Mezzanine Rotation–Rembrandt and the Natural World

Installation views of the "Rembrandt and the Natural World" Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

Installation views of the “Rembrandt and the Natural World” Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

Until February 9, the mezzanine will display works on paper that celebrate the natural world.  You will not only have the opportunity to see a selection of our fantastic Rembrandt etchings and landscapes by other Dutch artists, but you’ll also be able to see how prints from 400 years ago influence contemporary artists.

In one of the two cases in the installation are three prints designed by the Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1601) and engraved by his son Jacob (1575-ca. 1630).  They give us an amazing way to understand art and science in 16th century Europe.

Installation views of the "Rembrandt and the Natural World" Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

Installation views of the “Rembrandt and the Natural World” Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

These prints all came from a book called Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii.  Published in 1592, the engravings illustrate an important transition in art production.

Joris Hoefnagel was one of the last important Flemish manuscript illuminators.  This means that he would decorate books by hand for the extremely wealthy.  By the late 16th century, the technique of printmaking had established itself as a way to spread images quickly and less expensively.  When Joris’s son Jacob engraved his designs and published them as a book, it was a perfect example of this transitional period in the art market.

Installation views of the "Rembrandt and the Natural World" Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

Installation views of the “Rembrandt and the Natural World” Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

Joris Hoefnagel was more than just a talented illuminator.  He was also a highly intelligent, well-educated man who was fascinated with the natural world.  Perfectly at home in the Renaissance’s scientific inquiry, Hoefnagel carefully studied plants, animals, and insects, and then rendered them in detail.  Many of them were rendered here for the first time.  Other artists used his book as a source for designs in their own paintings and decorative arts.

A closer look shows that Hoefnagel has offered inspiration in another way.  Each page includes an epigram that invites the viewer to reflect upon the image and contemplate his or her place in the universe.  For instance, Plate 3 reads in Latin “Virum improbum vel mures mordeant” which translates to “May a Wicked Man at Least Be Bitten by Mice”.

Installation views of the "Rembrandt and the Natural World" Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

Installation views of the “Rembrandt and the Natural World” Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

The Renaissance’s interest in the natural world gives rise to centuries of artists who explore the subject.  Still life painting in northern Europe flourished in the early 17th century.  Botanical illustrators sought to discover, categorize, and document plants and animals worldwide in the quest of knowledge.  The best-known wildlife illustrator, John James Audubon (American, b. Santo Domingo [now Haiti], 1785-1851), traveled for years to document the birds and mammals of the United States.

Contemporary artists are also interested in depicting and honoring nature.   The display on the mezzanine includes works by Milwaukee artist JoAnna Poehlmann.

Installation views of the "Rembrandt and the Natural World" Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

Installation views of the “Rembrandt and the Natural World” Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

The tradition set forth by Joris Hoefnagel is alive and well in Poehlmann’s artwork.  She draws her amazingly detailed images from an extensive collection of specimens.  Her meticulous technique is obvious when looking at works such as Going Dutch I and Going Dutch IV.

Installation views of the "Rembrandt and the Natural World" Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

Installation views of the “Rembrandt and the Natural World” Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

But Poehlmann does not just celebrated the natural world in her artwork.  Her playful works display her droll sense of humor, combing her knowledge of art history and literature.  The Stamp Collection, a set of cards in a beautifully constructed envelope, juxtaposes illustrations postage stamps featuring art in order to create clever statements: a stamp of a crab with a lovingly rendered petit four makes a “crab cake” and a stamp with a tree above a perky little frog results in “tree frog.”

Installation views of the "Rembrandt and the Natural World" Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

Installation views of the “Rembrandt and the Natural World” Mezzanine rotation. Photo by the author

JoAnna Poehlmann’s creations are always best seen in person, so make sure you stop by the Mezzanine soon!  (And stop by the Museum store to take home a little of her art.)

Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.
This entry was posted in Art, Behind the Scenes, Curatorial, Exhibitions. Bookmark the permalink.

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