Well, despite what the show’s title might suggest, it’s not a blockbuster Rembrandt show. As the exhibition catalogue delicately notes, “we cannot be sure Rembrandt ever visited Dordrecht,” one of the oldest cities in all of the Netherlands and the fifth largest in its province after Rotterdam, The Hague, and Leiden. The show definitely will give most visitors a far better sense of Dutch history, geography and culture than they came in with. Dordrecht was an art center in its own right, known perhaps chiefly as the home of the Cuyp family of painters. The actual Rembrandt connection for the show (aside from the display of a handful of his etchings) is that four of his many pupils came from (and sometimes returned to) Dordrecht, including Ferdinand Bol, Samuel van Hoogstraten, and Nicolaes Maes. But after all, the show’s title only really promises a vision of life during the Golden Age of Dutch art, culture, and prosperity, and it delivers on that promise, especially when it comes to showing some of the ways that life, art, and commerce intersected in the mid-17th century.
It is fair to say that the show helps us see what sort of painter Rembrandt wasn’t. The Dordrecht show has quite a few remarkable still lifes of various sorts; Rembrandt seems to have painted virtually none. The closest he came still has a figure lurking in it. The Dordrecht Museum shares a nice sampling of what tend to be called genre paintings: pictures of people who work, travel, shop, relax, flirt, drink, or make music together. Rembrandt painted next to none of those either. He was instead drawn to many of the other conventions and genres that require the human figure, in groups or alone: Biblical scenes, historical paintings; group portraits; single figures; and, of course, self-portraits.
And even in self-portraits, the Dordrecht show helps us see what makes Rembrandt different. There is something aloof in the way he cast himself; his expressions tend to be opaque. The payoff lies in the ways he is contemplating himself and consequently us. Right at the beginning of the Columbus show is a “Self-Portrait” by Cornelis Bisschop (1668), an impressive work that, once again, reminds us of what Rembrandt wasn’t. Bisschop, palette in hand, is pulling back the curtain from a large painting he has been working on, or perhaps has just completed. This is the magician’s big reveal. The dabs of paint on his palette are still glistening; the artist is coming to see us fresh from his labors. The picture is all about its unveiling; we see more of its very substantial frame than we do of the picture itself. The painting itself can be whatever we wish it to be. I felt the clear implication that this picture is a bravura advertisement for itself. The painting is ready for approval by its prospective buyer, and that buyer could be us.
The attraction—and consequences—of ownership mark many of the works throughout the show. The Rembrandts that are in the show consist of a modest anthology of his etchings, in some ways chiefly significant because the graphic arts are the most likely ways that a work by Rembrandt would likely be owned by most of the citizens represented by a show about “Life in the Age of Rembrandt.” One would always like to know more about how such works were marketed by the artist and selected by prospective owners; it is the rare exhibit indeed—like the CAM’s Durer show of 2017—that actually sheds light on this process. But it is intriguing to think of etchings as a relatively populist alternative to paintings in light of the show’s two works by Adriaen van Salm. They are both nautical works—the show does not dwell much on the revolutions in technology during the 17th century with the exception of Dutch sea power—but are of particular interest for their technique. They are done as pen and inks on prepared whitewashed panels looking, in short, very much like etchings, built up out of cross-hatching and row after row of single lines. If one aspect of the market value of etchings was their ability to reproduce paintings on the cheap in black and white, van Salm is essentially producing much less cheap paintings of imaginary etchings. Their popularity—their salability—suggests that people drawn towards owning etchings might go the next step, and wish to own a painting that captures their reproductive look.
The other remarkable thing that the exhibit suggests about Rembrandt’s influence over Dutch painting is how quickly his moment passes. There is very little that even looks like a Rembrandt in the show. By the time Rembrandt’s student Nicolaes Maes returned to Amsterdam from Dordrecht in 1673, four years after the death of his teacher, he was guided by a much more neo-classicizing muse. His “Portrait of Four Children as Mythological Figures” (1674) seems more allied to the 18th century than the 17th (and includes what became one of Maes’s signature conventions, the representation of a child now dead in the embrace of an eagle, like Ganymede).
It is hard to live up to the sweep of a title like “Life in the Age of Rembrandt” in a show with fewer than a hundred objects, a substantial portion of which are plainly chronologically irrelevant to the 17th century. (I did not find the effort to include works from the late 19th century’s Hague School, the Netherlands’ homegrown version of impressionism, either eye-catching in their own rights or instructive. It was not clear in what ways and for what reasons these paintings’ subjects or style look backwards in time and in what ways they looked ahead. They mostly underlined for me what van Gogh rebelled against the moment he set foot in Paris in 1886.) In this show’s sense of the mid-17th century, women are more likely to be represented as servants than artists or even wives (though there is a remarkable portrait of Johan de Witt by Johanna Koerten Block, a fabulously intricate piece of cut paper artwork, one of just over a dozen of her works to have survived). The show is skewed towards male perspectives, which is hardly surprising, and towards a pervasive interest in how people work, which often brings its own surprises. Aert de Gelder (among the final students to work in Rembrandt’s studio) has the most Rembrandt-like painting in the show, a “Portrait of the Sculptor Hendrik Noteman” (1695) with a chisel in his hands. The frame of his portrait was probably carved by the sculptor and next to him is a miniature model of an elaborate table, also probably done by Noteman, both to advertise the quality of his work and to celebrate the nature of his excellent craftsmanship. One of the show’s treasures is a collection of painted ceremonial funeral shields from the Fishmongers’ Guild, a reminder of the cultural presence, still powerful in the 17th century, of associations of men who engage in social and professional activities with each other. Aelbert Cuyp’s “Portrait of the Duck Sijctghen” (1647) honors the efforts of a bird that produced eggs for its owners for two decades, twice what one might usually hope for from a duck. It seems fair to think that there is something in this superbly realistic portrait that pays homage to social strata at the other end from tables bedecked with oysters and necks bedecked with pearls. Though Cuyp would go on later in his career to be heavily favored by aristocratic collectors of his twilight paintings of hunters and horses (both carefully coiffed), there is something unabashedly barnyard about Sijctghen. To this day, it is a favorite at the Dordrecht Museum; the catalogue notes that it has been nicknamed the “decoy duck” for its ability to attract a crowd. In the industrious world of the 17th century Dutch, even a duck can be admired for the excellence with which it has done its job.
In the case of the ever-laying duck, it is clear that nature is being valued for its ability to honor the human-centered hierarchy, to be useful to its owners, to deliver. It is a far cry from the elusive landscapes of Ruisdael and Rembrandt to the loaded table-top celebrations of foodstuffs plucked from the garden or the sea. Isaac van Duynen’s “Fish Still Life” imagines a fantastic pile of creatures, both freshwater and saltwater, awaiting us on some rocks and sand by the rolling waves of the ocean. We see oysters, lobsters, mussels, and other sea creatures unfamiliar to me (where’s the expertise of the Fishmongers’ Guild when you need it?)—and even a fish already conveniently sliced up into steaks, which seems to have been a specialty of van Duynen. It is a small step from imagining the fish coming to us with minimal effort to envisioning them as existing out there in the world practically ready for the stovetop. It suggests something about our relationship to nature and serves as a celebration of one of the great persistent charms of the Dutch in the 17th century: they inhabit a world oriented towards consumption.
Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp (father and first teacher of Aelbert) shows himself to be a keen observer of commerce and the nature of marketplace exchanges in “The Fish Market” (1627). A young woman, presumably the mistress of her household, is buying fish from an outdoor vendor. She is staring intently (the wall tag wonders if perhaps her stare is too intense) at the fish seller who might be looking back at her but seemed to me to be looking (more socially appropriately) at the woman’s servant. He is rendered with the detail and specificity of a portrait of a Renaissance humanist. The servant, breaking the fourth wall of the painting, is flat-out staring straight at us, while off in the distance, the wall tag notes, is a self-portrait of the artist striding out of the frame but looking back at all this (and of course at us). Right in the canvas’s center, money is changing hands. The wall tag, I thought, tried to over-sell the possibly salacious nature of the well-to-do woman’s interests, but to me, it’s the servant looking at us that seems the most remarkable psychological presence. By making eye contact with us, she seems to be the one most breaking decorum. Is she bored? Does she realize that regardless of what is being exchanged, it will have nothing to do with her? Her looking away from the transaction might be part of an invitation for us to look in, over her shoulder. Is this her way of suggesting to us that there is something more going on than meets the eye? Perhaps there always is.
Dutch painting is perpetually putting into question just what it is in a painting that meets the eye. What is the nature and value of our visual experience? The wall tags for the still life section of the show are cleverly titled “Object Lessons.” They take a pretty hard line in support of the proposition that all is vanity. As the tag to a still life by Abraham Susenier argues,
Look for the blemishes on various pieces of fruit and dried leaves. This makes the still life an example of vanitas (vanity), the notion that living things and pleasures of this world are temporary, and inevitably fade away or perish. From a religious perspective, this is a reminder that our lives on earth are brief, but the afterlife is eternal….Some objects in the still life are costly, such as the lemon, which was imported, and the fancy drinking glass (called a roemer). Wealth, like perishable objects or pleasurable experiences, is also temporary, and can be an impediment to eternal life, since greed is a sin.
I don’t buy it, not exactly. I would love to see a show on the Golden Age of Dutch painting that took the problems of Calvinism head on. How can paintings that depict people who seem to be living in a middle class theme park that might as well be called Pleasureland truly be arguing against its very premises? What does it mean that we can best understand the strictness of 17th century iconoclasm through lush paintings of it? A stark painting of a skull and an hour glass, sure: that’s a vanitas. But when the hour glass is replaced with an intricate and expensive gold watch and the skull is replaced by an overflowing feast of fresh fish and lobsters served on glittering plates accompanied by roemers of wine…really? There is at least a kind of double thinking going on in such works. And we have to consider too that these works are being placed on domestic display for all to see. (Are we to imagine one burgher bragging to another over dinner, I’m giving up more temptations than you are?) When the Game of Thrones is ready for sale in gift boxes of a dozen DVDs, would we expect the label to say, “This show had as its function teaching people that competitions for worldly power were futile and self-destructive”?
It seems perfectly fair to think about ways that Dutch painting might have encoded spiritual energies in apparently secular images. In Samuel van Hoogstraten’s “Bird Still Life with Cat” (1649), the dead rooster is held up by one leg, the rest of its body slumping earthward at the mercy of gravity. Is there a hint here, an echo of a painting of a deposition from the cross, a modest invitation to seek out signs of the divine in the mundane world? I think that art in the age of Rembrandt, by its very nature, had to register ways in which it was shaped by Calvinist austerity and intensity on the one hand, and light-heartedness and an embrace of worldliness on the other. We must work to reconcile, in some ways, the spirit of contemptus mundi with a spirit of acquisitiveness, both personal and broadly cultural. For more than a century, we have had, courtesy of Max Weber and others, the idea floating through European culture that to the Protestant imagination, worldly plenty might be read as a positive index to spiritual states, rather than its more austere opposite. Success is a sign of itself. It seems to me that we are virtually obliged in many of these paintings to value the complexity of representations of wealth and its chosen medium, realism.
It is hard to buy that all these still lifes are designed merely to tell cautionary tales. Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp’s “Bed of Tulips” (1638) is a tulip-lover’s idea of a walk in the woods. There are more than 15 tulips represented, all of the same type, but each pointing in a different direction, and each at a different level of maturity, as if the picture was abbreviating not just a three-dimensional experience, but a four-dimensional one. These are tulips as if seen in the wild, though tulips are hardly wild in Holland. Usually they are painted in a more typical domestic setting of a vase and tabletop. Are we to imagine that we are seeing them in a garden? A window box? Is it all a fantasy being lavished on an ideal tulip—or an advertisement designed to show you what you would be getting for your guilders from every angle throughout its life span? Abraham Susenier’s “Still Life with Shells” (1659) does not come with cautionary notes about vanitas. It is hard to see how one might make such an argument. The painting represents a masterfully rendered pile of sea urchins, whelks, cowries and all kinds of other fruits of the sea, their nacres glistening. Like the Bisschop self-portrait, there is a curtain that has been drawn, revealing the treasure. The Dutch liked their pleasures crowded hard upon each other. The surfaces are all beautiful and the items are each rare and exotic. Owning them—or a painting of them—is a status achievement in itself. They are deeply sensual, almost suggestively so. They are valued because, in part, they defy time: they will always appear wet.
One of the most remarkable objects in the show is Hendrick van Heemskerck’s “Trompe-l’oeil Still Life with Books” (1682)—remarkable because it is not a framed painting at all but rather a free-standing sculptural object that looks, for all the world, like a stack of three books with ribbons holding the reader’s place. You could tote the work from room to room and put it where you want it, perhaps to impress people, or perhaps for the pleasure of fooling them. It may be that there is a bit of a joke about the nature of books themselves—what is the difference between a book not being read and a painting of it? We don’t know which books these are; if there were to be a title and author on the spine, we can’t see them because the spines are turned away from us. Are they spiritual or secular? Or is it just none of our business? Apparently, this sort of sculptural trompe-l’oeil was a popular genre in its time, though few have survived to this day. They live chiefly in anecdote. People painted shoes this way, or fruit; there is a story that Rembrandt’s students painted illusionistic coins on his studio floor for the pleasure of watching him try to pick them up. Van Heemskerck’s books are a sculpture made out of the science of perspective and the skill of the realistic painter. The only thing that matters about them is that they’re not, in fact, actually books. Whether the point of the piece is its wit, its learning, or its virtuosity, it suggests that there is a seriousness to the visual culture, that it tells you everything about what is painted, and at the same time, keeps its secrets. It is both open-minded and deeply skeptical.
Samuel van Hoogstraten was a great practitioner of illusionistic painting. This aspect of his work is represented in the show by his “Trompe-l’oeil Still Life” (1664), a picture of small things hooked onto or suspended from the three leather bands of a letter rack that, like this painting, might be hanging on a wall. There are combs, papers, scissors, a string of pearls, a leather-bound book, a roll of marbleized papers, a quill pen. As an arrangement, it toys with randomness, and avoids being read as a narrative. Though van Hoogstraten sometimes wrote self-deprecatingly about the value of trompe-l’oeil work, he includes in one row a medal that he had received a dozen or so years earlier from the Holy Roman Emperor in recognition of his ability to paint still lifes that fooled the eye.
How personal a work is it? Many of the objects have been repurposed and appear in other paintings of this sort that he did around the same time. It is as if they are things that came out of the artist’s chests as needed, perhaps like the costumes that Rembrandt used for his portraits and self-portraits. The objects sit in their rows a little like moveable type or the notes of a musical score, ready to be rearranged into another version. In many ways, what the objects all have in common is that they suggest aspects of the life, interests, and accomplishments of van Hoogstraten, who was an author and philosopher as well as a painter. Like the sculptor’s chisel, these objects on display are all attributes of his work and life, public and private. The things in the painting are visual representations of aspects of a certain kind of man, with only the man missing. It is, in that regard, both in love with things and iconoclastic at the same time. This is his way of approaching a self-portrait. (One would like to know more about how such a painting, and its several variations, found a market and an owner.) Like a self-portrait befitting the Golden Age of Dutch painting, it is rich with things and visual plenty, things intimate and luxurious, things appropriate to public statements and private rituals. It is filled with the spirit of dress-up. But it is also appropriate to the more severe strictures of Calvinism, and enables the painter to engage in worldly and spiritual self-assessment at the same time.