‘The Golden Age of Dutch Painting’

In late 16th-century northern Europe, the Italian humanist ideals that had originated in the Renaissance were still held in esteem. They were variously adapted to a distinct northern tradition of painting that, unlike Italian art, did not prioritize ideal beauty and the role of an artist as an intellectual but was better founded on craftsmanship, technical virtuosity and realism. In writing his famous «Painter’s Book,» essentially a biography on artists, Karel Van Mander echoes these two different strands. Highly influenced by Italian art and by the writings of Vasari, Van Mander is nonetheless praiseworthy of northern artists such as Van Eyck and Durer, whom he sees as painting from life rather than with «learning and study.» Van Mander lived to see the work of Pieter Brueghel, the painter of everyday life and vivid peasant scenes, but was not around to witness how the northern artistic concepts of realism of which he had talked about produced, in the 17th-century northern, Protestant part of the Netherlands, some of the greatest masterpieces of Western art. Known as the «The Golden Age of Dutch Painting,» this period in art is the subject of an exhibit at the National Gallery of Art which displays works owned by the Dordrecht art museum (closed for renovation until the summer) and is jointly curated by its director Peter J. Schoon, curator Sander Paarlberg and Angela Tamvaki, curator at the department of Western art of the National Gallery. The exhibit is a continuation of «Gods and Heroes in Dutch Painting,» an exhibit at the National Gallery a few years ago that highlighted the depiction of Greek themes in Dutch painting. Unlike the former exhibit, however, «The Golden Age of Dutch Painting» focuses on works produced in the Protestant north, where a rising class of prosperous merchants and the Protestant stricture that prohibited religious iconography combined to give rise to a seething artistic production and to beautiful images of everyday life, including seascapes, portraits, still lifes, city views and scenes of genre painting. Unlike Catholic Flanders, the southern part of the Netherlands, art in the north was no longer commissioned by the church. There was great demand, but for an art that was not only based on the great themes of history and mythology but was more a documentation of its own time. This great demand led to specialization, which at worst meant repetition and at best led to variety. Although the competition was fierce, specialization also provided the opportunity for artists to excel in a field. Indeed many of them, some included in the exhibit, built a reputation as masters of a single genre; Frans Hals (who moved to Holland after Antwerp fell to the Spaniards) was best known for his portraits, Hendrick Vroom enjoyed success as a marine painter, Jan van Goyen concentrated on landscapes (interestingly enough, not always faithful representations), Pieter Claesz focused on still lifes, and Melchior d’Hondecoeter was known for his paintings of birds. Specialization also meant that the various parts of a single painting were often divided among different painters; a recorded example concerns Bartholomeus van Bassen, who, in his drawings of architecture for which he became known, left the painting of figures to such artists as Esaias van de Velde. Such division of labor was not odd and can actually be traced to a long tradition of guilds and large workshops that were operating in the north. Workshops were a training ground for artists. Indeed, some of Dordrecht’s most renowned artists were pupils of Rembrandt and had studied in his studio in Amsterdam. Ferdinand Bol is one of them (he was born in Dordrecht but never returned there); his indebtedness to Rembrandt shows in his «Self-Portrait» from 1646 and «A Couple in a Landscape» from around the same time, both in terms on the dark palette and the psychological depth of the portrayed. Encouraged by Bol, other artists also trained under Rembrandt, among them Nicolaes Maes, Samuel van Hoogstraten and Arent de Gelder, one of Rembrandt’s last pupils, who at the end of the 17th century was one of Dordrecht’s most notable artists. The artist who was above all tied with the city of Dordrecht, however, was Jacob Gerritsz Cuyp (himself the son of a painter), the city’s first important painter to emerge in the 17th century and was part of a family of painters also tied to the city of Dordrecht. He was a versatile artist who mostly became known for his portraits but also as the teacher of various other important artists, among them his half-brother Benjamin Cuyp and his son Aelbert Cuyp, an accomplished artist whose fame did not nonetheless reach beyond the city of Dordrecht. (His sun-drenched landscapes became especially popular among the 18th-century British aristocracy.) Like the Cuyp family artists, most painters included in the exhibit were born in Dordrecht. This is because one of the exhibit’s aspects is to underline the contribution of Dordrecht to Dutch 17th-century painting. But while it is true that many of the artists were either born or made a career in the city, they did not develop a unified style that can be associated with that city. This is not the case with other of Holland’s cities; Leiden, for example, was known in the second quarter of the 17th century for its «precise school» – a group of painters known for their meticulous, technical dexterity and almost invisible, subtle brushwork – Utrecht was known for its Caravaggisti painters and Haarlem for its classicist painters. Still Dordrecht was one of Holland’s first urban centers to flourish. At the intersection of two major rivers, it was home to a thriving commerce and a prosperous merchant class. Because these are the factors that lie at the backbone of Dutch 17th-century art, it is quite appropriate that «The Golden Age of Dutch Painting» comes from a museum in a city that at the time witnessed this kind of commercial prosperity. Directed by Yiannis Fagras, starring Ekavi Douma, Panayiotis Karras, Katerina Fagra. Psychological drama about the violent end of innocence for a young man and woman. (In Greek)

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