Art: A death-bed conversion to Romanticism

Dutch painting: still lifes, interiors, maybe the odd cow... so what on earth is this? By Iain Gale
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The Independent Culture
This picture should never have been painted. Isaak Walraven's Deathbed of Epaminondas, currently on view at the National Gallery, is an art-historical oddity: a fascinating example of artistic influence and a caveat to those who would categorise art by period and style. The painting is ill at ease in the National Gallery show - quite different in subject and execution to those which surround it. Epaminondas is a stoic essay in an age of bourgeois tastefulness, painted by an artist entirely out of step with the Zeitgeist.

Walraven was a goldsmith by trade and took up painting relatively late (this work was completed when he was 40). It was the income from the family business that enabled him to disregard a contemporary public still obsessed with the previous century - the "Golden Age" of Dutch painting. Rather than imitate Rembrandt or Vermeer, Walraven looked to a different source. The intense expressions of grief and despair on the face of his characters betray his debt to the formulaic writings of the French art theorist Charles Lebrun, whose influential treatise Mthode pour apprendre dessiner les Passions was well-known in the Netherlands. Lebrun had been a pupil of Nicolas Poussin, and herein lies the key to a partial understanding of Walraven's picture.

Exactly 100 years earlier, in 1626, Poussin had completed his Death of Germanicus, now on view at the Royal Academy. The first appearance in Western art of the subject of the hero on his death-bed, this painting was to become a catalyst in the creation of one of the major themes in neo-Classical art of the later 18th century.

Now, however, in 1726, some 40 years before such artists as Gavin Hamilton and Benjamin West, Walraven, probably working from a print, appears to have based his composition on a reversed image of the Poussin. There is more here, though, than mere bastardisation. Certainly Walraven lifted, almost verbatim, such figures as the advancing officer in the foreground and the weeping general on the left, his hidden face echoing Pliny's assertion, accepted by Poussin, that true grief is impossible to depict. However there is something disquieting and uniquely northern in the artist's vision. For all his attempts, Walraven is unable to sustain the stoic detachment of the early Poussin. This painting is riddled with unresolved, unexplained gestures. The hero, caught at the moment of death, wears the expression almost of a Baroque saint. The bearded philosopher on the right wrings his hands with a possessed, emotional intensity. And why should such a strong white light fall only on the misplaced, plaintive bacchante in the centre-left of the canvas? Walraven's palette, too - intended, presumably, to echo Poussin's "blond" period - lapses into a pastiche, closer to rococo pastel. The artist just cannot quite ignore the effects of 100 years of painting. His attempt to recover discipline and method within "high" subject matter is doomed to failure. The artist may affect a stoic attitude and offer his Epaminondas as an "exemplum virtutis", but he cannot escape the fact that his real interest is in the human condition. In his attempts to do Poussin "by numbers", Isaak Walraven has stumbled upon one of the master's secrets. He has awakened the sleeping giant of nascent Romanticism - and it's quite beyond his control.

n `The Age of Elegance: Dutch Painting of the 18th Century', National Gallery, London WC2 to 26 March; `Nicolas Poussin', RA, London W1, to 9 April