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

Article excerpt

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. …