Off we go with mediæval art in Valenciennes. And the very first thing is an a winged altarpiece by Pieter Coecke Van Aels of L’Adoration des mages, and guess who’s there? Nah, don’t, just look at that beautiful left wing.
A sad theme throughout the smaller salles was heavily varnished works like this facing outwards to uncovered windows. There were diffusing blinds, but only drawn three-quarters of the way down. Works like this I had to assemble from multiple images, or in this case, photograph from the side, above, or combination of unflattering angles and fix the mess in Photoshop. There’s only so much fixing of specular highlights and distortion software can do, so call these approximate.
And directly to Hieronymous Bosch. Never easy to call a favourite (because of all the mawkish adoration—kinda like the Mona Lisa, except the Mona Lisa is actually crap), but fuck me if he wasn’t on some strong acid. It’s some Salvador Dalí-shaming levels of freak.
Opposite that, and this gives an idea of how small the museum is, how quick it moves through epochs—we’re covering about a century in these three works—one of those Le banquier et sa femme pieces which I love cos it’s actually The Banker and her Employee. I’m all for historical revisionism right here. There were plenty of successful female merchants and guildswomen in the middle ages and renaissance, and reframing the possessive if nothing else helps regard works with slightly lesser unconscious contemporary bias. And I like she being all boss, “Count my money while I read important shit.”
Into the main hall. It’s called the salle Rubens for a reason.
Let’s divert and do some context: the outer wing salles are about 35 metres long, 12 metres wide, 8-10 metres high to the roofline, topped with steep glass atrium. The whole place was reopened in September after a two-year renovation, concurrent with quite a few restorations. There’s 400 paintings and 160 sculptures on display, of which I stupidly committed to blogging ninety-nine. But we’re talking size here. Both of those 12×8 metre end walls are filled to leaking with a single Rubens each.
I had a moment of vertiginous comprehension right then of art in Europe. In Australia seeing a Rubens is the province of special Once-In-A-Lifetime touring exhibitions in the National Galleries—Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra—and of shelling out $30 or more for the privilege, probably a camera ban too, extremely unlikely to be these massive, monolithic almost 100 square metre pieces. In Europe, I wander into the equivalent of Albury–Wodonga, pay 4.50€ and have a hall where each of the works has the surface area of a room and they’re all fucking Rubens or Maerten de Vos or Caravaggistis or you know, like digging up your backyard and finding a Roman burial chamber.
The first and smallest is a de Vos, another L’Adoration des mages and it’s a charmer. And cos photography doesn’t tell you anything about how big or small a work is, in this case the figures are about lifesize. You’re probably thinking, “But Frances, it’s all religious shit right there. WTF?” (Coz I see your eyes glaze over when I talk about this shit, just like they do when I go all Nürburgring 24h on you.) And you’d be right. But you’re wrong. Ignore Mary and the Holy Family for a second and look at the crowd scene. Look at the clothing, the headdresses, the people. Look at the camels. Look at the elephants!
Next to that, another de Vos, La Sainte Parenté, which I love for its wall-to-wall women.
And opposite, Rubens’ Le martyre de Saint Etienne. The brushwork, movement, light, photos don’t really convey this, especially with its size. And for size: his Le Triomphe de l’Eucharistie, one of those end wall pieces. We’re talking not quite double life-size here. And check out the babes at the bottom. Totally, “That’s my Fetish!” right there.
Out of the salle and into the small ones. Jean-Baptiste Vanmour is a very interesting guy, as his name indicates. Portrait d’un dignitaire noir is the size of a large book, buckets of glaze and subdued tones and requisite naked window lighting glare. It’s a full-length piece, his clothing is sumptuous. This is about the best I could do, and even then the colour balance is iffy.
And then a goat. Any museum without goats, I am not interested. This one had at least three.
I’m whipping through some rooms here, until we get to Jan Cossiers’ La diseuse de bonne aventure, which I realised in the Louvre is a bit of a northern European theme (pretty sure I’ve seen this subject in Gemäldegalerie). The rich young fop who has his purse cut on one side while getting his palm read on the other. I’m not sure if the message is, “Gypsies. amirite?” or “LOL Fop!” slash “Doin’ it for teh lulz.” Anyway, Baroque memes.
Approximately next to that, drunk family and bagpipes. Thank you very much, Jacob Jordaens and your Les Jeunes piaillent comme chantent les vieux, quite a bit for the pleased woman on the right and her glass. You know you’d get your drunk on with her.
In the same chamber—I think, one of the smaller quartet ones anyway—is the brilliant Architecture animée de personnages by Jacobus Ferdinandus Saeys. He was seriously into painting architecture, but it’s personnages here, the women in their mad clothing, hats and parasols, and the principally the prancing guy filling up the empty lower left quarter, tripping gaily with two dogs and a red parrot matching his boots and scarf, dressed in black and yellow stripes, a feather in his turban … in all my museuming I’ve seen none finer. None. Finer.
So I’m just going to stop this first part here, and let you wander through the remaining pieces.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes continues in the Rotonda & salon Carpeaux.