Contributed by David Carrier / When early this year I plotted my trip to Amsterdam to see and review the Vermeer show, my views on Dutch seventeenth-century Gold Age painting were relatively clear. In my understanding, there were two Dutch superstars, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Frans Hals and Pieter Saenredam were the other major figures. In addition to these four, there were various genre masters who, as Hegel says in his Lectures, visually celebrated the pleasures of everyday life. Compared with Italy – where Caravaggio and his numerous followers, Bernini, Pietro da Cortona, and the elaborate narrative of the baroque add up to a big and complex story – Dutch art was relatively confined, at least in terms of leading personalities. I had presumed that this was because, in a mainly Protestant country, large sacred painting – the most ambitious and abundant artistic genre in Italy – had no place.
In the early twentieth century, Henry Clay Frick and the other grand nouveau-riche Americans devoted significant attention to Dutch art. Now, however, most ambitious collectors are focused on contemporary art, which makes it notable that Thomas S. Kaplan and his wife, Daphne Recanati Kaplan, have revived an old tradition. The 35 works on display at the Hermitage Amsterdam, including a number of paintings by Rembrandt or his apprentices and some by his followers Carl Fabritius and Ferdinand Bol, afforded me the opportunity to re-assess my views about Dutch art.
By far the most interesting paintings on display were by artists I had never heard of before. I admired Pieter Codde’s Continence of Scipio (1630–35), which shows a ruler returning a captive woman to her fiancé. Here, as in some other works shown, the Dutch fastened onto scenes from Roman history referencing national liberation, still a fresh subject in the young Dutch Republic. I was fascinated by Godefridus Schalcken’s weird Conversion of Mary Magdalen (1700), with its intense artificial spotlighting. And I was impressed with Geldorp Gortzius’ Esther and Ahasuerus (1612), a close-up of the Old Testament scene in which Esther saves her fellow Jews. But the mythological scenes struck me the most deeply. In Ferdinand Bol’s Venus and Cupid (1659), Cupid ties Venus’ sandal. In Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Salamacis and Hermaphroditus (1671–76), titled after an obscure story from Ovid, a water nymph who has lustfully attacked a beautiful boy is merged with him to form a hermaphrodite. Jan Steen’s Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1671) presents the father sacrificing the girl to enable his ships to sail and start the Trojan War.
While the artwork itself was revelatory, its presentation was limiting. Brightly spot-lit paintings in dark rooms – conjuring the “art in a cave effect” – look dramatic, but it is not necessary when the art itself offers plenty of visual drama. The catalogue had good plates but wasted pages on enlarged details of works when those pages should have been used for cultural background and perspective explaining the Dutch fascination with esoteric themes. Given their extreme oddness, it’s likely that elite collectors commissioned the works and meant to keep them for themselves. It would be interesting to know why these Dutch patrons were interested in such bizarre subjects.
In any case, they did inspire remarkable compositional innovations and extraordinary coloring. Consider how, in Jacob Toorenvliet’s Allegory of Painting (1675–79), the sensual blue dress of the woman at the center contrasts with the almost fleshy colors of the bas-relief carving. And observe the novel juxtaposition of the opened books and the palette she holds with the fabrics. In Steen’s Sacrifice of Iphigenia (1671), look at the play of one woman’s white dress against the golden garment of the woman to her left. The empty center of the picture is also unusual and enigmatic. Steen’s Lazarus and the Rich Man or “In Luxury Beware” (1677) is a work of historical content by an artist who customarily did genre scenes. How should we unpack the relationship between the almost turned-around figures of the women and the reveler in white? There is a great deal to see here, and much to ponder and learn.
“Rembrandt & His Contemporaries, History Paintings from the Leiden Collection,” Hermitage Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Through August 27, 2023.
About the author: David Carrier is a former professor at Carnegie Mellon University and Princeton University; a Getty Scholar; and a Clark Fellow. He has lectured in China, Europe, India, Japan, New Zealand, and North America. He has published catalogue essays for many museums and art criticism for Apollo, artcritical, Artforum, Artus and Burlington Magazine. He has also been a guest editor for The Brooklyn Rail.