Wednesday, 12 January 2011
Look into the dark
In the course of any life there are remarkable discoveries to be made, sometimes quite by accident. I first became aware of the strange, enigmatic and atmospheric work of Godfried Schalcken, a Dutch genre painter of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, through a short story, a story that I will come to in a moment, though you may have already guessed the title and the author.
Schalcken painted in the precise and exquisitely detailed manner of the Leiden Fijnschilders, literally fine painters. His particular specialty was portraits or intimate scenes by night, the figures illuminated only by candle light. The first thing one notices is images captured by light, faces and figures; the second the dark beyond, impenetrable and slightly threatening.
His paintings are wonderfully atmospheric, but the enigma and strangeness is for me a way of seeing, a psychological frame, if you like, given by a reading of Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter (sic), a gothic horror story written by Sheridan Le Fanu. I came across this in an anthology when I was twelve, a time I was passing through my own peculiar gothic phase, and it gave me a quite delicious sense of terror! I still look into the darkness of Schalcken’s paintings with a slight sense of unease, even after all these years.
If you don’t know the story it tells of kinship betrayed by avarice, of love frustrated, of heartless bargains; it tells of an unnatural union between life and death. It was originally published in The Purcell Papers, purporting to be manuscripts of the late Rev. Francis Purcell, an Irish priest, who tells of a visit to a Dutch friend;
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. It represented the interior of what might be a chamber in some antique religious building--the foreground was occupied by a female figure, arrayed in a species of white robe, part of which is arranged so as to form a veil. The dress, however, is not strictly that of any religious order. In its hand the figure bears a lamp, by whose light alone the form and face are illuminated; the features are marked by an arch smile, such as pretty women wear when engaged in successfully practising some roguish trick; in the background, and, excepting where the dim red light of an expiring fire serves to define the form, totally in the shade, stands the figure of a man equipped in the old fashion, with doublet and so forth, in an attitude of alarm, his hand being placed upon the hilt of his sword, which he appears to be in the act of drawing.
'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.'
The Dutchman immediately confirms the impression and begins to unravel the tragic and terrible story of Rose Vanderklaust, the niece and ward of the painter Gerard Douw- another real Dutch master-, to whom Schalken was apprenticed. She was, by the light of the author’s imagination, to be the painter’s first and only love, given away, as it turns out, like a chattel as a matter of profit and loss to a mysterious rival, a certain Mynher Vanderhausen of Rotterdam. But Vanderhausen is not just mysterious; he is something else altogether. If you want to know exactly what, if you want to know what happens to Rose, do read the story for yourself. I certainly don’t want to spoil it for you!
Le Fanu’s prose is superlative. He uses words in the same precise way that the Dutch master uses paint, a style which excites the imagination, a technique which adds to the atmosphere and the general mood of tension. Above all he has the most intimate understanding of the work of the real Schalcken, which has enabled him to weave a life into a macabre legend in a masterly and seamless fashion.
I should say, just in case you set off in pursuit, that the painting referred to in the story does not actually exist; it merely represents a kind of amalgam of Schlacken’s work. However, given the references in the story I am convinced that the central model Le Fanu had in mind, Rose with her arch smile, is that of Girl with a Candle, with the dark threatening to envelop a guarded and uncertain light.