In 1581, the six
northern provinces of the Netherlands, led by William the Silent of
Nassau, declared their independence from Spain, capping a rebellion that
had begun 15 years earlier
against Catholicism and the attempt by Philip II to curtail local power.
The southern Netherlands, called Flanders (now divided between France
and Belgium), were soon recovered; but after a long struggle the United
Provinces (today's Holland) gained their autonomy, which was recognized
by the truce declared in 1609.
Although hostilities broke out again in
1621, the freedom of the Dutch
was ratified by the Treaty of Munster, which ended the Thirty Years' War
The division of the Netherlands had very different consequences for
the economy, social structure, culture, and religion of the north and
the south. After being sacked by marauding Spanish troops in
1576, Antwerp, the south's
leading port, lost half its population. Although Brussels was the seat
of government, Antwerp gradually regained its position as Flanders'
commercial and artistic capital, until the Scheldt River leading to its
harbor, which had been periodically shut down during the war, was closed
permanently to shipping as part of the Treaty of Westphalia, thereby
crippling trade. Because Flanders continued to be ruled by Spanish
regents, who were staunchly Catholic and viewed themselves as the
defenders of the true faith, its artists relied heavily on commissions
from Church and State, although the patronage of the aristocracy and
wealthy merchants was also of considerable importance.
Holland, in contrast, was proud of its hard-won freedom. While the
cultural links with Flanders remained strong, several factors encouraged
the quick development of Dutch artistic-traditions. Unlike Flanders,
where all artistic activity radiated from Antwerp, Holland had a number
of flourishing local schools. Besides Amsterdam, the commercial capital,
we find important groups of painters in Haarlem, Utrecht, Leyden, Delft,
and other towns. Thus Holland produced an almost bewildering variety of
masters and styles.
The new nation was a nation of merchants, farmers, and seafarers, and
its religion was Reformed Protestant. Hence, Dutch artists did not have
the large-scale commissions sponsored by Church and State that were
available throughout the Catholic world. While municipal authorities and
civic bodies provided a certain amount of art patronage, their demands
were limited, so that the private collector now became the painter's
chief source of support. This condition had already existed to some
extent before, but its
full effect can be seen only after 1600.
There was no shrinkage of output. On the contrary, the
general public developed so insatiable an appetite for pictures that the
whole country became gripped by a kind of collectors' mania. John
Evelyn, during a visit to Holland in 1641,
noted in his diary that "it is an ordinary thing to find
a common farmer lay out two or three thousand pounds in this commodity.
Their houses are full of them, and they vend them at their fairs to very
great gain." The
collectors' mania in seventeenth-century Holland caused an outpouring of
artistic talent comparable only to Early Renaissance Florence. Pictures
became a commodity, and their trade followed the law of supply and
demand. Many artists produced for the market rather than for individual
patrons. They were lured into becoming painters by hopes of success that
often failed to materialize, and even the greatest masters were
sometimes hard-pressed. (It was not unusual for an artist to keep an
inn, or run a small business on the side.) Yet they survived—less
secure, but freer.
Although Rome was its birthplace, the Baroque style soon became
international. The great Flemish painter
holds a place of unique importance in this
process. It might be said that he finished what Durer had started a
hundred years earlier: the breakdown of the artistic barriers between
north and south. Rubens' father was a prominent Antwerp Protestant who
fled to Germany to escape Spanish persecution during the war of
The family returned to Antwerp after his
death, when Peter Paul was ten years old, and the boy grew up a devout
Catholic. Trained by local painters, Rubens became a master in
but developed a personal style only when, two years
later, he went to Italy.
During his eight years in the south, he absorbed the Italian
tradition far more thoroughly than had any Northerner before him. He
eagerly studied ancient sculpture, the masterpieces of the High
Renaissance (see his splendid drawing after Leonardo's Battle of
Anghiari, fig. 636),
and the work of Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci. Rubens
competed, in fact, with the best Italians of his day on even terms, and
could well have made his career in Italy. When his mother's illness in
1608 brought him back to
Flanders, he meant the visit to be brief, but he received a special
appointment as court painter to the Spanish regent, which permitted him
to establish a workshop in Antwerp, exempt from local taxes and guild
regulations. Rubens had the best of both worlds. Like Jan van Eyck
before him, he was valued
at court not only as an artist, but as a confidential adviser and
emissary. Diplomatic errands gave him entree to the royal households of
the major powers, where he procured sales and commissions. Aided by a
growing number of assistants, he was also free to carry out a huge
volume of work for the city of Antwerp, for the Church, and for private
In his life, Rubens epitomized the extroverted Baroque ideal of the
virtuoso for whom the entire universe is a stage. He was, on the one
hand, a devoutly religious person and, on the other, a person of the
world who succeeded in every arena by virtue of his character and
ability. Rubens resolved the contradictions of the era through humanism,
that union of faith and learning attacked by the Reformation and Counter
Reformation alike. In his paintings as well, Rubens reconciled seemingly
incompatible opposites. His enormous intellect and vitality enabled him
to synthesize his sources into a unique style that unites the natural
and supernatural, reality and fantasy, learning and spirituality. Thus,
his epic canvases defined the scope and the style of High Baroque
painting. They possess a seemingly boundless energy and inventiveness,
which, like his heroic nudes, express life at its fullest. The
presentation of this heightened existence required the expanded arena
that only Baroque theatricality, in the best sense of the term, could
provide, and Rubens' sense of drama was no less highly developed than
The Raising of the Cross (fig.
777), the first major altarpiece Rubens
produced after his return, shows strikingly how much he was indebted to
Italian art. The muscular figures, modeled to display their physical
power and passionate feeling, recall those of the Sistine Ceiling and
the Farnese Gallery, while the lighting suggests Caravaggio's. The panel
nevertheless owes much of its success to Rubens' remarkable ability to
unite Italian influences with Netherlandish ideas, updating them in the
process. The painting is more heroic in scale and conception than any
previous Northern work, yet it is unthinkable without
Rogier van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross (see fig.
549). Rubens is
also a Flemish realist in such details as the foliage, the armor of the
soldier, and the curly-haired dog in the foreground. These varied
elements, integrated with sovereign mastery, form a composition of
tremendous dramatic force. The unstable pyramid of bodies, swaying
precariously, bursts the limits of the frame in a characteristically
Baroque way, making the beholder feel like a participant in the action.
In the decade of the 1620s, Rubens' dynamic style reached its climax
in his huge decorative schemes for churches and palaces. The most famous
is the cycle in the Luxembourg Palace in Paris glorifying the career of
Marie de' Medici, the widow of Henri IV and mother of Louis XIII. Our
illustration shows the artist's oil sketch for one episode, the young
queen landing in Marseilles (fig. 778).
This is hardly an exciting subject in itself, yet
Rubens has turned it into a spectacle of unprecedented splendor. As
Marie de' Medici walks down the gangplank. Fame flies overhead sounding
a triumphant blast on two trumpets, and Neptune rises from the sea with
his fish-tailed crew. Having guarded the queen's journey, they rejoice
at her arrival. Everything flows together here in swirling movement:
heaven and earth, history and allegory—even
drawing and painting, for Rubens used oil sketches like this one to
prepare his compositions. Unlike earlier artists, he preferred to design
his pictures in terms of light and color from the very start. (Most of
his drawings are figure studies or portrait sketches.) This unified
vision, which had been explored but never fully achieved by the great
Venetians, was Rubens' most precious legacy to subsequent painters.
The Raising of the Cross. 1609-10.
Center panel of a triptych
Marie de' Medici, Queen of France, Landing in Marseilles.
1622-23. Oil on panel,
63.5 x 50.3
cm. Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Around 1630, the
turbulent drama of Rubens' preceding work changes to a late style of
lyrical tenderness inspired by Titian, whose work Rubens discovered anew
in the royal palace while he visited Madrid. The Garden of Love (fig.
result of this encounter, is as glowing a tribute to life's pleasures as
Titian's Bacchanal (see fig. 670).
But these celebrants belong to the present, not
to a golden age of the past, though they are playfully assaulted by
swarms of cupids. To understand the artist's purpose, we must first
realize that this subject, the Garden of Love, had been a feature of
Northern painting ever since the courtly style of the International
Gothic. The early versions, however, were genre scenes showing groups of
fashionable young lovers in a garden. By combining this tradition with
Titian's classical mythologies, Rubens has created an enchanted realm
where myth and reality become one.
The Garden of Love, ñ.
Oil on canvas, 2 x
2.8 m. Museo del Prado,
The picture must have had special meaning for him, since he had just
married a beautiful girl of 16.
(His first wife died in 1626.)
He also bought a country house, Chateau Steen,
and led the leisurely life of a squire. This change induced a renewed
interest in landscape painting, which he had practiced only
intermittently before. Here, too, the power of his genius is
undiminished. In Landscape with the Chateau Steen (fig.
780), a magnificent
open space sweeps from the hunter and his prey in the foreground to the
mist-veiled hills along the horizon. As a landscapist, Rubens again
creates a synthesis from his Northern and Southern sources, for he is
the heir of both Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Annibale Carracci (compare
Landscape with the Chateau Steen. 1636.
Oil on panel, 134.5
cm. The National Gallery, London.
Besides Rubens, only one Flemish Baroque artist won international
Anthony van Dyck
was that rarity among painters, a child prodigy.
Before he was 20, he had
become Rubens' most valued assistant. But like Rubens, he developed his
mature style only after a formative stay in Italy. Van Dyck's fame rests
mainly on his portraits, especially those he painted during his
appointment to the English court between 1632
Charles I Hunting (fig.
781) shows the king
standing near a horse and two grooms against a landscape backdrop.
Representing the sovereign at ease, it might be called a "dismounted
equestrian portrait"— less
rigid than a formal state portrait, but hardly less grand, for the king
remains fully in command of the state, symbolized by the horse. The
fluid Baroque movement of the setting complements the self-conscious
elegance of the king's pose, which continues the stylized grace of
Hilliard's portraits (compare fig. 725).
Van Dyck has
brought the Mannerist court portrait up-to-date, using Rubens and Titian
as his points of departure. In the process, he created a new
aristocratic portrait tradition that continued in England until the late
eighteenth century, and had considerable influence on the Continent as
It is characteristic of Van Dyck that he proved most sympathetic in
rendering women and children. Because he lacked Rubens' vitality and
inventiveness, his achievement as a history painter has been
overshadowed; yet it was of considerable importance in its own right. He
was at his best in lyrical scenes of mythological love. Rinaldo and
782), taken from Torquato
Tasso's immensely popular poem Jerusalem Freed
(1581) about the crusades, shows
the sorceress falling in love with the Christian knight she intended to
kill. The painting reflects the conception of the English monarchy,
which found parallels in Tasso's epic. Charles I, a Protestant, had
married the Catholic Henrietta Maria, sister of his rival, the king of
France. Charles saw himself as the virtuous ruler of a peaceful realm
much like the Fortunate Isle where Armida brought Rinaldo. (Ironically,
his reign ended in civil war and his beheading in
1649.) Van Dyck tells his story
of ideal love in the pictorial language of Titian and Veronese, but with
a lyrical tenderness and visual opulence that would have been the envy
of any Venetian artist.
Anthony van Dyck.
Portrait of Charles I Hunting. ñ.
1635. Oil on canvas.
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Anthony van Dyck.
Rinaldo and Armida. 1629. Oil on canvas,
236.5 x 229 cm.
The Baltimore Museum of Art.
was the successor to Rubens and Van Dyck as the
leading artist in Flanders. Although he was never a member of Rubens'
studio, he turned to Rubens for inspiration throughout his career. His
favorite subjects were mythological themes. Jordaens frequently emulated
Rubens in depicting the revels of nymphs and satyrs. Like his eating and
drinking scenes, which illustrate popular parables of an edifying and
moralizing sort, they reveal him to be a close observer of people. These
denizens of the woods, however, inhabit an idyllic realm, untouched by
the cares of human affairs. While the painterly execution in Homage
to Pomona (Allegory of Yruitfulness) (fig.
783) acknowledges a strong
debt to Rubens, the monumental figures possess a calm dignity that
dispenses with Rubens' rhetoric and lends them a character all their
Homage to Pomona (Allegory of Fruitfulness).
Oil on canvas, 180
Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels
Rubens' towering genius dominated Flemish painting. It touched every
artist around him, including
Jan Bruegel the Elder
the leader of the preceding generation, with whom
he frequently collaborated. Although he was the principal heir to the
tradition of his illustrious father, Pieter Bruegel the Elder,
Jan was an innovator who occupied a position of
central importance in the transition from Mannerism to the Baroque in
the North. Allegory of Earth (fig.
784) shows one of his major contributions
to Flemish art: the "paradise" landscape. It originally belonged to a
series devoted to the tour elements, a common theme in Northern
seventeenth-century painting, each with an appropriate biblical or
mythological subject. Barely visible in the background is the expulsion
of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, a remnant of the Mannerist
Jan's enchanting vision of this innocent realm is made convincing by his
meticulous realism. The small copperplate, which he, like many older
artists, preferred, offered a smooth, hard surface ideally suited to his
Jan Bruegel the Elder.
Allegory of Earth, ñ.
1618. Oil on copper, 46 x
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Brueghel also made an important contribution to flower painting.
However, the development of the Baroque still life in Flanders was
largely the responsibility of
who studied with Jan's brother, Pieter Brueghel the
Younger. Snyders concentrated on elaborate table still lifes piled high
with food that epitomize the Flemish gusto for life during the Baroque
era. His splendid Market Stall (fig.
785) is a masterpiece of
its kind. This early picture appeals frankly to the senses. The artist
revels in the bravura application of paint, as seen in the varied
textures of the game. The scene is further enlivened by the little drama
of the youth picking the old man's pocket and the hens fighting in the
tore-ground as a cat looks on.
Even here Rubens' influence can be felt: the composition descends
from one Snyders painted with Rubens based on the latter's design
shortly after both returned form Italy around
1609. Market Stall updates The Meat
Stall of Pieter Aertsen (fig.
728) into a Baroque idiom. Unlike Aertsen,
Snyders subordinates everything to the ensemble, which has a
characteristically Baroque ebullience and immediacy. There is a
fundamental difference in content as well. No longer is it necessary to
include a religious subject in the background of this scene of plenty.
Although an emblematic meaning has been suggested, it is plainly
secondary. The painting also celebrates a time of peace and prosperity
alter the truce of 1609,
when hunting was resumed in the replenished game preserves.
The Art Institute of Chicago
The Baroque style came to Holland from Antwerp through the work of
Rubens, and from Rome through direct contact with Caravaggio and his
followers. Although most Dutch painters did not go to Italy, those who
did in the early years of the century were from strongly Catholic
Utrecht. Given this lack of contact, it is not surprising that these
artists were more attracted by Caravaggio's realism and "lay
Christianity" than by Annibale Carracci's classicism. The Calling of
St. Matthew by
the oldest and ablest of this group (fig.786),
directly reflects Caravaggio's earlier version (fig.
741) in the
sharp light, the dramatic timing, and the everyday detail. Missing,
however, is the element of grandeur and simplicity. While it produced
few other major artists, the Utrecht School was important for
transmitting the style of Caravaggio to other Dutch masters, who then
made better use of these new Italian ideas.
(1580/85-1666), the great
portrait painter of Haarlem. He was born in Antwerp, and what little is
known of his early work suggests the influence of Rubens. His developed
style, however, seen in The Jolly Toper (fig.
787), combines Rubens'
robustness and breadth with a concentration on the "dramatic moment"
that must be derived from Caravaggio via Utrecht. Everything here
conveys complete spontaneity: the twinkling eyes and half-open mouth,
the raised hand, the teetering wineglass, and—most
important of all—the quick
way of setting down the forms. Hals works in dashing brushstrokes, each
so clearly visible as a separate entity that we can almost count the
total number of "touches." With this open, split-second technique, the
completed picture has the immediacy of a sketch (compare our example by
Rubens, fig. 778).
The impression of a race against time is, of course,
deceptive. Hals spent hours, not minutes, on this lifesize canvas, but
he maintains the illusion of having done it all in the wink of an eye.
These qualities are even more forceful in the Malle Babbe (fig.
788). one of
the artist's genre pictures. A lower-class counterpart of The Jolly
Toper, this folk character, half-witch (note the owl), half-village
idiot, screams invectives at other guests in a tavern. Hals seems to
share their attitude toward this benighted creature, one of cruel
amusement rather than sympathy, but his characterization is masterfully
sharp and his lightninglike brushwork has the bravura of incredible
The Calling of St. Matthew.
1621. Oil on canvas, 101.5 x
Centraal Museum, Utrecht
One of the first to profit from this experience was
In the artist's last canvases these pictorial fireworks are
transmuted into an austere style of great emotional depth. His group
portrait, The Women Regents of the Old Men's Home at Haarlem (fig.
789), has an
insight into human character matched only in Rembrandt's late style
(compare figs. 794
The daily experience of suffering and death has so
etched the faces of these women that they seem themselves to have become
images of death—gentle,
inexorable, and timeless.
The Jolly Toper, ñ.
1628-30. Oil on canvas.
Malle Babbe. ñ.
1650. Oil on canvas. 75 x
The Women Regents of the Old Men's Home at Haarlem.
1664. Oil on canvas,
170.3 x 249 cm.
Frans Halsmuseum, Haarlem
Hals' virtuosity was such that it could not be imitated
readily, and his followers were necessarily few. The most
important among them was Judith Leyster
(1609-1660). Like many women artists
before modern times, her career was partially curtailed by
motherhood. Leyster's delightful Boy Playing a Flute
is her masterpiece. Significantly, its style
is closer to Terbrugghen's than to Hals'. The rapt musician
is a memorable expression of lyrical mood. To convey this
spirit, Leyster investigated the poetic quality of light
with a quiet intensity that anticipates the work of Jan
Vermeer a generation later.
790. Judith Leyster.
Boy Playing a Flute.
Rembrandt van Rijn
the greatest genius of Dutch art, was stimulated
at the beginning of his career by indirect contact with Caravaggio
through the Utrecht School. His earliest pictures, painted in his native
Leyden, arc small, sharply lit, and intensely realistic. Many deal with
Old Testament subjects, a lifelong preference. They show both his
greater realism and his new emotional attitude. Since the beginning of
Christian art, episodes from the Old Testament had often been
represented for the light they shed on Christian doctrine, rather than
for their own sake. (The Sacrifice of Isaac, for example, "prefigured"
the sacrificial death of Christ.) This perspective not only limited the
choice of subjects, it also colored their interpretation. Rembrandt, by
contrast, viewed the stories of the Old Testament in the same lay
Christian spirit that governed Caravaggio's approach to the New
Testament: as direct accounts of God's ways with His human creations.
How strongly these stories affected him is evident from The Blinding
of Samson (fig. 791).
Painted in the High Baroque style he developed in the
1630s after moving to Amsterdam, it shows Rembrandt as a master
storyteller. The artist depicts the Old Testament world as full of
Oriental splendor and violence, cruel yet seductive. The flood of
brilliant light pouring into the dark tent is unabashedly theatrical,
heightening the drama to the pitch of The Raising of the Cross (fig.
777) by Rubens,
whose work Rembrandt attempted to rival.
Rembrandt was at this time an avid collector of Near Eastern
paraphernalia, which serve as props in these pictures. He was now
Amsterdam's most sought-after portrait painter, as well as a man of
considerable wealth. His famous group portrait known as The Night
Watch (fig. 792),
painted in 1642.
shows a military company, whose members had each
contributed toward the cost of the huge canvas (originally it was even
larger). Rembrandt did not give them equal weight, however. He was
anxious to avoid the mechanically regular designs that afflicted earlier
group portraits. (Only Frans Hals had overcome the problem
successfully.) Instead, he made the picture a virtuoso performance of
Baroque movement and lighting. Thus some of the figures were plunged
into shadow, while others were hidden by overlapping. Legend has it that
the people whose portraits he had obscured were dissatisfied. There is
no evidence that they were. On the contrary, we know that the painting
was admired in its time.
Like Michelangelo and, later, Van Gogh, Rembrandt has been the subject
(one might say, the victim) of many fictionalized biographies. In these,
the artist's fall from public favor is usually explained by the
"catastrophe" of The Night Watch. It is undeniable that his
prosperity petered out in the 1640s, as he was replaced by more
fashionable artists, including some of his own pupils. Nevertheless, his
fortunes declined less suddenly and completely than his romantic
admirers would have us believe. Certain important people in Amsterdam
continued to be his steadfast friends and supporters, and he received
some major public commissions in the 1650s
and 1660s. Actually, his financial difficulties resulted largely from
Rembrandt van Rijn.
The Blinding of Samson. 1636. Oil on canvas, 2.4 x 3 m.
Stadelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
Rembrandt van Rijn.
The Night Watch (The Company of Captain Trans Banning Cocg).
Oil on canvas, 3.8 x
4.4 m. Rijksmuseum,
Still, the 1640s were a period of crisis, of inner uncertainty and
external troubles, his wife's death among them. Rembrandt's outlook
changed profoundly: after about 1650,
his style eschews the rhetoric of the High Baroque for
lyric subtlety and pictorial breadth. Some exotic trappings from the
earlier years remain, but they no longer create an alien, barbarous
world. Rembrandt's etchings from these years, such as Christ
Preaching (fig. 793),
show this new depth of feeling. The sensuous beauty seen
in The Blinding of Samson has now yielded to a humble world of
bare feet and ragged clothes. The scene is full of the artist's deep
feeling of compassion for the poor and outcast who make up Christ's
audience. Rembrandt had a special sympathy for the Jews, as the heirs of
the biblical past and as the patient victims of persecution; they were
often his models. This print, like the sketch in figure
7, strongly suggests some corner
in the Amsterdam ghetto and surely incorporates observations of life
from the drawings he habitually made throughout his career. Here it is
the magic of light that endows Christ Preaching with spiritual
significance. Rembrandt's importance as a graphic artist is second only
to Albrecht Durer's, although it is possible to get only a hint from
this one example.
Rembrandt van Rijn.
Christ Preaching, ñ.
Etching. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
In the many self-portraits Rembrandt painted over his long career,
his view of himself reflects every stage of his inner development:
experimental in the early Leyden years, theatrically disguised in the
1630s, frank toward the end of his life. While our late example (fig.
partially indebted to Titian's sumptuous portraits (compare fig.
scrutinizes himself with the same typically Northern candor found in Jan
van Eyck's Man in a Red Turban (see fig.
546). The bold pose and
penetrating look bespeak a resigned but firm resolve in the face of
This self-analytical approach helps to account for the plain dignity
we see in the religious scenes that play so large a part in Rembrandt's
work toward the end of his life. The Return of the Prodigal Son (fig.
795), painted a
few years before his death, is perhaps Rembrandt's most moving painting.
It is also his quietest—a
moment stretching into eternity. So pervasive is the mood of tender
silence that the beholder senses a spontaneous kinship with this group.
Our bond of shared experience is perhaps stronger and more intimate in
this picture than in any earlier work of art. Here the wealth of human
understanding accumulated over a lifetime of experience achieves a
universal expression of sorrow and forgiveness.
Rembrandt's religious pictures demand an insight that was beyond the
capacity of all but a few collectors. Most art buyers in Holland
preferred subjects within their own experience: landscapes,
architectural views, still lifes, everyday scenes. These various types,
we recall, originated in the latter half of the sixteenth century.
As they became fully defined, an unheard-of
specialization began. The trend was not confined to Holland. We find it
everywhere to some degree, but Dutch painting was its fountainhead, in
both volume and variety.
Rembrandt van Rijn.
Self-Portrait. 1658. Oil on canvas,
133.6 x 103.8 cm.
The Frick Collection, New York
Rembrandt van Rijn.
The Return of the Prodigal Son. c.
Oil on canvas, 2.6 x2.1 m. Hermitage
Museum, St. Petersburg
by Jan van Goyen
(1596-1656) is the kind of
landscape that enjoyed great popularity because its elements were so
familiar: the distant town under a looming overcast sky, seen through a
moisture-laden atmosphere across an expanse of water. Such a view
remains characteristic of the Dutch countryside to this day, and no one
knew better than Van Goyen how to evoke the special mood of these
"nether lands," ever threatened by the sea.
Like other early Dutch Baroque landscapists, Van Goyen restricted his
palette to grays and browns highlighted by green accents, but within
this narrow range he achieved an almost infinite variety of effects. The
tonal landscape style in Holland was allied to a drastic simplication of
composition, which reduced the complex constructions of Northern
Mannerism to orderly arrangements. Van Goyen's scene is based on a lucid
scheme of parallel bands surmounted by a triangle. He discovered, what
Annibale Carracci had already learned from Giorgione and the Venetians:
that the secret to depicting landscape lay in geometry, which enabled
the artist to gain visual control over nature as it did architecture.
796. Jan van Goyen. Pelkus-Poort.
1646. Oil on panel.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Other Northern artists absorbed this lesson directly in Rome, where they
congregated in growing numbers. The Dutch Italianates who returned home
in the 1640s brought with them new ideas that were to have an
invigorating effect on landscape painting. Their impact can be seen in
the work of
who never left his native soil. A follower of Van
Goyen, he quickly abandoned tonalism in favor of the radiant light found
in their views of the Roman Campagna, which parallel the work of Claude
Lorraine (see fig. 811).
The golden sunlight of late afternoon imbues Cuyp's
View of the Valkhof at Nijmegen (fig.
797) with a poetic mood that suspends the
scene in time and space. The nearly classical structure of the
composition and cubic handling of the architecture heighten the sense of
repose created by Cuyp's command of even the subtlest atmospheric
View of the Valkhof at Nijmegen.
1646. Oil on panel.
Although nature was certainly enjoyed for its own sake, it could also
serve as a means of divine revelation through contemplation of God's
work. Such is the case with The Jewish Cemetery (fig.
greatest Dutch landscape painter. Natural forces dominate this wild
scene, which is frankly imaginary, except for the tombs, which depict
the Jewish cemetery in Amsterdam. The thunderclouds passing over a
deserted mountain valley, the medieval ruin, the torrent that has forced
its way between ancient graves, all create a mood of deep melancholy.
Nothing endures on this earth, the artist tells us: time, wind, and
water grind all to dust, the trees and rocks, as well as the feeble
works of human hands. Even the elaborate tombs offer no protection from
the same forces that destroy the church built in God's glory. Within the
context of this extended allegory, the rainbow may nevertheless be
understood as a sign of the promise of redemption through faith.
Ruisdael's view of nature is thus the exact opposite of Annibale
Carracci's "civilized" landscape (compare fig.
746). It harks back
instead to Giorgione's tragic vision (see fig.
669). The Jewish
Cemetery inspires that awe on which the Romantics
150 years later were to base
their concept of the Sublime. The difference is that for Ruisdael, God
ultimately remains separate from His creation, instead of a part of it.
The Jewish Cemetery. 1655-60.
Oil on canvas. The Detroit Institute of Arts
Nothing at first seems further removed from The Jewish
Cemetery than the painstakingly precise Interior of
the Choir of St. Bavo 's Church at Haarlem
painted by Pieter Saenredam
(1597-1665) at almost
the same time. Yet it, too, is meant to invite meditation,
rather than serve merely as a topographic record. (These
architectural views were often freely invented as well.) The
medieval structure, stripped of all furnishings and
whitewashed under Protestant auspices, is no longer a house
of worship. It has become a place for the dead (note the
tomb slabs in the floor), and in its crystalline
spaciousness we feel the silence of a graveyard.
Interior of the Choir of
St. Bavo's Church at Haarlem.
1660. Oil on panel.
Worcester Art Museum, Worcester,
Still lifes exist above all to delight the senses, but even they can be
tinged with a melancholy air. As a result of Holland's conversion to
Calvinism, these visual feasts became vehicles for teaching moral
lessons. Most Dutch Baroque still lifes treat the theme of Vanitas (the
vanity of all earthly things). Overtly or implicitly, they preach the
virtue of temperance, frugality, and hard work by admonishing the viewer
to contemplate the brevity of life, the inevitability of death, and the
passing of all earthly pleasures. The medieval tradition of imbuing
everyday objects with religious significance was absorbed into
vernacular culture though emblem books which, together with other forms
of popular literature and prints, encompassed the prevailing ethic in
words and pictures. The stem Calvinist sensibility is exemplified by
such homilies as, "A fool and his money are soon parted" (a saying that
goes all the way back to ancient Rome), and illustrated by flowers,
shells, and other exotic luxuries. The very presence in Yanitas still
lifes of precious goods, scholarly books, and objects appealing to the
senses suggests an ambivalent attitude toward their subject. Such
symbols usually take on multiple meanings which, though no longer
immediately apparent to us, were readily understood at the time. In
their most elaborate form, however, these moral allegories become visual
riddles that rely on the very learning they sometimes ridicule.
Still Life. 1634.
Oil on panel, 43 x
Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam
The banquet (or breakfast) piece, showing the remnants of a
meal, had Vanitas connotations almost from the beginning.
The message may lie in such established symbols as death's
heads and extinguished candles, or be conveyed by less
direct means. Still Life (fig.
belongs to this widespread type. Food and drink are less
emphasized here than luxury objects, such as crystal goblets
and silver dishes, which are carefully juxtaposed for their
contrasting shape, color, and texture. How different this
seems from the piled-up edibles of Aertsen's Meat Stall
(see fig. 728)!
But virtuosity was not Heda's only
aim. He reminds us that all is Vanity. His "story," the
human context of these grouped objects, is suggested by the
broken glass, the half-peeled lemon, the overturned silver
dish. The unstable composition, with its signs of a hasty
departure, is itself a reference to transience. Whoever sat
at this table has been suddenly forced to abandon the meal.
The curtain that time has lowered on the scene, as it were,
invests the objects with a strange pathos. The disguised
symbolism of "Late Gothic" painting lives on here in a new
The breakfast piece soon evolved into an even more lavish display, known
appropriately as the "fancy" still life for its visual splendor, which
culminated in the work of
Jan de Heem
De Heem began his career in Protestant Holland,
but he soon moved to Catholic Flanders. However, he traveled back and
forth between the two countries and eventually returned to his native
land. His achievement was to synthesize the sober Dutch tradition with
the flamboyant manner of Frans Snyders into a unique style that proved
equally influential on both sides of the border. In Still Life with
Parrots (fig. 801),
De Heem has
compiled delicious food, exotic birds, and luxurious goods from around
the world. The result is a stunning tour de force. Despite its
profusion, the painting is unified by the balanced composition and
colorful palette. In keeping with the appetitive theme, the viewer is
invited to enjoy the visual abundance, which celebrates the work of the
Lord and humanity. At the same time, the picture has a covert meaning.
Many of these objects, including the oysters, melon, and shells (which
commanded high prices), are also standard Vanitas symbols conveying an
admonition to be temperate. The extravagant display further incorporates
the time-honored theme of the four elements, as well as traditional
Christian imagery: the parrot is identified with the Madonna as the
mother of Christ, while the grapes are a reference to the Eucharistic
wine and, hence, resurrection, as is the pomegranate, which also stands
for the Virgin's purity.
Jan de Heem.
Still Life with Parrots.
Late 1640s. Oil on canvas, 150.5 x
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida
De Heem also formulated the High Baroque floral still life so
definitively that flower painters were to feel his impact for the next
years. Many of them were women, including his pupil
Maria van Oosterwijck (1630-1693),
who became a celebrated artist in her own right. Her
achievements were soon outstripped by those of Rachel Ruysch
(1664— 1750), who
shared honors with Jan van Huysum (1682-1749)
as the leading Dutch flower painters of the day.
Was she aware of the significance of each blossom, and of the
butterflies, moths, and snails she put into the beautiful piece in
each of which has an
complex symbolic meaning? By this time it is doubtful that she assembled
her bouquet to a moralizing end. Instead, the main purpose of Ruysch's
painting was surely to please the eye. She imparts such a sweeping
vitality to the swirling profusion of buds that they fairly leap from
802. Rachel Ruysch. Flower
After 1700. Oil on
The Toledo Museum of Art
The large class of pictures termed genre is as varied as that of
landscapes and still lifes. It ranges from tavern brawls to refined
domestic interiors. The Feast of St. Nicholas (fig.
by Jan Steen (1625/6-1679)
is midway between. St. Nicholas has just paid his
pre-Christmas visit to the household, leaving toys, candy, and cake for
the children. Everybody is jolly except the bad boy on the left, who has
received only a birch rod. Steen tells this story with relish,
embroidering it with many delightful details. Of all the Dutch painters
of daily life, he was the sharpest, and the most good-humored, observer.
To supplement his earnings he kept an inn, which perhaps explains his
keen insight into human behavior. His sense of timing and his
characterization often remind us of Frans Hals (compare fig.
788), while his
story-telling stems from the tradition of Pieter Bruegel the Elder
(compare fig. 730).
803. Jan Steen. The Feast of St.
ñ. 1660-65. Oil on
canvas, 82 x 70.5 cm.
In the genre scenes of
by contrast, there is hardly any narrative.
Single figures, usually women, are seemingly engaged in simple, everyday
tasks. They exist in a
timeless "still life" world, as if calmed by some magic spell. When
there are two, as in The Letter (fig.
804), they do no more than
exchange glances. The painting nonetheless does tell a story, but with
unmatched subtlety. The carefully "staged" entrance serves to establish
our relation to the scene. We are more than privileged bystanders: we
become the bearer of the letter that has just been delivered to the
young woman. Dressed in sumptuous clothing, she has been playing the
lute, as if awaiting our visit. This instrument, laden with erotic
meaning, traditionally signifies the harmony between lovers, who play
each other's heart strings. Are we, then, her lover? The amused
expression of the maid suggests just such an anecdotal interest.
Moreover, the lover in Dutch art and literature is often compared to a
ship at sea, whose calm waters depicted in the painting here indicate
smooth sailing. As usual with Vermeer, however, the picture refuses to
yield a final answer, since the artist has concentrated on the moment
before the letter is opened.
Vermeer's real interest centers on the role of light in creating the
visible world. The cool, clear daylight that filters in from the left is
the only active element, working its miracles upon all the objects in
its path. As we look at The Letter, we feel as if a veil had been
pulled from our eyes, for the everyday world shines with jewellike
freshness, beautiful as we have never seen it before. No painter since
Jan van Eyck saw as intensely as this. But Vermeer, unlike his
predecessors, perceives reality as a mosaic of colored surfaces—or
perhaps more accurately, he translates reality into a mosaic as he puts
it on canvas. We see The Letter not only as a perspective
"window," but as a plane, a "field" composed of smaller fields.
Rectangles predominate, carefully aligned with the picture surface, and
there are no "holes," no undefined empty spaces. Only Pieter de Hooch
contemporary in Delft, had such a feel for visual order.
The interlocking shapes give to Vermeer's work a uniquely modern
quality within seventeenth-century art. How did he acquire it? Despite
the discovery of considerable documentary evidence relating to his life,
we still know very little about his training. Some of his works show the
influence of Carel Fabritius (1622-1654),
the most brilliant of Rembrandt's pupils; other pictures
suggest his contact with the Utrecht School. But none ol these sources
really explains the genesis of his style, so daringly original that his
genius was not recognized until about a century ago.
The Letter. 1666.
Oil on canvas, 43.3 x 38.3