In the seventeenth century Holland, which had established as a result of the revolution the most progressive contemporary social system, the bourgeois republic, experienced a great upsurge of cultural activity, which manifested itself also in great successes in the sphere of painting.
Taking as its goal the realistic representation of life, Dutch art drew its themes from surrounding reality. Portrait, landscape, genre, still-life painting and the portrayal of animals were all developed on a large scale. The Hermitage collection of Dutch painting is famous throughout the world; the main exhibition is in room 249 – the Tent Hall – where paintings by the leading masters in the different genres are displayed.
Jan van Qoyen (1596-1656) is one of the outstanding landscape painters of the first half of the seventeenth century. A list of titles – The Coast at Schevenlngen, The Maas near Dordrecht, Winter Landscape near the Hague – is enough to show that Goyen was inspired by his native countryside. His paintings are usually much greater in width than height, the sky occupying two thirds of the canvas with the horizon set low in the picture. This manner produces an extraordinary sense of space, emphasizing at the same time the flatness of the Dutch landscape. There are no bright colours in his paintings: they are almost monochromes. The fine gradation of grey and subdued yellow tones conveys the feeling of air saturated with moisture, softening the contours, and the further away the objects are the more indistinct their outlines become. This method, known as aerial perspective, was one of the splendid achievements of the Dutch school of painting. The figures of people – fishermen, skaters, townspeople going about their ordinary, everyday affairs – are an integral part of van Goyen’s paintings.
Goyen’s contemporary, Salomon van Ruisdael (1600-1670), is represented by an excellent canvas entitled The Ferry. The Hermitage collection, through the example of the works of Aert van der Neer, Pieter Nolpe, Jan Porcellis, Abraham Willaerts, etc., enables us to trace the development of Dutch landscape painting. The most successful landscape painter in the second half of the seventeenth century was Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/29-1682); there are eleven paintings by him in the Hermitage. One of his most celebrated works is The Marsh. Surrounding the marsh, covered with flowers and water-lily leaves, are some trees, stout, their branches outstretched; a withered oak mournfully extends its bare branches skywards, and beside it lies the trunk of an old tree, blown to the ground during a storm. The silence is broken only by the sudden noise made by the wings of a flock of ducks taking flight, and the gentle, rustling footsteps of a hunter wandering into this mysterious thicket rarely penetrated by the sun’s rays. Thus is created a romantic conception of nature, mighty and eternally reborn. Peasant Cottages in the Danes, Waterfall In Norway and Mountain Landscape mark
Jacob van Ruisdael as an artist capable of reproducing all the diversities of nature, her ever-changing appearance, with such profundity and feeling as was unknown previously in Dutch art.
Portrait, like landscape painting, is represented by the works of artists of different generations. The early canvases of Mierevelt and Ravesteyn, for the most part half-length portraits, are distinguished by the painstaking rendering of face and costume. The next period is illustrated by the work of Thomas de Keyser (1596-1667), the best known portrait painter of his day. In his painting a bold, vigorous manner is combined with a vivid depicting of the character of his model. In his knee-length Portrait of a Man de Keyser creates the type of a Dutch burgher, business-like, self-confident, and prosperous. Belonging to this same period, the apogee of Dutch realistic art, is the work of Frans Hals (1580-1666). The two pictures in the Hermitage, Portrait of a Young Man with a Glove in His Hand (c. 1650) and Portrait of a Man (before 1660), are painted in a vigorous, robust manner, and with that ability to capture in his paintings fleeting impressions that distinguishes the brilliant talent of Hals.
Exceptionally rich is the collection of genre painting, which was widely developed in Holland as in no other country in Europe. Examples of the genre painting of the 1620s and 1630s are presented in the works of Dirck Hals, Willem Duyster, Jacob van Felsen and Jacob Duck, who portrayed groups of people making merry, tavern carousals, family concerts, card games and tric-trac, and everyday scenes, mainly from the lives of prosperous burghers and soldiers. Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685), who for the most part portrayed peasants, occupies a special place among the genre painters. He is represented in the exhibition by paintings which are typical of his work generally: The Scuffle, The Village Musicians, four pictures from The Five Senses series, and others. The distinctive feature of the work of Jan Steen (1626-1679), one of the foremost Dutch painters of everyday life, is his fascinating anecdotal approach. The nine paintings by him in the Hermitage reflect his wide range of interests, and his humour and keen powers of observation in depicting scenes from the daily lives of the different strata of Dutch society (The Smoker, The Marriage Contract, Physician Visiting a Sick Girl, The Revellers, etc.). The artistic achievements of the Dutch genre painters of the second half of the seventeenth century can be seen clearly in the work of Pieter de Hooch (A Lady and Her Servant), Pieter Jansens (^4 Room in a Dutch House), Cabriel Metsu (Breakfast, Physician Visiting a Sick Girl), Frans Mieris (Young Lady in the Morning, Breakfast with Oysters) and Gerard Terborch (^4 Glass of Lemonade, Reading a Letter, and Portrait of a Woman). These artists, extolling in their paintings the mode of life of the upper layers of Dutch bourgeois society, did not consider the subjects themselves of much importance; these are often repetitive and serve merely as a pretext for magnificent reproductions of items of furniture, clothing, and airy, brightly lit interiors.
Still-life painting came to be very widely practised in Holland during the seventeenth century. With brilliant mastery of the methods of painting the artists convincingly reproduced the beauty of objects which surround us in our daily lives. Examples include the Breakfast paintings of Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1680/82) and Pieter Claesz (1596/97-1661), and Dessert by Willem Kalf (1622-1693).
Also characteristic of Dutch seventeenth century art is the depiction of animals, the chief exponents of this genre being Paulus Potter (1625-1654), the creator of The Farm, The Watch-dog and A Bull, and Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691).
An important part of the exhibtion in room 251 is made up of paintings by Bartholomeus van der Heist (1613-1670), fashionable among the highest circles of the Dutch bourgeoisie as a portrait painter, whose large formal pictures were painted to cater for the tastes of those who commissioned them (The Presentation of the Betrothed and Family Group).
Room 254. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). In the Hermitage there are twenty-six of Rembrandt’s works. Few of the early of the great Dutch artist’s paintings have been preserved, two of them in the Hermitage collection. These are the Adoration of the Magi, a painting only recently identified as a Rembrandt original, and a portrait entitled The Old Warrior (c. 1629-30). In his search for expressiveness, the young artist here endows his subject with unusual attributes, dressing him in an old beret and the breastplate of a knight; he also employes a peculiar lighting effect with marked contrasts of light and shade. The young Rembrandt discovered for himself the ability of chiaroscuro to intensify the emotive quality of a figure. The beginning of the 1630s was a period of great success for Rembrandt; he became the best known painter in Amsterdam. This period is illustrated in the Hermitage by some outstanding works: Flora, Descent from the Cross, Abraham’s Sacrifice, Danae, Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard and a number of portraits. The gem of the collection, Danae (1636), is based upon a subject that was rather common in the art of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but was interpreted by Rembrandt with freshness and originality. It is not gold, as in the painting by Titian, but sunlight pouring in from the depth of the canvas in a warm stream that rushes towards Danae, illuminating the face of the young woman. Her naked body comes to life, as it were, at the touch of the magic rays. “What a dazzling feast of love!” wrote the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren of Danae, “how lithe that body, plump and tender, breathing the joy of youth; how it glows with ardour beneath the caresses of the divine metal!”
In Flora Rembrandt portrayed his wife Saskia as the goddess of spring and flowers. She is dressed in a heavy satin garment, and the head of the young woman is crowned with a spray of flowers. The beautiful gold and olive-green colours are characteristic of Rembrandt’s work of the 1630s. The main theme in his art is the world of human feelings, and this is seen in canvases painted during different periods and on various subjects. Almost at the same time as Danae Rembrandt painted the Descent from the Cross (1634). The limpid darkness makes it possible to descern in the distance the vague outlines of the town. The light of the torches and the lamps flickering in the breeze bring individual figures sharply from out of the darkness, and it is this contrast of light and shade which expresses to the utmost the tragedy of the scene. The personages of the painting are simple Dutch folk; the Virgin, an elderly, haggard peasant woman, is falling into the arms of her friends who have hastened to her assistance.
The biblical story of the aged Abraham is presented by Rembrandt as an actual event (Abraham’s Sacrifice, 1635). Isaac is lying bound on the altar; his father raises his hand to deliver the blow and, in order not to see in this dreadful moment the face of his son, he covers it with his large, sunburnt hand. Suddenly an angel appears, diverts Abraham’s hand, and the knife falls to the ground. The unprotected, motionless body of the sacrifice and the vigorous movement felt in the powerful figure of Abraham; the impassive face of the heavenly angel and the father’s grief-stricken expression – in these contrasts lies the key to the emotional and psychological content of the painting.
The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (1637) reflects certain social relationships; the labourers, indignant at an injustice, are presenting their demands to their employer. The scene is set in the dark semi-basement of a building, penetrated by a wonderful, typically Rembrandt light coming through a dusty window.
Rembrandt’s profound realism and the wide scope of his artistic conceptions were alien to his burgher surroundings. At the beginning of the 1640s came the break with official Amsterdam society. Belonging to this period in his work is the small painting entitled David’s Farewell to Jonathan (1642), subtle in its psychological mood and priceless in the richness of its artistry. The Holy Family, painted in 1645, depicts the family of a carpenter. Here kindness, tranquility and peace reign supreme. The master of the house is working at his bench, and the Virgin, breaking off from her reading, is lifting, with a gesture full of maternal care, the canopy above the cradle to have a look at her baby. Rembrandt’s colours during these years became warmer, a golden red predominating.
The last twenty years of Rembrandt’s life – the most mature period of his work – are represented in the Hermitage by paintings which belong to the golden treasury of world art. These consist of a number of portraits and two pictures, David and Uriah and The Return of the Prodigal Son. In the latter Rembrandt uses the Gospel parable of the reckless youth who leaves his father’s house and gives himself up to riotous living, returning home repentant after many ordeals. Rembrandt portrays the emotions experienced by father and son with restraint, but with moving sincerity. The young man falls on his knees in front of his father, his torn raiment reminding us that his wanderings have been long and hard. The figure of the son, his back turned to the onlooker, conveys the feelings of a troubled soul. The blind old man, bending over his son tenderly touches his shoulders, the face and hands of the father expressing undying love, affection and forgiveness. Rembrandt’s humanity, his ardent belief in man and in the great, ennobling power of love receive here their fullest expression. Both the bold handling and the warm crimson colours are in harmony with the concept of the work.
In the Hermitage there are thirteen portraits by Rembrandt illustrating different periods of his work; among these is the early Portrait of a Scholar (1631), in which the young artist focuses attention upon a spontaneous movement of his model; Portrait of a Young Man with a Lace Collar (1634), an excellent example of a commissioned portrait of the period when Rembrandt was the favourite of the Amsterdam burghers; the delicate Portrait of Baartjen Martens Doomer (c. 1640); and the late portrait, seemingly woven out of air and light, of the poet Jeremias de Decker (1666), to whom Rembrandt was bound by friendship lasting many years. The finest paintings produced by the great master in this genre, however, are the psychological portraits of the 1650s when the artist’s attention was particularly struck by the faces of old people, bearing as it were the wisdom of experience:-Portrait of an Old Man In Red (c. 1652-1654), Portrait of an Old Woman (1654) and Portrait of an Old Man (1654). In these paintings Rembrandt subtly conveys man’s inner world. The face and hands are touched with light; the rest – details of dress and of the immediate surroundings – melt away in a warm semi-darkness.
The death of the ruined painter, forgotten by all, occured almost unnoticed by his contemporaries. His genius was only “rediscovered” in the nineteenth century.
The work of some of Rembrandt’s pupils, Jacob Backer, Ferdinand Bol, Jan Lievens, Nicolaes Maes, Aert de Gelder and others, is widely represented in room 253. This room also contains five paintings by a teacher of Rembrandt, the famous Amsterdam painter Pieter Lastman (1583-1633)-Abraham on His Way to Canaan, Bathsheba, Abraham and the Three Angels, The Annunciation and Midas’ Judgement.
In rooms 255-257, which are situated in a gallery alongside the Hanging Garden, there is an additional exhibition of seventeenth – early eighteenth century Dutch painting. Of particular interest is the very large collection of paintings by Philips Wouwerman/(1619- 1668), a prolific and, at one time, extremely popular artist who painted battle scenes, hunts, cavalcades, pictures of horses, and landscapes. There is also a large display of paintings by artists of the “Italianizing” trend.