Until the Dutch introduced art that depicted real people doing real things in the 17th century, painting consisted of insipid religious topics with unearthly looking malproportioned people. I struggle to generate any enthusiasm for suffering saints, and precociously wise infants.
I’ve been to Amsterdam multiple times during the last ten years, but its huge art museum was closed for an extensive renovation. After 10 years of interior and exterior upgrades, the Rijksmuseum reopened last year, and Elizabeth and I had a short afternoon to enjoy the paintings from the Dutch Golden Age.
My favorite was a very wide environmental portrait, with the equally wide title Banquet at the Crossbowmen’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster, painted by Bartholomeus van der Helst in 1648, it was one of several similar paintings we saw that had been commissioned by a town self-defense guild to hang on the wall of their club house.
These are clearly real people, with all their whiskers and warts, some staring directly at the camera, others chatting with each other, and some preoccupied with dinner. All the little details are fantastic, and its such a compelling tableau, I could stare at it for hours.
If you are going to spend a couple hours in a museum like this, you might as well take in a Rembrandt or two. His version of the club room wall poster, The Company of captain Frans Banning Cocq and lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch preparing to march out (more colloquially and conveniently referred to as The Night Watch) attracted huge crowds, but it wasn’t our favorite. Rembrandt isn’t necessarily…..a Rembrandt.
Another one of my favorites was Frans Hals’ The Merry Drinker. A long string of somewhat dour but competent wedding portraits seem to have been his bread and butter, but he broke out with a series of genre paintings, many of them humorous. Its as if Hals had attracted the militiaman’s attention and quickly snapped the shutter (about 1/800) while the subject was in mid motion and not yet fully posed. Tilting glass in one hand, apparently emphasizing a point in a bawdy joke with the other, and with a cheerful, slightly surprised expression on his face, the image oozes life. The composition is actually quite sophisticated. Shot from a low angle, with one hand holding down each lower corner, the arms lead up to the face, with his torso forming a triangle centered in the lower half of the painting. An oval shape tops this triangle. The face is powerfully located at the crossing point of an X formed by diagonals connecting opposite corners. He did a terrific job with foreshortening, gracefully handling the significant horizontal distance and perspective challenge of maintaining correct proportions between the Berkemeyer glass in the foreground, and the drinkholder’s face. The awkward task of depicting the obscured left arm is deftly accomplished, and perfectly believable.
As a younger man, I was totally unimpressed by the idea of a still life, but at this point in my aesthetic evolution, I found many of the static depictions of natural and man made objects quite compelling. Floris Claesz van Dijck’s Still Life with Cheese is a surprisingly interesting painting in which the painter demonstrates a phenomenal ability to depict shape and texture. Just as every decade draws me closer to the complex flavors of aged cheese and whisky, I find myself increasingly able to spend time relishing the subtleties of a skillfully executed painting of food or flower (and what better evidence for Divine Providence than the simultaneous existence of aged Dutch Beemster and single barrel American Bourbon?).
Pieter Claesz could certainly paint food with the best of them, but I was more interested in his vanitas still life. These moody still lives wallowed in symbolism, warning the viewer of the transience of earthly existence.
Judith Leyster has been accused of being an imitator of Hals, but I thought her portrait of a lutist in The Serenade had a surprisingly modern composition. Shot upwards and to the left from a very low angle, her off-center subject’s relatively small face is adventurously looking outside of the frame. Like many of the paintings from this period, her subject’s nose has a bright highlight. In my own photographs, I tend to Photoshop that out, but I’m revisiting that idea.
We didn’t get much time to explore the rest of the museum, other than taking a brisk 1 hour tour that swung past an 1887 van Gogh. Its interesting that in this self portrait, he also depicted the subject from a low camera angle. I thought it was a nice picture, but maybe a bit too heavily Photoshopped.
While Elizabeth visited the shop, I found a table in the café at one end of the bright and open new Atrium, created by glassing over the original Courtyard. Visible one level up and spanning the center of the Atrium is the Passage, an externally open corridor popular with cyclists, who could be seen speeding past on their evening commute.