Dutch Masters: The Modern Realism of the Reformation

By McIntyre, Andrew | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Dutch Masters: The Modern Realism of the Reformation


McIntyre, Andrew, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


Dutch Masters: The modern realism of the Reformation

The Dutch Masters Exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria is the most comprehensive display of seventeenth-century Dutch art ever seen in Australia. An extraordinary naturalism and an almost obsessive observation of ordinary daily life radiate from these pictures.

Rarely has a school of art emerged which so effectively captures a crucial moment of social, economic and artistic change. But this exhibition pushes us to go further and ponder just what it was that happened in Europe at the time that makes these works so strikingly exceptional and also strangely contemporary.

Overwhelming in the genre paintings-landscapes, interiors, markets and still life-is the unassuming ordinariness of life. Jacob van Ruisdael's View of Haarlem from the north-west, with the bleaching fields in the foreground conveys a dampness in the earth that one can almost smell. One can almost hear the wind across the forlorn plain, with the dapples of cold sunlight moving across the fields. Hedrick Avercamp's Diversion on the ice, Aert van der Neer's River view in the winter and Jan van de Cappelle's Winter Scene all conjure up daily life as it is lived, with a strong sense of the chill air in the nose. The ordinary sights of skaters, golfers on the ice, women washing in freezing water, and the distant buildings in the pale light have an immediacy that contrasts with the artificial and embellished Italianate landscapes of the same period.

Much has been made of the economic conditions, the openness and liberalism of the wealthy middle class in the Dutch Republic at the time to explain this change in sensibilities. To meet the demand for works of art for this new middle class, an extraordinary number of artists flourished, producing an equally extraordinary number of paintings-estimated to be between five and ten million works during the century. The number of artists belonging to the official painters guild, the Guild of St Luke, was estimated at around 650-700, or about one painter for every 2,000-3,000 inhabitants, a ratio which far exceeded that of Italy.

Importantly, the fashion for painting spread even to the lower socio-economic classes, who also had significant access to the art market. Accounts of seventeenth-century travellers such as John Evelyn attest to this. He wrote, 'pictures are very common here [in the Netherlands], there being scarce an ordinary tradesman whose house is not decorated with them'.

Changed economic conditions, in conjunction with the Reformation, meant that there had been a seismic shift not experienced in Southern Europe; the Church and the aristocracy, which traditionally had funded the arts and commissioned works-reflecting religious themes and the hierarchical structure of the society-were largely replaced with the tastes of a new middle class. Particularly important was the attitude of the Calvinists of the mid-sixteenth century who rejected religious iconography, statues and other paraphernalia in churches as idolatrous. As a result, commissions with explicit religious themes dramatically reduced in number. Religious paintings made in the Netherlands after that date tended to be didactic, oral stories based on domestic life, instead of objects of veneration or meditation. One painting, The Transept of the Mariakert in Utrecht, seen from the north-east by Pieter Jansz Saenredam, is a stark reminder of this new reality. It epitomises the aesthetic difference and attitude to religion between the Protestant North and the Catholic South.

With such a remarkable divide in sensibility between the North and the South of Europe, it is fair to ask the question: were the ingredients that permitted this emergent middle class and the new market for art the sole cause? Is it just the economic success of individuals that can lead a society to turn to portraying the world as it is? In Nicolaes Macs' Old woman in prayer, we see an elderly woman saying grace for herself at a small table in her modest home with an informal detail of fish, bread and cheese that she is about to eat. …

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