European Art · Exhibitions

The Joys of the Dutch Golden Age

Flora by Rembrandt Dutch Golden Age
Rembrandt, Flora, c. 1654. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Gift of Archer M. Huntington, in memory of his father, Collis Potter Huntington, 1926. [Public Domain].

In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met is an ongoing exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. I’m not usually a fan of Dutch old masters, but I really enjoyed this show. It provided the chance to view the works up close at my leisure, which gave me a new appreciation for this type of artwork.

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt Dutch Golden Age
Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. [Public Domain].

The Dutch Golden Age, a time where the Netherlands flourished in art, culture, and commerce, took place in the 17th century. Celebrated Dutch artists Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Frans Hals flourished at this time, which was also the age of great Dutch still lives and genre scenes. Sections of the exhibition focus on key themes of Dutch art: domestic interiors, portraits, paintings of women, landscapes, still lives, humorous or bawdy scenes, religious art, and the human body, as well as Rembrandt and his pupils. Each section explains the significance of the genre and how it developed during the Golden Age. In 1648, the northern part of the country achieved independence from Spain after the Eighty Years’ War. The new identity of a new nation is a big theme of the exhibition, particularly in terms of Protestant Holland versus Catholic Spain.

Here is some of what I saw and learned.

Portraits

Woman with a Pink by Rembrandt Dutch Golden Age
Rembrandt, Woman with a Pink, early 1660s. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913. [Public Domain].

For me, the many Rembrandt portraits really stole the show, as they often do. His spectacular Aristotle with a Bust of Homer is rightly given a place of honor. I also loved his portraits of a husband and wife in archaic, theatrical clothing similar to what Rembrandt wore in many of his self portraits. The wife’s portrait appears above. On the other end of the spectrum, his Flora (shown at the top of the page) feel almost modern. With her big hat, she reminds me of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.

Bearded Man with a Velvet Cap by Govert Flinck Dutch Golden Age
Govert Flinck, Bearded Man with a Velvet Cap, 1645. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900. [Public Domain].

But Rembrandt wasn’t the only great portraitist of the Dutch Golden Age. It was interesting to notice how each artist had his own way of portraying figures with very similar black clothes, white collars, and severe postures. Unlike Rembrandt, whose works were always painterly and atmospheric, many other artists painted in a more vividly naturalistic style. The portrait above is a compelling example. It’s a cliché to say that this man seems like he could open his mouth and speak at any moment, but it’s actually true in this case.

Landscapes

Wheat Fields by Jacob van Ruisdael
Jacob van Ruisdael, Wheat Fields, c. 1670. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913. [Public Domain].

Did you know that Dutch artists were the first in Europe to pursue landscape painting as its own genre? I didn’t, but as a landscape painting aficionado, I’m certainly grateful to them. Their beautiful works started one of my favorite traditions.

Woodland Road by Meyndert Hobbema Dutch Golden Age
Meyndert Hobbema, Woodland Road, c. 1670. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Mary Stillman Harkness, 1950. [Public Domain].

It’s difficult to identify exactly what it is, but there’s a clear difference between European landscape paintings and their American counterparts that I spend so much time talking about. I love both varieties, but there’s no mistaking one for the other. The fact that these earliest European landscapes are pre-industrial probably accounts for some of the difference. They depict a rustic and idyllic countryside that you don’t see in later works.

Still Lives

Still Life with a Glass of Oysters by Jan Davidsz de Heem Dutch Golden Age
Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still Life with a Glass and Oysters, c. 1640. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. [Public Domain]

Dutch still lives are rightly famous for their virtuosity. Nothing else can compare to the way Dutch masters depicted the textures of fruit, glass, metal, fish, and more. In particular, a few lemon rinds in this show really transfixed me. I truly thought for a moment that one was a real lemon peel glued onto the canvas. You can see the effect above, but it was even more striking in person.

A Vase of Flowers by Margareta Haverman Dutch Golden Age
Margareta Haverman, A Vase of Flowers, 1716. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. [Public Domain]

For the few female artists who pursued careers in early modern Europe, still life was a popular and accessible genre. Still-life painter Margareta Haverman is the lone female artist represented in this exhibition, but she makes a big impact. Her large painting shows many different kinds of flowers and other plants in a vase. The level of detail is truly impressive, particularly when seen up close.

Domestic Interiors and Paintings of Women

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher by Johannes Vermeer
Johannes Vermeer, Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, c. 1662. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Marquand Collection. [Public Domain]

While the comical genre paintings weren’t my cup of tea, I really enjoyed the more subdued domestic scenes. This is another area that Dutch artists are famous for. Vermeer clearly dominates here, but there are also compelling works by other artists. Many works contain layers of allegory, symbolism, and narrative within lovely depictions of comfortable household settings.

Young Woman Peeling Apples by Nicolaes Maes Dutch Golden Age
Nicolaes Maes, Young Woman Peeling Apples, c. 1655. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913. [Public Domain].

The painting above is my favorite work in the exhibition. According to the label, Nicolaes Maes was groundbreaking with this kind and respectful depiction of a maid peeling apples. It was much more common in this era for maids to basically be painted props to be laughed at or lusted over. I’m glad Maes chose to do otherwise, because I love this pleasant-looking figure and the warm, quiet simplicity of her setting. (Update: I loved this painting so much that I wrote about it for DailyArt Magazine’s Painting of the Week.

Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting by Pieter de Hooch Dutch Golden Age
Pieter de Hooch, Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting, c. 1663-5. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. [Public Domain].

In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met is on view in the Lehman Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It opened in October 2018 and will continue for the foreseeable future. (The website says “ongoing”.) It’s very close to the new exhibition of Leonardo’s Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness (which you can read about here) so why not check it out when you go to see Leonardo?

2 thoughts on “The Joys of the Dutch Golden Age

  1. Thanks. I well recall when “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer” was acquired by the Met. I was in college and the purchase price set a record as the most ever then paid for a painting, $2.3 million. The name of the painting was subsequently changed.

    1. Interesting. I’ve always known it by its old name, even though I wasn’t yet born when the Met bought it. I only recently noticed that’s not what the Met calls it. It’s common for paintings to have more than one name, though.
      Thanks for sharing!

Leave a Reply to A Scholarly Skater Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.