Monday, April 20, 2009

Schalken the Painter by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Lady with a Candle

I first learned of Schalken the painter while reading Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's terrifying supernatural tale Green Tea, in which a scene is vividly described as resembling one of Schalken's portraits.

I guessed well the nature, though not even vaguely the particulars of the revelations I was about to receive, from that fixed face of suffering that so oddly flushed stood out, like a portrait of Schalken's, before its background of darkness.

Intrigued, I began to research this dutch painter. I found that his name is spelled alternately Godfried Schalcken or Gottfried Schalken and Le Fanu calls him Godfrey Schalken.

Godfrey Schalken was born in the Netherlands in 1643 at Dordrecht where he studied under Samuel van Hoogstraten before going to Leyden to study at the studio of Gerard Douw(Gerritt Dou 1613-1675), a famous pupil of Rembrandt. Like his master Douw, Schalken specialized in small candlelit scenes, a popular technique among the painters of the Fijnschilders(fine painting) school, known for their highly polished and intricately detailed style.

Much to my delight, I discovered that Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu had written a story about Godfrey Schalken entitled Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter, one of a collection of supernatural tales published as the Purcell Papers, being ostensibly the papers of one Francis Purcell, a parish priest in the south of Ireland, and a curious and industrious collector of old local traditions.

The story of Schalken the Painter is one these old local traditions. It begins with Purcell's recollection of a visit to his friend Captain Vandael, whose father had served King William in the Low Countries.

I had often been struck, while visiting Vandael, by a remarkable picture, in which, though no connoisseur myself, I could not fail to discern some very strong peculiarities, particularly in the distribution of light and shade, as also a certain oddity in the design itself, which interested my curiosity.

‘There are some pictures,’ said I to my friend, ‘which impress one, I know not how, with a conviction that they represent not the mere ideal shapes and combinations which have floated through the imagination of the artist, but scenes, faces, and situations which have actually existed. When I look upon that picture, something assures me that I behold the representation of a reality.’

Captain Vandael responds:

‘Your fancy has not deceived you, my good friend, for that picture is the record, and I believe a faithful one, of a remarkable and mysterious occurrence. It was painted by Schalken, and contains, in the face of the female figure, which occupies the most prominent place in the design, an accurate portrait of Rose Velderkaust, the niece of Gerard Douw, the first and, I believe, the only love of Godfrey Schalken. My father knew the painter well, and from Schalken himself he learned the story of the mysterious drama, one scene of which the picture has embodied. This painting, which is accounted a fine specimen of Schalken’s style, was bequeathed to my father by the artist’s will, and, as you have observed, is a very striking and interesting production.’

Vandael proceeds to tell Purcell the terrible story behind the painting, the tragic story of Godfrey Schalken's ill fated love for his master Gerard Douw's niece, Rose Velderkaust.

Girl with a Candle

The characters in the story are Godfrey Schalken(Godfried Schalcken), Gerard Douw(Gerritt Dou), Rose Velderkaust, and Mynher Vanderhauseny of Rotterdam, a wealthy, but not quite human gentleman from Rotterdam who bears a striking resemblance to a carving in the Church of Saint Lawrence in Rotterdam. The story itself is the traditional dutch legend of Schalken the painter. It is the story of how Godfrey Schalken became so notoriously disagreeable.

There are few forms upon which the mantle of mystery and romance could seem to hang more ungracefully than upon that of the uncouth and clownish Schalken—the Dutch boor—the rude and dogged, but most cunning worker in oils, whose pieces delight the initiated of the present day almost as much as his manners disgusted the refined of his own; and yet this man, so rude, so dogged, so slovenly, I had almost said so savage, in mien and manner, during his after successes, had been selected by the capricious goddess, in his early life, to figure as the hero of a romance by no means devoid of interest or of mystery.

Who can tell how meet he may have been in his young days to play the part of the lover or of the hero—who can say that in early life he had been the same harsh, unlicked, and rugged boor that, in his maturer age, he proved—or how far the neglected rudeness which afterwards marked his air, and garb, and manners, may not have been the growth of that reckless apathy not unfrequently produced by bitter misfortunes and disappointments in early life?

Like a Dutch master, Le Fanu uses words to paint in vivid detail the scenes and characters in Schalken the Painter with the same dimly lit effect of mystery and romance that so distinguishes Schalken's paintings. Art history, legend, and great storytelling converge exquisitely in this fantastic tale.

This tale is traditionary, and the reader will easily perceive, by our studiously omitting to heighten many points of the narrative, when a little additional colouring might have added effect to the recital, that we have desired to lay before him, not a figment of the brain, but a curious tradition connected with, and belonging to, the biography of a famous artist.

After the death of his master Gerard Douw in 1675, Schalken returned to Dordrecht until 1691 when he settled in The Hague. He visited England from 1692-1697 where he painted many portraits, including a famous portrait of William III.

Schalken was as famous for the quality of his candlelit portraits as he was infamous for his uncouth manners and bad temper, which mortified the english. Consequently He was not very well received socially in England and returned to The Hague where he lived and painted until his death in 1706.

Self Portrait

This self portrait by Schalken provides an ideal example of the uncouth manners and vulgar sense of humour for which he was so renowned. Look at his right hand. Your eyes do not deceive you...and yes that gesture did mean the same thing then. I can almost hear the gasps of the stuffy english aristocrats.

The painting mentioned in the story does not exist. It is an amalgamation of themes in many of Schalken's paintings including the ones on this page.

The Purcell Papers were published in three volumes in 1880. A complete edition has never been reprinted and the first edition is rare and extremely costly. Arkham House published a one volume selection of the stories, but this is not complete and does not include Schalken the Painter. Facsimile reprints of the complete three volume text can be ordered from print on demand publishers. Fortunately the entire text is available for download or online reading at these links.

Works by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu at The University of Adelaide Library

Works by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu on Gutenberg