Through a golden looking-glass

Paul Russell October 17 1983

Through a golden looking-glass

Paul Russell October 17 1983

Through a golden looking-glass


Paul Russell

The first painting depicts a human skull, perched on the worn pages of a leather-bound book, peering to the left over a gold pocket watch and beyond its dark wood frame. Conveniently, that painting is hanging so that the skull actually gazes at another painting which shows a banquet table of silver platters and glistening chalices filled with wines, fruits, meats and suc-

culent crustaceans. That reminder of death, Pieter Claeze’s Vanitas, beside a call to life, Abraham van Beyeren’s Banquet, are contrasts in art that challenge as much today as they did when they were painted in Holland 300 years ago. For those artists, the awareness of death, indeed the preoccupation, becomes a challenge to live more fully. The paintings and the 38 around them in a travelling show now at the Art Gallery of Ontario hold up an eternal mirror to specifics of time and place in history, a mirror on the virtues, and vices of the people who bought and enjoyed them in 17thcentury Holland. They are virtues and vices similar to the ones moralists might see in North American society today.

The show Dutch Painting of the Golden Age from the Royal Picture Gallery came from the Mauritshuis, in the Hague. The building, a 17th-century classical mansion built for Count Johann Maurits, who only lived there for three years, is undergoing extensive renovation. That development

gives North American art lovers the opportunity to see a body of work that represents the great age of Dutch painting. (The show will move to New York’s Metropolitan Museum next year.)

For the Dutch royal family, and the Mauritshuis organizers, the Canadian stop was especially important—another official expression of gratitude from the Dutch government and people for Canadian hospitality at home, and courage abroad, during the Second World War.

Canadian troops liberated much of Holland in 1945 and the royal family lived in exile in Ottawa during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Princess Margriet, fourth in line to the Dutch throne, was born in Ottawa and she flew to Toronto to open the exhibition.

Dutch Painting of the Golden Age is divided by theme. There are sky-filled paintings of land and sea to establish the physical context of Holland. Then, minutely observed still life examines

nature’s detail. Allegorical, usually boisterous “genre works” show episodes of daily life. And a series of profoundly humanist portraits offers insights into the individuals who formed what was a major empire. All of the great names in Dutch paintings are represented: Rembrandt signed two contrasting selfportraits from the beginning and end of his career, along with an evocative nude; Jacob van Ruisdael painted his brilliant, cloud-filled view of the an-

cient city of Haarlem clustered around the towering church of St. Bavo. Vermeer’s Head of a Girl, the Mona Lisa of Dutch painting, is the undisputed star of the show. Jan Steen’s carousing group portraits are outdone by his flirtatious Girl Eating Oysters, which invites the viewer to join her in the aphrodisiac feast before going to bed. The clear seascapes by Van de Velde document the seafaring expertise that made Holland rich, and the structured church

interiors by Emanuel de Witte seem to control and compose the vitality of the exuberant people they contain.

There are also names new to most North Americans— painters who display talents that rival their more illustrious contemporaries. A sun-drenched pastoral canvas by Paulus Potter is a 17th-century version of the Bible’s Garden of Eden. Jan Verkolje’s The Messenger is a visual feast of texture and expression. Together in a gallery, this assembly of color and form displays the intuitive talent and virtuoso skill that pervaded the Dutch painting community during a truly golden age.

That skill appears in the exotic turtles of a newly born Dutch empire in the Americas, in a study by Albert Eckhout, and in the proud portraits of a home landscape only recently

wrested from the imperial grip of the Spanish king. But the Dutch artists preferred above all to use their

skill to glamorize the way of life of their patron class. Their canvases tell viewers that those urban entrepren-

eurs were adventurous people with commercial interests around the world. They were also very rich, and they loved to wear their wealth to the full extent that Calvinist decorum would permit (17th-century Holland officially bathed in the beatific glow of Calvin’s reformist fervor). Because the Protestant ethic had resulted in their accumulation of wealth, they would have considered “art for art’s sake” to be a wicked distortion of proper values. Their genre

paintings needed moral purpose; they had to tell a story with a righteous conclusion. Those visual tales usually revolved around control of the senses which, if the artists were astute, the Dutch seemed to have lustily and recently discovered.

Every brushstroke affirms the material world, a love of life and a tireless admiration for wine, women and laughter. The fascination is religiously framed in allegory that points out the sad results of such pursuits. But the allegory never gets in the way of the pursuit of pleasure. Musical Company,

an elegant painting by Gabriel Metsu, opens the door to a private sitting room where friends are sharing a musical afternoon. A young man looks lovingly at his lady, who looks up, pen and paper poised in the air, suspended between thought and decision. Her companion, another young woman, holds the lute, symbol of the control of the passions, in a ready position for play. Hanging above them, a painting of ships tossed in a stormy sea alludes to the results of uncontrolled passion. The composition is an elaborate tale of innuendo. Still, the players are all so lusciously alive,

healthy and rich in clothing and surroundings that the materialism of the artist’s outlook pervades his work despite the allegorical signposts that try to direct the viewer’s thoughts to more austere meditation. Musical Company, for all its control, is about sex and violence, the themes that now keep people watching television and movie screens.

The Dutch love of life is all the more passionate because of its awareness of life’s brevity. In canvas after canvas the artist’s skill captures a fleeting moment, a gesture, an illusory thought, the flicker of a goldfinch’s wing, the sparkle in a young woman’s glance, the opulence of a banquet setting as the moist fruit and fresh meats tremble on their platters. A moment later, all would be different. It would also be true of the Dutch people. A moment later, another century, the freshness of spirit left their art, their hoped-for colonies on the Hudson and in Brazil had passed to others, the historical moment of their golden age had passed.

But the paintings remain to tell their tales of pride, in dress, pattern and material, and the elegant appointments of town homes, to remind viewers of those exciting imported touches, especially the intricately patterned rugs from Turkey, that told just how well-connected those people were. Dutch Painting of the Golden Age displays the proud consumerism of our own time when it first appeared among the new merchants of Europe in the new Dutch Republic, three centuries ago.