Pieter de Hooch
The renovation of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is years behind schedule, and most of their enormous art collection is currently in storage. Now 128 of these closeted works have come to the Pacific Northwest, where the Vancouver Art Gallery is hosting the largest exhibition of art from the era of Rembrandt and Vermeer ever held in the region. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin recently traveled north to view the show, and he joins us now with his thoughts.
The Dutch window onto the direct experience of the ordinary swung open very briefly, roughly spanning the period between the first masterwork of Hals (1615), and the last painting of Vermeer (1675). Dutch artwork before 1615 groaned under the weight of Mannerist excess; after 1700 it descended into drawing room formality or decadent nostalgia
The hundred-odd Dutch works that have made the trip to Vancouver represent an excellent survey of the range of painting produced during this Golden Age, both in terms of subject matter and artists. The curators have made an earnest attempt to balance offerings from superstars like Vermeer, Hals, and Rembrandt with paintings by some of their less well-known but almost as gifted contemporaries, people like Terborch, Cuyp, Heda, and Hobbema. Nearly all these other artists are represented by work that shows them at their best, and this is particularly important with someone like Melchior d’Hondecoeter, fabulously successful during his lifetime, but now much less widely recognized.
Melchior, like most of his fellow Dutch painters, became the master of a very narrow specialty, and the large, spectacular painting on view demonstrates why later admirers dubbed him the “Raphael of bird painters”. A lively, perching magpie sits on a rock silhouetted against the sky, voicing his displeasure as he oversees a scene of luscious carnage. Below him the strung up and piled up bodies of freshly hunted wildfowl glow with color against the dark background. Melchior was a master of both feathers and light, and the tension between his celebration of the beauty of the birds and their pathetic, deceased state is reinforced by the dramatic contrasts between sunlight and darkness, structure and collapse. Like Melchior’s peculiar drama, many of the best paintings of the Golden Age were both intensely descriptive and seriously moralizing, with sensuality vs. mortality among the most common themes.
A few rooms away is found an even more representative painting of the period, a domestic interior by the Vermeer associate Pieter de Hooch. Catholic Belgium of the time featured animal painters whose work is similar to that of that of Melchior, but it’s impossible to imagine a painter anywhere else in Europe choosing to give the full Virgin Mary treatment to a housewife calmly removing lice from the hair of her daughter. Given the almost mystical light that illuminates her pristine, serene house – here a panel of glowing white, there a soft shimmer– we can be forgiven the expectation of an angel or an Annunciation to justify the pictorial drama. The subject is, instead, something that could not be more mundane and down-to-earth. De Hooch, a Protestant, uses the conventions of Catholic art to immortalize conscientious housekeeping and motherhood, the sanitary as a stand in for the sacred.
The de Hooch painting also includes other clues as to what makes this period so unique. Barely visible in the shadows is a wall of painted blue-and-white Delft tiles, the local response to the flood of Chinese porcelain entering the local market since earlier in the century. The sudden surge in international trade – one of the major sources of Dutch wealth – and the attempt by native entrepreneurs to out compete the foreigners with cheaper knock-offs, were typical of the innovative, capitalist spirit of the times.
Even more revealing are the several framed paintings decorating the walls of the two modest rooms. De Hooch expects us to take these vaguely depicted artworks for granted: one seems to be a landscape, and the other two are too dark to identify. But the fact that they are here in quantity, in what’s evidently an ordinary, middle-class residence, is of crucial importance. The Dutch during this period were by far the most literate, prosperous population in Europe. For reasons that are still somewhat obscure, the 17th century Dutch were gripped by a virtual mania for art, a collecting fad even more widespread and long-lived than the famous tulip binge of the same era. Nearly every household in Delft had art on their walls, and the vast majority had at least several paintings like those in the de Hooch. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of artists were producing for a marketplace with the most ravenous appetite for original art in history.
Perhaps it was inevitable that such a fantastically productive marketplace (the source of several million paintings) should give rise to at least a few earthshaking moments. We know that Shakespeare (whose death coincided exactly with the start of the Dutch Golden Age) represented the apex of a period of intense literary activity in England. Vermeer was the culmination of an even more intense period in the visual arts in Holland.
By the time we’ve arrived at the lone Vermeer painting, "The Love Letter" (literally the last work in the show) we’ve had ample opportunity to see the pictorial context in which the great man worked. There are numerous examples of still life (many of Vermeer’s paintings include exquisite still-life passages), landscape (two hang on the wall in "The Love Letter"), interiors (especially the de Hooch), and female protagonists (especially a tiny, jewel-like Terborch). Like Shakespeare, who borrowed many of his plots from other authors, Vermeer based some of his composition on earlier examples; paintings by de Hooch and Houbraken served as the model for his work here. Like Shakespeare, Vermeer transcends his source material with a mixture of poetry and magic for which there is ultimately no direct source, other than genius. But whereas Shakespeare writes in an English that is often puzzling or obscure, Dutch artists like Vermeer speak a visual language which feels like reality itself.