Art and life / by Jeannine Cook

Scrolling through the amazing amount of mail received on the Web, I sometimes come across an image of a painting or drawing that stops me in my tracks. Just as when you round the corner in a museum and come face to face with a work of art that takes your breath away...

Yesterday, I was reading the daily Art Knowledge newsletter and there was the image of a painting I had always loved, Rogier van der Weyden's St. Joseph, done about 1445. I know it from having seen it in the wonderful Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, where it is hung with another part of the original altarpiece, the painting of St. Catherine. Her painting is lovely, but it is the tempera painting of St. Joseph which is breathtaking. Van der Weyden depicts an elderly, thoughtful man whose powerful expressiveness is remarkable. His portrait, direct and detailed, even to the whispy stubble on his chin and the lined, reflective face, depicts him three-quarters face, as if he were hesitating and thoughtful just before he turned to face one and say something gentle and considered. The Gothic architecture and slight landscape behind him are neutral and elegantly refined, a perfect complement to the directness of the portrait.

As I gazed at the digital image of St. Joseph, I thought of the quote I had found when Henry Miller wrote that "art teaches nothing except the significance of life". This portrait is a supreme example of that.

The portrait was being reproduced as it is presently being exhibited at the opening exhibition of an enlarged and updated Vander Kelen-Mertens municipal museum in Leuvens, Belgium. The link to Leuvens for Rogier van der Weyden is important - he apparently painted one of his most celebrated pieces there, the Descent from the Cross, another amazing work which is in the Prado, Madrid. Not only did van der Weyden achieve paintings of refinement and luminosity whose human dramas reach out to us across some six and a half centuries, but he also left us a work which I particularly love as a silverpoint artist. At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, there is a wonderful self-portrait as St Luke done about 1440. He is making a drawing for his painting of the Virgin, in a setting he apparently copied from Jan van Eyck's Madonna of Chancellor Rolin. And he is making a silverpoint drawing....something I don't believe was depicted by any other artist.