Like an obelisk: Nabi paintings of Jan Verkade

Jan Verkade (1868–1946), Saint Sebastian (1891-94), tempera on board, 46.5 x 23 cm, Musée départemental Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Wikimedia Commons.

If some of the more prolific Nabis have become quite obscure, those who had brief artistic careers like Jan Verkade (1868–1946) have all but vanished. Known in the group as le nabi obéliscal (the obeliscal Nabi), he became a Benedictine monk in 1894 and was later ordained as a priest.

Verkade was born into a Mennonite family in the Netherlands, and was brought up in Amsterdam. He developed an obsession for drawing in the Rijksmuseum, and went on to study at the city’s State Academy of Fine Arts in 1887. Two years later, he left and moved to the more rural town of Hattem, where he became influenced by literature including the writings of Huysmans, Baudelaire and Verlaine.

In 1891, Verkade moved to Paris, where he was introduced to Paul Gauguin and immediately fell under his influence. He painted in Paul Sérusier’s studio, following the principles laid down by Gauguin. In the Spring of that year, he moved to Pont-Aven in Brittany, where he painted landscapes and local people with Sérusier.

Jan Verkade (1868–1946), Decorative Landscape I (date not known), oil on panel, 86 x 57 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

Verkade’s two Decorative Landscape paintings, of which this is the first, were almost certainly made in or near Pont-Aven during this first intense period in his art. This is in its own way as ‘abstract’ as Sérusier’s Talisman, which had been painted there in 1888. This shows some cottages at the edge of the village, through a grille formed by three tree-trunks.

Jan Verkade (1868–1946), Decorative Landscape II (1891), oil on panel, 86 x 57 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden. Wikimedia Commons.

His second Decorative Landscape (1891) is more conventional, although still strongly influenced by Gauguin. His brushwork remains clearly visible, but doesn’t show the constructive strokes typical of Cézanne’s or even Sérusier’s painting of the time. His colours remain muted, and the depth flattened.

Jan Verkade (1868–1946), Self-portrait (1891-94), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This Self-portrait from 1891-94 shows the artist’s luxuriant moustache, with more organised brushstrokes in hatching and to impart texture to his clothing.

When in Brittany in 1891, Verkade started to become deeply religious. He spent the winter back in Amsterdamm before returning to Paris with Sérusier, where he exhibited with the Nabis in March 1892. The following summer he went back to Brittany where his mind and spirit were focussed on the Confessions of Saint Augustine. He took formal instruction, and was baptised a Catholic there.

Jan Verkade (1868–1946), Saint Sebastian (1891-94), tempera on board, 46.5 x 23 cm, Musée départemental Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Verkade’s portrait of Saint Sebastian from the same period of 1891-94 is more quietly radical and unusual. Painted in egg tempera, the saint is shown as a very young man, and the arrows piercing his body are understated rather than emphasised as they more usually are.

After his baptism, Verkade travelled to Italy, where he became attracted by the monastic life at the Franciscan monastery at Fiesole. Sérusier visited him, and was surprised by his conversion. During a period of retreat in that monastery, Verkade heard of the artist-monks at Beuron in Germany. He joined them in 1894, and worked for much of the rest of his life in the Beuron Art School there.

Jan Verkade (1868–1946), Saint Martin (1899-1900), media and dimensions not known, exterior of church of the Abbey of St. Martin, Beuron, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Verkade is believed to have painted the west end of the Abbey of St. Martin in Beuron, Germany, around the turn of the century in 1899-1900. This frieze shows Saint Martin in the legend of his cloak, in a style which is more typical of the late Middle Ages, prior to the Renaissance.

The legend of Saint Martin’s cloak tells that before his conversion, when still a cavalry soldier in the Roman army in Gaul, he met a beggar outside the city of Amiens. He promptly cut his own cloak in two with his sword, to share it with the man. The following night he dreamed that the beggar had been Christ, and it is also claimed that in the morning his cloak was fully restored in size. He converted to Christianity and was baptised. It is thought that the cloak (capella) gave its name to those who cared for it and small churches built for it as a relic, hence the English words chaplain and chapel.

Verkade was later ordained as Father Willibrord, and died in the summer of 1946, by which time his career as a painter had been long forgotten.