Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Cornelis de Man's whale painting

Continuing with thoughts on whales, this is a Dutch painting of 1639, of whales being flensed and reduced to whale oil in Spitzbergen. It is in the Rijksmuseum. Not the kind of thing you expect to see in an oil painting, but Dutch art had adapted itself so flexibly to recording realities, that, on second thoughts, it appears inevitable that such a subject would be executed. These would be 'Right' or bowhead whales. It seems that the fishery (mammalery?) was effective in the usual unthinking way of these things. According to the History of Whaling on the Wikipedia site http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_whaling
Spitzbergen and Jan Mayen Island were fished (or mammaled) out by 1645. I mean to check if Keith Thomas's Man and the Natural World, 1500-1800 has anything about whales in it - I do not recall any, but this wonderful book explains the ideology behind such reckless exploitation.
I'd come across the painter before, using his 'The Chess Players' in a lecture I give on Thomas Middleton's Women beware Women which has a chess-playing scene (see the painting at http://www.wga.hu/html/m/man/chess_pl.html ). This is quite a sharp painting of a formalised battle between the sexes - the girl looks back at the viewer, and gestures to the male opponent she has just outwitted. A prominently belled cat makes a further point about the male as failed predator. But how de Man ended up painting a scene from the artic circle no-one explains. Did he voyage up there, or work from sketches brought back?
The Web Gallery of Art locates this scene (in their information pane on the painting) on Jan Mayen Island. But the setting is definitely 'Smeerenburg' ('Blubber-Town') in Spitzbergen ('Sharp Mountains'), with the very distinctive 'Devil's Thumb' mountain showing. 'Blubber-Town' was occupied just in three summer months.

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