Monday, October 01, 2007

Dutch Treat

How does one begin to describe the splendor of the paintings that make up the Met's special exhibition of 17th Century Dutch masters? Words cannot hope to capture a beauty so profound, so elegant, so rich in glow and texture. It is as though one had stepped into a monastery of images, a place where vision lives at peace with itself, where light holds its breath, and colors meditate in silence.

It is here, in art's most breathless sanctum, that they are all gathered, the Masters: Vermeer with his celebrations of the light's purity; Ruisdael with his symphonic landscapes, the human figures dwarfed by the sheer grandeur of nature - the great sweep of the horizon, the majestic crescendos of the clouds and spreading trees; Cuyp with his cattle extending like great continents into a blue ocean of sky; Steen with his exquisitely raucous domestic scenes; Vlieger with his ghostly seascape of light and shadow; and Rembrandt, always and above all, Rembrandt.

But wait, wait. Before I get to Rembrandt, I must pay homage to three other great painters who I discovered via this exhibition.

The first of these magicians is Pieter de Hooch, whose paintings of household interiors marry a geometry of intelligence to a lavish warmth of tone. At one level, de Hooch is a kind of autumnal Vermeer - his paintings share Vermeer's fascination with interior spaces (and with light streaming through windows) but where light in Vermeer gleams with an almost virginal innocence, in de Hooch it is darker, mellower, more mature. But what fascinated me about the paintings I saw was the way de Hooch uses the resonance of shape to give his scenes an almost dreamlike quality. In Interior with a Young Couple (see left), for instance, the isolation of the two human figures in a fugue of rectangles gives the image just the right sense of uneasiness; in The Maidservant the blank reflection in the mirror between the two figures seems to emphasize the emotional emptiness of the scene; in another interior (that I can't seem to find online) the self-satisfaction of a family sitting at a table in a great gilded room finds its almost surrealist counterpoint in the figure of a young man going towards a door through which the figure of an old beggar approaches like a mirror image. Other favorites include Paying the Hostess, where two figures stand settling accounts, framed by parentheses of light, a sheaf of golden hay adding just the correct amount of luster to the painting.

My second discovery of the exhibition was Aert van der Neer. Fire is the essence and center of der Neer's paintings, the flaming light becoming, in his work, a kind of gravity, drawing everything into its grip. In his sunset scenes (such as Sports on a Frozen River - shown above - and Landscape at Sunset), the setting sun becomes the source from which light explodes, diffusing in a world that aches with its dying glow, the human figures limned in a golden transcendence, the sky touched with ochre and burnt sienna. But the finest of his three paintings on display here is, to my mind, The Farrier, where the light from the horizon lies like a ghost on the river, while two beating hearts of crimson flame illumine the human figures gathered around them - one a leaping bonfire that warms a small company of waiting men, the other the lonelier, quieter flame of the blacksmith, lost in his work.

My final major discovery for the afternoon was Frans Hals. I'd heard of and seen Hals' work before, but it's only in the context of this exhibition that I finally paid him the attention he deserves. What makes Hals stand out here, I think, is the way he provides a kind of counterpoint to the statelier, more meditative Rembrandt. Where Rembrandt's figures often seem to gaze out at us from the depths of a profound inwardness, Hals' men and women seem to burst with such exuberant energy that the canvas can barely contain them. By comparison to almost any of the other painters here, Hals is a boisterous extrovert, portraying men and women whose lives (and souls) seem as creased and crumpled as the sleeves he so exquisitely paints. Whether it's the complacent sneer of the face of The Smoker, or the happy-go-lucky figure of the man raising his glass in Young Man and Woman at an Inn (shown above), or even the way the figure of Petrus Scriverius (shown on the right) seems to be about to step out of the wooden frame that holds him, Hals' figures are alive and vivid, possessing an immediacy all their own.

So much for the masters. Other paintings that caught my eye included Vermeer's Allegory of the Catholic Faith, with its luminous glass globe and crimson spurt of snake's blood, which struck me as being rather unusual coming from Vermeer; DeWitt's Interior of the Old Church at Delft, where the vast grandeur of the old cathedral is undercut by the image of a dog peeing on one of its pillars; and, perhaps most memorably, The Sibyl, a painting now believed to be the work of Rembrandt's pupil Willem Drost [1], whose lush, muted darkness makes it, in the company of its peers, a work of hushed and seductive beauty (one that this picture, below, simply does not do justice to).

Of course, there's much, much more to the exhibition than just these paintings. Everywhere you look, there's another masterwork waiting to delight or awe you. You won't see much that's flamboyant or eye-catching; instead, you'll find yourself surrounded by a stately procession of immaculate images - the deep, deep red of lobsters, the delicate curling yellow of lemon peels, grapes like pearls gleaming with cores of light, the perfect reflection of light off a silver goblet, or the dance of its refraction in a glass, the impeccable white of ruffs and collars joined to the glowing black of people's clothes - everything that is luminous and lustrous and exquisite about the visual world laid out for you gallery upon gallery, frame after frame.

And at the heart of all this splendor there is Rembrandt. It seems a little presumptuous to call an entire period of such marvelous work, a time and a place that produced so many great painters, the 'Age of Rembrandt', yet browsing through these galleries there can be little doubt that Rembrandt is the greatest of these masters. Stare at the breathtaking Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (above), which captures, on a single canvas, an entire era of wisdom and poetry; gaze in wonder at the sultanic magnificence of the Man in Oriental Costume; marvel at the way a single flower in Woman with a Pink (left) becomes a blazing torch that lights up the entire portrait; stand still and calmed before the stark simplicity of his portrait of Hendirckje Stoffels; admire the directness with which the portrait of Herman Doomer meets your eye (right); or consider even what the Met calls "the least popular" of his paintings - Bellona [2] - and notice the black and silver face of the Gorgon blazoned on the shield, and you will see just why Rembrandt is the master he is.

In his own way, Rembrandt is as much a painter of interiors as Vermeer or Hooch - except the interiors Rembrandt paints live within his subjects. Part of the greatness of Rembrandt is the sheer weight of his figures, the way they seem to embody a kind of spiritual and moral seriousness. Staring into those sad, care-wrinkled eyes, you find yourself drawn inexorably into an infinity of self-contemplation, into the sad and sober realizations that make up the human consciousness. There is a tranquility to these figures, a timelessness, but it is a tranquility anchored in profound and intimate knowledge, in the depths of what, in a simpler time, we would have called the soul. You can feel the weight of this quiet gravity in painting after painting, whether it be his 1660 self-portrait, the 1654 Standard Bearer (below) or the 1632 Portrait of a Man.

In the end the true glory of Rembrandt is not (or not only) the way his canvases are flawless compositions of color and light. What makes him so important is the way his portraits capture their subjects in a kind of inner nakedness, an essentialness of being - a quality best seen, perhaps, in his portrait of Gerard de Lairesse below. Nowhere in art is beauty more human.

That's pretty much it for the 'Age of Rembrandt' exhibit. I spent another hour or so in the Met afterwards, starting with the Flemish painters (most notably Rubens and Van Dyck), whose work makes for an interesting comparison with the Dutch masters; then taking in a special exhibit on Abstract Expressionism, including work by Guston, Pollock, Rothko and Ernst, followed by a quick saunter through the Modern Art gallery, that revealed at least one Klimt (see below) that I d0n't remember seeing before (and which seems to have replaced one of my favorite Modiglianis) as well as Munch's The Vampire.


[1] The exhibition contains a number of such 'Style of Rembrandt' paintings - paintings originally believed to be Rembrandts but later discredited - some of them, such as this Old Woman Cutting Her Nails, fairly gorgeous in themselves

[2] I personally rather like it, but that's just me.


Anonymous said...

Awesome, awesome post. Really liked the Modigliani and the "interior of the old church" ones. And you've exquisitely captured what I have always loved about Rembrandt but couldnt seem to put a name to- soul!!


Alok said...

I have been to the Met a couple of times and this Dutch Golden Age section is my favourite as well. Always wanted to take notes or read up on the topic but never did.

Thanks for all the links though you could have perhaps copied other larger resolution pictures available on the net or wikipedia. Most of the pictures in the post are distorted.

p.s. Proust was a big Vermeer fan. His "View of Delft" painting is used as a backdrop in a memorable episode in his book. I don't think it is there in this museum though.

equivocal said...

Falstaff- a very nice piece of writing.

blackmamba said...


The preferred hues seem to vary a lot with each artist. Hooch vs Vermeer - the idea of one being mature and the other virginal, might have to do with our perception of color. Or even Rembrandt and Hals?

Turns out Vermeer was rediscovered in the 20th century because a collector bought his Allegory thinking it was a Hooch.

The Klimt to end the piece! Very nice.

Falstaff said...

anusha: Thanks

alok: Yes, the images didn't come out too well - but getting them off other sites was just too much effort.

equivocal: Thanks. Is the RSS feed working okay now?

blackmamba: Certainly Hooch vs. Vermeer is influenced by contemporary perception. I'm less sure about Rembrandt vs. Hals. I'm reasonably sure the distinction is deliberate. Two things to remember though - a) there are, in the Met's collection, a number of Hals paintings that look quite a bit like Rembrandt; I'm focusing on the ones that looked different because they stood out more and b) Hals' paintings are supposed to suggest the dangers of this kind of free-living rather than celebrate them - the painting of the Young Man and Woman at the Inn for example, contains a clear coded message warning the viewer how this passing exuberance won't last. It's just that they come across as so thrillingly intense that it's hard to remember that coming from a more modern point of view.

blackmamba said...

Yes, the differences in the palette don't seem that obvious in the case of Hals and Rembrandt.

Hals reminds one of action photography. It is hard to imagine he had people pose that way for oil. With Rembrandt, it is easy to imagine a longish sitting leading to the kind of introspection one sees in his painting.

But colours do add to this effect. Hals seems to be very fond of a silvery glitter, while most Rembrandt's paintings have a faint glow, almost like a tiny flame.

And yes, Hals images must have been seen differently by his contemporaries.