PRINT January 1967

The Age of Rembrandt

WHILE TITLING THIS EXHIBITION The Age of Rembrandt indubitably insured it enormous popular prestige and record-breaking public attendance at the three museums participating in its tour, the title is in many ways inappropriate and misleading. In the first place, any implication, no matter how oblique, that Rembrandt––at least in the individualism of the mature style with which he is most usually identified––is typical of his era, or that on the other hand, a preponderant majority of his contemporaries were so overwhelmingly dominated by the example of that characteristic style as to typify his influence, would be historically false. In the second place, this is in no sense a Rembrandt show. Rembrandt is represented by only nine paintings: an early and rather mediocre mythological scene, the abduction of Europa by Zeus as a bull, a trifling landscape, two portraits in his earlier style and five (male) portraits in his later style of which the study of his brother Adriaen and the Portrait of a Man in a Fur-lined Coat are the most impressive and represent him at his highest powers as a portraitist.

With the exception of the large portraits of the Reverend Joannes Elison and of Maria Bockenolle loaned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (in a sense the only Rembrandts appropriately in the exhibition) Rembrandt appears here as quite apart from any of the diverse and eclectic currents which collectively made up the interesting and polymorphous “mainstream” of 17th-century Dutch painting. Had there been anything more than a captional attempt to relate Rembrandt to his age, it would certainly have been more instructive, in the context of this exhibition, to have shown some of those early paintings which clearly indicate that the youthful Rembrandt had been keenly susceptible to Caravaggesque influences as well as to some of the rather peripherally Baroque idiosyncrasies so manifestly popular with many of his contemporaries. Alternatively there could have been a stronger representation of work by other artists in which a characteristically Rembrandtian influence is more immediately apparent. Yet, in many ways, this would not have been desirable. The real interest of this show is precisely that it assembles in a fairly revelatory and representative diversity, examples of work by widely dissimilar artists, thus admirably providing us with a unique opportunity to study the numerous trends and influences, some indigenous and others imported, which coalesced or competed in Dutch painting of the 17th century: a milieu of conspicuously minor art and minor artists––some accomplished and even sophisticated in a “virtuoso” specialism, others naive, and either provincially “primitivistic” on the one hand, or equally provincially “vogue-ish” in an attempt to achieve cosmopolitanism by a simulation of but superficially comprehended and sometimes in eptly imitated Italian models, on the other. One almost wonders what Rembrandt or the equally individualistic Hals are doing here. Of the three giants of the age and region––Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer––all of whom might better have been omitted, only one was: Vermeer. This is perhaps most fortunate, for while neither the sombre Rembrandts nor the jovial Halses in any sense “upstage” some of the opulent productions of less celebrated painters, the conclusion that a few luminous and vibrant Vermeers would have upstaged the whole show is almost unavoidable. Vermeer, more than Rembrandt or any other Dutch artist of the 17th century, was both cumulative and qualitatively culminative of his age. A paradoxical composite of many “typicalisms” in a transcendent individuality, he synthesized in a unique way a Flemish-Netherlandish Renaissance heritage (barely and but obliquely inferable in most 17th-century Dutch painting) with those “Neo-classical,” Baroque and “Romantic” Italian influences which were dominant in molding the fashionable “international” styles of the time in Holland as elsewhere.

Surveying this exhibition, it seems almost incredible that a mere 31 years had elapsed between the death of Pieter Brueghel the elder, the greatest Netherlandish painter of all time, and the advent of the 17th century. The political, religious, economic and social upheavals which led to the creation of an independent Dutch nation, had not only destroyed the essential cultural cohesion of the Germanic low countries of northern Europe, but had created conditions within the new “Holland” which were tantamount to an almost total severance from, and repudiation of, the artistic traditions and viewpoints germane to the earlier Flemish-Netherlandish cultural identity––an identity which had achieved its most distinctive and definitive stylistic expressions in the art of Bosch and of Pieter Brueghel the elder. Hence, one of the first currents one might logically seek to identify among the many influences apparent in 17th-century Dutch painting––an indigenous late Renaissance heritage from Brueghel––is, stylistically at least, conspicuously absent.

Brueghel, like Durer, was typical of the attitudes and viewpoints which had characterized the cosmopolitan cultural community of the late Renaissance. Deeply religious, he was concerned not only with the great theological issues of his time, but with the latest state of learning in the philosophical and natural sciences. His paintings not only reveal enormous versatility of technical craftsmanship––a profound grappling with the problems of perspective, the accurate observation of anatomy, the rendering of seasonal and regional atmosphere and color––but the reflections upon life, death and the world of a great mind. What he had absorbed from his travels in Italy he assimilated, together with his heritage from Bosch, into a style that was, in its universality and scope, at once individual and Netherlandish.

To contrast the paintings executed by Brueghel in the last decade of his life with the entire panorama of 17th-century Dutch painting is to become immediately aware that the 17th century was, perhaps, even more drastically and precipitously in the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe, an era of artistic decline. In an atmosphere dominated by a Calvinistically oriented nouveau riche, art in the Netherlands had become fragmented into specialisms, and painters had assumed the attitudes and status of plyers of a trade and confectioners of attractive wares to be offered in a competitive market for the satisfaction of tastes and demands motivated by the emergent values of a new order of society. One of the most striking features of 17th-century Dutch art is its spectrum of intensive specializations. The economics of a thriving market not only for portraiture but for the great variety of newly developing specialties of easel painting, such as the landscape, the genre picture, the different species of still life, etc., encouraged most artists to be content merely with the challenges of achieving refinement, fluency and facile productivity within a narrow range.

Three of the major specializations of easel painting that became fashionable during the 17th century were predominantly Dutch in origin; the still life, the domestic genre painting and the street or marketplace panorama of civic life. That an interest in the documentation of characteristic scenes relating to the everyday life of the common people, in its domestic as well as in its public aspects, had already asserted itself markedly among the Netherlandish artists of the 16th century is amply evident in Marinus van Roemerswael’s paintings of bankers and excise men in their counting houses, in Pieter Aertsen’s paintings of butchers’ stalls and in the market and thoroughfare scenes of Brueghel the elder. That these vigorous prototypes of the later more artificial and conventionalized civic and domestic “genre” scenes (prototypes which also played an important role in the development of the 17th century still life) appeared earlier and with more prominence in the Netherlands than elsewhere is easily understood. Painting in Italy during the 16th century remained under the patronage and domination primarily of the church and its subsidiary institutions, such as the monastaries, and, secondarily, of those princely courts whose ascendancy was nourished by close political and familial ties with the papacy. On the other hand, in the great mercantile free cities of Flanders and the Netherlands, where an assertive merchant bourgeoisie had succeeded as early as the 14th century in wresting concessions and privileges from the nobility and where, in turn, independent and vigorous trade and artisan guilds had successfully wielded “collective bargaining” powers, artists, while of course doing much important religious painting under ecclesiastical commission, nonetheless enjoyed a more varied patronage and a greater freedom to do independent work as well as to explore subject matter outside of the circumscriptions that would have been imposed by either an ecclesiastical or an aristocratic monopoly and supervision of their abilities. However, if the structure of 16th-century Netherlandish society had afforded northern artists a less restricted scope of subject matter than that of their Italian contemporaries, the social climate of the 17th century was inevitably to precipitate new limitations and to foster a propaganda of its own in artistic production. In marked contrast to the incisive portrayals in Roemerswael’s counting house scenes and the humanistic realism of Brueghel’s studies of peasant types, 17th century genre paintings consist generally of sentimental (and often naively allegorical) essays on the trivial and picturesque foibles of comfortable middle-class domesticity. Peasant and working-class types are conventionally depicted as being as robust and jovial (if only slightly less decorously so) than the burghers: innocently frolicsome in revelry or full of wholesome and zestful industriousness at their honest labors. The realistic humanism of an earlier era with its aspects of objective social commentary had given way to a basically propagandistic sentimentality. The Holland of the 17th century represented an emergent, post-revolutionary social order, and its artistic portrayals of life, like those of the Russian cinema of today, are fundamentally self-extolling. Easel paintings with a basically literary orientation, such as the genre scene and the “historical painting” had become popular and prized commodities for household decoration during the 17th century. In this showing one is afforded an opportunity to see some rather typical examples by minor and obscure painters in which the level of execution is almost amateurish and unintentionally primitivistic. However, even artists of reputation and competence in other areas would appear occasionally to have carelessly tossed off works in these idioms as “potboilers”––a practice which tended to betray the weaknesses of specialism and non-diversified technical experience. One sees pastoral genre scenes, for example, in which surrounding landscape as well as foreground, still-life details, are rendered with sensitivity, consummate naturalism, and painterly effects of lighting, but in which figures are stilted and poorly drawn, or the anatomy of horses and cows so wooden and ineptly disproportionate as to be ludicrous. Aelbert Cuyp’s pastoral genre scene Landscape with Castle and Milkmaid, as well as Paulus Bor’s Caravaggesque Fortune Teller (in which portraiture and drapery are skillfully handled within the conventions of the time, while anatomical detail of the figures and the horse are badly drawn and flatly painted) are cases in point. Hence, while genre paintings form artistically the weakest section of this show, it is creditable to the overall depth and scope of the exhibition’s survey of the period that a fairly representative selection of them was included.

In the primitivistic category with respect to rendition are two little paintings representative of the 17th-century stereotype of the panorama of civic life: they are Hendrick Avercamp’s scenes of traffic and sports on the frozen waterways that served as winter thoroughfares in so many Dutch cities. These paintings are however of historical interest, since, as has been mentioned, the civic panorama category of so-called “low life” painting was peculiarly Netherlandish in historical background. It has been established, for example, that pictures of this sort were first introduced into Italy, where they enjoyed much subsequent imitation and popularity, by Pieter van Laer (1592–1642). The Italians dubbed them bombocciata after van Laer’s Italian nickname, Bomboccio (roughly, “big, silly baby”). One of van Laer’s typical bombocciata entitled Carnival at Rome is in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut and presents a rather theatrically artificial tableau of street revelers. A curious convention common to both of the Avercamps in this exhibition and the Hartford van Laer is a public gallows in the far background. The introduction of the gallows in a Roman carnival scene was a purely fortuitous expropriation of a Dutch formula, since a public gallows was improbable in Rome.

Two indigenous specialisms in the development and refinement of which the Dutch made significant contributions to pure art, colorism, and the painterly tradition, were the “breakfast piece” and the Vanitas picture. Both of these idioms together with the “floral piece,” “fish piece” and “game piece” would now come under the generic term “still life,” itself of Dutch derivation. However, this generic term was not employed as a classification until the middle of the 17th century, while the more generalized form of still life painting, in which objects of random category are freely assembled for purely compositional or decorative purposes, did not appear until considerably later.

During the 16th century, Netherlandish painters had developed a predilection for considerably detailed and expanded elaboration of those common objects which either constituted the prescribed symbolic context of certain religious subjects, or served an ideogramic function in portrayals of persons of specific occupations. In the early 17th century, collections of objects derived in part from the traditional iconography of paintings of St. Jerome (such as the skull and the manuscripts), together with objects that had been ideogramically associated with the paraphernalia of professions relating to worldly power, were abstracted from their former figurative context in the devising of a naively allegorical “pictorial sermon” known as the Vanitas. In the Vanitas, manuscripts, helmets, gold coins, goblets of wine and musical instruments quite obviously connoted worldly power and pleasures, while the juxtaposition with these objects of a skull, a smoldering candle, an hourglass, a calendar, or an open watch, served to denote death and the transience of worldly goods and pursuits. Occasionally, but not invariably, a sprig of vine or some other traditional symbol of resurrection and transcendence was introduced into the picture. It is worth noting that the invention and earliest development of the Vanitas seems to have been regional to Leyden, a leading stronghold of Calvinism in northern Europe. Calvinism, with its inherent biblical fundamentalism, was averse to religious figurative representation and no doubt the Vanitas was an attempt to develop a uniquely Calvinistic pictorial iconography expressive of one of its dominant themes. As a prescribed and formalized composition the Vanitas soon gained widespread popularity throughout Holland and often suggested itself as an appropriate memorial piece in which the “worldly goods” selected for representation related to the career and heraldry of some particular deceased individual. When so used of course the inclusion of a “transcendent symbol” was prescriptive.

The breakfast piece served no allegorical function, but the most primitive forms in which it first appears at the beginning of the 17th century clearly indicate its origin as an isolation of objects from a previous figurative context. The arrangement of plates, eating utensils, remnants of food, and objects of table decoration in the earliest breakfast pieces have pronounced parallels in similar arrangements found in 16th-century group portraits of dignitaries around banquet tables. Both the Vanitas and the breakfast piece became traditional specialisms in Dutch 17th-century painting, which in the hands of artists of outstanding gifts and perceptions soon developed away from an early stiff and primitive syntax to become vehicles for fantastic experiments in composition, skillful trompe l’oeil effects and colorism. It has been speculated that the attempt to impart an overall sombreness of greyish tonality to the Vanitas studies led to the development of the characteristically Dutch “monochrome” in which the tonal values of a variety of colors are weighted toward a prevailing hue throughout the painting. At any rate, subtle achievements in this particular nuance of Dutch painting have their earliest appearance in Vanitas studies and breakfast pieces. Two excellent Vanitas studies representative of the zenith of this particular form are included in the exhibition: one by N. L. Peschier and one by Pieter Claesz, who was one of the foremost developers of the Vanitas and the breakfast piece.

Apart from these indigenous trends and specialisms Dutch painting of the 17th century drew heavily on the various currents manifested in the Italian art of the time. Perhaps the current in Italian painting of the early 17th century that most vitally affected Dutch art was the influence of Caravaggio and the Caravaggeschi. Rome continued to be esteemed as the artistic capital of Europe and the pace-setter for internationally artistic fashions, and many Dutch painters prominently active in the mid-17th century had studied in Rome. Three of the most striking figurative paintings in the exhibition are the Liberation of St. Peter, the St. Sebastian and the Singing Boy, all by Hendrick Terbrugghen, the outstanding exponent of the Caravaggesque style in Holland. Hals’s Boy With a Skull has close affinities with Caravaggesque painting but derives in subject matter from the conventions of early German and Netherlandish woodcut illustrations in which Vanity is depicted as a swaggering plume-capped youth juxtaposed with a skull––an allegorical convention having obvious relationship to the later Vanitas still life.

Italian trends other than the Caravaggesque were at work in Dutch painting, and one finds many landscape paintings reflecting influences either of the idyllic so-called “neo-classical” idiom of backgrounds in Annibale Carracci and Domenichino or of the dark and turbulent romanticism of Salvator Rosa. However, a number of Dutch painters freed themselves from fashionable Italian pictorial conventions to evolve a genuinely native landscape school, incorporating chiaroscuro effects and based on a keen and sensitive observation of their own regional terrain and atmosphere. Foremost among such artists were Salomon and Jakob van Ruysdael and Meindert Hobbema. Wide angled views of flat marshes or tree-dotted meadows in which the horizon line is near the bottom of the picture leaving most of its vertical area to a vigorous rendition of grey and silver clouded “gusty” sky, became typical of the Dutch landscape school and were clearly to influence Constable and the English landscapists of a later generation. That the Dutch were a mercantile people and loved the sea is clearly manifested by the fact that some of the most exuberant and richly painted vista pictures in the entire exhibit are of harbors with a profusion of sailing ships, great and small, riding at anchor.

Professor Gerson, in arranging the format of the catalog’s illustrative material, classifies a small group of paintings as mannerist in derivation. Mannerism, however, was already declining in Italy at the end of the 16th century and giving way to those varied tendencies which were ultimately to coalesce into the full Baroque style. Only one painting in the exhibition is really unequivocally manneristic, J. A. van Wttewael’s The Flood (circa. 1595), and this is so overcluttered with grotesquely muscular and distorted writhing, grimacing figures, not to mention anatomy deformed by inaccurately rendered foreshortenings and perspective, that it could well be taken as a deliberate and savagely satirical travesty upon mannerism. The transitional tendencies away from mannerism are most clearly evidenced in C. C. van Haarlem’s Bathseba In The Bath (1594) where the rich rusts and yellows, the sensuously vivid flesh tones, the voluptuous modeling and reposeful naturalism of the figures, and the sharp contrast of light and shade already presage the Caravaggesque and the Baroque. Here it must be observed that one can ascribe Baroque influences to Dutch painting only in a most restricted and peripheral sense, i.e., as designating either those preexisting tendencies which were absorbed into the full Baroque style as evolved elsewhere in Europe (and therefore later identified with it) on the one hand or, on the other, those by-products of the architectural illusionistic procedures germane to the Baroque viewpoint, which subsequently influenced many features of easel painting.

Severed from its own Flemish-Netherlandish Renaissance heritage, deprived of that support and impetus, as an ideological vehicle, which the Counter Reformation and the patronage of the church provided Italian art, and thereby also deprived of a broad base of continuity with architecture and sculpture, the Dutch not only did not significantly participate in the great Baroque movement which began in Italy and spread throughout Austria and Germany, but failed to develop a cohesive, regional, epochal style of their own. Nor did Holland produce in the 17th century, as Italy did in great profusion, artists of enormous versatility and sophistication with respect to media, techniques, artistic conception and scope of outlook.

––Palmer D. French