Sunday, April 14, 2013

You Can Learn a Lot from 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring'

You can get a quick overview of the Golden Age of Dutch art at the de Young's current special exhibit called 'The Girl with the Pearl Earring.' This is not a blockbuster show that will leave you gasping with delight. There are only thirty-five paintings, but each one is carefully chosen to represent the art trends during the 1600s when the Netherlands peaked as a world power. These paintings are a small part of the collection of a museum in The Hague called Mauritshuis—pronounced Maurits' House; this magnificent seventeenth century city palace is undergoing a two-year renovation and expansion. The show runs through June 2. Since no photos were allowed, I grabbed some images from the internet.

The painting by Johannes Vermeer called The Girl with the Pearl Earring is justifiably the centerpiece of the show. It is referred to as 'the Mona Lisa' of Dutch Art and is presented in a small dark gallery by itself—in the manner of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. You may find this portrait even more appealing. There's no inhibited mystery about this girl's expression; looking over her shoulder with limpid eyes and moistened mouth, her expression is almost a come-hither look, yet she seems pure, innocent. The light in her eyes and on her lips is amplified by the highlight on the improbably large pearl dangling from one ear, and it seems to come from within. Even though her presence is so strong, this girl was a dream of Vermeer's. It is a type of portrait that was very popular at the time known as a tronie; instead of representing a specific individual, a tronie portrayed an idealized type. Thus the turban, the earring, and the simplified but exotic robe are a costume chosen to express Vermeer's dream of pure beauty.

Girl with a Pearl Earring
Vermeer; Internet grab
Gerrit von Honthorst had a similar intent with this even more flamboyant tronie evoking of the joys of music. His fantasy maiden again has an inviting smile and exotic garb; the image is sensuous but somehow innocent. Her expression is so bewitching that you don't notice the exquisite rendering of the hands, the touchable silkiness of the fabric, or the wisp of lace at one shoulder.

Honthorst; Internet grab
Rembrandt was very fond of the tronie. He frequently used himself as a model, or he would get an old gentleman of his acquaintance with an interesting face. He would dress himself or his model up in a fancy hat and exotic costume. Portrait of an Elderly Man, one of Rembrandt's last paintings but not a direct self-portrait, may be said to represent the opposite of the Girl with a Pearl Earring. Painted in a loose style that expresses the old guy's tenuous hold on life, this tronie portrays a disheveled senior—his cheeks reddened by long years' enjoyment of good Dutch beer—clinging to the arms of his chair, disappointed by the past and mystified by his approaching demise.

Portrait of an Elderly Man
Rembrandt; Internet grab
Actual, specific portraits were bread and butter for most artists in Holland in the 1600s. Flourishing commerce had built up a prosperous middle class whose members had a fad for having their prosperity memorialized in paint. In order to properly display the sitters' wealth, the painters developed phenomenal skill in rendering lace, silk, velvet, and embroidery. Portraits were frequently commissioned in pairs representing a married couple. This exhibit had an excellent pair by Frans Hals.

Portrait of Jacob Olycan, 1625
Frans Hals, c. 1582-1666
Internet grab
Portrait of Aletta Hanemans, bride of Jacob Olycan, 1625
Frans Hals, c. 1582-1666
Internet grab
Another good source of income for painters was the still life, something decorative to add a little class to the homes of prosperous merchants and government dignitaries. Expressing opulence and abundance, paintings of fantastical bouquets were very popular. Bouquets combined flowers from every season and continent in improbable but gorgeous arrangements. Lest the viewer get carried away by so much beauty, the artist typically threw in a few insects to remind us that flowers are part of nature's food chain, and subject to decay. One of the most successful painters of floral still lifes was Rachel Ruych, who was also one of the earliest women painters to be come successful and famous.

Vase of Flowers,  1700
Rachel Ruysch, 1664-1750
Internet grab
Another important type of still life presented symbolic collections of table-top items. Painters vied with each other to paint the most convincing depictions. Wealth was indicated by silver and crystal, intellectual interests were shown by books and instruments, and quiet introspection suggested by long-stemmed pipes. Again, however, these righteous folks liked to keep things in perspective with reminders that material pleasures are transient. The crystal goblet has been overturned; the oysters have been eaten; nothing is left of the lemon but the rind. Just in case you don't get these subtle hints, some painters would throw in a skull to make the point obvious.

Vanitas Still Life, 1630 by Pieter Claesz
Internet grab
This preference for the mixed message continued with a popular genre that illustrated moral sayings. Jan Steen did several terrific paintings of this type. Himself an innkeeper who loved to depict an uproarious feast, he tried to excuse or justify his very appealing scenes of debauchery with some moral message made popular in a proverb. The painting below illustrates the proverb "As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young," which we know because the old lady in the center, swathed in scarves and blankets, is pointing to this title on a sheet of music. The scene is a sort of baptism into debauchery. The old guy on the left is wearing a baptismal cap which should be worn by the baby's father. Instead of holy water, a waiter is ostentatiously pouring wine directly over the head of an infant in its mother's arms. A jovial fellow on the right—a self-portrait by the artist—is offering a pipe to a young lad. Clearly the young people in this family will follow the example of their elders. What comes through here, the moral message or the people having fun? A youngster plays a bagpipe to rev up the merriment; the beautiful hostess wears a gorgeous getup and warms her feet on hot coals; fancy foods are laid out; lovable pets are part of the scene. To me, the appeal seems stronger than the lesson.

As the Old Sing, So Twitter the Young, c. 1670 by Jan Steen
Internet grab
Some artists developed a specialty in depicting interior spaces and typical domestic activities. The first goal was to get a composition that showed an exterior scene through a door or window, and then to get the perspective and the light balance just right. Artists reveled in fool-the-eye renderings of brick walls and tiled floors. The master of this style was Pieter de Hooch. In the depiction below, he throws in a little puzzle about the activities of the characters. A man is smoking, a woman is drinking, a child is carrying coals for the man's pipe. Is the man the householder or a guest at an inn? Is the woman a servant? If so, what does it mean that she is drinking the man's beer? Is this a come-on? His right foot almost nudges her foot. Is this a hint?

A Man Smoking and a Woman Drinking in a Courtyard, c. 1660
Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684)
No survey of Dutch art would be complete without mentioning landscape. Dutch artists are handicapped by the low light level typical of their country; they are not blessed with warm sun that brings out nature's best. While the sky may have amazing clouds, the viewer frequently must peer into a shady scene below to appreciate the details. The museum sent a superb example by one of the best landscape artists of the day, Meindert Hobbema. This is not a real scene, but a composite representing rural life. What enchanted me about it was details you probably can't make out in this photo. In the lower right we see a fancy gentleman on a fine horse, accompanied by a young attendant and several dogs. He is the local landowner, which we know because two tenants by the side of the road doff their caps to him. In front of him, in a detail so small you wonder why the painter bothered, is a man carrying a rack of live birds, presumably hoping to peddle them at the next cottage.

Wooded Landscape with Cottages, c. 1665
Meindert Hobbema
Internet grab
Art flourished in an extraordinary way in the Golden Age in what we now call the Netherlands. In the previous century, Italy had dominated art and the church had been the main patron, causing a preoccupation with religious themes; the only relief was work commissioned by private connoisseurs and that tended to treat the mythology of the Greeks. But during the Dutch Golden Age, general prosperity produced a well-educated and literate middle class with a taste for secular art that reflected their own lives and values. Painters developed subjects that had hardly been treated before: there were more people than ever who could afford to commission portraits and greater interest in decorative paintings like still lifes and landscapes. Artists gained increased opportunity to express their personal interests.

Every painting in this show is an excellent example; if only there were more. Also it would help if some sort of narration like this one were available. Very little wall text was offered and the audio guide was weak. I knew this history because I've toured all the big art museums in the Netherlands, including the Mauritshuis, and have a good grounding in Dutch art. Since the exhibit would serve as an introduction to Dutch art for most people, it would be greatly enhanced by providing some context.

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