Blog / Work of the Week: The Infant Christ and Saint John the Baptist Playing in a Mountainous Landscape by Pieter van der Werff

Posted by Katie Adkins

Pieter Van Der Werff, <em>The Infant Christ and Saint John the Baptist Playing in a Mountainous Landscape</em>, 1715. Oil on panel. 22 5/8 x 19 1/2 x 1 1/4 inches (57.5 x 49.5 x 3.2 cm). Museum purchase. 2001.42.1. Photo by Peter Paul Geoffrion.


by Katie Adkins, Assistant Curator 

Often when we think about art, we think of unique, one-of-a-kind works. It is common, however, for artists to create multiples. This could be a series of prints or photographs numbered in editions or several castings of the same sculptural form. Are these multiples any less powerful in their recreation of a previously existing work? The artist Marcel Duchamp poked fun at the art world’s emphasis on originality not only by turning mass-produced objects such as urinals into art, but by then making editions of these everyday objects. This tradition was carried on by artists such as Andy Warhol and his “Factory.” Despite their replication and duplication, museums and collectors are no less eager to own these works.

How does this practice relate to paintings created by Old Masters during the 14th through the 19th centuries? While prints and sculptures were created in editions during this time period, paintings seem to be a different creature all together. Several works in the Nasher Museum’s exhibition The Human Position (through August 18, 2013) are recreations and reconsiderations based on earlier paintings. Among this group are some of my personal favorites in the exhibition—and in the museum’s overall collection.

To look at one example, Pieter van der Werff’s The Infant Christ and Saint John the Baptist Playing in a Mountainous Landscape (1715) is a small oil on panel work depicting Christ and John the Baptist as children, embracing while seated on a rock. This painting is a replica of a portion of a work by Pieter van der Werff’s older brother Adriaen van der Werff. The elder van der Werff’s composition includes a reclining Virgin Mary seated behind the two young boys, as well as a tall flowering plant along its right edge, both of which have been removed from Pieter’s version. It appears, though, that Pieter has added in one tiny detail that is easy to miss: the Christ child holds a bird in his left hand, just visible behind John the Baptist’s shoulder. The goldfinch, whose diet consists of thistle seed and other thorny plants, is associated with Christ’s crown of thorns, and is thus included in paintings as a symbol of the Crucifixion. Pieter often copied works by his brother, who was also his teacher. (Who doesn’t love copying their older sibling? I can think of many times growing up when I wanted to do everything my older sister did!) Adriaen probably taught Pieter using his own paintings as lesson material, a practice that was typical during this time period and fundamental to an artist’s development. Pieter used his own artistic discretion in this work, editing his brother’s painting as he saw fit. While I love this painting for its beauty and amazing detail, I also like to imagine the two cousins embracing within it as a representation of Pieter’s relationship with his brother.

Other works on view in this exhibition that are derived from previous paintings include a studio version of Peter Paul Rubens’s Feast of Herod, a near replica of a portrait by Caspar Netscher attributed to Pieter Cornelisz van Slingeland, a beautiful landscape based on a work by Jan van Goyen, and a painting of Saint John the Baptist by Il Bachiacca after Andrea del Sarto. Each of these is an amazing work of art worth seeing in person for the sheer mastery of execution. Although these works may not have been the original version of a composition, each is in fact their own original, created by an artist for reasons unique to his experience—including art lessons—and finished by his own hand, sometimes with additions or subtractions. Too often our focus is diverted from the beauty in front of us by issues of originality or how well-known an artist’s name is. Let’s not forget that often the true value of art lies in what we the viewers are able to learn and love about it. 

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