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Jordaens @ Petit Palais

January 07, 2014

By Florian


Going to the Petit Palais is always a pleasure. But I’ll admit that this time, I wasn’t going to admire the masterpieces of the museum’s permanent collection. Seeing this in itself is already a privilege: fine works of Rembrandt, Monet, Rodin and more wonderfully displayed in this palace where natural light flows gracefully through the tall windows and glass ceilings. Nor was I going there to have a drink in one of Paris’ best kept secrets, the Petit Palais’ café, in the intimate inner courtyard. No, this time I was going for something else, something that especially intrigued me: seeing the works of one of history’s most famous Flemish painters, Jacob Jordaens.


I cannot call myself a classic Renaissance painting connoisseur, but having 120 masterpieces of Jordaens collected and displayed in one single area is something that simply cannot be missed.

After having muscled my way through the crowd gathered on the Champs Elysées for the very lively annual Christmas market, I arrived at the Petit Palais. I bought my ticket, left my bag at the compulsory cloakroom and was eager to take in some fine 17th century Flemish art. Jordaens being part of the famous Flemish painter trio Rubens – Van Dyck – Jacob Jordaens, I was expecting perfection…


…and perfection is what I got, to say the least. The exhibition starts with a biography of Jacob Jordaens (1593 – 1678). I learned that, surprisingly, the Antwerp born bourgeois painter rarely travelled abroad. He never went to Rome to learn classic Renaissance painting and only occasionally travelled to European cities to work on specific projects. Instead, he spent almost all his life in Antwerp painting themes that he cherished the most. And it paid off. His works eventually made him one of the 500 wealthiest men in the city!


The start of the exhibition also emphasizes his ties with fellow Flemish artist Pierre Paul Rubens, a major influence on his work. Sometimes paintings were done together, although generally Jordaens would reinterpret some of Ruben’s classics.


Interestingly enough, the beginning of the exhibition not only displays works of the Flemish painter, but also objects and paintings by other artists from the same region and period. It becomes ovious that 17th century Antwerp was a very powerful and influent economic and artistic region.


Walking among the paintings of Jordaens made me realize that the painter had certain recurring themes. Biblical themes were painted as well as paintings depicting the Holy Family. It is even believed that he used the faces of people he knew (including his own and his family’s) to illustrate the faces of the Holy Family members. Other themes were more contemporary, such as portraits of the affluent and influent people of Antwerp at that time, or even paintings of his own family.


The most iconic and controversial paintings are “The King Drinks,” a series of paintings created in the 1940’s, where many drunk bourgeois are seated next to a king. Bourgeois they might have been in the social ladder, but bourgeois they were clearly not in the way they behaved. From a vomiting man to a pissing infant, the paintings clearly indicate a decadent society.


What is also very interesting about this exhibition is the number of preliminary sketches on display. Indeed, studies of facial expressions or rough sketches for the paintings’ layout had to be made before painting the final masterpiece. There are some preliminary sketches placed next to the finished paintings, which allows you to see the finesse of the artists’ work. You can then assess the work behind a simple facial expression..


The second part of the exhibition, after a staircase hall break, is really the most impressive. The arrangements of the paintings, the majestic hall of the Petit Palais and the lighting all give an impression of grandeur. And Jordaens did not only paint on canvas, he also painted the base for tapestries. 3 of these very large and impressive tapestries are on display near the end of the exhibition 


So you may be asking yourself “how does one learn how to paint in such a way?” This exhibition will tell you via an explanatory, highly interactive section. There are even painting workshops to help you better understand the process, scheduled on certain days and hours.


Not to worry though if you don’t attend a workshop, because at the end of the exhibition is the “curiosity cabinet”, a very playful area to help you fully understand Jordaens and his time. From pigment extracts (colours came from natural items, unlike our chemical paintings of today) to fabric fragments, small experiences or objects, all will help you penetrate the world of a master class painter of the 17th century.


One and a half hours has now passed since I set eyes on Jordaens’ biography at the entrance. One and a half hours of sheer beauty and perfection. Paintings such as “The 4 evangelists”, “Isaac’s Sacrifice” or the “Christ on the Cross” have me captivated and transported to an Antwerp of the 17th century.


I’ll be very honest. One thing crossed my mind: Jordaens is undoubtedly a genius, especially gifted for light, colours and composure. His family paintings or individual portraits are beautifully executed. Yet on some paintings, the people are … how to say… ugly? Were the people at that time really not so good looking? Just a thought…


The sun has set and pure silence fills the room now that most of the visitors have left the premises, the exhibition drawing to a close for today. Yet, in the far reaches of my mind, after witnessing life in 17th century Antwerp, I can somehow still hear the colourful sounds of the scenes that Jordaens painted.

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