Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age: What Not to Miss

The Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age: What Not to Miss

by Danielle Carter

featured image: Rembrandt (1606 – 1669)  The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman, 1656

If you can’t get enough of Dutch Golden Age art at the Rijksmuseum, the Hermitage Amsterdam is a wonderful additional option to expand your knowledge with the exhibition: Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age.

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image: Elvert Ezinga

From late 2014 through to the end of this year, the Hermitage Amsterdam, in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum and the Amsterdam Museum, is hosting an array of portraits from the Dutch Golden Age, including some of the oldest civic militia portraits from the period. A Squad of Civic Guards (1529) by Dirck Jacobsz. is the oldest in the gallery and features civic guards who appear far different from the likes of the men in Rembrandt’s (1642) The Night Watch, which is displayed in the Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum. These older civic militia portraits reveal the typical way of painting civic militia portraits. The men are lined up in efficient rows in a manner that equally displays all of their faces. Furthermore, seeing these civic militia portraits grouped together in a hall more accurately recreates the way they would have been hung at the time. During the Dutch Golden Age, there were 20 districts in Amsterdam, each with its own civic militia. The Night Watch, along with at least seven other civic militia portraits, would have hung across from and next to one another in the Arquebusier’s headquarters; thus, viewing these portraits together at the Hermitage Amsterdam is almost a glimpse of what it would have been like to view these paintings back in the 17th century.

Highlighted in this exhibition are thirty so-called “brothers and sisters” of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. These additional thirty paintings help to give more context to the importance of group portraiture during the Dutch Golden Age, especially as these portraits were not limited to civic militia portraiture and that their function was often to display wealth and justify status in a society that largely lacked royalty and aristocracy as a means of establishing hierarchy. One example of these paintings is The Governors of the Binnengasthuis (1617-1618) by Cornelis van der Voort, which is the first portrait of a group of governors of a charitable institution. Such a painting can be compared with Rembrandt’s The Syndics, which can also be seen in the Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum. As with Rembrandt’s painting, Van der Voort positions his figures around a table in order to demonstrate their administrative skills, which were important for the governors of these guilds and organisations. During this time, nearly everyone (except for the very poor) belonged to some sort of organisation or guild, but some were hierarchically more esteemed than others, demonstrating the wealth and status of its governors or board members. The surgeon’s guild was at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of guilds and Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman (1656), not to be confused with his famous The Anatomy Lesson (1632) at the Mauritshuis, depicts the Surgeon’s Guild in Amsterdam performing its annual autopsy.

However, unlike the paintings displayed at the Rijksmuseum, many of the group portraits now featured at the Hermitage Amsterdam emphasise the importance of charity and social welfare during the Dutch Golden Age, both as a means of structuring society as well as a means of supporting the Netherlands economically. In other words, as with civic militia portraits, getting oneself painted as the governor of a charitable institution was a way of expressing one’s status and wealth in society. The people depicted in The Governors of the Binnengasthuis, for example, paid approximately 318 guilders each, which is equivalent to nearly 4500 euros in today’s currency. Obviously, these people had to be quite wealthy to have themselves included in these paintings, which would often then be hung in public places to further parade the subjects’ wealth.

The significance of these charitable institutions during the Dutch Golden Age also indicates the relatively high level of social welfare in the Netherlands compared with its European counterparts at the time. These social welfare institutions, such as hospitals for lepers or orphanages for children of victims of the plague, were often seen as economically responsible: social unrest was deemed as negative for the economy.

The Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age at the Hermitage Amsterdam is structured in such a way that allows visitors to follow the narratives of four residents of Amsterdam at the time, revealing the struggles of these people in attaining power and status in a time of social and financial mobility that was nearly impossible in other societies dominated by royalty and aristocracy. The entire exhibition is worth consideration, but the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman and the hall of group portraits (mostly featuring governors of social welfare institutions) are unmissable in this exhibition.

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located at Amstel 51, it is open daily from 10.00-17.00, with a ticket price of 15 euros for adults and 5 euros for children aged 6 to 16 (children under 6 are permitted free admission). For a custom private tour of the exhibition, please contact us.

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‘At Home in Holland. Vermeer and his Contemporaries from the British Royal Collection’

At Home in Holland: Vermeer and his Contemporaries from the British Royal Collection
29 September 2016 – 8 January 2017

By Wendy Fossen

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This autumn, at the Mauritshuis, we are welcoming back a select number of Dutch 17th century Masterpieces from the British Royal collection. It is a unique show, for her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II is very fond of her Dutch collection and the British Royal family have never before allowed so many works to leave the country. The public will be delighted by the quality of painters like Steen, Vermeer and Dou, who was by the way more appreciated than Rembrandt in his day.

Many of today’s art collections once belonged to a royal family; the collection at the Prado, the Louvre and even our own Mauritshuis (the original name of the museum is the Royal Picture Gallery!) The British Royal Collection is one of the largest collections which is still intact and still owned by a royal family. It was King George IV in particular, who spent astonishing sums of money collecting Dutch art in the 19th century. These works of art are scattered around the countryside of the UK in the Royal Palaces, the most famous of these being Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The British Royal Collection can boast 8000 pieces, whereas the Mauritshuis only has 800.

As far as Dutch 17th Century art is concerned, the British royals seem to have had a preference and fondness for scenes of everyday life, and in particular comic scenes. These genre pieces, as we call them, feature Dutch folk chopping onions, selling grapes, or fighting in front of an inn. Also popular were the scenes with a sexual connotation. Rich townspeople, and maybe also King George himself, will have amused themselves and their company with these naughty and comic scenes.

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman ('The Music Lesson') by Johannes Vermeer. On loan to the Mauritshuis collection, The Hague.

Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (‘The Music Lesson’) by Johannes Vermeer. On loan to the Mauritshuis collection, The Hague.

Many of these 17th Century  scenes – which were not only amazingly well painted – had a moralistic meaning which often remains quite hidden for the modern viewer. Gerard Terborch, for instance, painted scenes with moralistic messages which were not always immediately clear, not even for his contemporaries. One of the highlights in this exhibition is also such a puzzling piece: The Music Lesson by Johannes Vermeer. This work was bought by George III in 1762 and shows a lady and a gentleman at a virginal. The room is lit by the stained glass windows from the left, there is a chequered black and white marble floor, and on the right we see a table covered by a Persian rug. The warm colours of the rug contrast beautifully with the brilliant white jug placed on the rug, Against the back wall we see the two figures standing near a virginal, a sort of piano. When we look closely at the painting we see that the lady is looking in front of her, but her reflection in the mirror, which hangs against the back wall, shows a different position: she is looking at the man standing next to the virginal. Why did Vermeer do this, what was he suggesting? Or should we forget about these presupposed hidden meanings and simply enjoy the beautiful perspective, light and colours for what they are?

 

Jan Steen (1626-1679) ‘A Woman at her Toilet’, 1663 Courtesy of Mauritshuis, Den Haag

Subtleness is certainly not to be found in the works by Jan Steen. He usually is not so secretive in showing the meaning of the painting, it more like ‘what you see is what you get’. My favourite is Woman at her Toilet. As a voyeur we look through an arched doorway, very richly decorated with garlands and Corinthian columns, and we see a lady sitting on a canopy bed. Once again a chequered floor, this time black, white and red, leading up to the bed with a floor mat and again a table with a Persian rug on the right. All this is painted with sublime technique and beautiful colours, but the scene distracts you from this. The lady is taking off her stocking and the marks above her calves show she has worn them all day. Is she smiling at us as if we were her customer walking out of the room and glancing back one more time?
This work by Jan Steen, and the 22 other works in the exhibition, offers us just a glimpse of the magnitude of the British Royal Collection – this exhibition is an opportunity not be missed! Go and see ‘At Home in Holland: Vermeer and his Contemporaries from the British Royal Collection’ at the Mauritshuis in The Hague from 29 of September until 8 of January next year. If you are interested in finding out more about these hidden meanings, join us for a private guided tour in English. Contact us for more details.

Wendy Fossen Casadellarte26LRArt historian Wendy Fossen holds degrees of the Universities of Leiden, Amsterdam and Canterbury, UK. Wendy teaches art history in Dutch and English and works as a museum guide for Thinking Museum as well as at the Mauritshuis and the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. When she is not at home, she works as a tour guide in Italy for SRC Cultuurreizen and SNP Wandelvakanties.  For more information please take a look at Casa dell’Arte’s website.

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The Significance of Rembrandt’s Marten and Oopjen

Danielle CarterWe are delighted to welcome Danielle Carter, owner of Tangible Education and museum educator for Thinking Museum, to write for us. You can learn more about Danielle’s research, educational and practical experience here.

 

There have been numerous images of Rembrandt’s Marten and Oopjen (1634) splashed across billboards and walls throughout Amsterdam for the past few months. Some solely featured Marten’s extravagant shoe. Some featured Oopjen’s coy half-smile and smouldering eyes. However, it’s hard to really understand the significance of these portraits without more context. This is where we, at Thinking Museum, can assist: the importance of Marten and Oopjen from the museological, historical, and art historical perspective.

From a museological standpoint, the display and acquisition of these paintings is what counts. These paintings have only been shown once in public—in 1956 in the Rijksmuseum for Rembrandt’s 350th birthday. Other than that, they have remained in private hands over the past three and a half centuries—unseen by the public eye. Thus the fact that we have the special opportunity to see these paintings is quite amazing in itself. Furthermore, these paintings were revealed in the Rijksmuseum shortly before Rembrandt’s 410th birthday (on July 14th of this year), a serendipitous arrangement that has given me goosebumps several times. The paintings will go into restoration for a year starting in October, so they will soon be out of the public eye once more.

Additionally, these paintings were—to say the least—pricey. Paintings by Rembrandt are hard to come by and a situation in which one (or two!) comes onto the market is very rare. Even more importantly, however, is that the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre partnered to purchase these paintings. This is unheard of in the museum world thus far, but seems to be a solution to a prevalent issue in the contemporary art world; the fact that private collectors are able to outbid public museums and artworks are thus swept into private collections rather than preserved for the public eye. Technically speaking, the Louvre purchased Oopjen and the Rijksmuseum purchased Marten, but the two museums have agreed that the two paintings will remain together forever. The two paintings are married just as the couple once was.

Historically speaking, these paintings indicate a large amount about the Dutch Golden Ages. During this time, the Netherlands was waging war with the Spanish crown to gain its independence, after which it would establish a republic (rather than a monarchy). During the Dutch Golden Ages, royalty are typically the only ones who have full-length portraits painted; Rembrandt has painted these two “civilians” in this manner, symbolising the status of the wealthy in the Netherlands as well as the (lack of) status of the aristocracy. Oopjen herself was the heir of her long-established Amsterdam merchant family’s fortune in trading gunpowder and grain, whereas Marten was the son of an Antwerp merchant who fled from the cruel Spanish regime enforcing the Inquisition at that time. Again, societal structure was much more based on affluence rather than aristocratic title, lending Rembrandt the authority to paint Marten and Oopjen in this manner that would typically be preserved for royalty.

Finally, for the art history lovers out there, there are many reasons to gawk at these portraits. Rembrandt was relatively new on the scene in Amsterdam at the time that he painted these portraits. They were painted during the same period that he painted The Anatomy Lesson, which is often regarded as the painting that initiated his fame as well as his status as the most prominent portrait painter in Amsterdam. However, because Marten and Oopjen were truly part of the elite, it is very plausible that these wedding portraits launched Rembrandt’s notoriety among the highest and wealthiest of circles in the Netherlands, skyrocketing his reputation—when he was just 28 years old.

Furthermore, these portraits are the first—and only—full-length, life-sized pendant portraits that Rembrandt ever painted. And he painted every single detail of them, rather than having one of his apprentices help with the fabric or background (as he often did with other paintings). These paintings are also relatively typical of Rembrandt’s style early on in his career in Amsterdam. Although the Night Watch (1642) is definitely his most famous painting, his technique and style becomes much more loose by that time, making the juxtaposition of these masterpieces in the Gallery of Honour that much more remarkable.

Make sure you get a chance to marvel at these two portraits at the Rijksmuseum before 02 October!

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