Painting of the Low Countries Golden Age

142 Vermeer_View of Delft ©Mauritshuis

[Image: Jan Vermeer, View of Delft (c. 1660-1), oil on canvas, 96.5 x 115 cm, The Hague, Mauritshaus. (c) Maurithaus, The Hague]

Low Countries painting from the Seventeenth Century is a high point in the arts of Western civilisation and justly called a Golden Age. A new book lavishly presents a selection of its highlights. The German art historian Norbert Wolf examines the Golden Age of art of the Seventeenth Century in the Low Countries, today the states of the Netherlands and Belgium. As befits its prestigious subject, the production of this book is lavish. The large (37 x 31 cm) format and pictorial slipcase are imposing. Wolf’s formidable historical knowledge allows us to trust his judgment as he guides us through the highlights of the century.

The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 brought an end to an eighty-year war of independence in the Low Countries. The States General of the Netherlands gained autonomy from Spanish Habsburg rule, while the South Netherlands remained under the control of the Spanish as the Spanish Netherlands and would eventually become the territory called Belgium. In the North the decline of the aristocracy, foreign control and the religious restrictions of Habsburg control fostered a burgeoning of science, commerce, global exploration and a growth of a prosperous merchant class. Independence also brought about an abrupt end to the Counter Reformation in the North.

The international commerce and colonial expansion led to war with England and a degree of uncertainty about the future. Despite this, the increase in Dutch income and the commensurate spending on the arts was prodigious. The art of the North was predominantly secular and non-religious, though Biblical scenes were made and sold. The religious climate of the North fostered principally portraiture, still-lifes, marines, landscapes and genre scenes. There was morality but it was symbolic and indirect. Wolf points out that there was a fair degree of religious tolerance in the North, with Calvinism a minority sect and diverse Protestant doctrines and Catholicism permitted to be followed by citizens in the North. The situation was less lenient for Protestants in the Catholic South.

In the North the dichotomy between the austerity of Calvinist and Puritan doctrine and the desire of the merchant class to invest (and display) their disposable wealth in the form of art is visible when we look at the art. It was a balance between conspicuous consumption and a belief in moral and aesthetic restraint. The slow decline of art in the Southern Netherlands can be attributed to the effects of its status as a possession of the Spanish crown, notwithstanding the importance of cloth and wool trade of Brabant and Flanders. Only Antwerp and Brussels were significant centres of art production in the South during the Seventeenth Century. Wolf points out that artists migrated between the two states and sought patronage from collectors outside of their home regions. He posits that a fondness for morality contained in genre and peasant scenes common between Northerners and Southerners.

It is possible to see Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) as the dividing point when Netherlandish art becomes the schools of Dutch and Flemish painting, with Bruegel becoming the first stylistically Flemish painter. For convenience we can date 1550 as the point when this division begins to occur. Baroque has a dual meaning: pertaining to Baroque character and the Baroque period. Flemish painting is of both, whereas Dutch painting proper is only Baroque in period, its austere character and lack of ecstatic transcendent religious tone prevent it from being Baroque in content. All of these gradual changes occur before the formal division of the lands in 1648.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625) was the son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The sweetness, sentimentality and ethereal fantasies – as well as Catholic religious painting – of Jan Brueghel embody the Flemish school. His paintings of landscapes are characterised by a softness of touch and delicate graduation of depth. He was also noted for his flower pieces. He collaborated with Rubens and formed a link between the first stage of distinctly Flemish art and the art of Rubens and the Baroque period Counter Reformation in the Spanish Netherlands. Rubens can in some respects be seen as the counterpart to Jan’s painterly temperament.

064 Rubens_View of Het Steen ©National Gallery London

[Image: Peter Paul Rubens, A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning (c. 1636), oil on wood, 131 x 229 cm, The National Gallery, London. (c) The National Gallery, London]

The scope of the study allows the author to discuss Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), those twin pillars (or poles) of Low Countries Golden Age painting. In addition there was a wealth of art produced by artists not influenced or associated with these two artists. Consider the still-lifes of Willem Kalf, Willem Claesz. Heda and Pieter Claesz, here represented by magnificent examples that are unsurpassed in deftness, clarity and impact. These are instances of the ideal of verisimilitude that Dutch art theorists of the time advanced.

Rubens was a revolutionary figure more for his landscapes than for his figure painting – although his nudes are now his best known motifs. It is curious that Wolf includes the Samson and Delilah (c. 1609?) ascribed to Rubens. This painting was recently bought by the National Gallery, London but is suspected to be a later copy, as it deviates from Rubens standard practice and its composition differs in some important respects from an early engraved copy of the original composition. (For more discussion about this attribution read this post on ArtWatch.)

Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) was Rubens assistant and seen as the artist who best took the mantle of portraitist to the aristocracy. His portrait of Charles I of England is a dazzling extension of Rubens colour and sensitivity, combined with Van Dyck’s flair. Wolf explains the relative statuses of Van Dyck and Rubens as such: “[…] Why does present-day art history nevertheless place Rubens above van Dyck? Primarily because van Dyck’s œuvre does not possess the same versatility, even universality, of that of his teacher, because van Dyck achieved greatness only in the genre of portraiture, whereas Rubens excelled at the portrait as well as the landscape and animal painting, at the monumental altarpiece, as well as at mythological scenes and allegorical sequences.”[i]

Jacob (Jacques) Jordaens (1593-1678) became the painter favoured by the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands after Rubens’s death, furthering the Counter Reformation in his giant canvases. The artist’s undeniable flair for depicting flesh and various textures and for organising a composition made him a worthy recipient of patronage. Wolf illustrates a large genre painting which proves that Jordaens range was larger than the allegories, myths and Biblical scenes by him that are most prominent in museums. He notes that in these genre paintings he is the descendent of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The Utrecht Caravaggisti formed the vanguard of Baroque sophistication in the early decades of the Seventeenth Century, influencing following painters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. There is little new to be said about Rembrandt. Wolf outlines Rembrandt’s principal contributions to painting, though he cannot mention his comparable innovations in drawing and printmaking. It is regrettable that for reasons of space, non-painting fine and decorative arts have had to have been excluded. The subject of painting of the period (believed to have generated the total production of 5 million paintings) is vast enough without consideration of these other arts. The size and quality of the illustrations allow readers to see Rembrandt’s daring painterly techniques and the emotional range. He rightly holds centre stage in this survey, with only Rubens and Vermeer rivalling him for significance.

Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) is seen as the linking figure between Rembrandt and Vermeer. Although long believed that Fabritius – who had been one of Rembrandt’s assistants – was the tutor of Vermeer, this seems not to be the case. However, emotionally and technically, Fabritius’s brilliance, painterly restraint, technical skill, narrative reticence and subtlety lead from Rembrandt to Vermeer. If Fabritius had not been killed at the age of 32 by a giant gunpowder explosion in Delft – which also destroyed many of his paintings – he could have matched Rembrandt and Vermeer in achievement. As with the early deaths of Giorgione, Schiele and Raphael, one wonders what posterity was robbed of due to Fabritius’s untimely death.

Jan Vermeer (1632-1675) used the camera obscura in his realistic depictions of women in interiors, although he apparently deviated from the image projected by the optical device. He needed the flexibility or electing to emphasis, remove and change motifs in the images the device produced. It is the second-rate artist who fixes upon a system, device or approach and applies it without deviation. It is the great artist who knows how to apply a system and when to change it to increase the effectiveness of a work of art. It is his judgment that allows him to understand how viewers will see and understand the art and he knows when to suspend the rules he usually implements. His best works are illustrated and the reproduction of the View of Delft benefits especially from the large size allowing us to see the intricate detail so clearly.

Frans Hals is the most significant Dutch portraitist after Rembrandt. His bravura brushwork is on display in the illustrated work. Adriaen Brouwer, David Teniers the Younger (son-in-law of Jan Breughel the Elder) and Adriaen and Isaak van Ostade are fine exponents of the genre painting of the working class engaged in drunken ribaldry. The more genteel scenes of middle-class people in domestic interiors were made by Gerard Dou, Gerard Terborch, Pieter de Hooch and Vermeer. These also included coded moral stories about virtues of chastity, fidelity and restraint, among others. Alongside the still-life, the moralistic genre scene is a Dutch specialisation which has become synonymous with Dutch art. Cornelis Norbertus Gjisbrechts and Samuel van Hoogstraten specialised in trompe-l’œil still-lifes. Meindert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael are representative of the landscape painting that proved so influential in Western and Northern European national schools. The whole of English landscape is essentially an extension of Dutch principles inflected by Italianate topographic features and light. Jan van Goyen was a landscapist who relied on the animation of his scenes with people or animals. The selection seems a touch light on still-lifes and marines and touch heavy on the portraits and figure paintings, but every readers taste will vary. By no means is this selection a distortion or misrepresentation of the character of the best art of this region and era.

111 Rembrandt_Isaac and Rebecca ©Rijksmuseum

[Image: Rembrandt, Isaac and Rebecca (also called The Jewish Bride) (c. 1665), oil on canvas, 121 x 166 cm, Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum. (c) Courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam]

Although most of the names are familiar, some of choices for illustrations are not obvious and some lesser known painters will engage readers. One of the less recognisable paintings is the brilliant Self-Portrait (c. 1651) by David Bailly (1584-1657). This large painting is unusually complex, with the seated figure of the artist placed beside an elaborate still-life with pictures, symbolic attributes, indications of his profession, references to his private life, as well as objects included for their optical variety and attractiveness. The bubbles refer to the briefness of life; the skull acts as a memento mori; the recorder indicates the sensory pleasure of music; the pipe is for the pleasure of smoking; money is the acquisition of worldly riches; the flowers are the brevity of earthly existence. The picture is playful with the complexity of symbolism, yet it is also a commentary on the deceptiveness of art. The painter is shown as a young man yet the painter was aged 67 when he made the picture. It seems that the portrait that the artist holds is not – as we might have guessed – a portrait of his father but actually a true likeness of the artist as he was at the time the self-portrait was created. It is the “real” figure of the artist that is based upon an earlier painting. The portrait of his deceased wife is placed behind the snuffed-out candle. Bailly dazzles us with his technique skill and his command of symbolism – complimenting our wisdom and discernment – at the same time he deceives us with by misrepresenting his age and thereby turning his past self into his present self.

The author concludes with discussion about the nature of the Baroque, the theatricality of painting, symbolism and concludes with some examples of the way Low Countries painting influenced art of later periods and other countries. The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting is an excellent guide to the highlights of this age of giants in the Flemish and Dutch schools.

 

Norbert Wolf, The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting, Prestel, 3 October 2019,  272pp, fully col. illus., hardback in pictorial slipcase, $140/£99, ISBN 978 3 7913 8406 1

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art