Amsterdam, the Netherlands
June 7, 2019
Maids and mothers working at home, nature in action or inaction, food and flowers on the table. Whatever the scene, tableaux vivants and still life paintings were the photographs of 17th-century Netherlands. Dutch Realism rendered these static and silent paintings as “living pictures” evoking movement and texture, sound and smell. A visit to Rijksmuseum, particularly the Gallery of Honor, provided a peek at a time in history we would otherwise only see with our mind’s eye.
Before the art, the architecture enthralled. The Gothic and Renaissance design fusion of Rijksmuseum was the masterpiece of Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers. He embellished the museum’s Great Hall with sublime elements of a cathedral: stained glass windows, mosaic floor, and religious murals by Austrian-Dutch painter George Sturm. The grandness of it all dwarfed me as it had generations of visitors since the present building opened in 1885.
As glorious as the cavernous cathedral architecture was, the 17th-century paintings therein depicted mostly secular subject matter. The few religious-themed ones were not the high drama of Catholic tradition. The demand for church art was at its lowest then. Instead, Dutch artists immortalized their daily life and surroundings, a style favored by the Reformation. Dutch Realism extolled the Protestant work ethic with scenes of merchants, maidservants, and the militia at work as well as the material abundance they worked for.
My short visit introduced me to the hierarchy of Dutch painting genres, to wit: historical and religious subjects, portraits including tronies, genre paintings or scenes of everyday life, landscape and animal paintings, and still life. The 17th century saw the astounding quality of art produced such that the period came to be known as the Dutch Golden Age.
Historical or Religious Painting
The first piece to get my attention was the pale and buff Christ in a three-panel painting. Who knew that Corpus Christi had chiseled abs? Or that a six-pack was the male body ideal four centuries ago? My friend, though, was quick to point out how my cheekbones were just as chiseled.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas depicted the newly-risen Christ, burial cloth hanging loosely on His naked glory, proving His identity with torture wounds to a doubting Thomas. I couldn’t tell which among the three men was the doubter-turned-believer. I assumed he was the youngest-looking. Commissioned for the legacy piece, Rubens put his sponsors, Rockox and wife, in separate side panels. Whatever the price, it paid off. The couple’s likeness had been immortalized for more than 400 years and counting.
The crowd-drawer of the collection was a maid at work in the kitchen. Coming from a country where even poor families could employ household help, I was most curious to see how this daily domestic scene was romanticized into high art. The subject was simple and straightforward enough: a rather robust maidservant pouring milk into a bowl. A roll in the basket indicated she was making bread porridge for breakfast. On the floor lay a lollepot – a foot warmer. I could relate; I found early summer in the Netherlands to be chilly.
Vermeer’s adept hands at rendering light elevated the mundane to marvelous. The morning light streaming in from the window gently illuminated and imbued objects – cloth, food, earthenware – with texture, volume, and firmness. He employed a technique known as pointillé whereby bright dots recreated the reflection of light as it fell on various surfaces. Vermeer’s veneer, as it were. The Milkmaid was as tactile as a painting could get.
The next piece reminded me more of my childhood’s maids than the previous one. The girls would chill in the afternoons by picking each other’s head lice. Such an unenviable task merited the painting’s second title, A Mother’s Duty. Thankfully, I didn’t subject my mother to that duty. Like Vermeer, de Hooch’s artistry lay on rendering realistic streams of sunlight to reveal a rather austere Dutch household. This took my attention away from the titular delousing witnessed by the subjects’ pet cat.
A merrier, albeit messier, household was depicted by Steen in The Merry Family. The grandfather apparently had one too many. The grandmother and mother broke into a duet to the music of the bagpipe-playing father. Those were just the adults. Meanwhile, the daughter was feeding her baby brother with alcohol as their older brothers were smoking a pipe (nowadays they would be smoking a joint!). The painting came with an explicit moral lesson on a note on the upper corner: “So de ouden songen, so pijpen de jongen” (“as the old sing, so shall the young pipe”). The home was a child’s first school, the parents their first teachers.
A few paces away, a teacher and primary-school-age children huddled together on the floor for their on-site art class. How lucky for these kids to learn about great works of art with the real deal, not photographic versions stacked in a slide deck.
Landscape and Animal Painting
Landscape art encompassed other nature scenes such as seascapes, best exemplified by van de Velde the Younger’s A Ship on the High Seas Caught by a Squall or simply The Gust. Heightened emotions were typically expressed by the ominous sky and agitated weather. The piece conjured up the worldwide maritime trading expeditions of the Dutch East India Company.
Among the first paintings that Rijks acquired, Asselijn’s The Threatened Swan – if that were today, the bird would be triggered – was one of the most striking of its genre. I was taken by the enraged swan, so far removed from its usual depiction of languid love in a placid pond. Here it could commit murder. I totally missed two significant elements that explained the scene – a dog swimming toward the swan’s eggs. I saw them only by inspecting the photo after the fact.
In the museum’s Instagram account, the painting was thus explained: “The text above the dog: the enemy of the state. The text on the eggs: Holland. The swan is an allegory of protecting the country from its enemies (England and France). The swan was Johan de Witt – he didn’t succeed in the Dutch War of 1672.”
Cuyp’s River Landscape with Horsemen and Peasants was a stark counterpoint to all the anger and agitation. Cows and horses basked at golden hour in their idyllic habitat. It was said that this warm glow of sunlight in landscape paintings was of Italian influence. There might be more than a grain of truth to that claim; Dutch rural landscape, in contrast, was flatter and bleaker as I saw it from my numerous train rides around the country.
Still life as a genre of painting originated in the Netherlands and derived from the Dutch word stilleven. The detailed realism of food and flowers – two of Dutch upper class’ favored indulgences – was the closest to crisp photography that a painting could muster. Each was a snapshot of a time long gone. It documented the beginnings of an enduring tradition of living the good life still upheld in present-day Netherlands.
The Rijks collection provided proof that the stylistic preference of 17th-century Dutch painters was the “lower” genres of the hierarchy. Most of the exhibited pieces were of regular size meant to be hung in small rooms, not grand public spaces.
Even Rembrandt’s celebrated masterpiece The Night Watch, the rightful grand finale of my visit to Rijks, was not as large as I had expected. Only van der Haist’s thematically similar 75-meter long Militia Company of District VIII under the Command of Captain Roelof Bicker, commissioned to adorn the Musketeers’ Hall in Amsterdam, fit the bill. Inspecting the massive length and density of details required a visit of its own.
In 2009, I visited Tokyo and wrote this: “Just outside the 54-storey high Mori Tower stood Maman, the famous Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture, which I had previously seen in a friend’s photo taken at Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain.” Her cousin (sister? mother? daughter?), Crouching Spider, surprised me yet again exactly a decade later. The arachnid sculpture staked her spot – and stalked me – at Rijksmuseum Gardens. I wonder where in the world we would meet again in another ten years.
The Gallery of Honor exhibition of paintings presented the Netherlands in its celebrated Golden Age. These “living pictures” truly came alive. Each frame was a window through which I peeked at the life and times, the work and leisure, the values and aspirations of a people whose legacy was not merely showcased in a museum but experienced in the country I would soon explore after my visit at Rijks.