by Len Lear
The Chestnut Hill Film Group usually screens classic American films that movie buffs are familiar with, but the film they will be showing on Tuesday, Nov. 1, is probably unknown to everyone but a tiny sliver of the cognoscenti. The rare 1979 British film, “Schalcken the Painter,” tells the story of Godfried Schalcken (1643 to 1706), a little-known but magnificent Dutch genre and portrait painter who was a master of reproducing the effect of candlelight.
Noted art historian Dr. Nicole Elizabeth Cook will introduce the screening of this fascinating film. “Nicole is one of the world’s foremost Schalcken experts, and her introduction/lecture is sure to be a compelling education,” said Andrew Repasky McElhinney, a film producer, writer and director who grew up in Chestnut Hill and is now a screenwriting/cinema instructor at Rowan University and Rutgers University. (McElhinney has made five feature films, including “A Chronicle of Corpses” in 2000, which a New York Times critic named one of the 10 best films of that year.)
Dr. Cook, 30, is a Fishtown resident and fine art researcher at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in center city whose doctoral dissertation was about Schalcken. How did she get interested in Schalcken? “When you see a nocturnal painting by Schalcken for the first time, I think it immediately grabs you as unusual and evocative,” she replied. “The embrace of darkness and shadow and the intimate scale in his art is really unique.
“There is also an overt sense of romanticism and eroticism in many of his compositions, an aspect that the film ‘Schalcken the Painter’ revels in. His paintings often reveal the private moments of courtship and seduction that happened behind closed doors and under the cover of night during the early modern period.”
Although Schalcken is little-known now compared to his Dutch contemporaries like Rembrandt and Vermeer and the Flemish Rubens, he was very successful in his own time. “He spent time living in London,” said Dr. Cook, “and earned commissions in Italy and other parts of Europe. He seems to have been quite in demand for his portraits and his so-called ‘candlelight’ paintings.
“Later on, some 18th and 19th-century critics thought of him as a one-trick pony, but the candlelight pictures were hugely popular during his time. It’s very exciting to watch Schalcken re-emerge in art history and for the broader public. I recently had the privilege of writing for the catalogue of his first-ever monographic exhibition in Cologne last year and it was a wonderful opportunity to bring Schalcken to wider audiences. That’s why it is such a pleasure to bring ‘Schalcken the Painter,’ a film that embraces not just Schalcken but Dutch art as a whole, to the Woodmere Art Museum, which has such an impressive collection of its own and a community of visitors deeply engaged in art.”
Why is Schalcken not better known today? “Partly because he was fairly prolific, his works are not consistently impressive in the way that, say, Vermeer’s very small oeuvre is. Schalcken also had a fairly smooth, ‘fine’ method of painting that fell out of favor in the 20th century, when the gestural brushiness of Rembrandt and Hals was celebrated as more ‘modern.’
“In addition, there are a lot of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish artists who have become lost to history simply because they are not Rembrandt. For instance … there are several genre specialists, such as Thomas Wijck, Mattheus van Helmont and Justus van Bentum, who were creating popular compositions for middle-class and elite audiences but who are barely known today outside of small groups of art historians.”
According to Woodmere Art Museum,’s website, “Schalcken the Painter,” which is 70 minutes long, “is based on Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 ghost story. Director Leslie Megahey’s Gothic film pulls the audience into the shadowy fantasy world of real-life painters Gerrit Dou and Godfried Schalcken. Paintings by Schalcken and others offer visual inspiration and set the stage for tantalizing mystery, impossible love, strange attraction and spectral art.”
“Schalcken the Painter” will be shown Tuesday, Nov. 1, 7:30 p.m., at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave. More information at www.woodmereartmuseum.org.