Seeing :  Reflections on Dutch and other Northern European Art, in Context 

The etymology of the word see: Middle English sēn, from Old English seon (Anglian sean) “be or become aware of by means of the eye; look, behold;” also “perceive’’ …

I visited the Netherlands for the first time this June. Like many though, I have long since admired the work of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and of course Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) , the latter’s works were part of a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland in 2017, entitled ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry’ .  I also liked the works of  Gerard ter Borch (1617-81). But over the years one or two artists have come to my attention, from Northern Europe, who are lesser known and my interest in them stemmed from direct encounters with the works and in the museum context of their country of origin. (my emphasis) I actually got to see the works – using that great gift of sight.

My niece Tara, to whom I am very close, is living now in Copenhagen for over twenty years and I have been to Denmark several times.  In 2019 I was mesmerised looking at a work called Mermaid (1873), one of four paintings of mermaids, by the Polish- Danish painter Elisabeth Jerichau – Baumann (1819-1881).

Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann Mermaid, 1873 Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek , Copenhagen

As the name suggests  it depicts a mermaid with a melancholic expression, leaning against a rock in shallow water. The night sky looms behind her and a moonlit sea. Purchased by Carl Jacobsen (he of the Carlsberg dynasty fame), the work is now in the collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.  Interesting another one of her series was given to Hans Christian Andersen as a birthday gift and it is at the Funen Art Museum in Denmark.  Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann(1819 –1881) began her studies in Dusseldorf , one of the most important art centres in Europe at the time. When her work began to get recognition, she moved to Rome and spent many hours in her studio studying Italian painters. Baumann met her husband, Jens Adolf Jerichau, an art professor, in Rome. They had several children and her grandson, J.A. Jerichau (1891–1916) became one of the most significant modernist painters in Denmark. Her works are sensual and erotic, something that would have been taboo at the time in Denmark particularly work of this nature, by a woman. The canvas is huge and as I said  I was literally mesmerised by it.

When I was in my twenties, a friend and colleague, at NUIM, Greg Coogan, invited me to visit Finland. I decided as I was going ‘that direction’ I would also visit Russia and I will discuss one of the works I saw while there, that made a lasting impression shortly . The Russian architecture is incredibly beautiful. What a pity one cannot say the same about their politics.

In front of Annunciation Cathedral and Terem Palace , Kremlin, Moscow 1994

But my first visit to a museum in Northern Europe, was in Helsinki, Finland. When I saw the painting below at the Ateneum, part of the Finnish National Gallery, I was drawn to it immediately.

Albert  Edelfelt, Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood), 1893, Finnish National Gallery-Ateneum

I had my first cathartic moment in front of  this painting by Albert Edelfelt (1854-1905), when I stood,  rather spell bound looking at Under the Yoke (Burning the Brushwood) . A Finnish peasant child stares out at me from the canvas, clearly exhausted from the work she is engaging in: burning the forest to help fertilise the land.  Even in the 1800s surrounding countries were having problems with Russia .The work would be considered an example of social realism in art, a new departure at the time , when the reality of the lives of those less well-off were starting to be depicted in a truthful manner in art. Why did it affect me so , I have often wondered?. Maybe because it reminded me of what I knew life was like for people in Ireland in the  1800s when famine ravaged the land and people died needlessly from hunger and Imperialist greed. In Ireland there are few works that depict the horror of this time , an exception being the work of Daniel MacDonald (1820-1853)  pictured below , which is at UCD. I would not have been aware of this work when in Finland but when I saw it years later it reminded me immediately of Edelfelt ‘s painting –  though in the Irish case those looking at the blighted potatoes were most probably anticipating their inevitable demise.

Daniel MacDonald , An Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store, 1847, Irish Folklore Collection ,UCD

But to return to the Netherlands –  I was excited , earlier this year , to have the opportunity to study a module on 17th century Dutch art and we planned a short trip in June to Amsterdam to visit one or two museums when I had completed the course. One of the highlights of this recent trip to Netherland was a visit to the house of Rembrandt whose self-portrait below is a favourite of mine. I was thrilled to see it and spend time in front of it, at the  Rijksmuseum.

Laura Cummings in an article in The Guardian in the lead up to the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death , writes of his marriage to the love of his life, Saskia. Of her intelligence and personality, Cummings writes that: ‘Her character is apparent in her choice of Rembrandt, the son of a miller, rebellious, wild, at least as theatrical as his early self-portraits suggest. He had already painted the showstopping Self – Portrait With Dishevelled Hair now in the Rijksmuseum, and which she would have known, since he kept it among his studio works. Here, Rembrandt is a lone soul in the forests of the night, eyes blacker than the darkness around him. He has positioned himself at the exact boundary between that blackness and a shaft of light that ignites his smooth cheek and a flash of white lace collar, showing off his superb gift for flesh and fabric’. (Sunday 30th Dec 2018)

          Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Dishevelled Hair ,  c1628. Image: Denise Meagher

He peered out at me and I really felt he was about to ask me was I going to see his house while in Amsterdam!

In 1686 Vasari, that great documenter of the artists of the Renaissance, found he had a rival in terms of someone commenting on the arts of the Baroque period. Baldinucci (1625-1696) is considered a significant Florentine biographer/historian of art and was patronised by the Medici family. He expanded on Vasari’s work and added lives of French and Flemish artists  (omitted by Vasari), something which Svetlana Alpers ( February 10, 1936 -)  the American art historian, professor, writer and critic who specialises in  the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ , also took issue with.  She  revolutionized the field with her ground-breaking book The Art of Describing (1984) . (She has also written on Tiepolo, Rubens, and Velázquez, among others).  

But to return to Baldinucci’s , his most important work is the biographical dictionary of artists, Notizie de’ professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua (1681) and in it he considers the possessions of Rembrandt (1606-1669) and their importance in decoding his art. Well done to him for that.  According to one critic Perry Chapman in  ‘Rembrandt on Display. The Rembrandthuis as portrait of an artist’ , (2015) an article about the significance of the Rembrandt House Museum, Baldinucci appreciated Rembrandt’s eccentricities in collecting, a hobby the Dutch exceled at. Not everyone would have agree with Baldinucci. Chapman quotes Baldinucci who writes that Rembrandt ‘ frequently attended public sales and bought old clothes that struck him as bizarre and picturesque [bizzarripittoreschi]. Although these garments were often covered in stains , he would hang them on the walls of his studio among all sorts of beautiful things, which he loved to collect, including old and modern weapons..[and] an innumerable quantity of drawings , prints, medals and all sorts of other objects that he believed a painter might need’. (pp, 230)

                                      Fabric at Rembrandt House: Image: Denise Meagher

In fact, Baldinucci compares Rembrandt’s lack of conventionality in this regard to Michelangelo . Rembrandt was not a snob and his collection habits appear to have primarily been as a support for his work, though obviously they would also have ticked other boxes, important at the time, for those who were devoted art-lovers.

Collecting unusual objects was a huge business in Netherlands in the 17th century (and other European countries), where people, usually of the middle and upper classes, put together what was termed ‘a cabinet of curiosity’, to show visitors at their homes the extent of their universal knowledge – meaning their interest and enthusiasm for many things, some scientific , some artistic, exotic glasses or shells, or natural objects . These objects were indicative of the collectors interest and respect for God’s genius as creator and , of course, proof of their own intellectual pursuits. Rembrandt had some marvellous pieces and once paid a huge sum for a shell which he of course studied closely and drew. My opening image is that work. It is stunning in its detail. To quote Perry Chapman again : ‘The shell [  ] would have been displayed not in a way of actual shells but as part of a ‘paper museum’ of works created by Rembrandt  rather than by God or nature. A such it was a testament  to his power of observation and the grounding of his art in nature. As much as the print may have been inspired by Wenzel Hollar’s etchings of individual shells of a few years before , the practice of drawing naer het leven (from life) together with the medium of etching , in which Rembrandt was especially experimental, cast Rembrandt as a naturalist and demonstrates the fluidity of the boundaries between art and science at the time’.  (pp 220/221)

He was also clearly very interested and influenced by how drawing was taught in the Renaissance atelier.  Rembrandt owned many prints by Raphael, and while his collection included several busts of Roman emperors and classical props that he could draw from – both in terms of inspiration and as objects for use in his art, as I have emphasised, he also collected fabrics and clothes and things that might be perceived as odd in a cabinet of curiosity.

Don and Joss in the Cabinet of Curiosity at Rembrandt’s House Museum. Image: Denise Meagher

It was interesting to visit the house and in particular to hear my three son’s reactions to the experience. We found the audio guide one can take on the tour helpful though it would be nicer, perhaps, to have someone tell you in person what the significance of the rooms are.  I love this picture below of my sons looking at how Rembrandt mixed his pigments in the studio of the house.

Don, Joss and Étienne looking at how Rembrandt mixed pigments in his Studio. Image: Denise Meagher

In his print below The Artist and his Model ,  one copy of which we saw at the Rijksmuseum, we can see how the items he collected came together in examples like this of his work.

Rembrandt The Artist and his Model ca. 1639  (print of incomplete drawing) Rijksmuseum

His paintings of Saskia of course are among the most memorable, at least to my eyes – in her straw hats, or in bed, or wearing her flowered headdress decorated with tulips, a flower synonymous with Netherlands.  Laura Cummings in the article mentioned earlier writes that  ‘Rembrandt drew Saskia van Uylenburgh for the first time three days after their engagement, in the summer of 1633. His future wife is a picture of spirited allure. She smiles back at him [     ]lips shining, hair tousled, eyes glowing with intelligence and humour. In her hand is a flower; round her hat are several more, perhaps gifts from her lover. Soon she will marry this prodigy, who is sitting so close to her on the other side of the table – the most famous artist in Amsterdam’. In their short marriage he painted and sketched his wife innumerable times and a particular favourite of mine is this one below, which has similar aspects as the one discussed by Cummings.

                             Rembrandt ,  Flora , 1634 Hermitage , St Petersburg

I feel very fortunate to say I saw this work, in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, in 1994. While looking at it I wondered did Saskia make the headdress for the portrait? Or did Rembrandt buy the garments she is wearing with a view to creating this work?. Whatever the answers to these questions might be it is a jaw dropper and  I just stopped and stared at it, another moment I remember in the context of a museum. Look how naturally the tulip bows its head. Saskia is depicted here by Rembrandt  as Flora, the Roman goddess of Spring and Flowers, in a wide sleeved dress containing various oriental and sixteenth century elements comparable to the dress worn by Rembrandt’s other mythological, historical, and biblical heroines.  The tulip, the flower I mentioned as so synonymous with Netherlandish culture and art, stands out or maybe it is just that we all know the national preoccupation with it. Goldgar, writes in a chapter on ‘Art and Flowers ‘ in Tulipmania: Money, Honor and Knowledge in the Dutch Golden Age ( 2007) that ‘the tulip craze was part of a much bigger mentality , a mentality of curiosity, of excitement, and of the piecing together connections between the seemingly disparate worlds of art and nature. It also placed the tulip firmly in the social world in which collectors strove for social status and sought to represent themselves as connoisseurs to each other and to themselves’. (pp, 115)  Perhaps then, Rembrandt was showing off his connoisseurship with this work? Or was he simply indulging his imagination and practicing his techniques using nature around him and fashions inspired by antiquity? Maybe he wanted to show that he was so talented he could not only emulate but also surpass, nature,  with his art?

Nicolay Rachkov, Ukranian Girl Ca. 1850s , Chernigov Museum

Today the work brings to my mind other styles of headdress that originate in countries like Ukraine. The Ukrainian ‘wreath’ pictured above, is a type of headdress which, in traditional Ukrainian culture is worn by girls and young unmarried women. The wreath may be part of a tradition dating back to the old East Slavic customs that predate the Christianization of Rus (the medieval name for Russia and parts of Ukraine) . The flower wreath remains a part of the Ukrainian national attire and is worn on festive occasions and on holy days and since the 2014 revolution , increasingly , in daily life.

But to return to my recent visit to the Netherlands and to the Rijksmuseum, seeing some of Rembrandt’s work and others there, was, of course, another highlight of the trip. The museum was founded in The Hague in 1798 and moved to Amsterdam in 1808, where it was first located in the Royal Palace  (image below), which sadly we were unable to get access to on our visit, as the Royal family, who normally reside in the Hague were there on diplomatic business.

                                     The Royal Palace Amsterdam. Image: Denise Meagher

Later the museum moved to the Trippenhuis a Neo-classical canal mansion in Amsterdam . The building where it is situated today  was designed by the Dutch architect Pierre Cuypers (1827-1921) who also designed the central station into which we and most people arrive when coming from the airport.  It was opened in 1885.  In April 2013, after a ten-year renovation project which cost 375 million euro, the main building was reopened by Queen Beatrix , a member of the Dutch Royal Family on the year of her abdication.

To bring things back to Ireland , I went to see this week the exhibition Dutch Drawings: highlights from the Rijkmuseum with my family.

With Don, Joss and Étienne on August 9th at the National Gallery of Ireland. Image: Seosamh Devine

Forty-eight works by 31 different artists who lived during the seventeenth century are on display. It is wonderful to see drawing getting the attention it does not always receive in Ireland and these works are among the best of the Rijksmuseum’s collection . It is a really impressive exhibition. The works were selected by curator Anne Hodge who uses a quote by Shakespeare to contextualise her selection process : ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players …’. The exhibition encompasses the diversity of subject matter that inspired artists at the time. To quote from their website: ‘All of life is here, from studies of plants and animals to portraits of loved ones, and records of conflagrations and comets, architecture and landscape.” (NGI website) She also emphasised in her talk, that the Gallery made a decision not to use the term ‘Golden Age’ in relation to this exhibition . Let us look at a definition of the Dutch Golden Age –   ‘(17th century) a period of great wealth for the Dutch Republic. The Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) caused trade to expand quickly, which attracted immigrants and stimulated the growth of the main cities and ports’.  But of course, this so called ‘Golden Age’ was also a time when the Dutch were involved in Batavia and South Africa and where slavery was employed and people and animals (like the monkey in the drawing by Hendrick Goltzius below, currently on display at the NGI ) are proof of the inhumanity used to generate some of this wealth.

Hendrick Goltzius, Seated Monkey on a Chain, c. 1595-1600, Rijksmuseum , currently at NGI

Consequently some of the wealth of this period that supported the art industry would have come from merchants who made money from  the The Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) – the Dutch East Indian Company. And ironically despite this both Rembrandt and Vermeer died poor, begging one to ask for whom the ‘Golden Age’ was, actually, golden?.

Before concluding I want to mention two other artists whose work  I spent time looking at while in the Rijksmuseum: Gerard ter Borch,( 1617-1681) and Johannes Vermeer (1632 –  1675). Ter Borch is a significant painter of genre subjects and he studied under Pieter Codde (1599-1678) among others and had an influence, some critics argue, on Vermeer.  He is known for his wonderful rendering of textures in drapery like in the work I pictured at the Rijksmuseum below. Perhaps this is why I like his paintings so much. Alison McNeil Kettering in an article entitled ‘Ter Borch’s Ladies in Satin’ looks at the tug of war that exists in art historical writing about how best to interpret some works from this period, with a focus on Ter Borch in particular. Some critics believe these genre works are straightforward depictions of life as the artist saw it. Others, however, believe there are hidden meanings in these works .McNeil Kettering uses the term ‘Petrarchan’ to explain the realist interpretation.  Petrarch (1304-1374) was a poet and scholar of the early Renaissance period. He was influenced by the letters discovered of Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC), . I will not try to attempt to explain how Cicero influenced Petrarch’s poetry, which was very idealistic but the ancient scholar, who was among many things, a gifted Latin scholar, was pragmatic and realistic in his political and philosophical writings.

McNeil Kettering uses the word ‘moralist’ in the context of ‘iconographic’ interpretations. However she sees Ter Borch as primarily influenced by Petrarchan ideas and therefore situates him more in the realist camp.  Svetlana Alpers, mentioned above, was one of the most vocal critics of the iconographic approach.  For instance if we take the painting below , Alpers would see this a straightforward depiction of a Father and Mother speaking to their elegant daughter on the occasion of her engagement (this would be the ‘Petrarchan’ or ‘Descriptive’ interpretation). In contrast,  other critics, those who tend to read moralistic intent by the artist in the work’s of this period, suggest iconographically, this it is potentially a scene of high class prostitution where the woman sipping wine is presenting a courtesan to a man, in exchange for money.

    Gerard ter Borch The Paternal Admonition ,1653-55 (detail),  Rijksmuseum .  Image :Denise Meagher

I won’t digress into these debates as they are complicated and nuanced just to say that while McNeil Kettering suggests that both  interpretations may be relevant she appears to favor , as I suggest above, in the case of Ter Borch at least,  the Petrarchan approach:  ‘ The satin, not the physical figure of the woman , becomes the primary material expression of her beauty. The gorgeous fabric obscures – and substitutes for – the female body, rendering the form more chaste, less troubling. The viewer ‘s potential desire for her body is immediately displaced to somethings more safely possessable. In analogous ways, the Petrarchan poets fetishized the beloved’s veil, or her brooch or her eyes mouth or neck. By asking one laudable part to carry the significance of the whole, they neutralised any latent sexual threat implicit in a discussion of her entire person’. (pp 108 my emphasis )

        Gesina ter Borch St Cecilia with Two Angels 1661,  Rijkmuseum . Image Denise Meagher

I wanted to mention that Ter Borch came  from a family of artists who collected prints to inspire their own artistic work. Gesina, whose work is pictured above,  was Gerard’s sister and frequently posed as his model for paintings. But she too was a gifted artist as this beautiful print currently showing at the National Gallery of Ireland testifies. The label at the Gallery says that she drew inspiration for this from the famous painting by Ruben’s  in the Gemaldegalerie Berlin.  It was one of my favourite pieces at the exhibition.

Finally, then I must mention Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) another huge force in the Dutch Baroque period who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life . During his lifetime he was considered a moderately successful provincial genre painter particularly in Delft. He produced relatively few works and was known for working slowly (though so to was Rembrandt at times, particularly if he felt he was being underpaid!). Vermeer was renowned for his use of very expensive pigments.  As mentioned like Rembrandt, Vermeer  died poor, leaving his wife in debt.

He is celebrated however, in particular, for his treatment of light and this I saw for myself a few years ago here in Ireland at the  ‘Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry’ exhibition in 2017 .This exhibition brought together over 60 paintings from around the world. As many as ten works by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) were included in the exhibition, which represents almost a third of the artist’s surviving oeuvre and the third highest number of works by the artist ever assembled in the world – which was a remarkable achievement for the National Gallery of Ireland in collaboration with the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.  The National Gallery of Ireland’s own work by  Vermeer’s  Lady Writing a Letter, with her Maid, c.1670 is of course so wonderful. To quote from their web site : ‘ regarded as one of the artist’s finest works [it] was shown alongside other exquisite works including Woman with a Balance, c.1663–1664 (National Gallery of Art, Washington); Woman with a Pearl Necklace, 1663–1664 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin); The Astronomer, 1668 (Musée du Louvre, Paris) and The Geographer, 1669 (Städel Museum, Frankfurt-am-Main). Paintings of daily life by contemporaries of Vermeer, including Gerrit Dou, Gerard ter Borch , Jan Steen, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Frans van Mieris, also featured’.  A wonderful web site was created to compliment this for those interested in looking more into the subject connectvermeer .ie  

It  was a privilege though  to see his Woman in Blue reading a Letter  in Vermeer’s native country of Netherlands.

Vermeer, Johannes – Woman reading a letter – ca. 1662-1663. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Often Vermeer would situate his subjects close to the window and this was to use the light from outside to its best effect , in capturing his subject. Her blue dress is also picked up in the chair covering. The wall features a map, such an important object as this time of travel and Enlightenment. The painting draws you in. What is in this letter that engages her so? Is it from the man she loves? Or from someone to whom she is obliged to marry? Perhaps she is already married and pregnant, as the image suggests to me, but this letter is clearly important to her, but for what reason? We are invited into observe these private moments in Vermeer’s works.

Another one of his masterpieces I love, though not at the Rijksmuseum is his Girl With a Pearl Necklace (1664) where we can see again his treatment of light but also his interest in Chinese ceramics, another very popular product imported into the Netherlands in the 17th century.

Vermeer,  Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace ,1664, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Westesteijn writes about this in an article entitled ‘Cultural Reflections on porcelain in the 17th century Netherlands’…. ‘a large vase decorated in blue-and -white  references authentic Chinese wares very convincingly and supports intricate play of reflections. The light falling through the window on the left bounces off the girl’s face and dress before hitting not just the mirror but also the porcelain vase. [  ] The painting is suggestive of the measure onto which a Delft painter ‘s interest in optics extended to the experiments on artisan studios, attempting to recreate the reflective qualities of an unknown chemical substance’ (pp 224/225) .

In this we see how porcelain’s optical qualities attracted masters such as Vermeer, suggestive that these painters saw themselves as also alchemists of sorts ,working in the sciences as well as the arts in the creation of their masterpieces. It is hardly any surprise that optics were such an important area of enquiry at the time – seeing being at the heart of many professions but, in particular, in the artist’s genius to draw and paint. 

An example of how Porcelain was used in Dutch Homes at the Rijksmuseum. Image: Denise Meagher

I always like to link things back to Ireland . Vermeer’s Hometown of Delft gives us the  Hiberno-English word   “Delph” meaning  ‘good’ porcelain- customarily displayed on the dresser of one’s cottage . Dressers were a common feature in  the kitchens of Irish homes particularly in the countryside. This beautiful porcelain plate belonged to my dear Mother and her Mother before her and has been in our family for decades. It now graces the dresser in our cottage here at  Greenville.

Delph and memorabilia on the Dresser of Greenville Cottage. Image : Denise Meagher

I began with the definition of the word ‘see’ and this is for a very specific reason. In this blog I have discussed how some gifted artists from Northern Europe were good at just that: seeing, studying closely the objects they wanted to draw and paint, a talent that we no longer encourage when everything is fast and images are flicked through daily, at speed. And for one other reason I wished to  emphasise the importance of the word. I have documented some moments here that left a huge impression on me, and they were all in the context of being in a museum, often in a different culture, where I wanted to know more about the people and found many clues standing in front of a piece of art .

We all need to do more of that . To stop, to stand and to see , slowly, what is intelligible and beautiful, not just in museums, but around us.

Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy’. Anne Frank

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