Books for Everyone!

February 2018

Sublime Spirits:

The Dutch Masters

My love of the Dutch Masters may be innate since I am half-Dutch and my father’s people were not very far removed from their Old Country ancestry. Regardless of my cultural background, I find the art of these masters to be magnificent. They are many in number, these extraordinary painters from what is referred to as the Dutch Golden Age. In Dutch, the term is Gouden Eeuw.

This era of exquisite painting took place largely during the 17th century, a time when the Dutch soared in the arenas of commerce, science, military prowess, and art. A major portion of this prolific phase occurred during The Eighty Years War, from 1568-1648.

That war was a tangled web of revolt for independence from Philip II of Spain, the king of the Habsburg Netherlands. There were Seventeen Provinces doing battle against this sovereign for their independence. Those lands comprise present-day Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the former départements of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy which have become merged into the region of Hauts-de-France.

How wartime affected these painters is unknown, but the dynamic spirit and sense of stable autonomy among these artists are redolent in their work: Dutch society was depicted with vibrant detail in alluring vignettes; landscapes and seascapes were envisioned as worlds unto their own.

The hardy determination of the Dutch painters to illustrate the world around them, with precision and poetic imagery, that artistry was typical of the type of industrious fortitude among the people, from “the Old Country.” To work, and not work well: this deficiency was close to immoral.

The quiet reverence, attentive piety and practical prosperity of these Dutchmen infused their paintings and gave to their works the sense of affluence and dynamic force that their country was also so industriously achieving. Their images are tactile creations, intermixed with the symbolism that has long intrigued art historians. Sensory effects combine with imagery, shadow plays with light, social status is exuded through portraiture — for only people of means could afford to immortalize their likenesses in oils.

The imprints of various strata of Dutch society and the time capsule of this era were being captured in bold colors and with muted tones by these painters. They often worked without much pay or even, at times, pleasure. I’ve read that Rembrandt van Rijn used his wife for a model, not necessarily out of adoration but out of forced practicality.

Johannes Vermeer worked largely with what is now known as “middle-class” life, the stuff of domesticity, intermixed with extraordinary beauty and a sense of serenity. The pigments that Vermeer insisted on using were quite expensive; but they wondrously produced masterpieces that capture color and light in settings that were limited to two small rooms in his house in Delft. He died in debt, leaving his wife and children also penniless.

Jacob van Ruisdael was not only a painter but, perhaps more importantly, a draughtsman and an etcher. His paintings all bear the mark of the technical drawer and the engraver, even though his landscapes and seascapes possess an expansive, epic, almost heroic character.

The Dutch Masters were obsessed with light, with the effects of light in the way that would later fascinate the French Impressionists. The difference between the two groups of painters was, of course, the location of that light. Shadowy, darkened, flat Holland (a province of the Netherlands) could hardly be mistaken for the bright, luminous light of France, especially the southern portion.

It was this scarcity of illumination that offered to the Dutch Masters the small window of opportunity that they superbly grabbed with each stroke of the paintbrush. They were masters of time, of materials, of waning light as well as of the incoming shaft of radiance, the beam of inspiration that was spiritual as much as physical. Therein is cached the magic of the sensuality of the soul, the saintly passion that appears to emanate from so many of the paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.

Their landscapes depict the low horizon that must have been the worldview of every Dutchman, every Dutchwoman, every Dutch child. The windmill was a part of life, not the symbol that it was to become to later generations. The gray, low-hanging clouds spoke of a constancy that must have felt comforting to the Dutch, a people whose lives were, and would be, ravaged by war, famine, and religious oppression. Even the sea threatened these people, intruding especially upon the land of the farmers. The dikes were built to save Holland from flooding, and the people who lived in those low lands were ever thankful for each harvest that Providence gave to them.

Willem van de Velde and his glorious seascapes; Aelbert Cuyp and his cattle; Pieter de Hooch and his Woman Peeling Apples: these artists and dozens of other Dutch Masters were remarkable, industrious painters.

The criticism that their subjects tended to be repetitive or monotonous neglects the reality that the north of the Netherlands did not vary much in its outward appearance. This scene and its scenery were, nonetheless, astounding in their serene beauty. The inner visions and the interior life, however, those tableaux were the masterpieces of the Dutch Masters. Even the canvases of their outdoor œuvres are suffused with the richness of character, the distinct courage of the artist who depicted life as it was, in its most basic glory, warts and all.

Their landscapes were outward expressions of that rich soul that counted conscience as much as coin. The Dutch Masters created marvels of detail and mood, of love for the city and the country, the land that they quietly loved.

The painters of this era sought to depict a world that is no more. For that reason alone, their works are to be cherished. And yet, I pay homage to those paintings because they teach me, even today, about a place and a time that are immemorial: art holds so very dear what can never be destroyed.

The fruitful land, the soaring impulse to create images from the beauty of nature, the exaltation of a stable society that is ordered by God and must be governed by man: those passions of life are as necessary to the painter as oil pigment and linseed oil, palette, brush, and canvas. The spirit of turpentine and the spirit of the soul — the Dutch Masters infused both into their sublime works of art.