European Collection at the Seattle Art Museum

The permanent European Collection at the SAM is very varied, from portraits, to still lifes and landscapes. The paintings were very big and most had exquisite frames. I shudder to think how difficult it must have been to hang some of these art works, because they must weigh a ton and some were hung very high on the walls. A few of the featured artists were Georges de la Tour, Willem Claesz Heda, Bartolomé Estebán Murillo.

I have started to read A Short History of the Shadow by Victor I. Stoichita, which I saw mentioned on Steve Middlehurst’s blog (thanks for the reference Steve!) so I was pleasantly surprised to see a painting depicting the origin of art as described by Pliny  in Stoichita’s book. The legend is as follows: the daughter of Butades, a potter in Corinth, was in love with a young man. When she learned that he was going abroad, she drew an outline of his face from his shadow cast by a lamp on the wall. Her father then created a clay relief from this outline and fired it in his kiln with the rest of his pottery.

The painting is by Louis Andre Gabriel Bouchet, a French painter, and features a woman seated outdoors, holding her two children close. She is seated next to a pillar and, if you look carefully, you can see the outline of her husband’s face on the pillar. During the time the painting was made, viewers of that time would have known from the outline that the man was away at war – probably one of the Napoleonic wars if my history serves me correctly. It was also unusual for a woman to be painted outdoors. By placing her outdoors, with a protective gesture around her children, it might be understood that she has taken on the role of family protector in her husband’s absence.

Mme. H and Her Children, 1815, Louis André Gabriel Bouchet, French, 1759-1842
Mme. H and Her Children, 1815, Louis André Gabriel Bouchet, French, 1759-1842

The event that inspired the first semblance to be created was the departure of the loved one … The shadow helps the young woman capture (circumscripsit) the image of her departing lover by creating a replacement. The issue raised here is considerable, for in fact it highlights a metaphysical quality of the image whose origins should be sought in the interruption of an erotic relationship, in a separation, in the departure of the model, hence the representation becomes a substitute.

Stoichita p. 15

This painting is very big,  and has a very ornate gilt frame around it which just makes the red and green tones pop. It is extremely lifelike. I felt like reaching out to touch the softness of the fabric of the woman’s red dress. There is almost a photographic quality to the painting. One can just see the artist’s signature and year of completion at the base of the pillar. Definitely one of my favourite paintings in the museum!

The other painting which made a huge impression on me was a still life by Dutch baroque painter, Abraham van Beyeren.

Banquet Still Life ca. 1653 - 55, Abraham van Beyeren. Dutch, ca. 1620/21-1690
Banquet Still Life ca. 1653 – 55, Abraham van Beyeren. Dutch, ca. 1620/21-1690

I first viewed this huge painting from a fair distance away due to its size – again huge. But I moved in closer to try and make out the pink objects on the plate just below the gilted nautilus shell. They turned out to be two prawns, but the detail present was truly amazing. Then I started looking around the table – the half peeled orange, each glistening juice vessel within the segments visible and fit to burst. What really got me excited with this painting was the way the painter had captured all the light reflections off the various surfaces, making everything look so fresh and edible, even though the banquet is clearly over and these are the leftovers of the feast. There is even the reflection of the artist visible in the big silver jug, which makes me wonder if this painter used the camera obscura technique which Vermeer is purported to have done. This is also a painting of luxury (and excess) representing the successful trade of the Dutch East India Trading Company during that time as evident from the Chinese tableware, Venetian glass, imported fruits, as well as the ornate nautilus shell.

This exhibition was rather overwhelming both in the size of the works as well as the quality of the art. I think I will definitely do a repeat visit to this exhibit next time I visit SAM.

Reference List

Stoichita, Victor (1997). A Short History of the Shadow. London: Reaktion Books Ltd


Abraham van Beijeren [online] Wikipedia. Available from: [Accessed 16 January, 2016]

European Collection [online] Seattle Art Museum. Available from: [Accessed 16 January, 2016]


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