Friday Oct 25th Hendrika Foster: The Status of Silk in Art

Again we can expect a fascinating trip into a different world of Art.  This time art historian Hendrika Foster will be exploring the way masterly artists displayed their own skill and the wealth and status of their clients by painting their rich silk garments with incredible sensitivity and control.

 

 

In the Balsam Centre at 7.30. Entry free for members, £5 for visitors. Refreshments and socialising at the end

Yet again Hendrika in her talk The Status of Silk in Art took us to places we had never been to or thought about.  As several people said to me, “I thought  the subject “The Status of Silk in  Art” sounded rather dull, but it was fascinating.”

Hendrika focused on explaining what lead up to the painting of the little Dutch girl above.  She was two and dressed in the most beautiful and elaborate silk gown complete with the finest lace accessories standing by her nurse who is dressed in modest black and is offering her fruit.

Hendrika started by showing us how as the art of portraiture developed from  earlier sacred art, artists became increasingly adept at painting fabric, silk and jewels with amazing fidelity using their valuable hand-crafted oil paints. Their subjects, kings and nobles, sought to display their wealth, status, beauty and sophistication, not just by the realistically recognisable portrayals of their faces, but by the portrayal of their clothes. She explained to us  how in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries several dyes were quite fabulously rare and expensive, coming all the way from Afghanistan or the Lebanon and that silk itself was a rare and extremely expensive cloth and thread coming first from China that only the super rich could think of wearing. To emphasise their exclusivity the upper orders of society imposed “sumptuary laws” limiting the wearing of scarlet and purple and fine garments of silk to the persons of royal or the highest noble quality with the lower orders condemned to fustian garments.

High street fashion may blind us to the fact that some things have hardly changed as haute couture remains the preserve of the ultra well healed, but the little Dutch girl so exquisitely painted did record a cultural shift, for she was neither royalty nor nobility, but the daughter of a very rich merchant.

As always Hendrika had a superb set of images to illustrate her theme and she succeeded in getting us to look at them in a new way by recognising what would have been really important for those who commissioned them and first saw them. She lead us to look not just at the incredibly elaborate clothes and gowns, but at the rugs and cushions, furniture and jewellery, scarves and laces that said so much not just about who the high status women were, but even more about the high status men whose power they projected.

.John Baxter