. Familiarity with other works executed by him naturally helps towards a clear decision but, like the Olindo and Sofronia, some of these were also once misjudged as Breenberghs. One notable example is The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (fig. 2) in Cassel, which appeared under Breenbergh's name in the 1958 catalogue of the museum. (13) A year later Schaar corrected this mistake and attributed the panel to Poelenburgh. Stylistically it certainly fits in well with the few figures and ruins in the monogrammed, early Landscape with Shepherds in Buckingham Palace, (14) and also with other later and signed productions. Nor should The Miraculous Rod of Moses (fig. 3), one of a set of four copper panels in the Pitti Gallery, be forgotten. (15) The creator of the muscular Michelangelesque figure lying beneath the tree is the same artist responsible for the naked and partially clothed bodies in the Cassel The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. And this same artist created the three stylistically analogous figures that surround Olindo and Sotronia. The peasant carrying the branches over one shoulder and under an arm in the Ottawa panel is almost a twill of the man in the Cassel panel who approaches St Lawrence from the right corner; both handle timber with the same physical adroitness and their heads are hidden behind the sticks. Also, the rider on the far left in The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence is mounted on a horse which closely resembles the central, black one in the foreground of the Ottawa painting.

Before leaving the Cassel picture, it may be worth recalling how the triumphal arch behind St Lawrence's gridiron recurs, with slight differences in the low relief decorations, in an oval Roman View with Cattle (fig.4) in the Pitti Gallery (479). (16) The archaeological interest in bas-relief carvings is again displayed in similar representations below one of the Dioscuri in the Olindo and Sofronia. Moreover, a comparison of many of the figures in the Ottawa panel with the bucolic dancers and folk in the Uffizi Peasants Dancing in a Landscape (fig. 5) (17) - and especially with the shepherd with the bare back - confirms that both are from the same period. Happily, the panel in Florence is dated 1622, and so the Olindo and Sofronia must surely have originated at about the same time.

It is of course dangerous to try to be over-precise in estimating the exact year of execution. In 1624 Poelenburgh produced the Satyr and Women Dancing in a Landscape now in Kensington Palace. (18) By no means a historical or religious piece and very much more a landscape, the figures in it nonetheless have something in common with the Olindo and Sofronia. Consequently it may be wiser to date the Ottawa panel more loosely: 1622-1624 would perhaps be a safer chronology. Earlier, as the 1620 Ruins in a Landscape in the Louvre (1084) shows, his depiction of crumbling bricks and architecture is more picturesque and intense; (19) there is also a greater emphasis on the way the creeper and bushes emerge verdantly and richly from the ruins. In the Olindo and Sofronia there is less excited vibration and a faint hint of intellectuality in the handling of paint, probably due also to the complex composition. This could point to some development of maturity after 1620, yet probably little more than a couple of years or so.

As one thinks of Poelenburgh, memories return of deep pleasure experienced in front of a small nucleus of paintings, and what stands out is that most of them were the products of his Italian period. The sharpest recollections concern works like the Louvre The Martyrdom of Saint Stephen (fig. 6) where again, as in the Olinda and Safrania, the architectural features seem to resound with a drama that subtly reinforces the tragedy of the action. (20) The triumphal arch, its top corner caught in the sunlight, displays a violent bas-relief; behind it a cupola, looking distinctly Renaissance and not unlike a cathedral dome, contributes a note of contrast, of hope, and of balance. This is the kind of picture, strong in religious sentiment, to which the Olinda and Sofrania belongs; not as an inferior member of the group but as one of the most distinguished.

Apart from its sound artistic character, the value of Clarinda Saving Olinda and Safrania from the Stake is the information it provides about Poelenburgh as an ambitious, youthful artist on Italian soil, and about the way his creativity was challenged and survived with strength and individuality. It is sad that not all these qualities endured with the same integrity once he was popular back home in Utrecht. Yet as one stands before this panel, it should not be forgotten that quite a number of other seventeenth-century Dutch artists - Swanevelt, Jan Both, Berchem, Asseleyn, and Dujardin - went to Italy after Poelenburgh and most of them were indebted in one way or another to his earlier, pioneering efforts.

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