One of the world’s great art museums, the Rijksmuseum was built in 1885. It closed for massive restoration from 2003 to 2013. The massive entryway is now saturated with light.
I remember being floored at the Louvres’ collection of Dutch still life. The paintings, reflect the wealth and power in Amsterdam In the 17th century. They also sometimes contained subterfuge, showing the contrast between the wealthy and the needy. They often honoured nature and represented scientific accuracy in some of the most beautiful paintings ever painted. The still life rose in popularity, expressing both objects of beauty and the philosophical climate of the times through carefully composed arrangements and groupings.
The still life in the Netherlands in this period became a source of competition for artists and their patrons and inevitably, several subcategories emerged. An ‘ontbijtje’, or small breakfast, became a particular genre as were flower pieces, banquets, paintings featuring the results of the hunt, and Vanitas paintings. The Vanitas were paintings that reminded the rich burghers of the Netherlands that everything – including their wealth – was transient. The peeled lemon here symbolises deceptive appearance: beautiful on the outside, sour within. Beware the beautiful looking man or woman, they may not be as sweet as they appear. There was a tension that developed in this period between the new Protestant religion that devalued objects of wealth that had previously been used to display the power of the Catholic church and the rising nouveau riches who commissioned paintings that demonstrated their ostentation.
Some versions of the Vanitas are less opaque, like this one at the Rijksmuseum, Still Life with Bouquet and Skull, Adriaen van Utrecht
A couple more stood out in my visit today – Pieter Claesz’ Still Life with a Turkey Pie – complete with turkey:
And de Heem’s Festoon of Fruit and Flowers:
“I can’t paint the way they want me to paint
and they know that too. Of course you will say
that I ought to be practical and ought to try
and paint the way they want me to paint.
Well, I will tell you a secret.
I have tried and I have tried
but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it!
And that is why I am just a little crazy.”
During the Dutch Golden Age, portraiture rose in popularity. Members of the new merchant class enjoyed commissioning imaginative likenesses of their selves to display in their homes, and companies and other professional organizations would also acquire group portraits. Rembrandt was one of the greatest portraitists of this time, known for his impeccable capturing of his subjects’ distinct personalities and emotional idiosyncrasies.
The Original Selfie
When Rembrandt wasn’t being paid to paint other people’s portraits, he used himself as a study. His extensive self-portraits provide a unique visual biography of the artist. It would be a mistake to assume the vanity that exhibits itself in today’s selfies; Rembrant’s self-portraits are candid, vulnerable and inward-gazing.
Rembrandt wasn’t the only painter who made self-portraits.
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone,
because I am the person I know best. ”
– Van Gogh
Frida Kahlo, the artist from Mexico whom we’ll be seeing much more of next spring, used her self-portraits to express fundamental truths: what it was to be a woman, what it was to be Mexican, what it was to be an individual and lastly, what it was to be her.
Rembrandt also made important contributions to the development of art, surpassing even the inventiveness of Titian and Velazquez with his progressive handling of paint, making it as much a subject in the composition of a painting as his figures. Variations of brush stroke between loose and rough, or the manipulation of textures through scratching or with a palette knife, would all contribute greatly to a radically new signature style that would influence generations to come. He also raised the etching process to an art form and arguably remains the greatest of all at creating etchings.
The Night Watch
“Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious
that he says things for which there are no words
in any language. It is with justice that they call
Rembrandt ‘magician’ – that’s no easy occupation.”
– Van Gogh
Rembrandt’s monumental masterpiece The Night Watch is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Golden Age Dutch painting. Formally titled “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq” the dramatically rendered military group portrait has an epic history all its own. Rembrandt’s innovative decision to depict the military in a moment of action rather than a traditional composed group portrait, as well as the work’s nearly life-sized scale made the painting a triumph of 17th Century Dutch art. At the time he made it, Rembrandt was at the height of his creative powers. The subtle use of texture, shadow and light seem to reveal truths about his subjects that they may be unaware of themselves. His greatest influence was Caravaggio, who took darkness and light to extreme.
Franz Hal’s The Meagre Company is a more typical posed Guard portrait of the day:
The Night Watch fame has only been heightened by its storied and indeed dramatic history. The painting has been subject to attack on three separate occasions — the last, an attack by knife, leaving the painting in need of extensive restoration. It is under restoration now, too, but the museum has drawn the public into the process by keeping the piece on view with high-tech equipment and restorers working on the painting in plain sight. The restoration work can be followed around the world online live each day in a project called “Operation Night Watch,” here.
Each portrait is a masterpiece within it – here are a few:
Until more recently, so little was known about Vermeer’s life, he was referred to as “The Sphinx of Delft.” Well-known and moderately successful within Delft, he never left the city and was devoted exclusively to his art.
Vermeer specialized in scenes of domestic bliss, the type of bliss which evaded him in his own life. He worked slowly and with great care, which is why he was not prolific, having painted about 50 known paintings (compare that to van Gogh’s output!), of which only 34 survive. There is no other 17th-century artist who employed the exorbitantly expensive pigment lapis lazuli (natural ultramarine) either so lavishly or so early in his career and this later would perhaps contribute to his financial ruin.
He is particularly renowned for his masterly treatment and use of light in his work, for example, the glint, in the eyes and pearl of the Girl with the Pearl Earring (at The Hague Museum), the appearance of wetness to her eyes and mouth, and the warm light captured in his Dutch interiors, so much so, that he became known as “the Master of Light.” His primary influence was Leonardo da Vinci.
In Dutch literature and paintings of Vermeer’s time, maids were often depicted as subjects of male desire—dangerous women threatening the honor and security of the home, the center of Dutch life—Vermeer’s painting is one of the rare examples of a maid treated in an empathetic and dignified way, although established amorous symbols in this work, like the Cupid tile and the foot warmer on the floor, still exemplify the tradition.
Vermeer certainly meant for the sophisticated viewer to recall earlier paintings of comely milkmaids and kitchen maids, and the reputation of milkmaids in particular for sexual availability. In real life, their impromptu suitors were often “proper” gentlemen, not social equals, and of course the intended viewer of this painting (and those by Dou) was not a servant but a man of society and a connoisseur. Compared with the sort of ideal women we see in Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and other mature works by Vermeer, his “Milkmaid” exudes a very earthy appeal, with her pushed-up sleeves (revealing pale skin normally covered), her ample form (similar to that of women in slightly earlier works by Rubens), and her faint smile. For a male viewer of the time (in this case, Vermeer’s patron Pieter van Ruijven), the hints of sexuality would have given the painting an element of fantasy as subtle as the shadows on the whitewashed walls.
The painting has much more depth and richness seeing it first-hand, but here are my impressions of it:
Eventually Vermeer’s lack of productivity and extravant spending forced him into bankruptcy and he was barely able to support his wife and seven children. In December 1675, at age 42, Vermeer died after a short illness. In a petition to her creditors, his wife later described his death as follows:
“…during the ruinous war with France he not only was unable
to sell any of his art but also, to his great detriment, was left sitting
with the paintings of other masters that he was dealing in. As a
result and owing to the great burden of his children having no
means of his own, he lapsed into such decay and decadence,
which he had so taken to heart that, as if he had fallen into
a frenzy, in a day and a half he went from being healthy
to being dead.”
I found at the following link a compelling video, a debate about who is the greater artist, Rembrandt or Vermeer, between the charismatic art critic and BBC favourite, Simon Schama, and the author of the novel which became the Scarlett Johannsen film, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier. In reality, one doesn’t have to choose, but their insights into both artists are fascinating.
Serendipitously, my brief stopover in Amsterdam which led me to the Dutch Golden Age, was en route to the City of Cape Town, the founding city of South Africa. Cape Town was originally a Dutch outpost of the Dutch Golden Age, when Dutch settlers were sent to grow fresh fruits and vegetables for the ships of the Dutch East India Company on their trade route. I’m headed there next, on a 12-hour KLM flight.
PS Rembrandt was born Rembrant Harmenszoon van Rijn in 1606. He added the silent ‘d’ to his signature for reasons unknown, in 1633.