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The Golden Age at Its Best

Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals

Catalog of the exhibition by Rudi Ekkart and Quentin Buvelot
an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, June 27–September 16, 2007, and the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, October 13, 2007–January 13, 2008.
Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis/National Gallery/Waanders, 280 pp., £30.00; £19.95 (paper)


Abraham Casteleijn, a middle-aged newspaper publisher, holds up his right hand as if he might address us. But the roll of his eyes and his slack-shouldered slouch on the dining chair deprive the gesture of any energy. It resolves into a fond, resigned welcome, inviting us into the urbane muddle of his Haarlem mansion: his globe, the Turkish rug on his table, his hat slapped down on a loose stack of bound folios, a paper or two—perhaps some 1663 copy of the Weeckelycke Courante van Europa—dangling beneath them. The bust of a long-dead local worthy looms over his shoulder, po-faced, rectitudinous, dour. It sets a note of severity that Abraham and his wife Margarieta dutifully observe in their garb of black satin—good, serious folk, adherents to the Mennonite confession.

Yet Margarieta has snatched at Abraham’s left hand, confident of luring his gaze away from the viewer. Where will she lead him? Toward a garden of fruitfulness, in Jan de Bray’s initial sketch for this dual portrait; but when it came to composing the canvas, the painter scrubbed his allegory. Here her outstretched palm simply hovers, by parallax, over the background knob of a pilaster, as if she might fondle it. Beneath her skirts, a flash of red velvet petticoat underlines that little hint of mischief.

Elsewhere in the exhibition “Dutch Portraits” (just finished at London’s National Gallery, shortly to open in The Hague’s Mauritshuis), de Bray’s own eyes gaze out at us, their cast less comic than artistically melancholic. He has given himself a bit part in a family charade, in which his father and mother flaunt their African slave and their Chinese porcelain while posing as Antony and Cleopatra in an episode from Pliny. De Bray senior was himself a painter, an architect besides, and something of a scholar; his wife belonged to a family of poets; three of their sons worked in the portrait business: swanky literati, this Haarlem dynasty, as cultured and refined as feathered tulips in a crystal vase.

The flowering of such civility in mid-seventeenth-century Holland is largely what the exhibition and catalog celebrate, besides the individual visions advertised in its subtitle: “The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals.” It documents a remarkable historical episode, for, as an earlier husband-and-wife portrait—painted by Jan Claesz at the century’s beginning—suggests, the sophistication was a novel implant in the northern Netherlands rather than an indigenous growth. Claesz’s couple, burghers of the city of Hoorn, are draped like Abraham and Margarieta in virtuous black; indeed, the way the man uncurls his fist foreshadows the former’s bleary bid for attention. In 1602, however, all is crisp and archaically immutable. The likenesses and the lace, the coat of arms and the galleon in a window, the cartouches giving the sitters’ ages—everything declares itself as sign. Conceptually, this proud provincial heraldry feels closer to ancient Egypt than to a world where newspapers circulate.

But the inset galleon stands as a harbinger of oncoming revolution. The Zuyder Zee on which Hoorn lies was already becoming the world’s greatest shipping pool. From 1585 the Netherlanders of the north, fighting for freedom from Catholic Spain, blockaded enemy-controlled Antwerp, and both trade and skilled labor leached away from Flanders, for centuries northern Europe’s heartland of high artistry. Two generations later, Haarlemmers could draw on slave transports from Guinea and ceramics from Jindezheng because their city of cloth and beer lay only ten miles from Amsterdam, which had become the global hub of commerce—home, moreover, to the world’s first major stock market, pulsing out disposable wealth to cities and estates throughout the new United Provinces. The predominantly Protestant republic that these formed had little use for the church decor that had been the mainstay of art production in Italy and Spain. And yet its citizens were obsessively interested in painting. A collecting craze spread from noblemen’s courts to the homes of butchers and tailors, spurring the growth of many new genres during the century’s first decades.

Among these, portraiture caught on as a ready certificate of social arrival. Sitters’ attitudes changed. If Claesz’s couple posed as if for all eternity, that was at least in part a feint—they were, after all, paying for an immediate upgrade in the regard of those around them. Drop the dissembling, a new generation reasoned. Or at least swap such marmoreal hauteur for the blithe and fluid playacting that we now associate with the Baroque. The brewer posing as a general, the silversmith as a standard-bearer; the preacher, scholar, medic; their goodwives, indeed their children: all pitched their swagger at their own here-and-now, setting forth their stalls in the market of mutual admiration. Look at us, do! is the collective clamor of this exhibition’s sixty pictures—only incidentally directed at the public of posterity.

Yet from this perspective, what a strange forcing frame the evolving mores of the Dutch present. All that braggadocio surges through the constriction of black cloth—a sixteenth-century idiom of godly severity that had first come into fashion, ironically, among the Spanish enemy. Dazzling, creamy cartwheel ruffs and embroidered cuffs, the work of Flemish immigrants to Haarlem, are the interstices where the burghers’ expressive energies seem to burst forth, while their black carapaces subtly seethe with a busyness of stitchings and shimmers, disclosing an entire spectrum in monochrome. But then, progressively, Spanish proprieties give ground, as partisan orange (proclaiming allegiance to the eponymous royal house) is joined by the pinks, azures, and golds of French ostentation. Gentlemen’s hair lengths increase and ladies’ décolletages descend, while the chromatic temperatures rise. By 1663, the Casteleijns in their puritanical black are making a positive anti-fashion statement.

That statement is tempered, of course, by the flare of red that the painter gives to Margarieta—love’s color, audacity’s color. De Bray registers clashing signals. Nuance and ambivalence are his own manner of stating things, as his demure brushwork responds to the breezes that waft through a marriage. Perhaps this is an epochal cultural moment: perhaps works such as this mark the advent of novelistic values in painting? Figments of allegory and heraldry may still hover behind the composition like ghosts, but in substance they have now been superseded. Signs have been swathed in so much supplementary information that we engage with them as with realities—as “realism,” in fact, in a nineteenth-century sense.

At so many points in “Dutch Portraits” the textures of feeling seem to slide into those of that more recent past. Emanuel de Witte portrays a notary’s wife busy haggling with a fishmonger at a market stall, her little daughter peeking from a corner of the canvas at the viewer. Bright skies and moving crowds flicker behind the awning; sails flap in the harbor beyond. The sharp-focused outdoor lighting and ingratiating infant feel Pre-Raphaelite, while the close-up, off-center mise-en-scène could almost have been devised by Degas. Just as de Bray’s pressman could be cast as grandfather to that champion of the triumphant bourgeoisie, Ingres’s Monsieur Bertin….

Except that the comparatively diffident demeanor de Bray gives to the Casteleijns would prove well founded. The Dutch public’s passion for picture-buying was not quite as febrile as their notorious “tulip mania,” the bubble of speculation that spectacularly burst in 1637; but it too reached a tipping point in the mid-1650s. Thereafter the market for new art inexorably contracted. The erudite de Bray parents who had posed for their son Jan succumbed to the plague that swept through the Netherlands in the winter of 1663, as did nearly all his siblings. He himself went on to survive the disasters of 1674, when the Dutch broke their own dikes as a last-ditch defense against a French-led invasion: his career, however, would end in bankruptcy in 1689. By that point Dutch painting—Dutch society, maybe—had lost its distinctive impertinence.

Two portraits in the exhibition done by Nicolaes Maes in the late 1670s—a half-length gentleman and a family group—play out its exit music. Maes’s lighting, obeying a trend common to the whole of Western Europe, has moved on from the bright March chill of his parents’ generation to a warm September lushness. He softens and blunts his edges; he dapples and he charms. Both pictures show periwigged poseurs against backdrops loosely suggesting Roman antiquity. It turns out that there is a perfect match to be made between such classicizing elegance and the ultimate must-have of the Amsterdam fop, the imported silk kimono. (The Dutch being the sole European nation that the Japanese were willing to trade with until the mid-nineteenth century.) But with this turn toward genteel parkland pastoral, the France of Louis XIV has effected by cultural stealth the invasion that had been physically stopped by the smashing of the dikes. From here onward the future will get more distant—more resistant, that is, to our contemporary empathy: the proto-modern will morph into the ancien régime.

It would take more than one revolution to bring Holland’s so-called Golden Age back into focus. Two centuries later, two vital components of our present-day image of it were set in place by a single groundbreaking French critic. In the 1840s—not long after the advent of photography—the eyes of Théophile Thoré were alerted to the flawless verisimilitude of the hitherto unregarded Jan Vermeer, a specialist who falls outside the present exhibition’s scope. Then during the following decade, Thoré turned his attention to Frans Hals, born half a century earlier and in some ways Vermeer’s polar opposite. Hals had not suffered from quite such oblivion: but the reputation that he had retained was, in a word, bad. The prolific portraitist who had taken on a half-century of Haarlemmers from the 1610s to his death in 1666 was reckoned a lush, a spendthrift, and a slob. Night after night, his pupils had to carry him home from the tavern, where he had pissed away monies vouchsafed to him by well-wishers concerned for the welfare of his poor unfortunate children.

So claimed Hals’s first biographer, Arnold Houbraken, writing in 1718, and subsequent critics tended to read back those vices onto his canvases. Hals came across as an artistic chancer, latching on to whatever was brash and angular in people, whether they were ragged reprobates or glitzy scions of the aristocracy such as Jaspar Schade, whose portrait is included in the exhibition. One can imagine Hals hunched on his studio stool, peering up at this tall, prickly peacock and hurtling down the evanescent highlights of his gold brocade and tumbling locks onto the canvas’s dark ground, in a brusque scurry of swipes of the hog brush. If art required any kind of reflective distance, it was entirely lacking here. Hals slapped and he dashed because he was constitutionally negligent—all instinct and no staying power: altogether a textbook example to prospective academicians of how not to do things.

Thoré, affected by the incipient creed of bohemianism, held on to the notion that the art was of a piece with the life, but drew from it a contrary moral. For him, free-living Hals was a painter whose brushwork spelled liberty. He thrilled to the Dutchman’s “reckless” touch: “Hals painted as if fencing.”1 He commended Hals’s full-hearted “sincerity”2 to the up-and-coming artists of the 1860s and indeed found virtue in his readiness to be “vulgar.”3 Like his latter-day compatriot Johan Jongkind—a bold-brush pleinairist—Hals belonged to a “frank race” who could show a thing or two about immediacy and naturalness to the all-too-sophisticated Paris Salon with its “patient knitters of long-ruminated images.”4 Thoré’s exhortations combined with Baudelaire’s celebrated essay “The Painter of Modern Life” to steer the attitudes of progressive Parisian artists—above all, Manet.

  1. 1

    Both phrases are from Thoré, article on the Suermondt collection, 1860, quoted in Frans Hals, edited by Seymour Slive (Prestel, 1989), p. 65.

  2. 2

    Thoré, article of 1864, quoted in Slive, Frans Hals, p. 66.

  3. 3

    Thoré, another article of 1860, quoted in Slive, Frans Hals, p. 65.

  4. 4

    Both quotes from Thoré, review of the Salon of 1868, quoted in Slive, Frans Hals (“franche race“; “patients tricoteurs d’images longuement ruminées“: my translations).

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