Dutch Portraits at the National Gallery

I went to see Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals yesterday. It was pleasantly quiet; I guess the prospect of lots and lots of paintings of men in black suits with white ruffs and little pointy beards doesn’t produce a frisson of excitement in your average Londoner.

And from that point of view, the exhibition is very much what you would expect; there are no startling surprises. There are some very good paintings though.

bit of Rembrandt

Whenever I go to an exhibition with a couple of named artists in the title, I tend to find myself treating it as a competition; Rembrandt vs. Frans Hals. I think it’s a very high compliment to Hals that for much of the exhibition, they’re neck and neck. It’s only when you get to the late Rembrandts that it becomes completely one-sided, but then those late Rembrandt portraits are, I think, among the finest works in the history of art. Of those I haven’t seen in the flesh before, the most remarkable is the incredible group portrait of the syndics (officials of the Draper’s Guild) which I’ve included a little section of above.

Still, I know Rembrandt’s work quite well, and several of his paintings on show here are part of the National’s permanent collection—notably the portraits of Jacob Trip and Margaretha de Geer. So for me the exhibition was more about discovering Hals, who I really only knew from the ‘Laughing Cavalier’. His most typical portraits are strikingly informal; one of the portraits has his subject leaning right back with his chair balancing on the just the back legs. That ability, to portray people looking relaxed and natural, is a good trick in itself, but he was also very good at using loosely handled paint to suggest textures: skin, of course, and almost as vital for the C17th portraitist, silk, satin, brocade, embroidery and lace. All those black clothes may have been superficially intended as a sober, modest reflection of a conservative Protestant culture, but with the lushness of the fabrics, the effect is no more humble than a little black Versace dress.

bit of Hals

Oddly enough, for a long time, I vaguely thought that The Laughing Cavalier (which isn’t the picture above; that’s part of the wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and his wife) was a Victorian painting. Obviously it’s not of a man in Victorian dress, but I vaguely thought it was a bit of C19th pastiche. I can still sort of see that in Hals’s paintings; often the informality has a kind of theatrical quality to it—cheesiness would be unfair, but I’m hinting in that direction—which is reminiscent of C19th narrative paintings. Certainly it doesn’t surprise me to learn that his reputation was re-established in the C19th after a period of neglect; I can see he would have been to their taste. I wouldn’t want to over-stress that comparison, though, because I can’t stand Victorian painting and Hals is much better than that.

I’ve mainly talked about Rembrandt and Frans Hals, but there were also some lovely paintings by other artists, most of whose names I’ve already forgotten. These exhibitions organised around a period always serve as reminders that for every famous artist there are dozens of very very good artists whose names are familiar only to specialists. Still, painters probably get treated better than poets by posterity, because the scarcity of original paintings lends value to work even by minor artists.

Rembrandt’s Eyes by Simon Schama

I’ve only read two books by Schama; Citizens, his book about the French Revolution, and this biography of Rembrandt. Both have been excellent. They’re also quite hard work simply because he’s so thorough. Thoroughness is no doubt a virtue in a historian, but it does make for large books. Rembrandt’s Eyes is frankly too large to read in bed, as it weighs a whopping five and a half pounds. The reason it’s so large is that it’s printed on thick glossy paper and full of beautiful reproductions of the paintings. Amazon’s price of £13 is almost worth it just for the pictures.


Self Portrait at an Early Age, from the Rijksmuseum. Click on the image to see a larger version.

I was slightly taken aback when the first chapter of a Rembrandt biography was about Rubens’ father. Schama’s obviously feels that Rembrandt can only be understood in the context of his predecessor (who was born 30 years before him), since he devotes 200 pages, nearly a third of the book, to Rubens. I actually forgot that the book was supposed to be about Rembrandt at one point. This kind of attention to context — not just artistic, but the political and religious background of the region – is perhaps unsurprising given that Schama is primarily a historian, rather than an art critic. He’s brilliant at evoking the everyday reality of life in C17th Holland, as well. There’s one tour-de-force where he introduces Amsterdam by showing the city via the five senses, one at a time. So for example, the section on smell begins:

First, the Zuider Zee itself, sucked through the inlet of the IJ, washing against the slimy double row of palings separating the inner from the outer harbor, carrying with it a load of tangled wrack and weed, worthlessly small fish, and minute crustaceans generating a briny aroma of salt, rotting wood, bilgewater, and the tide-rinsed remains of countless gristly little creatures housed within the shells of barnacles and periwinkles. In the yards behind the first row of houses facing the docks there were better things to smell. Lengths of green timber were stood on end to season, some already bent to form a rib in a ship’s hull. A man might walk down the alleys parallel to the harbor, inhale the sharp tan of fir (for masts) and oak and beech (for hulls), and for a moment think himself in a fresh-cut wood in Norway.

And on through the smells of taverns, the night-soil boats, the tanners, the plague-pits, the nosegay sellers, the bakers; and then each of the other senses in turn.

Having said that Schama is primarily a historian, I still think he does a great job writing about the paintings. That’s just as well, since it becomes apparent during the book that there is very little surviving material written by Rembrandt. There are no journals or essays, and Schama only quotes from letters once or twice. Really, the only times we get direct written contact with Rembrandt’s life is when he’s dealing with the law – buying a house, writing a will, being declared bankrupt, or indeed having his ex-mistress declared as of unsound mind.

Those things are interesting, but by themselves they give a skewed and incomplete view of someone. So Schama has to fill out the gaps though the paintings, and does it admirably. There can hardly be a more appropriate painter to do that with, since Rembrandt was an almost compulsive self-portaitist. Not only did he produce nearly 100 self portraits in different costumes and different personae, but he painted his own face into most of his history paintings as well. There was a part of me that wanted to hear Rembrandt’s voice more directly, to be able to read his words; but perhaps it’s fitting to tell an artist’s story though his art.


Self Portrait at the Age of 63, from the National Gallery.

I can’t think of anything bad to say about this book. I enjoyed reading it, and learnt a lot about Rembrandt, Rubens and the Low Countries in the C17th . Most of all, I was introduced to a lot of beautiful paintings I didn’t know before.

Mutants and the Dutch

I recently read Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi, which is a book that uses mutation as a way of understanding the development of the body. It’s interesting but quite medical; I have a pretty high tolerance for stuff about chemical pathways, gene mutations, hormones and so on, but I still found all the polysyllabic chemical names tended to make my eyes glaze over.

Lots of interesting snippets along the way, though. For example, the chapter about growth mutations had to distinguish them from ‘normal’ variation, whether racial or environmental. Apparently, young Dutch men now have an *average* height of six foot – which makes them taller than famously genetically tall people like the Masai and the Dinka. Almost more strikingly, in Holland there is no longer any correlation between young people’s social class and their height. That is certainly not true in the UK, and I find it an incredibly impressive advertisment for Dutch social policy.

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