Wednesday 16 December 2015

Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer: Sue Purkiss

Until 14th February, for £10 you can go and see two exhibitions at The Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace: one which includes Rembrandts, Vermeers and other Dutch artists, and the other featuring The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson (satirical cartoons of Pitt, his great political rival Fox, George 111, the Prince Regent and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire). I took a quick look round the latter, (and was interested to note that Rowlandson was quite happy to apply his satirical scalpel to either side, depending who was paying him): but it was the Dutch artists that really interested me.

Trompe l'oeil at Dyrham
According to the introduction to this exhibition, there was in the 16th and 17th centuries a close relationship between the British and Dutch royal families, and British monarchs have been enthusiastic commissioners and collectors of Dutch art. It's strange how the universe sometimes seems to decide that you need to  know more about a particular subject, and provide you with a series of little pointers; I know very little about British history post-Stuarts, but earlier this year I happened to hear an intriguing radio play about the marriage of Mary Stuart to William of Orange, and how he came to be 'invited' to take the English throne.

And then in October, friends suggested a visit to Dyrham House, near Bath. Most of it is closed off at the moment; they're re-doing the roof, and what you go to see is the process of restoration, rather than the house itself. But there were a few rooms open, including one which had this striking trompe l'oeil:
a painting which makes you think you are looking into a series of rooms extending through the doorway. It's by a Dutch painter, Samuel Van Hoogstraten, and it reminded me immediately of Vermeer's interiors. William Blathwayt, who acquired Dyrham by marriage in the 17th century, was a great enthusiast for all things Dutch, having worked there for many years, and he filled his house with Dutch paintings and blue and white Delft pottery - including some of those magnificent tall vases used to display much-prized tulips.

I'm no art expert, so I'm just going to pick out a few of the paintings which I particularly liked. The first is this one by Gerrit Dou - who at the time was apparently better known than some of the artists whose names are more familiar to us now, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. It's called A Girl Chopping Onions, and it was painted in 1646. Apparently there's all sorts of sexual symbolism in it which would have been obvious at the time: the empty birdcage, for instance, which you can just about see at the top right, suggested lost virginity. But what draws me to the picture is the figure of the girl. She seems almost as if she is the actual source of light in the picture - there is a window to the left, but it's difficult to see how the light from it should have been so concentrated on her. She is looking out of the picture to the right; she's busy chopping the onions, but it seems as if that's not what she's thinking about. Her hair is golden, and her rosy face gleams with youth and health. She looks as if she's poised, ready to move quickly if need be: alert, serious, a little worried. She takes notice of the small boy behind her who is trying to capture her attention.

Then there is A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, by Johannes Vermeer, painted in the early 1660s. This, like the Dyrham trompe l'oeil, shows the Dutch mastery of perspective, with the tiled floor receding into the distance. The light seems more natural in this one; it streams in through the window on the left. No posed portrait this; the young lady has her back to us - though we can see a reflection of her face in the mirror. She isn't aware of us, and she doen't seem to be taking much notice of the man, either; he stands watching her, rather stiffly: his expression, as far as we can make it out, serious. She concentrates on her music, he concentrates on her. What is the relationship between them? It seems to me that her body is slightly angled away from him; I don't think she's interested.

And finally, there is this portrait by Rembrandt, which may be of his mother. It was presented to Charles 1 by Sir Robert Kerr.

Well, what can you say? It's stunning. He didn't paint it when he was an old man himself - it was quite an early work. Yet it contains so much wisdom; such a powerful awareness of the condition of humanity. The painting of the textures of the fabrics and of the old lady's skin, the rendering of the light - all these are masterly. But there's more to it than this: somehow, despite all the wonderful, much larger and more colourful pictures works which surround it, it's this one, with its subdued palette and its grave but unassuming subject, which draws you like an irresistible magnet.

There are many wonderful paintings in this exhibition. But for me, this one alone is absolutely worth the entrance price.


Sue Bursztynski said...

We had a Dutch exhibition out here, at the National Gallery of Victoria, some years ago, and I loved it. Very everyday, and not only aristocrats either. In other places, it was religious stuff or it was Lord and Lady whoever, but some of these were Mr and Mrs Fishmonger grinning in front of their market stall. You really feel as if you're there, in the lives of people very like yourself.

Joan Lennon said...

These are luscious - thanks for posting!

Leslie Wilson said...

I love these paintings. Thanks! What a huge amount of onions she's chopping - for a big household, I guess, and it just makes you realise how many people had to be chopped for. But - why isn't she crying?

Sue Purkiss said...

I don't cry when I peel onions, and it's because I wear contact lenses. But I guess it can't be that...

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