January 28, 2015

17th century Dutch painting is not only a golden age for the Dutch, but also one of the sharpest summits in the history of art. The mastery of colours improved the quality of paintings in the era, that it had profound impacts upon the forthcoming generations of artists. It is not only the use of colours that was excellently rendered, but also the changes in the subjects of paintings were immensely influential for the history of art as a whole. The portraits of everyday scenes and laypeople were gradually taking the place of the portraits of the rich. Colours were being used in a way that they were adorned with the depth of shades. The success of the Dutch Golden Age painting is, therefore, not only about adroitly rendered colours, but also magnificently conducted shades that ensure a painting to glisten with the power of whole array of reflections.

The Dutch had their golden age in the 17th century; their empire extended to Asia, their economy flourished, their country was flooded with immigrants, and thereby different cultures and new perspectives were introduced to the kingdom. The country in the 17th century may be regarded as the most prosperous and powerful of all in the world. The Dutch also enjoyed special bilateral agreements with Japan; in that time Japan only accepted to trade with only one western country – the Netherlands. The Dutch even had a small number of villages in Japan, helping to modernise its system. The Dutch monopoly on the Asian island also generated great sums of wealth for the Netherlands. This prosperity in the kingdom provided artists with necessary means to improve their arts, as they had no difficulty finding customers for their artworks. Although it would be a problem to link the success of painting in the 17th century Netherlands directly and only to burgeoning economical prosperity, it is undeniable that economy had somehow affected the achievements of Dutch artists.

The most celebrated Dutch Golden Age painter is undoubtedly Rembrandt van Rijn; however, this essay will not focus on his style, due to the mere fact that he is known enough. But a few lines should be devoted to him if the essay is to convey a general picture of the Dutch Golden Age painting. He can be regarded as the master of colours and shades; he depicted scenes with colours that are emphasised by the existence of darkness that prevails in the greater parts of the canvas. This darkness provides the focus of a painting to look more real. After Rembrandt, his mastery in light and darkness was adopted by other painters. This essay intends to convey a brief picture of the Dutch Golden Age painting through some of its key figures.  The elaboration on their art will provide general concepts of the Dutch painting in the 17th century; painters are chosen in a way that through them different aspects of the Golden Age Dutch Painting can be discerned. The Dutch painters of 17th century left an immense heritage behind, that it would be impossible for an essay to evaluate this heritage sufficiently. This essay aims to convey some of the issues of this heritage, which would ensure a general but brief understanding on whole.

Vermeer would be a good start for the tour de force of the 17th century Dutch Art. The great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer was baptised on 31 October 1632, and he died on 15 December 1675. His life ended very early at the age of 43, but he left remarkable heritage behind. Although he was not a recognised painter in his lifetime and often struggled with money issues, he did not abandon art. He spent his whole life creating splendid masterpieces in his hometown Delft.  Jan Vermeer, besides being a painter, was also a husband with 11 children; 4 of his children died before baptising from unknown reasons.

Vermeer was a Dutch Baroque painter specialising in domestic interior scenes of ordinary life. During his short but productive life he developed his own unique style of painting which had its followers. What makes his style unique is the remarkable ability to depict colours and purity of light. Besides interior scenes, Vermeer also painted cityscapes and allegorical scenes. He had a great passion for art, the proof of which is his masterful paintings that won the admiration of generations of artists. In his paintings, he used two of the most expensive pigments of 17th century, which are lapis lazuli and natural ultramarine. In this Baroque painter’s style, the most visible characteristic is the tendency to change the natural colours of elements, i.e. colours of earth, for umber and ochre he used as warm light within a painting’s strongly lit interior, which reflects its multiple colours onto the wall. This allowed him to refine the views he had seen. This method was inspired by his understanding of Leonardo’s observations that the surface of every object takes a part in the colour of adjacent object.

One of the greatest examples of Vermeer’s work is a painting titled Girl with a Pearl Earring. Artist’s inspiration for painting this picture is believed to be Rembrandt who was responsible for popularising the tronie in 1630’s. The painting is a reflection not only of Vermeer’s style but also of the influence of immigrants and travellers in the Dutch society; for instance, the second name of the painting was The Girl with a Turban, a turban was an influence from exotic countries.

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Vermeer showed in the Girl with a Pearl Earring the upmost of his skills. He enhanced with extreme precision the colours and reflection of light on the girl’s face. He also created a magnificent blend of textures and pigments which resulted in a three-dimensional effect. The three-dimensional effect also benefits from the custom of a dark background that the artist chose. The left angled light helps to enhance the depth of colours and realistic features of the face. Vermeer used smooth brushstrokes to create a clear-cut image defined by the light and shadow. He also uses fine linear strokes to distinguish the clothing and girl’s complexion. The undercoating of the dress helps to venture the depth and realism of the interpreted clothes, where the final layer is applied very thinly in order to show the movement of light.

Vermeer is undoubtedly one of the most influential painters of all times. His legacy has transformed the outlook of art. Whereas Rembrandt is a master of colours and shades, Vermeer is the master of colours and light. He also, as in The Girl with a Pearl Earring, used darkness as the background of his paintings; this fostered the light in the paintings.  Another leading Dutch painter Gerard von Honthorst is also very important in the history of Dutch Golden Age. Although he had numerous magnificent artworks, this essay will feature his painting, the Christ before the High Priest in order to emphasise the religious aspects of the 17th century’s Dutch art. His life story also proves how mobile the artists were in the Golden Age.

Gerard van Honthorst was born on 4 November 1590 in Utrecht and died on 27 April 1656, in his hometown. Honthorst started his education in the Netherlands under the patronage of Abraham Bloemaert; then he left to pursue his education in Italy. There the young artist became fascinated by Caravaggio’s realism and dramatic use of artificial light. As many foreign painters Honthorst became his follower, although he had never meet him. After ten years abroad, experienced and full of new knowledge, Gerard returned to the Netherlands in 1620. He stayed in Utrecht until 1627 where he was a dean of the Utrecht Guild of St. Luke between 1625-26. Meanwhile, Honthorst became a member of a group called Utrecht School, which is mainly a group of three Dutch painters – Drick van Baubren, Hendrik Terbrugghen and Honthorst himself, who went to Rome and fell thoroughly into Caravaggio’s art before coming back home. In the Netherlands the group continued to spread their passion about the Italian master, and they created several paintings regarding to his style. In 1628, the Dutch painter went to the United Kingdom and worked at the court of Charles I in London, a couple of years later he moved to the Hague and then to his hometown Utrecht in 1652.

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Gerard van Honthorst, Christ before the High Priest

One of the most amazing paintings, showing Honthorst’s craftsmanship, is called Christ before the High Priest. In his artwork the painter referred to the deep tension in a biblical story (Matthew 26:57-64). After Jesus Christ was captured in the Garden, he was taken for a trial before the High Priest Caiaphas. There were two false witnesses who slandered him. This composition of big sizes is in a scale like an altarpiece, our visibility to see the life-size figures depends utterly on a single candle flame captured in the painting. The flare unites the whole scenario by spreading the light across almost all the canvas besides the dark where the light cannot reach. Also the reddish cast of the colours helps two main characters to become more noticeable in greater details than the rest. The light accentuates on the poses, gestures and expressions as well; it grasps compelling accessories such as the books of the Law and the rope by which Jesus Christ is tied. All this makes the whole composition more sober and dire with the night-time interrogation. Honthorst did not only presented a great play of light, also used his art to make symbolic points, i.e., Christ’s white robe, torn from his shoulder, reflects more light than the priest’s furred cloak. By that he shows that the light radiates from the Son of God. Although it may seem like candle is the only source of light in the painting, the main illumination of the painting is the Jesus Christ.

Through the life story of Honthorst, the mobility of Dutch Golden Age painters could be apprehended. Also religious aspects formed a crucial part of the 17th century Dutch painting. By focusing on Vermeer, the Delft School was mentioned, and by focusing on Honthorst the Utrecht School was brought into attention. This variety of Dutch art schools proves how rich the cultural life in the Netherlands was. Painters were raised and united in some schools; cities were the centre of art and life. After portraits and sacred painting, landscapes were also an indispensible element of the golden age of Dutch painting. Albert Cuyp, a very successful painter, was master of landscapes. His life story will also confirm the mobility of Dutch painters and the impact of Italian art upon the Dutch art. The master – pupil relationship was also very significant in art; through Cuyp’s story this aspect will also be illustrated.

Aelbert Cuyp was baptized on 20 October 1620 in Dordrecht, and he died on 15 November 1691 in Rotterdam. He was a Baroque painter mastering in peaceful landscapes of countryside with a unique poetic use of light and atmosphere. He was a son of a portraitist Jacob Gerritszoon. Cuyp, at a young age, married a well-connected widow Cornelia Boschman with three children. He had only one daughter with his wife; in 1663, he moved out of his hometown Dordrecht and moved to a house in the Wijnstraat. Although he did not live in Dordecht, he still held many of civic offices there.

In the beginning he was taught the craft by his master Van Goyen whose influence is visible in his early works. His style was not well balanced and the broken brush technique and short brush strokes as well as the lack of smooth colour blending were very noticeable in his art. Then he went to Utrecht to learn more, from there he went for a trip to Rome where he improved his style. He achieved that with help from the Italian painter Claude Lorrain. New theory helped him to change the direction of the light in the painting, instead of placing it on the right, both of the artists started to move it to a diagonal position from the back of the picture. The new technique let the artist and viewers to experience the sunlight from contre-jour perspective. The new technique put Cuyp ahead of any other Dutch painter of that era; he also used new lighting style to change the strength and depth of the light in paintings. In his last stylistic phase of learning, he was taking lessons from his father. He helped Cuyp to improve fundamental talents, differing from his father, Cuyp focused more on landscapes. Young Cuyp collaborated with his father, creating landscapes on three of his portraits. The interaction between painters makes it unclear to define the influences each had on the other.

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Aelbert Cuyp, The Mass at Dordrecht

A great example of the Dutch painter’s work is a landscape called The Mass at Dordrecht. It is believed that the full harbour of ships is a celebration on 12 July 1636, honouring 30.000 soldiers returning from the Eighty Years War. This large, bright painting puts its focus on a figure of a young man standing in the dinghy beside the large ship. A wedge-shaped mass ship anchored to the port points towards him. He keeps his head up right in front of the horizon, and his blunt black outfit is explicated greatly against the palest area of the canvas – the morning mist over the far shore. He is dressed in Dordrecht’s city colours, which indicates that he might be a city official, the patron of the festival who might have delegated Cuyp to document this event. The painter used his light technique very effectively by directing the attention on the main ship making a golden glow, as well as the sun’s reflection on the clouds.  He also used his perfected technique of soft brush strokes and shading colours of objects in the background, which depict other ships and a part of Dordrecht.

Through the works and biographies of three influential Dutch painters, the main aspects of the Dutch Golden Age painting could be comprehended briefly. A short comparison between these above mentioned painters would be advantageous for apprehending the style differences in the 17th century Dutch painting. As people are different, artist’s styles differ in the same extent too. Although many painters shared similar qualities in their craft, there are a few nuances, which make them different from others. Those differences are noticeable between Gerard van Honthorst, Albert Cuyp, and Johannes Vermeer. All of these three painters used a different play of light; as Jan Vermeer in the painting Girl with a Pearl Earring directed the light from left corner which helped him to enhance the beauty of girl’s face and ensured to create three dimensional effect which makes everything look very realistic. On the other hand, Gerard van Honthorst in the Christ before the High Priest concentrated the light in the middle of composition. The source of light is a candle which enlightens the face of the priest and two men behind him as well as the Jesus Christ himself. Both of the painters used similar technique of disappearing light in the dark which gives the effect of a big space and accentuates the enlightened objects in the paintings. And outstanding from others Albert Cuyp with his signature skills in landscape painting The Mass at Dordecht put the light in the back allowing it to illumine all of the composition. As a landscape painter he didn’t use the dark background but natural scene colours. The difference between painters is also the way they exposed what they wanted to show, Cuyp used the play of lights and put the main objects in the foreground. And Jan Vermeer used the black background to focus viewer’s attention upon the girl and her beauty. Honthorst spread the light across all painting with the main accentuation on two main characters, leaving the rest in dark colours suggesting they were not important for the act. The other thing that makes the painters different is the colour blends and brush strokes, i.e., Vermeer used short brush strokes and characteristic colours catching viewers’ attention, where Honthorst long strokes and dark colours with light accents, whereas Cuyp used smoothed short strokes and light optimistic pigments.

Dutch Art in the 17th century saw its ultimacy; use of colours and shadows, mobility and mastery, different styles and different genres all blended in and created what is known as the Golden Age of Dutch painting. The Netherlands became economically and culturally dominant centre of Europe in the 17th century. The Empire prevailed in commerce and arts; it was very strong in Asia as well as in the rest of the world. The different cultures came to contact with the Dutch, the impacts of which are discernible in some artworks as Vermeer’s Girl with a Turban. The Dutch painting in the 17th century formed the sharpest summit of art history, and it became an inspiration for artists worldwide. The artworks of this age, for revealing many a magnificent story they conceal, remain in the museums to impress their viewers.


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