Why I love... Schalcken the Painter

A classic from the golden age of television ghost stories, Schalcken the Painter recreates the sights, sounds and sexual mores of 17th century Holland for a spine-tingling tale of a painter haunted by a spectre.

Graham Fuller
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Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Leslie Megahey’s Schalcken the Painter is a celebration of the art of the Dutch Golden Age and a condemnation of the era’s bourgeois materialism and dehumanisation of women as chattels for trade. It’s also one of the eeriest ghost stories ever filmed.

Megahey adapted the film, a visual tour de force with scant dialogue, from Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1839 ‘Strange Event in the Life of Schalcken the Painter’, a short story in which the real-life genre painter and portraitist Godfried Schalcken (1647-1706), a student of Gerrit Dou (1613-75), receives a visitation from the spectre of the woman he once loved but forsook.

Put in charge of the BBC’s arts documentary program Omnibus, Megahey legitimised commissioning himself to make Schalcken the Painter for the long-running series by shooting it in a docudrama style. It was simultaneously conceived to fill the slot vacated by the BBC’s traditional Ghost Story for Christmas, which had been cancelled in 1978, and duly aired on 23 December 1979.

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

A specialty of Schalcken was painting canvases of young women who, lit only by the candles they hold, smile coquettishly at the spectator. They are, in effect, invitations to bed. One such painting is mysterious: to the left of the girl and behind her, Schalcken himself stands with his sword drawn; low down, on her right, is a vague presence.

Voiced by the actor Charles Gray, Le Fanu’s lordly narration (which incorporates an art lesson on Schalcken) initially draws attention to this work. At the end, he reveals that Schalcken painted it in a near frenzy after experiencing a horrific vision of his lost love: think succubus, a character in a dream about masochistic sexual desire for a long-lost lover that torments the dreamer until the end of his days.

Schalcken (played by Jeremy Clyde) is the favoured pupil of Dou (Maurice Denham) of Leiden, who had been taught by Rembrandt. He has fallen in love with his master’s demure niece, Rose (Cheryl Kennedy), and she with him, despite his tongue-tied wooing. Materialising like an apparition behind Schalcken, Vanderhausen (John Justin), a sepulchral old native of Rotterdam, unceremoniously demands to purchase Rose’s hand in marriage with a casket full of gold. Dou cannot resist the fortune.

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Rose asks Schalcken to elope with her but he is too spineless – and too ambitious – to intervene. As she departs, horrified at the thought of sex with her future husband, Le Fanu coldly admits that the tale is one of unalleviated heartlessness. Vanderhausen is Death incarnate, for both Schalcken and Rose the loss of hope, sacrificed on the altar of commerce.

Spirited away by him, she appears twice more in scenes of dread, the second unleashing a terrible Oedipal revenge on Schalken, whose sour demeanour in his 30s, unassuaged by success and marriage, is attributable to his early mistake.

The currency of social status in Dou and Schalcken’s Netherlands is the money and jewels exchanged to buy and sell property and women’s sexual services. The miserly Dou counts his guilders; Schalcken gives coins to the prostitutes he frequents in a brothel, or drops them on the laps of the models he hires when painting transactions between young rakes and women of easy virtue. By the end, he has become a mercenary who sells out his art to take commissions of sentimental subjects.

I suspect 17th-century Dutch domestic interiors have never been shot with such fidelity to the work of Vermeer, de Hooch, and Dou as they are in this film, while its sinister black velvet darkness owes to Rembrandt and Schalcken himself.

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Schalcken the Painter (1979)

Interviewed for a ‘making of’ documentary on the BFI’s new Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) edition, the lighting cameraman John Hooper describes how he and the designer Anna Ridley replicated these painters’ still spaces with their magical depth of field. Megahey explains his casting choices, fascinating in the case of the former English leading man John Justin (The Thief of Bagdad, 1940), whose once beautiful face had acquired a mask-like quality.

The explanation of the elements in the key painting (which Megahey says he never found during his research) suggests that Schalcken the Painter may have influenced Peter Greenaway’s deconstruction of Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ in Nightwatching (2007); there are trace elements of the film in Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) too.

As for Megahey, he was influenced not by the candlelit sequences in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) but by the way the Polish director Walerian Borowczyk had caught the spirit and tonality of medieval painting in Blanche (1971), which also depicted the hopelessness of a lusted-after woman at the mercy of powerful men. Inhabiting the mercantile world of Dutch painting, in which only Rose’s vitality gleams through the murk, he made a cross-genre television masterpiece.

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