Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Permanent Collection of Dutch Paintings at the National Gallery

The National Gallery has the largest collection of Dutch masterpieces outside the Netherlands itself. Next month it selects some of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer and other related paintings for its blockbuster exhibition Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure. With a month to go, there is time to familiarize ourselves with the work of other Dutch masters, many of them painting, like Vermeer, in the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, with Amsterdam the most prosperous port in northern Europe, and the Netherlands celebrated throughout the world for achievements in trade, science, military science and the arts.

The National Gallery rooms, 16 and 21–26, a beautiful series of rooms in themselves, are typologically arranged: Rembrandt and Dutch Caravaggists; Vermeer and Delft Painters; Amsterdam and Dutch Painting 1650
1670 and so on. The two rooms labeled Dutch Scenes of Everyday Life are in fact stating something about the entire collection. These paintings are all scenes of everyday life in that they depict the peace and tremendous industry and inventiveness of the Netherlands of the time.

No picture better illustrates this than Meindert Hobbema’s The Avenue at Middelharnis (see pic).


Meindert Hobbema, The Avenue at Middelharnis, 1689: © The National Gallery, London
We look at a wide, tree-lined avenue. A farmer and his dog come towards us over the rutted, sandy path. The painter has, by making the trees recede towards the centre of the picture, taken us to the far horizon. On the left, we see the village and the village church. On the right, between the trees and the farmhouse, we see ship’s masts below the horizon. The land we see is above sea level. But since much of the Netherlands is at or below sea level, it has been constructed that way. By building dikes and sea walls and pumping out the seawater using their famous windmills, the Dutch have been pushing back the sea for 2000 years. By digging networks of canals, they further drained the land they had thus claimed. You can see this in the picture, in the canals that wind around the artificially high fields, and in the field in the right foreground, a plantsman duly plants neat rows. For the land is fertile. The Netherlands lies upon the delta of 3 rivers: the Rhine (Rijn), the Meuse (Maas) and the Scheldt (Schelde). Hobbema’s fascinating work is like an engineering drawing, a diagram in paint. It epitomizes the saying ‘God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland’. Hobbema was the recorder of his country’s hand-wrought land, painting each tree, each pool, each stream, each mill, with precision. To have this work in London is, for your reviewer, one of our great privileges.

This sense of Dutch practicality permeates much of the work here. Aelbert Cuyp paints River Landscape with Horseman and Peasants. Cows heavily in calf take their ease on lush grass. A horseman, possibly the farmer, rides through, checking all is well; others work the fields. The painting is also signaling: we made these fields, look how productive they are. The cows will all bear beautiful calves. and, oh, the milk . . .. With some artfully invented mountains, and his harmonious composition, Cuyp has painted Arcadia. Painters record everything in the minutest detail. Adriaen van de Velde paints A Farm with a Dead Tree. We see the farm, beasts in the field or in the yard, the farmer, the milkmaid, the dead tree covered in ivy, each leaf distinct. Here is the duck named Sijctghen, a famously prolific layer, in all her pied feathery glory together with the 3 eggs she has just laid, painted again by Aelbert Cuyp. This tendency to paint everyday objects and scenes with such clarity comes partly from the fact that as a predominantly protestant country, Dutch artists relied less on the church and more on their country’s rich merchants for patronage. River and seascapes are also highly narrative. A River Scene with Dutch Vessels Becalmed by Jan van de Cappelle shows something of the tumult of 17th century shipping for a trading nation like the Netherlands. Indeed, the Dutch invented the saw mill in order to help build them.

The precision, the painstaking recording of detail, the skill with perspective, comes indoors too, crossing all genres. Here is  Jan Jansz Treck, Still Life with a Pewter Flagon and Two Ming Bowls. The objects are muted, modestly displayed, but speaking nonetheless of the earliness of Dutch trade with Asia. And can there be anything quite as difficult to paint as the vast, vaulted, plain interior of a Dutch Reformed Protestant Church? Where do you start? Where do you place your vanishing point? Contemplate if you will The Interior of the Grote Kerk at Haarlem by Pieter Saenredam. Or the courtyard painted by Pieter de Hooch in The Courtyard of a House in Delft. We see the mother, no doubt having left her house in exemplary order, taking her immaculately dressed little girl shopping or on some adventure.

Then there are the portraits which again seem to record every detail. Here is Fabritius' Young Man in a Fur Cap. It may in fact be a self-portrait. Look at the confident way the paint is handled. The man is wearing military dress, a military bandolier slung across his body. Look at the insouciant blob of white paint applied as highlight on the metal. It’s the confidence that’s breathtaking. Nowhere more so than in the works of Rembrandt, of course.  Here are his self-portraits from 1640 when he was 34 and 1669 when he was 63. In 1635 he paints his wife Saskia in Arcadian costume. Portraits of other artists’ wives and commissioned portraits abound. Frans van Mieris the Elder invites us to admire the crispness of his wife’s white linen headdress in Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Cunera van der Cock. Frans Hals’s Portrait of a Woman with a Fan simply drips with painted lace.

Here again is Frans Hals: another portrait of a young man. The sitter is vibrant with life. You can see his saliva glisten. He is holding a skull, hence the painting’s title, Vanitas, a reminder of the transience of life and the certainty of death. Again the painter is showing how lifelike, how real, he can make his living sitter; how lifelike, how real, he can make the dead skull one of the most difficult subjects to paint. The scholarly view at the National Gallery is that the young man may belong to one of the many troupes of theatrical players who travelled through the Netherlands en route to employment in the German ducal courts. This figure may in fact be performing Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. Look at the empty right hand, painted at right angles to the picture plane (again, a painterly tour de force), performative, gesturing towards us, his audience.

There is one painting which, for me, links these dressy portraits. In Room 26 we find Quiringh van Brekelenkam’s Interior of a Tailor’s Shop. Van Brekelenham was a Leiden painter and the specialty of Leiden in the 17th century was weaving, spinning and tailoring, all a huge source of wealth for the city. Here the tailor’s young assistants work on a raised platform by the window (a tiny 17th century window) to gain light for their fine work. The tailor himself, in the middle of his shop, looks straight at us. It is as if he is saying I am experienced; I can work here in the semi-darkness but we can’t ruin their young eyes. And look at the highlighting on those tailoring scissors in the foreground. Off to the right of the picture his wife, or a married seamstress, nurses her baby. Bottom right, the dog sleeps on the floor, opening one eye to look at us.

Now, look at the results of such dedicated labour. Jan Steen’s A Young Woman Playing a Harpsichord to a Young Man. Look at the woman’s blouse. Look at the pin tucking of those sleeves, the perfection of her ensemble. And there, in the corridor on the right of the painting, her son approaches, carrying the instrument he is learning to play. It is his tardiness that has allowed his mother and the music master a few moments alone together when, to fill the time, the music master has replied to the mother’s whispered “I learned to play the harpsichord” with “Oh, please, play something”. As the forthcoming Vermeer exhibition will show, music is symbolic both of talent and harmony, an indicator both of education and position in society. It also signals something important in the character of the Dutch: work hard so that you may have the leisure to enjoy music as a listener or performer.

With all this intensity and brilliant, precision work, the quiet, walkable streets of Westminster outside are particularly welcome. There is an entrance to Charing Cross tube and mainline station across St Martin’s Lane, around the back of St Martin-in-the Fields Church as well as in Trafalgar Square itself.

No-one ever stops learning about art. The National Gallery organizes free talks and a wide range of lectures, courses and workshops  (see pics). 




Please note: The Crawford Arts Review will also review the Vermeer & Music: The Art of Love and Leisure exhibition at the National Gallery.

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