Thursday, January 16, 2014

An Exhibition Of Dutch Genre Paintings On Loan From The Mauritshuis.

Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c. 1670 - 75.

I recently went to the Frick's exhibition of Dutch Golden Age paintings, on loan from the Mauritshuis. It is small, only fifteen paintings, but absolutely fabulous----really gorgeous!  Unfortunately it closes in a couple of days, so you'll have to run if you want to catch it!  The Frick has given Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) the place of honor in the show, making it clear that it is meant to be the star attraction.  But while it is undeniably beautiful, I don't think it is the most interesting aspect of the exhibition.   Rather, I think the show in its entirety provides a compelling, insightful and fun look at the seventeenth century Dutch mindset.  It offers a representative sampling of Dutch genre painting.  The subject matter includes still lifes, landscapes, domestic scenes and portraits that, by and large, depict the everyday life of ordinary middle class folk, in marked contrast to much of what was being produced elsewhere in Europe at the time.  It is the seeming ordinariness of the images that makes Dutch art of this period seem so relatable:  That is its special appeal!
Gerard ter Borch, Woman Writing a Letter,
c. 1655.

The seventeenth century was the era of Baroque painting in Europe; while it is largely identified with Catholicism and a Counter-Reformation movement, some of the characteristics that typified Baroque art, such as exaggerated contrasts of light and shadow and saturated color, are present in the works of artists such as  Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer----all represented in this show.  But supernatural, mythological elements that typified much Baroque art are markedly absent from the Dutch Golden Age.  The main reason being that Dutch Calvinism did not allow religious art in churches.  As a consequence, the Dutch artists by and large eschewed religious subject matter in favor of landscapes, still lifes, domestic scenes and other things drawn from everyday, secular experience.  (There are two exceptions represented here, Simeon's Song of Praise and Susanna, both painted by Rembrandt----one of the few Dutch artists of the era to paint biblical scenes.)  Ruisdael's landscape (shown above) is representative of the secular strain:  The workers in his fields are barely visible, they have been reduced to mere specks; there are no larger-than-life entities astride his land, no angels in his skies.  While the clouds that dominate his landscapes may be more evocative than scientifically accurate, they are, nevertheless, just natural formations devoid of supernatural elements.  His is a vision shared by such seventeenth century thinkers as Newton:  In the newly discovered infiniteness of the universe, humans have been reduced to insignificance.

When I think of Dutch seventeenth century painting, what comes to mind foremost are detailed scenes of domestic life----the sort Vermeer is famous for.  Unfortunately, the only Vermeer included in the show is the portrait, Girl with a Pearl Earring.  However,  several Vermeer's from the Frick's permanent collection, which I think are more representative of his oeuvre and Dutch genre painting in general, are on display elsewhere in the museum.
Jan Steen, As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young, c. 1665.

In this show the domestic scenes are by Gerard ter Borch (Woman Writing a Letter, above), Jan Steen (Girl Eating Oysters, c. 1658, and As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young, left) and Nicholas Maes, (The Old Lacemaker, c. 1655).  These genre painters depicted scenes of everyday life and ordinary people with a detailed realism representative of traditions passed down from earlier Netherlandish painters such as Pieter Bruegel.  And, apparently, they shared the earlier artists' love of proverbs too!  Indeed a certain Calvinist puritanism seems to have been common in the Dutch Golden Age.  While Jan Steen's paintings appear at first blush to be more or less straightforward depictions of daily life, they are thought not to show real people. Instead, they are thought to be populated with stock characters such as one would find in a theatre troupe (apparently, Steen had an uncle who belonged to such).  Steen's scenes are arranged in a stagey manner to deliver the pictorial equivalent of declamations against bad behavior.  But, while his paintings are moralistic, the admonitions are leavened with humor; in fact his paintings are rather fun.  Colorful, and even chaotic,  they  portray various manner of bad behavior with only subtle hints to suggest a moral.  Everyone in Steen's As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young looks to be having quite the jolly old time.  It is ostensibly a family celebration, but the proverbial warning of the title appears on the pages the old woman holds, alerting the viewer that this is a lesson!  More subtly, a parrot and a pipe are meant to suggest symbolically that adults' bad example is imitated by their young.  The use of symbols to convey moralistic or proverbial messages seems to have been popular with the seventeenth century Dutch; they appear in other works in the show as well.
Pieter Claesz, Vanitas Still Life, 1630.

Domestic scenes weren't the only venues for Dutch moralizing, as Pieter Claesz's still life, Vanitas (1630) makes clear.  The painting is meant as an allegory.  Vanitas is Latin for vanity, and vanitas images are meant as admonishments against attachment to material goods.  The human skull is a reminder of mortality and the time piece, overturned goblet and frayed folios show the impermanence and, therefore, worthlessness of earthly goods.  I know, the painting may sound unbearably grim, but everything is so beautifully done, that the painting seems to embrace the very attachments it is warning against!

While it was apparently important to Dutch artists of the era, to provide moral instruction, they manage to delight the senses as well.  Indeed, the images are so beautifully realized that it is easy enough to miss  the sermon. And, while this show is small, it manages to give a concise synopsis of what the Dutch Golden Age is all about, making for an educational as well as fun view!

Unfortunately, the show ends this Sunday, January 19th.  The Frick is located, 1 East 70th Street, New York, NY  10021.

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