Renovations on the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam took nearly 10 years. But what they came up with is a masterpiece, and well worth the wait. Some of the greatest paintings in the world are housed in this Jewel in the crown of Dutch Art and Culture. There are the expected native sons, Rembrandt and Vermeer, who loom large in the public mind as the towering giants of the Dutch Golden Age of Renaissance art. But there are also some lesser known masters who have exquisite examples of their works that must not be missed. Here is one by Frans Hals, A Portrait of a Man.
I always liked Hals for his swashbuckling brushwork. He knew where to put the paint, how to put the paint, and with what speed to put the paint. A swoosh and a dab and a swatch here and there, and miraculously the whole painting comes together in a convergence of perfect strokes that coalesce into the portrait—as much of an homage to the person as it is to the paint itself. Paint from the brushes of Hals is in its finest hour. Hals was more rambunctious a painter, and perhaps a more rambunctious “artist of life” than some of his contemporaries.
This is a detail of a Hals portrait that shows the Pure Joy and intricacy of his brushwork. The man loves to paint~! The embroidered sleeve is a kaleidoscope of color, and shows the swift dexterity of his paint application. Every stroke is purposeful, laid down once, exactly in the right amount and the right color and contrast. Hals is known for this dexterity and swiftness of perfect strokes.
When he was not doing single portraits of the mighty and the meek, Hals was one of the best at painting the various civic brotherhoods that were common in Dutch cities. Group portraiture of local militias were a big deal in seventeenth century Holland. And Hals, as well as Rembrandt, was given many of these large commissions. Here is one of those by Hals, life sized and impressive.
One can imagine, with no photography back then, the painter was the one people would go to for an image for posterity for their family and friends. Commonly a group of prominent citizens in a men’s club or militia would get together to have their camaraderie captured for civic recognition, preserved into perpetuity by the mastery of the painter. Of course their egos were soaring, and the men of “power” wanted to be depicted in a grand image of themselves, which elevated them to the status of immortality, albeit merely preserved in paint.
The most famous of these group portraits is by Rembrandt, housed in the Rijksmuseum. Rembrandt’s Night Watch is there and given full attention in a perfect gallery setting. Whereas Hals sets his brotherhood in a more well-lit and formal setting, Rembrandt insists on the drama of a lurking dark, with the depiction of a march, and an actual drumbeat that calls the group to action. One man loads his gun. Are we on the verge of a possible altercation here? I suppose this painting captures the drama and reason for the militia in the first place. This is why we study and remember The Night Watch and Rembrandt, but have probably never seen the Hals’ Magere Company. At least not in our mind’s eye. It is not noted in the art history books, whereas The Night Watch most certainly is.
OK you guys, I know you are going to say how unenlightened are all these militia paintings. Such old school adoration of a bunch of “white guys” toting around their blunderbusses, sending their slave ships down to Africa, sailing them across the Atlantic and running roughshod over the New World. What is so “remarkable” about that? Art is illusion, in this case. Money is spent on the propaganda of the day, which factored in the cooperation of masterful painters to elevate the ideals of the ruling and monied class. This has most often been the case, all the way back to the Egyptian Nefertiti’s and the Babylonian Nebuchandnezzar’s royal retinues of aesthetic canons. The elite pay a lot to be immortalized. The artist thus “has a job.” Especially the good ones.
So why look at this “art?” And is it anything more than good propaganda? Art History gives accolades to these Dutch Masters, so what is so enlightened about them? I can comment on that, as they most definitely show us the thread out of the labyrinth of civic and lordly propaganda into a more elevated world of the Spirit.
Before we move on from this subject of white male domination, in their self-aggrandizing pomp and circumstance, let’s give the poor Dutch a break here. They were only responsible for less that 5% of the 400 years of European slave trade. Portugal took the lead at nearly 38% and the British were next in line at 26%. The French had 11% and the Spanish had 9%. So you could say the Dutch were the least “slave friendly” traders of human beings. They were more interested in the raw commodities and fine manufactured goods of the Orient and the New World, and less in the labors needed to produce them. But the white European dominance of world trade and invention for five hundred years has been clearly the moving force of global economic development. And artistic development. The Dutch were right in there in their trading forays all over the globe.
OK, Now let’s move on to more sublime observations. This ART LOOK is about painting here, and the art of painting. All that other stuff aside, what were the paintings in the Rijksmuseum telling me? Issac and Rebecca shown above are tenderly in love. You can see the care and respect he has for her. Rembrandt loved his family, and this comes through in the convergence of two souls, lovely souls, affirming their bond and holy matrimony.
There were some very sublime moments of true tenderness coming from Rembrandt’s brush. An artist has to live, yes, and painting for the monied elite and giving them the imagery that will ascend them to more power and fame is no different than what we do now on the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair. But in those moments of looking, which were not commissioned by the Local Militia Brotherhoods, Rembrandt, Hals, and the other Dutch Masters had insight into the common depth of life.
MASTER of DOMESTICITY
The other famous son in the Dutch genre of greats is Johannes Vermeer. There are fewer than 50 paintings done by him. Most are very small, yet extremely perfect and detailed. It is as if Vermeer captured the most realistic (and perfected) view of Dutch life in the 1600’s. He captured not only the characters in photographic realism, but he also captured the atmosphere of light, and the tranquility of the scene. We feel as though we are transported back into time long gone, but nevertheless brought to us in this present view of an immaculate moment.
This is The Milkmaid. She was not commissioning Vermeer to paint her. In fact, she was probably employed in the family’s service to help maintain the household. But the sheer observation that Vermeer possesses over the scene is astounding. Down to the nails hammered into the wall, and the holes in the plaster from removed nails; the Dutch hand-painted tiles that form the base where the wall meets the floor; the perfection of the pitcher and the delicate stream of milk being poured; the bread so inviting you could eat it; the woman’s total absorption into her pouring of the milk—it is as if she is a Goddess come down to earth to infuse absolute Divine Beauty into this every day domestic task. It does not get any better than this, you guys. You are looking at a window into Heaven here, right here on earth, and not in some Baroque sky with cherubs and winged figures transporting Mary off to some Ascension convention. You are looking at Heaven in the very things that compose our common world.
HERE’S ONE YOU HAVE NOT SEEN
(Most probably, unless you are an actual Art Historian)
There is a fun loving quality to the Dutch, especially engaged in night time revelry around the dinner table. They love to imbibe and let their hair down. In fact, they may have invented “letting their hair down.” The artist Gerard Van Hanthorst paints very well this Dutch joie de vivre in his characters of congenial celebration. This Merry Fiddler is reaching into our world, as if coming out of a window from the past into our computer screen of the present. The Dutch were already trading in the Orient, and the Persian rug that serves as a colorful backdrop creates a bright and spectral spirit of this painting, and also tells us of the prowess of Dutch trading. They were masters of it. They knew how to import and export. And they still do. The canals of Amsterdam were roadways of trade, linked to a powerful shipping industry. Amsterdam became the “Venice of the North” in its command of trade over the high seas. This success made them a convivial people.
Another colorful and musical painting by Van Hanthorst is here in our National Gallery of Art in Washington. It is called simply The Concert, as it depicts a group of revelers imbibing and happily singing to the lute accompaniment. Again, just about every color of the spectrum is employed in this remarkable scene of Dutch fun and games.
So whatever you may say about the “white supremacy” of cultural formations of the Western World, we can see in these Dutch masters a transcendence of the common sorrows of mankind for the more jovial fellowship of a bountiful play. They are the commentators of the tranquil moments of the milkmaid, the touching chroniclers of matrimonial harmony, and the endearing illustrators of raucous moments of troupes of young revelers. They are the intrepid depicters of the local brotherhoods, and the intricate craftsmen who could swashbuckle the most perfectly placed strokes of illustrious paint. They are the three musketeers of northern Renaissance genius. They are the Dutch masters—a force to be recked with.
I found the Rijksmuseum extremely uplifting. I hope you have too in this little dissertation on its virtues. If “art is a lie that leads us to the truth,” as Picasso said, then we have a lot here to absorb in our ascension to appreciate the truth and beauty of remarkable painting, and the moments of Heaven here on earth that they lead us to connect with and ponder.
Love to you Art Lookers,