Cabinet of Curiosities

Doll House Cabinet, Rijksmuseum

October 28, 2011

Mary Jo Gibson

This week’s cabinet is a custom built doll house from Sweden.  Seventeenth century doll houses were not children’s toys but a hobby for ladies comparable to the cabinets where gentlemen kept their collections.  This doll house was commissioned by Petronella Oortman, wife of merchant Johannes Brandt, from Amsterdam.  All of the components are made to scale, miniature porcelain objects from China, commissioned furniture and artist decorated interiors.  Each room is a microcosm of a 17th century home.  The tapestry room contains an unusual miniature cabinet with a collection of shells, and an exterior of imitation oriental lacquer work.  I found this unique item at the Rijksmuseum.


The Office of the Dead

The celebration of Halloween is well under way this weekend, I begin my Cabinet of Curiosities with Demons and Devotion: The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, found at the Morgan Library and Museum.

The Office of the Dead was in the back of every Book of the Hours, the way death itself was always at the back of the medieval mind.  While the other prayers in a Book of Hours are quasi-liturgical, reflecting but not equaling official church practice, the Office of the Dead is identical to that found in the service books used by the ordained representatives of the Church.  The belief is that entry into heaven was delayed by a detour into purgatory, potentially lasting thousands of years, the fires of which cleansed the soul of unforgiven sin.  Praying to the Office of the Dead for the deceased who could not pray for themselves was believed to be an effective means of reducing the fiery price of paradise.

This scary miniature from Catherine’s prayer book is a full-page depiction of the medieval hell.  The gaping lion’s mouth opens bat-like lips tipped with talons.  Demons cast damned souls into this terrifying entrance to the furnace of hell, above rises the castle of death decorated with skulls.  At the bottom crouches a green demon whose mouth sprouts scrolls inscribed with the Seven Deadly Sins. In this small miniature, the holy water and incense offered by the priest to a corpse seem like scant protection for the potential horrors depicted in the facing image.

Created in Utrecht, the Netherlands around 1440, the manuscript was taken apart sometime before 1856.  The leaves were shuffled, rebound into two volumes making each look more or less complete; originally, the first section acquired by the Duke Arenberg, and the second section acquired by the Rothschild family; the Morgan purchased the Rothschild half in 1963 and the Arenberg in 1970.


Bodleian Library reveals lost Tolkien drawings

Could the book that started all, The Hobbit from The Lord of the Rings saga, have anything new to add to another edition?  As the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit approaches, a new publication of the story has been prepared along with a highly anticipated film from Peter Jackson, who managed to bring the trilogy to the screen.  The discovery of 110 drawings by Mr. Tolkien are set to accompany The Hobbit, including 20 never before seen illustrations, making the new edition something all collectors will clamor to include in their libraries.

HarperCollins publisher David Brawn reviewed the Tolkien archive of the Bodleian Library in Oxford discovering this relatively obscure collection of illustrations – ink drawings, plans, maps, watercolors, sketches, preliminary and alternate versions of final pieces- made by the author.

“Tolkien was an accomplished amateur artist.  He was a great admirer of Arthur Rackham and you can see a little bit of the style coming through.”

The Art of the Hobbit was released October 27th, and the upcoming anniversary allows the spotlight to return to the book which started it all.


Paintings for the Private Connoisseur

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, Veronese, 1580

The Masters of Venice is showing only in San Francisco at the de Young Museum, featuring 50 works by the giants of Venetian painting such as Titian and his contemporaries Palma Vecchio, Jacopo Bassano and Andrea Mantegna.  Coming from the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna that houses a collection assembled over centuries by emperors and dukes of the Habsburg dynasty, the dazzling portraits and epic mythology themed pictures in the show were painted for wealthy Venetian patrons, who didn’t want religious paintings for their private palazzo.  They wanted secular subjects, commissioning depictions of love scenes of the gods.  Three of Titian’s big, erotically charged visions are on view, including “Danae” and “Bravo, the Assassin”, based on the story of Bacchus’ arrest in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Works such as Veronese’s “Venus and Adonis” circa 1586, where the nude goddess cradles the head of the mortal she knows will be killed in a hunting accident; these were painted for bedrooms and private studies, made for the sophisticated connoisseur of the day who delighted in the sensual realities of the world; as in Veronese’s “Anointing of David”, 1555.

Also featured are paintings by Giorgione, who died in his 30’s of the plague; The Three Philosophers, 1508-9, Portrait of a Young Woman (Laura), 1506.

Showing October 29-February 12, 2012.


William Dobson 1611-1646

The most excellent painter that England hath yet bred – John Aubrey

Endymion Porter, William Dobson, 1643-45

Almost completely forgotten by history, William Dobson was the first truly great British painter.   An artist of huge importance, he witnessed and recorded the crucial moments of British history during the English civil war, (1642-6) capturing the spirit of the conflict and painting the people involved.

An exciting life to go with his talent, but tragically short and fateful; born in London in 1611 he came from a wealthy family; his father squandered his fortune on what contemporaries described as licentious living.  Around 1625 Dobson was forced to make his own living, and targeted a career not considered suitable for an English gentleman, a painter. Initially Dobson trained with the painter and print seller William Peake, learning the trade of art dealing.  After completing a seven year apprenticeship around 1632, he went to work for the German artist Francis Cleyn, a decorative painter, book illustrator and designer of tapestries, whose work hangs in Ham House. Dobson began acquitting himself as an aspiring artist and gained access to the king’s collection where he studied great works by Van Dyck, Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.  History relates that Dobson’s neighbor was Abraham van der Doort, surveyor of the King’s pictures, who granted him entrance to this exclusive gallery.  Another story relates that Dobson was actually a pupil of Van Dyck, the king’s official painter.  But if Dobson really was Van Dyck’s student, he was determined to impose his own style, unlike Van Dyck, Dobson did not flatter his subjects.

The English Civil War broke out in 1642, forcing the King against Parliament.  Puritan versus cavalier, Charles I had become a deeply divisive monarch as the result of unpopular policies and his claim to be god’s representative on earth, the divine ruler.  Van Dyck was the perfect painter to record Charles I’s golden age, but he was not the man to paint the Civil war.  Fate stepped in and Van Dyck died in December 1641, just a few weeks before the outbreak of war.  For William, the time was fortuitous. Moving to a studio at St. John’s College, Oxford, he began to paint.  His art was fast and wristy, as the prodigious output of portraits atests.   He painted courtiers, haughty administrators, poets and men of letters, politicians, diplomats, and family supporters.  But above all, Dobson painted the soldiers, royalist heroes and the cavaliers. From about 1642 to 1645 his marvelous examples of English baroque, rich color and detail, presented strong characters determined to prevail amidst the turmoil.  As the civil war progressed, Dobson began to run out of artistic supplies, and the effect on his work was noticeable. From 1645 his portraits begin to capture the insecure and worried glances of those still left in Oxford, suffused with a melancholy sadness reflected by a thin application of paint.

With the Parliamentarians closing in, the King abandoned Oxford in the small hours of April 27, 1646, disguised as a humble servant.  Weeks later the city fell and the Royalist supporters who remained, Dobson among them, discretely returned home. Back in London William attempted to continue his career, with his name appearing in the records of the London Painters’ Guild.  Three short months later he was dead with no description of his passing, only a notation recorded in the parish records, October 28, 1646.

A painter of conspicuous talent, destiny singled him out as witness to one of the tumultuous events of British history.  When it ended, fate intervened and he died, tragically, the end of a perfect career.

Follow the Dobson Art Trail using Google map technology to trace the career of William Dobson through his paintings and the various museums and estates where they are housed.  I found a unique and colorful character from this era, Endymion Porter, one of Charles I’s favorite courtiers, a consummate diplomat and spy.


Rare beauty in a country ravaged by war…

Andreas Susana at Travelwriticus supplied me with this incredible visual to round out my Cabinet this week, Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia.  Several pictures of this park with winter scenes and various aerial images can be found at Beautiful Places to Visit.  Who knew Croatia had this gift from Mother Nature?


My Cabinet of Curiosities is a continual amazement to me with the internet supplying historical information and vivid images for my readers to contemplate.  I hope you find inspiration in these brief pieces.  If you have any suggestions for my Cabinet, please feel free to include them in the Observations section below.  Join me for Museum Monday when I look at Propaganda Art from the World Wars.




Filed under October

2 responses to “Cabinet of Curiosities

  1. Awesome collection today, Mary Jo! The Doll Cabinet is every girls dreams. The depictions of the rooms is beyond realistic. Love the Plitvice Lakes photo. Reminds us of the beauty that exists around the world even in some of the most war torn regions. Thanks 🙂

  2. Pingback: Blog Treasures 11-5 « Gene Lempp's Blog

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