In 1581, the six northern provinces of
the Netherlands, led by William the Silent of Nassau, declared their
independence from Spain, capping a rebellion that had begun 15 years
earlier against Catholicism and the attempt by Philip II to curtail
local power. The southern Netherlands, called Flanders (now divided
between France and Belgium), were soon recovered; but after a long
struggle the United Provinces (today's Holland) gained their
autonomy, which was recognized by the truce declared in 1609.
Although hostilities broke out again in 1621, the freedom of the
Dutch was ratified by the Treaty of Munster, which ended the Thirty
Years' War in 1648.
The division of the Netherlands had
very different consequences for the economy, social structure,
culture, and religion of the north and the south. After being sacked
by marauding Spanish troops in 1576, Antwerp, the south's leading
port, lost half its population. Although Brussels was the seat of
government, Antwerp gradually regained its position as Flanders'
commercial and artistic capital, until the Scheldt River leading to
its harbor, which had been periodically shut down during the war,
was closed permanently to shipping as part of the Treaty of
Westphalia, thereby crippling trade. Because Flanders continued to
be ruled by Spanish regents, who were staunchly Catholic and viewed
themselves as the defenders of the true faith, its artists relied
heavily on commissions from Church and State, although the patronage
of the aristocracy and wealthy merchants was also of considerable
Holland, in contrast, was proud of
its hard-won freedom. While the cultural links with Flanders
remained strong, several factors encouraged the quick development of
Dutch artistic-traditions. Unlike Flanders, where all artistic
activity radiated from Antwerp, Holland had a number of flourishing
local schools. Besides Amsterdam, the commercial capital, we find
important groups of painters in Haarlem, Utrecht, Leyden, Delft, and
other towns. Thus Holland produced an almost bewildering variety of
masters and styles.
The new nation was a nation of
merchants, farmers, and seafarers, and its religion was Reformed
Protestant. Hence, Dutch artists did not have the large-scale
commissions sponsored by Church and State that were available
throughout the Catholic world. While municipal authorities and civic
bodies provided a certain amount of art patronage, their demands
were limited, so that the private collector now became the painter's
chief source of support. This condition had already existed to some
extent before, but its full effect can be seen only after 1600.
There was no shrinkage of output. On the contrary, the general
public developed so insatiable an appetite for pictures that the
whole country became gripped by a kind of collectors' mania. John
Evelyn, during a visit to Holland in 1641, noted in his diary that
"it is an ordinary thing to find a common farmer lay out two or
three thousand pounds in this commodity. Their houses are full of
them, and they vend them at their fairs to very great gain." The
collectors' mania in seventeenth-century Holland caused an
outpouring of artistic talent comparable only to Early Renaissance
Florence. Pictures became a commodity, and their trade followed the
law of supply and demand. Many artists produced for the market
rather than for individual patrons. They were lured into becoming
painters by hopes of success that often failed to materialize, and
even the greatest masters were sometimes hard-pressed. (It was not
unusual for an artist to keep an inn, or run a small business on the
side.) Yet they survived—less secure, but freer.
Peter Paul Rubens
Although Rome was its birthplace,
the Baroque style soon became international. The great Flemish
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) holds a place of unique
importance in this process. It might be said that he finished what
Durer had started a hundred years earlier: the breakdown of the
artistic barriers between north and south. Rubens' father was a
prominent Antwerp Protestant who fled to Germany to escape Spanish
persecution during the war of independence. The family returned to
Antwerp after his death, when Peter Paul was ten years old, and the
boy grew up a devout Catholic. Trained by local painters, Rubens
became a master in 1598, but developed a personal style only when,
two years later, he went to Italy.
During his eight years in the
south, he absorbed the Italian tradition far more thoroughly than
had any Northerner before him. He eagerly studied ancient sculpture,
the masterpieces of the High Renaissance, and the work of Caravaggio
and Annibale Carracci. Rubens competed, in fact, with the best
Italians of his day on even terms, and could well have made his
career in Italy. When his mother's illness in 1608 brought him back
to Flanders, he meant the visit to be brief, but he received a
special appointment as court painter to the Spanish regent, which
permitted him to establish a workshop in Antwerp, exempt from local
taxes and guild regulations. Rubens had the best of both worlds.
Like Jan van Eyck before him, he was valued at court not only as an
artist, but as a confidential adviser and emissary. Diplomatic
errands gave him entree to the royal households of the major powers,
where he procured sales and commissions. Aided by a growing number
of assistants, he was also free to carry out a huge volume of work
for the city of Antwerp, for the Church, and for private patrons.
In his life, Rubens epitomized the
extroverted Baroque ideal of the virtuoso for whom the entire
universe is a stage. He was, on the one hand, a devoutly religious
person and, on the other, a person of the world who succeeded in
every arena by virtue of his character and ability. Rubens resolved
the contradictions of the era through humanism, that union of faith
and learning attacked by the Reformation and Counter Reformation
alike. In his paintings as well, Rubens reconciled seemingly
incompatible opposites. His enormous intellect and vitality enabled
him to synthesize his sources into a unique style that unites the
natural and supernatural, reality and fantasy, learning and
spirituality. Thus, his epic canvases defined the scope and the
style of High Baroque painting. They possess a seemingly boundless
energy and inventiveness, which, like his heroic nudes, express life
at its fullest. The presentation of this heightened existence
required the expanded arena that only Baroque theatricality, in the
best sense of the term, could provide, and Rubens' sense of drama
was no less highly developed than Bernini's.
The Raising of the Cross, the first
major altarpiece Rubens produced after his return, shows strikingly
how much he was indebted to Italian art. The muscular figures,
modeled to display their physical power and passionate feeling,
recall those of the Sistine Ceiling and the Farnese Gallery, while
the lighting suggests Caravaggio's. The panel nevertheless owes much
of its success to Rubens' remarkable ability to unite Italian
influences with Netherlandish ideas, updating them in the process.
The painting is more heroic in scale and conception than any
previous Northern work, yet it is unthinkable without
Rogier van der Weyden's Descent
from the Cross. Rubens is also a Flemish realist in such details as
the foliage, the armor of the soldier, and the curly-haired dog in
the foreground. These varied elements, integrated with sovereign
mastery, form a composition of tremendous dramatic force. The
unstable pyramid of bodies, swaying precariously, bursts the limits
of the frame in a characteristically Baroque way, making the
beholder feel like a participant in the action.
In the decade of the 1620s, Rubens'
dynamic style reached its climax in his huge decorative schemes for
churches and palaces. The most famous is the cycle in the Luxembourg
Palace in Paris glorifying the career of Marie de' Medici, the widow
of Henri IV and mother of Louis XIII. Our illustration shows the
artist's oil sketch for one episode, the young queen landing in
Marseilles. This is hardly an exciting subject in itself, yet Rubens
has turned it into a spectacle of unprecedented splendor. As Marie
de' Medici walks down the gangplank. Fame flies overhead sounding a
triumphant blast on two trumpets, and Neptune rises from the sea
with his fish-tailed crew. Having guarded the queen's journey, they
rejoice at her arrival. Everything flows together here in swirling
movement: heaven and earth, history and allegory—even drawing and
painting, for Rubens used oil sketches like this one to prepare his
compositions. Unlike earlier artists, he preferred to design his
pictures in terms of light and color from the very start. (Most of
his drawings are figure studies or portrait sketches.) This unified
vision, which had been explored but never fully achieved by the
great Venetians, was Rubens' most precious legacy to subsequent
Peter Paul Rubens. The Raising of the Cross. 1609-10.
Center panel of a triptych
Peter Paul Rubens. Marie de' Medici, Queen of France, Landing in
1622-23. Oil on panel, 63.5 x 50.3 cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Around 1630, the turbulent drama of
Rubens' preceding work changes to a late style of lyrical tenderness
inspired by Titian, whose work Rubens discovered anew in the royal
palace while he visited Madrid. The Garden of Love, one result of
this encounter, is as glowing a tribute to life's pleasures as
Titian's Bacchanal. But these celebrants belong to the present, not
to a golden age of the past, though they are playfully assaulted by
swarms of cupids. To understand the artist's purpose, we must first
realize that this subject, the Garden of Love, had been a feature of
Northern painting ever since the courtly style of the International
Gothic. The early versions, however, were genre scenes showing
groups of fashionable young lovers in a garden. By combining this
tradition with Titian's classical mythologies, Rubens has created an
enchanted realm where myth and reality become one.
Peter Paul Rubens. The Garden of Love, ñ. 1638.
Oil on canvas, 2 x 2.8 m. Museo del Prado, Madrid
The picture must have had special
meaning for him, since he had just married a beautiful girl of 16.
(His first wife died in 1626.) He also bought a country house,
Chateau Steen, and led the leisurely life of a squire. This change
induced a renewed interest in landscape painting, which he had
practiced only intermittently before. Here, too, the power of his
genius is undiminished. In Landscape with the Chateau Steen, a
magnificent open space sweeps from the hunter and his prey in the
foreground to the mist-veiled hills along the horizon. As a
landscapist, Rubens again creates a synthesis from his Northern and
Southern sources, for he is the heir of both Pieter Bruegel the
Elder and Annibale Carracci.
Peter Paul Rubens. Landscape with the Chateau Steen. 1636.
Oil on panel, 134.5 x 236.7 cm. The National Gallery, London.
Anthony Van Dyck
Besides Rubens, only one Flemish
Baroque artist won international stature.
Anthony Van Dyck (1599—
1641) was that rarity among painters, a child prodigy. Before he was
20, he had become Rubens' most valued assistant. But like Rubens, he
developed his mature style only after a formative stay in Italy. Van
Dyck's fame rests mainly on his portraits, especially those he
painted during his appointment to the English court between 1632 and
1641. Charles I Hunting shows the king standing near a horse and two
grooms against a landscape backdrop. Representing the sovereign at
ease, it might be called a "dismounted equestrian portrait"— less
rigid than a formal state portrait, but hardly less grand, for the
king remains fully in command of the state, symbolized by the horse.
The fluid Baroque movement of the setting complements the
self-conscious elegance of the king's pose, which continues the
stylized grace of Hilliard's portraits. Van Dyck has brought the
Mannerist court portrait up-to-date, using Rubens and Titian as his
points of departure. In the process, he created a new aristocratic
portrait tradition that continued in England until the late
eighteenth century, and had considerable influence on the Continent
It is characteristic of Van Dyck
that he proved most sympathetic in rendering women and children.
Because he lacked Rubens' vitality and inventiveness, his
achievement as a history painter has been overshadowed; yet it was
of considerable importance in its own right. He was at his best in
lyrical scenes of mythological love. Rinaldo and Armida, taken from
Torquato Tasso's immensely popular poem Jerusalem Freed (1581) about
the crusades, shows the sorceress falling in love with the Christian
knight she intended to kill. The painting reflects the conception of
the English monarchy, which found parallels in Tasso's epic. Charles
I, a Protestant, had married the Catholic Henrietta Maria, sister of
his rival, the king of France. Charles saw himself as the virtuous
ruler of a peaceful realm much like the Fortunate Isle where Armida
brought Rinaldo. (Ironically, his reign ended in civil war and his
beheading in 1649.) Van Dyck tells his story of ideal love in the
pictorial language of Titian and Veronese, but with a lyrical
tenderness and visual opulence that would have been the envy of any
Anthony van Dyck. Portrait of Charles I Hunting. ñ. 1635. Oil on
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Anthony van Dyck. Rinaldo and Armida. 1629. Oil on canvas, 236.5 x
The Baltimore Museum of Art.
Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) was the
successor to Rubens and Van Dyck as the leading artist in Flanders.
Although he was never a member of Rubens' studio, he turned to
Rubens for inspiration throughout his career. His favorite subjects
were mythological themes. Jordaens frequently emulated Rubens in
depicting the revels of nymphs and satyrs. Like his eating and
drinking scenes, which illustrate popular parables of an edifying
and moralizing sort, they reveal him to be a close observer of
people. These denizens of the woods, however, inhabit an idyllic
realm, untouched by the cares of human affairs. While the painterly
execution in Homage to Pomona (Allegory of Yruitfulness)
acknowledges a strong debt to Rubens, the monumental figures possess
a calm dignity that dispenses with Rubens' rhetoric and lends them a
character all their own.
Jacob Jordaens. Homage to Pomona (Allegory of Fruitfulness).
ñ. 1623. Oil on canvas, 180 x 241 cm.
Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels
Jan Brueghel the Elder
Rubens' towering genius dominated
Flemish painting. It touched every artist around him, including Jan
Bruegel the Elder (1568-1625), the leader of the preceding
generation, with whom he frequently collaborated. Although he was
the principal heir to the tradition of his illustrious father,
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Jan was an innovator who occupied a
position of central importance in the transition from Mannerism to
the Baroque in the North. Allegory of Earth shows one of his major
contributions to Flemish art: the "paradise" landscape. It
originally belonged to a series devoted to the tour elements, a
common theme in Northern seventeenth-century painting, each with an
appropriate biblical or mythological subject. Barely visible in the
background is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden,
a remnant of the Mannerist inverted perspective. Jan's enchanting
vision of this innocent realm is made convincing by his meticulous
realism. The small copperplate, which he, like many older artists,
preferred, offered a smooth, hard surface ideally suited to his
Jan Bruegel the Elder. Allegory of Earth, ñ. 1618. Oil on copper, 46
x 67 cm.
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Brueghel also made an important
contribution to flower painting. However, the development of the
Baroque still life in Flanders was largely the responsibility of
Frans Snyders (1579-1657), who studied with Jan's brother, Pieter
Brueghel the Younger. Snyders concentrated on elaborate table still
lifes piled high with food that epitomize the Flemish gusto for life
during the Baroque era. His splendid Market Stall is a masterpiece
of its kind. This early picture appeals frankly to the senses. The
artist revels in the bravura application of paint, as seen in the
varied textures of the game. The scene is further enlivened by the
little drama of the youth picking the old man's pocket and the hens
fighting in the tore-ground as a cat looks on.
Even here Rubens' influence can be
felt: the composition descends from one Snyders painted with Rubens
based on the latter's design shortly after both returned form Italy
around 1609. Market Stall updates The Meat Stall of Pieter Aertsen
into a Baroque idiom. Unlike Aertsen, Snyders subordinates
everything to the ensemble, which has a characteristically Baroque
ebullience and immediacy. There is a fundamental difference in
content as well. No longer is it necessary to include a religious
subject in the background of this scene of plenty. Although an
emblematic meaning has been suggested, it is plainly secondary. The
painting also celebrates a time of peace and prosperity alter the
truce of 1609, when hunting was resumed in the replenished game
Frans Snyders. Market Stall. 1614.
The Art Institute of Chicago
The Baroque style came to Holland
from Antwerp through the work of Rubens, and from Rome through
direct contact with Caravaggio and his followers. Although most
Dutch painters did not go to Italy, those who did in the early years
of the century were from strongly Catholic Utrecht. Given this lack
of contact, it is not surprising that these artists were more
attracted by Caravaggio's realism and "lay Christianity" than by
Annibale Carracci's classicism. The Calling of St. Matthew by
Hendrick Terbrugghen (1588-1629), the oldest and ablest of this
group, directly reflects Caravaggio's earlier version in the sharp
light, the dramatic timing, and the everyday detail. Missing,
however, is the element of grandeur and simplicity. While it
produced few other major artists, the Utrecht School was important
for transmitting the style of Caravaggio to other Dutch masters, who
then made better use of these new Italian ideas.
Hendrick Terbrugghen. The Calling of St. Matthew.
1621. Oil on canvas, 101.5 x 137.2 cm.
Centraal Museum, Utrecht
One of the first to profit from
this experience was Frans Hals (1580/85-1666), the great portrait
painter of Haarlem. He was born in Antwerp, and what little is known
of his early work suggests the influence of Rubens. His developed
style, however, seen in The Jolly Toper, combines Rubens' robustness
and breadth with a concentration on the "dramatic moment" that must
be derived from Caravaggio via Utrecht. Everything here conveys
complete spontaneity: the twinkling eyes and half-open mouth, the
raised hand, the teetering wineglass, and—most important of all—the
quick way of setting down the forms. Hals works in dashing
brushstrokes, each so clearly visible as a separate entity that we
can almost count the total number of "touches." With this open,
split-second technique, the completed picture has the immediacy of a
sketch. The impression of a race against time is, of course,
deceptive. Hals spent hours, not minutes, on this lifesize canvas,
but he maintains the illusion of having done it all in the wink of
an eye. These qualities are even more forceful in the Malle Babbe.
one of the artist's genre pictures. A lower-class counterpart of The
Jolly Toper, this folk character, half-witch (note the owl),
half-village idiot, screams invectives at other guests in a tavern.
Hals seems to share their attitude toward this benighted creature,
one of cruel amusement rather than sympathy, but his
characterization is masterfully sharp and his lightninglike
brushwork has the bravura of incredible skill.
In the artist's last canvases these
pictorial fireworks are transmuted into an austere style of great
emotional depth. His group portrait, The Women Regents of the Old
Men's Home at Haarlem, has an insight into human character matched
only in Rembrandt's late style. The daily experience of suffering
and death has so etched the faces of these women that they seem
themselves to have become images of death—gentle, inexorable, and
Frans Hals. The Jolly Toper, c. 1628-30. Oil on canvas.
Frans Hals. Malle Babbe. c. 1650. Oil on canvas. 75 x 63.5 cm.
Frans Hals. The Women Regents of the Old Men's Home at Haarlem.
1664. Oil on canvas, 170.3 x 249 cm.
Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem
Hals' virtuosity was such that it
could not be imitated readily, and his followers were necessarily
few. The most important among them was Judith Leyster (1609-1660).
Like many women artists before modern times, her career was
partially curtailed by motherhood. Leyster's delightful Boy Playing
a Flute is her masterpiece. Significantly, its style is closer to
Terbrugghen's than to Hals'. The rapt musician is a memorable
expression of lyrical mood. To convey this spirit, Leyster
investigated the poetic quality of light with a quiet intensity that
anticipates the work of Jan Vermeer a generation later.
Boy Playing a Flute.
Rembrandt van Rijn
Rembrandt van Rijn
(1606-1669), the greatest genius of Dutch art, was stimulated at the
beginning of his career by indirect contact with Caravaggio through
the Utrecht School. His earliest pictures, painted in his native
Leyden, arc small, sharply lit, and intensely realistic. Many deal
with Old Testament subjects, a lifelong preference. They show both
his greater realism and his new emotional attitude. Since the
beginning of Christian art, episodes from the Old Testament had
often been represented for the light they shed on Christian
doctrine, rather than for their own sake. (The Sacrifice of Isaac,
for example, "prefigured" the sacrificial death of Christ.) This
perspective not only limited the choice of subjects, it also colored
their interpretation. Rembrandt, by contrast, viewed the stories of
the Old Testament in the same lay Christian spirit that governed
Caravaggio's approach to the New Testament: as direct accounts of
God's ways with His human creations. How strongly these stories
affected him is evident from The Blinding of Samson. Painted in the
High Baroque style he developed in the 1630s after moving to
Amsterdam, it shows Rembrandt as a master storyteller. The artist
depicts the Old Testament world as full of Oriental splendor and
violence, cruel yet seductive. The flood of brilliant light pouring
into the dark tent is unabashedly theatrical, heightening the drama
to the pitch of The Raising of the Cross by Rubens, whose work
Rembrandt attempted to rival.
Rembrandt was at this time an avid
collector of Near Eastern paraphernalia, which serve as props in
these pictures. He was now Amsterdam's most sought-after portrait
painter, as well as a man of considerable wealth. His famous group
portrait known as The Night Watch, painted in 1642. shows a military
company, whose members had each contributed toward the cost of the
huge canvas (originally it was even larger). Rembrandt did not give
them equal weight, however. He was anxious to avoid the mechanically
regular designs that afflicted earlier group portraits. (Only Frans
Hals had overcome the problem successfully.) Instead, he made the
picture a virtuoso performance of Baroque movement and lighting.
Thus some of the figures were plunged into shadow, while others were
hidden by overlapping. Legend has it that the people whose portraits
he had obscured were dissatisfied. There is no evidence that they
were. On the contrary, we know that the painting was admired in its
Like Michelangelo and, later, Van
Gogh, Rembrandt has been the subject (one might say, the victim) of
many fictionalized biographies. In these, the artist's fall from
public favor is usually explained by the "catastrophe" of The Night
Watch. It is undeniable that his prosperity petered out in the
1640s, as he was replaced by more fashionable artists, including
some of his own pupils. Nevertheless, his fortunes declined less
suddenly and completely than his romantic admirers would have us
believe. Certain important people in Amsterdam continued to be his
steadfast friends and supporters, and he received some major public
commissions in the 1650s and 1660s. Actually, his financial
difficulties resulted largely from poor management.
Rembrandt van Rijn. The Blinding of Samson. 1636. Oil on canvas, 2.4
x 3 m.
Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
Rembrandt van Rijn. The Night Watch (The Company of Captain Trans
Banning Cocg). 1642.
Oil on canvas, 3.8 x 4.4 m. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Still, the 1640s were a period of
crisis, of inner uncertainty and external troubles, his wife's death
among them. Rembrandt's outlook changed profoundly: after about
1650, his style eschews the rhetoric of the High Baroque for lyric
subtlety and pictorial breadth. Some exotic trappings from the
earlier years remain, but they no longer create an alien, barbarous
world. Rembrandt's etchings from these years, such as Christ
Preaching, show this new depth of feeling. The sensuous beauty seen
in The Blinding of Samson has now yielded to a humble world of bare
feet and ragged clothes. The scene is full of the artist's deep
feeling of compassion for the poor and outcast who make up Christ's
audience. Rembrandt had a special sympathy for the Jews, as the
heirs of the biblical past and as the patient victims of
persecution; they were often his models. This print, like the sketch
in figure 7, strongly suggests some corner in the Amsterdam ghetto
and surely incorporates observations of life from the drawings he
habitually made throughout his career. Here it is the magic of light
that endows Christ Preaching with spiritual significance.
Rembrandt's importance as a graphic artist is second only to
Albrecht Durer's, although it is possible to get only a hint from
this one example.
Rembrandt van Rijn. Christ Preaching, ñ. 1652.
Etching. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In the many self-portraits
Rembrandt painted over his long career, his view of himself reflects
every stage of his inner development: experimental in the early
Leyden years, theatrically disguised in the 1630s, frank toward the
end of his life. While our late example is partially indebted to
Titian's sumptuous portraits, Rembrandt scrutinizes himself with the
same typically Northern candor found in Jan van Eyck's Man in a Red
Turban. The bold pose and penetrating look bespeak a resigned but
firm resolve in the face of adversity.
This self-analytical approach helps
to account for the plain dignity we see in the religious scenes that
play so large a part in Rembrandt's work toward the end of his life.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, painted a few years before his
death, is perhaps Rembrandt's most moving painting. It is also his
quietest—a moment stretching into eternity. So pervasive is the mood
of tender silence that the beholder senses a spontaneous kinship
with this group. Our bond of shared experience is perhaps stronger
and more intimate in this picture than in any earlier work of art.
Here the wealth of human understanding accumulated over a lifetime
of experience achieves a universal expression of sorrow and
Rembrandt's religious pictures
demand an insight that was beyond the capacity of all but a few
collectors. Most art buyers in Holland preferred subjects within
their own experience: landscapes, architectural views, still lifes,
everyday scenes. These various types, we recall, originated in the
latter half of the sixteenth century. As they became fully defined,
an unheard-of specialization began. The trend was not confined to
Holland. We find it everywhere to some degree, but Dutch painting
was its fountainhead, in both volume and variety.
Rembrandt van Rijn. Self-Portrait. 1658. Oil on canvas, 133.6 x
The Frick Collection, New York
Rembrandt van Rijn. The Return of the Prodigal Son. c. 1665.
Oil on canvas, 2.6 x2.1 m. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
Jan van Goyen
Jan van Goyen
(1596-1656) is the kind of landscape that enjoyed great popularity
because its elements were so familiar: the distant town under a
looming overcast sky, seen through a moisture-laden atmosphere
across an expanse of water. Such a view remains characteristic of
the Dutch countryside to this day, and no one knew better than Van
Goyen how to evoke the special mood of these "nether lands," ever
threatened by the sea.
Like other early Dutch Baroque
landscapists, Van Goyen restricted his palette to grays and browns
highlighted by green accents, but within this narrow range he
achieved an almost infinite variety of effects. The tonal landscape
style in Holland was allied to a drastic simplication of
composition, which reduced the complex constructions of Northern
Mannerism to orderly arrangements. Van Goyen's scene is based on a
lucid scheme of parallel bands surmounted by a triangle. He
discovered, what Annibale Carracci had already learned from
Giorgione and the Venetians: that the secret to depicting landscape
lay in geometry, which enabled the artist to gain visual control
over nature as it did architecture.
Jan van Goyen. Pelkus-Poort. 1646. Oil on panel.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Other Northern artists absorbed
this lesson directly in Rome, where they congregated in growing
numbers. The Dutch Italianates who returned home in the 1640s
brought with them new ideas that were to have an invigorating effect
on landscape painting. Their impact can be seen in the work of
Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691), who never left his native soil. A follower
of Van Goyen, he quickly abandoned tonalism in favor of the radiant
light found in their views of the Roman Campagna, which parallel the
work of Claude Lorraine. The golden sunlight of late afternoon
imbues Cuyp's View of the Valkhof at Nijmegen with a poetic mood
that suspends the scene in time and space. The nearly classical
structure of the composition and cubic handling of the architecture
heighten the sense of repose created by Cuyp's command of even the
subtlest atmospheric effects.
Aelbert Cuyp. View of the Valkhof at Nijmegen.
1646. Oil on panel.
Jacob van Ruisdael
Although nature was certainly
enjoyed for its own sake, it could also serve as a means of divine
revelation through contemplation of God's work. Such is the case
with The Jewish Cemetery by Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-1682), the
greatest Dutch landscape painter. Natural forces dominate this wild
scene, which is frankly imaginary, except for the tombs, which
depict the Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam. The thunderclouds passing
over a deserted mountain valley, the medieval ruin, the torrent that
has forced its way between ancient graves, all create a mood of deep
melancholy. Nothing endures on this earth, the artist tells us:
time, wind, and water grind all to dust, the trees and rocks, as
well as the feeble works of human hands. Even the elaborate tombs
offer no protection from the same forces that destroy the church
built in God's glory. Within the context of this extended allegory,
the rainbow may nevertheless be understood as a sign of the promise
of redemption through faith. Ruisdael's view of nature is thus the
exact opposite of Annibale Carracci's "civilized" landscape. It
harks back instead to Giorgione's tragic vision . The Jewish
Cemetery inspires that awe on which the Romantics 150 years later
were to base their concept of the Sublime. The difference is that
for Ruisdael, God ultimately remains separate from His creation,
instead of a part of it.
Jacob van Ruisdael. The Jewish Cemetery. 1655-60.
Oil on canvas. The Detroit Institute of Arts
Nothing at first seems further
removed from The Jewish Cemetery than the painstakingly precise
Interior of the Choir of St. Bavo 's Church at Haarlem, painted by
Pieter Saenredam (1597-1665) at almost the same time. Yet it, too,
is meant to invite meditation, rather than serve merely as a
topographic record. (These architectural views were often freely
invented as well.) The medieval structure, stripped of all
furnishings and whitewashed under Protestant auspices, is no longer
a house of worship. It has become a place for the dead (note the
tomb slabs in the floor), and in its crystalline spaciousness we
feel the silence of a graveyard.
Interior of the Choir of St. Bavo's Church at Haarlem.
1660. Oil on panel.
Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts
Still lifes exist above all to
delight the senses, but even they can be tinged with a melancholy
air. As a result of Holland's conversion to Calvinism, these visual
feasts became vehicles for teaching moral lessons. Most Dutch
Baroque still lifes treat the theme of Vanitas (the vanity of all
earthly things). Overtly or implicitly, they preach the virtue of
temperance, frugality, and hard work by admonishing the viewer to
contemplate the brevity of life, the inevitability of death, and the
passing of all earthly pleasures. The medieval tradition of imbuing
everyday objects with religious significance was absorbed into
vernacular culture though emblem books which, together with other
forms of popular literature and prints, encompassed the prevailing
ethic in words and pictures. The stem Calvinist sensibility is
exemplified by such homilies as, "A fool and his money are soon
parted" (a saying that goes all the way back to ancient Rome), and
illustrated by flowers, shells, and other exotic luxuries. The very
presence in Yanitas still lifes of precious goods, scholarly books,
and objects appealing to the senses suggests an ambivalent attitude
toward their subject. Such symbols usually take on multiple meanings
which, though no longer immediately apparent to us, were readily
understood at the time. In their most elaborate form, however, these
moral allegories become visual riddles that rely on the very
learning they sometimes ridicule.
Willem Claesz. Heda. Still Life. 1634.
Oil on panel, 43 x 57 cm.
Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam
The banquet (or breakfast) piece,
showing the remnants of a meal, had Vanitas connotations almost from
the beginning. The message may lie in such established symbols as
death's heads and extinguished candles, or be conveyed by less
direct means. Still Life by Willem Claesz. Heda (1594-1680) belongs
to this widespread type. Food and drink are less emphasized here
than luxury objects, such as crystal goblets and silver dishes,
which are carefully juxtaposed for their contrasting shape, color,
and texture. How different this seems from the piled-up edibles of
Aertsen's Meat Stall!
But virtuosity was not Heda's only
aim. He reminds us that all is Vanity. His "story," the human
context of these grouped objects, is suggested by the broken glass,
the half-peeled lemon, the overturned silver dish. The unstable
composition, with its signs of a hasty departure, is itself a
reference to transience. Whoever sat at this table has been suddenly
forced to abandon the meal. The curtain that time has lowered on the
scene, as it were, invests the objects with a strange pathos. The
disguised symbolism of "Late Gothic" painting lives on here in a new
Jan Davids de Heem
The breakfast piece soon evolved
into an even more lavish display, known appropriately as the "fancy"
still life for its visual splendor, which culminated in the work of
Jan de Heem (1606—1684). De Heem began his career in Protestant
Holland, but he soon moved to Catholic Flanders. However, he
traveled back and forth between the two countries and eventually
returned to his native land. His achievement was to synthesize the
sober Dutch tradition with the flamboyant manner of Frans Snyders
into a unique style that proved equally influential on both sides of
the border. In Still Life with Parrots, De Heem has compiled
delicious food, exotic birds, and luxurious goods from around the
world. The result is a stunning tour de force. Despite its
profusion, the painting is unified by the balanced composition and
colorful palette. In keeping with the appetitive theme, the viewer
is invited to enjoy the visual abundance, which celebrates the work
of the Lord and humanity. At the same time, the picture has a covert
meaning. Many of these objects, including the oysters, melon, and
shells (which commanded high prices), are also standard Vanitas
symbols conveying an admonition to be temperate. The extravagant
display further incorporates the time-honored theme of the four
elements, as well as traditional Christian imagery: the parrot is
identified with the Madonna as the mother of Christ, while the
grapes are a reference to the Eucharistic wine and, hence,
resurrection, as is the pomegranate, which also stands for the
Jan de Heem. Still Life with Parrots.
Late 1640s. Oil on canvas, 150.5 x 115.5 cm.
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida
The large class of pictures termed
genre is as varied as that of landscapes and still lifes. It ranges
from tavern brawls to refined domestic interiors. The Feast of St.
Nicholas by Jan Steen (1625/6-1679) is midway between. St. Nicholas
has just paid his pre-Christmas visit to the household, leaving
toys, candy, and cake for the children. Everybody is jolly except
the bad boy on the left, who has received only a birch rod. Steen
tells this story with relish, embroidering it with many delightful
details. Of all the Dutch painters of daily life, he was the
sharpest, and the most good-humored, observer. To supplement his
earnings he kept an inn, which perhaps explains his keen insight
into human behavior. His sense of timing and his characterization
often remind us of Frans Hals, while his story-telling stems from
the tradition of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Jan Steen. The Feast of St. Nicholas.
c. 1660-65. Oil on canvas, 82 x 70.5 cm.
In the genre scenes of Jan Vermeer
(1632-1675), by contrast, there is hardly any narrative. Single
figures, usually women, are seemingly engaged in simple, everyday
tasks. They exist in a timeless "still life" world, as if calmed by
some magic spell. When there are two, as in The Letter, they do no
more than exchange glances. The painting nonetheless does tell a
story, but with unmatched subtlety. The carefully "staged" entrance
serves to establish our relation to the scene. We are more than
privileged bystanders: we become the bearer of the letter that has
just been delivered to the young woman. Dressed in sumptuous
clothing, she has been playing the lute, as if awaiting our visit.
This instrument, laden with erotic meaning, traditionally signifies
the harmony between lovers, who play each other's heart strings. Are
we, then, her lover? The amused expression of the maid suggests just
such an anecdotal interest. Moreover, the lover in Dutch art and
literature is often compared to a ship at sea, whose calm waters
depicted in the painting here indicate smooth sailing. As usual with
Vermeer, however, the picture refuses to yield a final answer, since
the artist has concentrated on the moment before the letter is
Vermeer's real interest centers on
the role of light in creating the visible world. The cool, clear
daylight that filters in from the left is the only active element,
working its miracles upon all the objects in its path. As we look at
The Letter, we feel as if a veil had been pulled from our eyes, for
the everyday world shines with jewellike freshness, beautiful as we
have never seen it before. No painter since Jan van Eyck saw as
intensely as this. But Vermeer, unlike his predecessors, perceives
reality as a mosaic of colored surfaces—or perhaps more accurately,
he translates reality into a mosaic as he puts it on canvas. We see
The Letter not only as a perspective "window," but as a plane, a
"field" composed of smaller fields. Rectangles predominate,
carefully aligned with the picture surface, and there are no
"holes," no undefined empty spaces. Only Pieter de Hooch
(1629-1684), his contemporary in Delft, had such a feel for visual
The interlocking shapes give to
Vermeer's work a uniquely modern quality within seventeenth-century
art. How did he acquire it? Despite the discovery of considerable
documentary evidence relating to his life, we still know very little
about his training. Some of his works show the influence of Carel
Fabritius (1622-1654), the most brilliant of Rembrandt's pupils;
other pictures suggest his contact with the Utrecht School. But none
of these sources really explains the genesis of his style, so
daringly original that his genius was not recognized until about a
Jan Vermeer. The Letter. 1666.
Oil on canvas, 43.3 x 38.3 cm.