I am “one in two-hundred females with color blindness”. I can distinct primary colors pretty well, and find my self mostly struggling with some varieties of blended colors. I have always been drawn to artworks with lots of black tones like for instance those of the Dutch painter Jan Mankes, 1889-1920. When in a room with several paintings, like in the Museum of Arnhem, these are the ones that my eyes are drawn to.
Selfy with owl
When I first saw his work in our local art museum I was blown away by the paintings of Jan Mankes. The colors he uses, the topics of his works and even the small size of his paintings, accredit to the fantastic sober, dark and natural atmosphere of his artistic legacy. The frames that were used for his paintings, are made of wood and are often very broad and robust, also complimenting the petite fragile inner state of the paintings. Since that moment in the museum, (to me almost a spiritual happening) I became a big fan of his work. Most artworks by Mankes have that darkness that I like. A literal darkness. I think the scarceness of bright and light colors is in beautiful contrast with Mankes smooth, powdery and gentle streak.
View from his atelier in Eerbeek
His sometimes unusual use of color and the dark blend, makes me wonder if Mankes might have been colorblind. It takes one to know one I suppose?
Darkness in old paintings, like that in the paintings of the great masters, Rembrandt van Rijn for instance, was often caused by the layer upon layer of yellowed and browned lacquer and the dependence on natural sources of daylight. Next to that, their paint and pigments where natural and made by following very precise alchemy recipes. Sometimes the pigments and the paint where poorly made. Turning black after long periods of time because the pigments in the paint turned out to be unstable.
Art lovers and artists themselves have come to associate the darkness in the paintings with the quality of the old masters. Later generations of artists have used special dark brown lacquer for their paintings in order to create that brown and yellowish veil over their works.
Porcupine Woodblock by Jan Mankes
I have recently read some of the correspondence of Jan with his friend and art collector Gouma (1882 – 1926) The way Jan writes about the weather, nature and his environment, makes me think he was a fan of “the dark days before Christmas “as we say here in the Netherlands and actually enjoyed those beautiful soft and natural colors that come with that time of the year. I came to understand that Jan was very inspired by the woodblock prints of the Japanese artist Hokusai and bought his very first etching press because he wanted to make prints himself. In 1913 he started with his first prints and I am glad that he did because the woodblock prints and etchings by Jan Mankes are of an exceptional quality as you can see here on the left. Portraying a prickly animal so soft and touchable with only black and white as an option is truly the work of a great artist. I must say that I am always scouting to hopefully obtain one of those great woodblock prints by Jan Mankes. They are being sold for absurd amounts of money here in Jan Mankes’s Lowlands.
Zilverwyandotte, woodcut by Jan Mankes
In 1920, Jan Mankes unfortunately died from tuberculosis when he was only 30 years old. He left a legacy of 150 small paintings, 100 drawings, and 50 graphics.
I have translated one of Jan’s many letters for reference: “A Letter from Jan Mankes”.