Orange and Silver
36" x 36" oil on canvas
Welcome to the Fall 2021 Whitbeck Notes. The end of the art show season is here and I look forward to spending many days and hours working up new paintings for 2022! It will be good to settle into the studio and get working with little to no interruption.
In this Whitbeck Notes I wanted to finish the story of the Lapis Lazuli and it's route from Afghanistan to Amsterdam. For those of you who might not have read the previous two installments I have added the links to each one below. I recommend reading in order.
Our painter, his name is Thomas, leaves the small shop on Koestraat and heads back to his home and studio. In his left hand is a fashionable walking stick and in his right a small wrapped package of various pigments, some pre-ground and others still in their natural state. This package is lighter then it should be by some grams, but his money purse is heavier by a few coins. The expensive Lapis Lazuli that was at the top of his materials list is still not in, and patience being a virtue, Thomas is at this moment virtueless in that respect. Azzurrum Ultramarinum, Azure D'Acre, Pierre D'Azure, these are just a few of the names that surround the Lapis Lazuli stone.
Sometimes he feels guilty about being a product of these modern times. Everything is so instant; letters via the horse-drawn canal boats are always on time, express post by fast horse, shops along the wharves have anything one could imagine, things his grandfather, or even his father, Jan, could not have dreamt of having. At a young age he experienced these earlier days of father and grandfather, but just during his lifetime an explosion of convenience has made leaps and bounds. He finds himself saying things he remembers his grandfather saying, like: "When I was young..." or "You have it so easy now, Thomas. So spoiled!". Even though he finds it amusing and chuckles to himself, it does make him feel old.
Walking along the uneaven cobble stone with the pleasant clip-clop of his shoes and the tap of his cane, Thomas thinks again on the possibility of using Azurite or Smalt, both pigments were in the apothacary shop in abundance and sitting nicely on the shelves. Much cheaper too. But the thing that makes his paintings so right on, besides his years of practice, are those areas within his panels where a thin glaze of the brilliant ultramarine blue had been applied and its intense vibrancy becomes a crowning jewel within the painting. Not only does Thomas Jansz see this himself as he steps back from the easel, arms folded, judging from afar, but friends and patrons have mentioned this on their own, without prompting: "Like blue gold!" one remarks, "Worth the extra guilders, aye Thomas!" says another.
Arien tells Thomas that he is not quite sure when the Lapis will be in, but within the month, for sure. "The weather is not at the command of the merchants." he says, "My guess is that it has landed on shore and is already making its way through the Alpine passes. Just a matter of time. Your studio is not far, I'll send someone when its in."
On the street Thomas settles to the plan that he has other things he can be doing in the meantime; a handfull of paintings in various stages of completion need some attention, sketches need to be made for upcoming work and the tulips just starting to open up will take much of his time. The idea of new blooms for his panels is very exciting to him. The time it will take to work up exact sketches on site to later be used in the studio will fill up much of his daylight hours.
He thinks of the sea-worn ships unloading in the Venetian harbor, fully loaded carts, their wheels crunching along the old Roman roads, the slow progress of the merchandise making its way from the distant east and eventually arriving in Amsterdam with the final destination being the shops and homes of its citizens. "What a marvel." he thinks, "Along all of that sea and land, miles and miles, days and months, a year even, to eventually end up in my hands!"
The canals of venice are where Thomas Jansz' Lapis Lazuli would finaly make landfall. Small boats rowing back and forth from the anchorage carry crates and bundles to the docks. When unloaded they would be stored in warehouses for the next few days waiting for middlemen and associates to come and claim them and then reload them onto carts where they would start on their overland journey to the many towns and cities of western europe. This would be the third and final leg of the entire trip. The roughest part of this last section would for sure be the route over the Alps to Augsburg, Germany using that old Roman road through the Brenner Pass.
Locals would be used as guided as well as for transport, carrying loads on their backs or strapped to two long poles which would be carried by two men. Sometimes loaded mules were used when that was a possibility. But for the most part, the brenner pass was one of those few routes through the Alps where horse or mule drawn carts could be used for its entire length, others being too steep in parts or too technical of a terrain for such luxuries. The Brenners heights, still awe inspiring to the first time traveler with its majestic mountains, were moderate enough for the earlier inhabitants to have worked a good enough road straight through and the maintenance kept up with the following generations.
With the uncertainties of the trail, any group or individual travelling in these times would wait for a second or third pary before heading into the mountains. Saftey in numbers. And as it had recently become fashionable for young nobles and people of means to travel from northern europe south, through the Alps to Italy, one would often see a mixture of social classes travelling together, making their way through the twisting, rocky paths. One could picture the wind worn faces and rough hands of the local guides progressing along with the high-born gentelmen of wealthy families dressed in the best of up-to- date, fashionable travelling clothes. Also in this group might be found the northern artist, coming from the Dutch Republic, Germany or France wishing to further their studies and travel to Italy and view for themselves the famous works of the Italian Renaissance artists. It was the thing to do and it certainly looked well in a resume when back north trying to attract patrons.
18" x 14" oil on panel
Once through the pass Innsbruck would be reached and the Inn River, on which northwards they would go, heading to Augsburg and Frankfurt and then onto Cologne further on. The many rivers throughout western Europe will offer, if not easier, then quicker travel for our Lapis Lazuli. The Rhine River will figure prominent here, which since before the Roman Empire has been used as a route of transportion and to the Romans was seen as the outermost boundry of civilization with those living beyond its silvery ribbon. "Wild" was the term given to that area and its people. The larger towns and cities situated along its shores, those with enough of a military presence, would build fortifications where tolls could be extracted from goods and merchendise travelling up and down the river. And so, this last bit of our journey would add some to the cost of Thomas Jansz' precious stone.
The river boats used here, with their long, sharp bows and sterns were the vessel of choice in transporting people and goods at this time. From as far back as Medieval times all the way up to present this practical wooden boat, 20, 30, and 40 foot long sometimes, could run its long nose up onto the shore and, this nose, used like a bridge to load and unload passengers and goods. Shallow drafted they could enter any lesser waterway without danger of hitting bottom. The river boats straight, tall sides were also well suited for the choppier conditions that could be found on the shallow, broad river deltas.
So, floating along the rivers current with the gentle lapping sound of waves against its sides, the boat and boatman with his small crew, steering oar in hand, would manage cargo and passengers down the web of rivers to the Rhine with the final destination being the great city of Amsterdam.
Even though Thomas thought himself living in a time of great convenience and efficiency, the whole system of product transportation was still susceptible to many points of disruption. Called the early modern period by historians now, it still was constrained by its old fashioned and medieval mechanics. Street lighting (Jan van der Heyden), the microscope (Anthony van Leeuwenhoek), better sewage systems, canals and irrigation, people were definitely on the move! Even so, one foot was still firmly planted in a primitive means of transportation and at the mercy of the weather. To think of all the ways in which goods could be disrupted as they headed from one area to another and either slowed or stopped all together, sometimes it is hard to imagine how Thomas Jansz' stone ever reached its final destination!
The political and natural worlds would effect all merchandise moving throughout the globe, moreso then as now. The constant conflict and war between the various nations and city-states made ship travel most uncertain. Pirates, naval blockades, broken treaties, devastated countrysides could all contribute to the delay of goods or the utter ruin of ones life fortune. Even something seemingly so insignificant as lack of seasoned lumber could seriously impede the success of a trade venture. Case in point: during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, the Catholic king of Spain, Phillip the II was puting together the famed Armada of 1588 to sail against England and teach those no-good protestants a thing or two. One of the details to this famous story, not often told, is that of Sir Francis Drakes raid on the coast of Spain previous to the setting sail of Phillips ships. During Francis' bold maneuvering was he not only succesful militarily with the destruction of some of Spains ships but he was also able to burn a large store of seasoned barrel staves before returning back north to England. These staves were crucial for the construction of the barrels needed to safely store all the food and water that the Armada would need in order to maintain a fleet as large as it had in enemy territory for a prolonged period of time. Forced to settle with constructing a majority of the Armadas barrels with green wood staves, large amounts of food and water went bad. The green wood shrunk, opening up the barrel seems during the journey north and water became putrid and food spoiled, a devastating event that added to the destruction of Spains mighty fleet (Garrett Mattingly's book The Armada, is a good one on this subject).Even though this was not a trade venture, it does illustrate one of the many ways in which transportation in these times could be hindered.
And, of course, the unpredictable weather must be taken into account. The lack of wind, too much wind, tempest, drought and plague, all natural effects that could work upon the progress of our Lapis Lazuli. Forced to find protection on a lee shore due to bad weather might possibly put you in deadly range of a swift Algerian corsaire gally. Or, dark tempest tossed, all might be lost, goods and life, wrecked upon a rocky coast. The possibility of no wind could leave ones ship idle for days. All was unpredictable. All you did know was that if all went well you could get from point A to point B in a matter of so many weeks or months. But, beyond that...who knows.
40" x 30" oil on canvas
One drop, two, then a third. The oil droplets fall onto the powdery blue pigment. A strong hand rhythmically grinds the Lapis and linseed oil together, at first into a thick paste, but then, with more drops of oil added a buttery consistency is achieved. The sound of abrasion as the pigment against stone being ground down would permeate the quiet studio. Our Lapis Lazuli has now arrived in Amsterdam.
It was not so much in strength that the grinding was done, although the forearms did get a workout, but in the smooth figure eight pattern and circular motions that the broad surface of the muller was brought to bear on the ever finer particals of Lapis Lazuli. The light blue powder making contact with the oil transforms into a rich dark blue, which will eventually be used by Thomas on his wooden panels. This most expensive pigment on the studio shelf would be used sparingly and strategically. Thomas would not grind this himself, that would be the job of his teenaged son, apprenticing now in the studio. The various colors needed for the day would be prepared in the morning, first thing, and only the colors that would be used that day. The convenience of a capped paint tube has yet to be invented. Other then a couple tricks for keeping oil paint for maybe a day or two, paint would go bad if not used right away. What a waste that would be, especially of the grandest and most precious of the blues!
To know the amazing story of the trials and tribulations of the Lapis Lazuli is only to add to its beauty. Some pigments were collected more locally, and some with interesting and complex stories of their own, but none, I think, can be as extraordinary or wide ranging as our Lapis. Touching so many diverse and rich regions, passing from person to person of such differing ideas and faiths and travelling through geographical areas of much uncertainty makes this stone, this mineral, so unique and worthy of a story that needed to be told. From the dusty caves of Afghanistans mountains in the Badakhshan Province to the shores of the Levant and the difficult waters of the Mediterranean, then through the majestic and treacherous Alpine passes and along the current of the Rhine river, we have indeed seen and experienced many things. This is the end of our story.
Copper and Dates
18" x 24" oil on panel
Be sure to keep an eye on my website: www.jameswhitbeck.com for new work as well as updates to the 2022 art show season. For any questions or comments about my work or the Notes feel free to contact me by phone or email. And thank you!
All my best,