BBC Culture

Recreating Dutch Masters with a modern twist

  • Dissecting Rembrandt

    American artist Michael Mapes takes a forensic approach to art history. The New Yorker pieces together portraits by Dutch Masters by dissecting photographs of the paintings and collecting their fragments in glass vials, plastic bags and on the end of insect pins.

    See Rembrandt’s original portrait of Maria Trip (1639).

  • Eyes for detail

    Collage materials and biological findings like eyelashes and hair become pixels in works that bridge the divide between photography and sculpture. According to Mapes: “I deconstruct the original subject, in both a figurative and literal sense, by dissecting photos of a painting and considering ways in which the parts might serve to inspire new parts within the reconstruction.”

  • Lending a hand

    Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, who was the pre-eminent portrait painter in Amsterdam when Rembrandt first arrived there in 1631, paid close attention to the position of his subject’s hands. They could be used to indicate the sitter’s personality, breaking up formal poses.

    See Pickenoy’s original portrait of Johanna Le Maire (1622)

  • Raising hemlines

    Mapes includes contemporary photographs of a woman’s thighs to hint at what he imagines as the artist’s thoughts. “Dutch painters were bound in various ways to conventions of the day,” he says. “But not painting the full figure or showing a bit of leg didn't necessarily mean the artist didn't see legs. Or perhaps, imagine them anyway.”

  • Family tree

    “Typical of Dutch aristocratic families, a number of people in Swartenhont's family were painted by various Dutch Masters,” says Mapes. He has included references to genealogy, like numbered images of Swartenhont’s own family, in the reconstruction of Maria's portrait.

    See Pickenoy’s original portrait of Maria Swartenhont (1627)

  • A delicate science

    It is part anatomy, part bricolage. “My work creates a collage of a painting of a person,” says Mapes. “I also make reference to the artist, dates and genealogy of the subject.” Mapes is both documenting and building up layers of identity, his methods more like those of an archaeologist than an artist.

  • Lineage of painters

    Bartholomeus van der Helst usurped Rembrandt as the most popular portraitist in Amsterdam during the 1640s, as Rembrandt's work grew more personal and sitters requested more elegant, less intense portraits. Mapes includes costume jewellery in this reconstruction of van der Helst’s work, reflecting the finery worn by a wife of the lieutenant admiral.

    See Bartholomeus van der Helst’s original portrait of Geertruida den Dubbelde (1668)

  • Masters as muse

    Mapes is not alone in recreating works by Dutch Masters. Feature documentary Tim’s Vermeer has been shortlisted for an Academy Award: in it, inventor Tim Jenison attempts to paint Vermeer’s The Music Lesson with the help of technology. Other contemporary artists to reference Dutch Masters in their work include the Dutch photographer Hendrik Kerstens, who has taken portraits of his daughter since 1995 using the composition and lighting technique of painters like Vermeer. His most famous image, Bag, in which a plastic bag is shaped to look like a lace hood, was used by the designer Alexander McQueen as inspiration for one of his collections. Meanwhile, American photographer Nina Katchadourian has been an Internet hit with her collection of images taken in aeroplane toilets, where she mimics the work of Dutch Masters using props like a travel pillow.