In other European places in the 17th century, art was a luxurious product not quite accessible to the ordinary citizens. Paintings were made for the church, nobility and royal courts. However, in the Dutch Republic, the political and economic power was not with the nobility or clergy, but with the elites of the bourgeoisie: merchants, politicians, scientists. And yet, for the Dutch, everyone, including the poor people, possessed paintings. In fact, 5 million paintings were produced in the Netherlands in the 17th century!
In the afternoon, we went to the Rijksmuseum to see the 17th century masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer and many others. But first, I want to introduce a bit about the four types of paintings produced at that time: genre painting, portrait, landscape and still life.
Genre painting depicts domestic scenes, street scenes, ordinary people and their daily activities. The paintings usually convey a moralizing message.
A good example is Jan Steen’s “The Merry Family” (1668). This boisterous family is having a great deal of fun. The father sings while raising his glass. The mother and grandmother chime in. The children are blowing into a wind instrument or smoking a long pipe. The note hanging from the mantelpiece gives away the moral of the story: “As the old sing, so shall the young twitter.” If the parents set the wrong examples, what will become of the children?
Portrait paintings were very popular among rich people to show off their wealth and status. One example is Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” (1642), which depicts a group of Amsterdam’s civic guard, a militia company that protected the city.
Rembrandt was the first artist to paint a group portrait with the figures in action and with the dramatic use of light and shadow (tenebrism). The mysterious woman in the background carries a chicken with pronounced claws and a pistol called a klover, which was a symbols of the Kloveniers, the civil guard. It is Rembrandt’s most famous painting, arguably the greatest portrait of the 17th-century Dutch.
Landscape paintings were the most popular among the ordinary people. The typical flat Dutch landscape has a low, straight horizon extending under a vast sky with billowing cumulus clouds. This feature is illustrated perfectly by Jacob Van Ruisdael’s depiction of the “View of Haarlem” (1670-75).
Another famous winter landscape painter is Hendrick Avercamp. Deaf and mute, he painted “Winter Landscape With Ice Skaters” (1608) in a colorful and lively way.
But the painting is also narrative, with many anecdotes and mischievous details included. For example, if you look closely, in this painting there hides a couple making love, bare buttocks and even a peeing male.
Last but not least, still life paintings display to the greatest extent the extraordinary painting skills of the masters.
A popular type is the vanitas still life paintings, such as Pieter Claesz’s “Vanitas Still Life With the Spinario” (1628).
With a timepiece, musical instruments, bones and a skull, the message is clear: Everything is mere illusion and transience (vanitas). Indeed, all life comes to an end.
Yet out of all the paintings I saw, two touched my heart the most.
One of them is Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride” (1665-69). Vincent Van Gogh, after seeing this painting at the opening of the Rijksmuseum in 1885, said in a letter that he would have given 10 years of his life just to sit in front of the painting for two weeks.
In this painting, we see a man touching a woman lovingly. They are depicted as the loving biblical couple Isaac and Rebecca. Rembrandt freed himself from all convention in this painting. He represented the pair in an intimate and private moment within a dark ambiance. He used a thick, impasto manner of painting — he simply scratched in the paint with his brush handle and smeared it with a palette knife like a rough and mischievous child.
In the biblical story, the married couple Isaac and Rebecca run away to a foreign country to escape the soldiers and to preserve their love secretly. For the exotic clothing, Rembrandt applied thick daubs of paint to render Isaac’s golden sleeve and used the palette knife for Rebecca’s red dress to create a glittering, sculptural sense of relief.
It is true that the painting appears coarse or even messy if you look closely. But to me, this is what love means for humans: It should be a passionate and spontaneous revelation, with no polishing or modification. There is no need for precision or perfection, for human emotions are neither precise nor perfect. Coarseness embodies pureness. The unrestrained thick brushstrokes represent a powerful outpouring of genuine emotions.
The other painting that touched me the most is “Portrait of a Couple” (1622) by Frans Hals.
In a garden, a man sits in the left foreground, tilting his head and smiling casually at the spectator. Beside him sits a woman, whose right hand is naturally resting on the man’s left shoulder. She turns her head slightly to the right and smiles rather slyly. They both look happy and smiling, sitting comfortably close to each other. In fact, posing a couple together in such a casual and intimate way was highly unusual during the 17th century.
But it is exactly the lack of formality that makes us, the modern spectators, traverse through time — and become personally touched by a sacred moment of love and commitment from 400 years ago.
The occasion for the commission is the couple’s marriage in April 1622. The imaginary garden on the right contains young couples strolling and a white sculpture of Juno, the goddess of marriage, as well as a fountain, a symbol of fertility. On the left, the eryngium thistle is known in Dutch as ‘mannentrouw,’ or male fidelity. The ivy at the woman’s feet is an evergreen that binds itself to the place where it grows, symbolizing eternal love and devotion.
The masterpieces kept me spellbound until the guards started kicking people out at 4:55. As I left the museum, I felt as if my heart had been both weighed down by the heavy history lost to the past and, at the same time, lifted up by the dreamy and lively narration style of the paintings, through which the masters present to us countless fragments of history, from the most splendid to the most trivial.
Contact Raina Yang at [email protected].