You think THAT’S weird? Check this out…

The Washington Post runs this regular feature in which an art critic takes an extended look at an interesting painting. It’s a feature I frequently enjoy, but this one particularly grabbed me. The headline was “This Renaissance portrait is even stranger than it appears.”

Which was true enough. As the critic, Sebastian Smee (a name that sounds as though his parents really, really wanted him to be an art critic, so congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Smee), notes, regarding this painting by the Dutch artist Dirck Jacobsz:

You might assume it’s a self-portrait, showing the artist at his easel, putting the finishing touches on a portrait of a woman, perhaps his wife… In that fiction, you, the viewer, would be in the position of the woman posing for her portrait, admiring, perhaps, the artist’s skill (or wishing you had thought to smile more). But you would also know that, in reality, it must have been the painter who stood where you stand. He painted the picture, after all….

But that would be an inaccurate impression. Here’s what’s going on:

To begin with, it’s not a self-portrait. It’s a portrait of the artist’s father, Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c. 1472-1533), who was also a painter. The picture on the easel is the artist’s mother. So it’s really a picture of the artist’s father painting his wife, the artist’s mother. What’s so disarming about it is the way both subjects — father and mother — stare out at their son, for whom you, the viewer, are now a substitute….

The painting is even odder than that, in several ways Smee goes on to mention. But you get the idea — it’s not what you expect.

So yeah, that’s pretty weird. And even weirder once you look at it more than a second. But the reason the article grabbed me, since it was about Dutch Renaissance art, was that made me think, Yeah, Dutch art was weird, back in the day, but that’s not the weirdest!

OK, I was slightly off on that. What I was remembering was a Flemish painting. I think. But gimme a break — the memory was from a long time ago. And we’re still talking Low Countries, right?

Thanks to the miracles of Google, I managed to find the painting I was thinking of. It was in one of my high school textbooks, I think when I was living in Tampa (I attended three high schools, in Bennettsville, Tampa and Honolulu). I don’t know what kind of textbook — maybe history or literature. I never took art appreciation in high school, so it wasn’t that.

In any case, I didn’t appreciate this one, by Jan van Eyck. It creeped me out every time I opened the book to that page. Fortunately, I didn’t open textbooks all that often in high school, but a couple of times was enough.

Look at that thing. It’s called by a number of names, one of them being “The Arnolfini Wedding.” But that can’t be right unless the wedding was held way, way late — given the condition of the “bride.” Of course, anything is possible. I don’t know much about Netherlandish marital conventions in the 15th century, and anyway, her “groom” appears to be a space alien.

Look at that dude! It’s supposedly the Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, but I don’t think I’ve ever met an Italian anything who looked like that. And it’s not just his hat.

According to Wikipedia, the experts say the lady isn’t pregnant. Yeah, right. Maybe this is why Trumpistas don’t listen to “experts.” (No, I don’t think that explains them, either, but I keep trying.)

I say I was in Tampa when I had that textbook because I have a vague memory of having been alone in a house late at night and seeing that picture, and being really creeped out. But maybe it doesn’t bother you. It’s funny, at least to me, that seeing such an unrelated picture in the newspaper would kick off a memory like that from more than 50 years ago. It’s sort of like when I was at an event the other night and some madeleines were set out on the table, which made me think of Proust. Go figure. I make this allusion in case you think it’s weird for me to write 860 words about that old picture. Hey, at least I didn’t write a 4,215-page cross between a novel and an encyclopedia.

I was thinking about turning this into a Top Five Weird Paintings From History, but all I could think of was this one. Oh yeah, I’ve seen plenty of weird paintings, but they’re mostly intentionally weird. Like Hieronymous Bosch, and this. And this and this.

But these folks apparently paid to have this portrait done, and probably hung it on the wall proudly. And I’ve never been able to decide whether that means Flemish people were all weird in 1434, or just the Andolfinis. Anyway, we’re expected to believe that somebody thought this was a good look.

Anyway, do any of y’all know of any painting that was more unintentionally weird than this? If so, I’d like to see it. But probably not more than once…


8 thoughts on “You think THAT’S weird? Check this out…

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, and you can’t suggest any modern art. Especially not abstract expressionists.

    I mean somebody who was just trying to paint a picture of something real, and probably thinking it was a NICE picture, but it’s weird as all get out.

    Something that would make a high school kid wonder whether it shows that everybody was weird back in the day, or this is just one weird picture…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Of course, there was a time when, from what I’ve seen, when humans had not yet learn to draw.

      Ever look at some of those illuminations in Medieval manuscripts? Those monks should have stuck to writing fancy letters…

    2. James Edward Cross

      First, mom looks like she’s really upset with her artist son …. 🙂
      I think it’s only fair for one of those experts to have their say:
      You must define your terms. What do you mean by “modern?” Are you thinking of anything later that the Impressionists? Which, by the way, is often considered to be the beginning of modern art. Or are you drawing your line at Realism as practiced by Courbet or Millet?
      I’ll give a vote to _Love’s Shadow_ by Frederick Sandys:'s_Shadow_-_Anthony_Frederick_Augustus_Sandys.jpg
      Is she trying to eat that bouquet? 🙂

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Yes, I’m talking post-impressionist…

        Of course, to this day, artists make sincere attempts to be representational in a way that would please their subjects — which is what I think van Eyck was trying to do for the Arnolfinis…

        It’s just that that’s not the art that is famous and gets discussed, usually… It’s not what is taken seriously


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