Dutch Italianisers at Dulwich

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THE latest and most ambitious exhibition at the Dulwich Gallery is Inspired by Italy: Dutch Landscape Painting, 1600-1700. Its subject is the many Dutch painters who followed their apprenticeship in Holland with a period of vocational travel in Italy. They widened their experience of terrain and light, and therefore the visionary range with which, upon their return, they viewed their own country. At its best, landscape painting is not, in Henry Fuseli's words, 'the tame delineation of a given spot'; not what Baudelaire decried as 'Nature unpurified and unexplained by the imagination'. Even in Italy, Jan Both already claimed his right to exercise his imagination by rearranging the Roman Forum in his capriccio in the Rijksmuseum; also by transposing the buildings along the river in his view of Tivoli, again in the Rijksmuseum. The Dutch painters in Italy, as may be seen from their drawings, generally sketched only a central feature, calling up a background for the finished picture when they returned to their st udios, whether in Italy or back in Holland.

Behind John Constable's condemnation of the Dutch Italianisers was the immoderate insistence on exact topography which led him to record the time and the direction of the wind on the backs of his landscapes. According to his biographer, Charles Leslie, at the end of one of his lectures he advised a collector to burn his pictures by Claus Berchem, lest the mischief should be continued, since they falsified Dutch scenery. One hopes that this was merely a barbarous joke. The Dutch Italianisers did indeed paint the River Waal as if it ran through the Sabine Hills, and Scheveningen as if it was on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Whilst doing so, they passed on their hybrid magic to such stay-at-home painters as Jan Wijnants and Adriaen van der Velde; and to Aelbert Cuyp, from whose placid water-meadows mountains arise in his Road by a River (Duiwich Gallery).

The Italianisers also gained by their acquaintance with Italian painting and that of fellow-northerners who had also been drawn to Italy: Elsheimer from Frankfurt, Claude from the French Rhineland and Poussin from Normandy. Swanevelt and Both collaborated with Claude on landscapes for Philip IV of Spain. Poelenburgh worked for two years, learning and contributing, in the picture gallery of Cosimo II de Medici. Breenbergh can hardly have been unaware of Pontormo's Joseph in Egypt (London National Gallery) when he painted his own version of the subject. It is curious that the Italy the northerners recorded was so unlike the wild and gloomy renderings of their innovative Italian contemporary, Salvator Rosa, who strongly resented their intrusion. They were closer than he to the mainstream of Italian art of the period.

The Dutch painters in Rome called themselves Bentvueghels, or roost-fellows, migratory birds though they were. Like most large artistic groups the Bentvueghels consisted of some dozen painters of lasting worth, encumbered by talentless camp-followers and copyists. The Bentvueghels were often unkind in their ritual nicknames for each other. The designation bamboccianti, or scenes of often sordid low life (always acceptable to the broad humour of Dutch burghers) derives from the favoured subjects of Pieter Laer, a hunchback given the title of Bamboccio, or mannikin. Instead of painting the antiquities of Rome and the beauties of its countryside at that time, Laer and his followers, such as Karel Dujardin, sought ugliness in the slums, ale houses and vacant lots in the dereliction of outer Rome and, of course, found it. That was the chief reason for Salvator Rosa's indiscriminate distaste for the Dutch artists. Bamboccianti, in fact, play little part in the exhibition and the few present, by Dujardin, Jan Baptis t Weenix and Johannes Lingelbach may be cursorily passed by. It is a pity that the catalogue has on its cover a detail from a bamboccianto by Dujardin with a pile of horse-dung in the foreground. …