Questions of Dutchness

Svetlana Alpers

  • Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580-1620 by Wouter Kloek, translated by Michael Hoyle
    Yale, 720 pp, £60.00, January 1994, ISBN 0 300 06016 5

Until not so long ago it seemed Fromentin had got it right in 1876 when he celebrated Dutch art as offering a portrait of a new, free state: ‘un Etat nouveau, un art nouveau’, as he put it in Les Maîtres d’ autrefois, an account of his travels through Belgium and Holland. The humanised universe of Italian painting, with its emphasis on an idealised human body – indeed, the very notion of a universal humanity – was replaced, as he saw it and as many have seen it since, by the depiction of a specific and most ordinary visible world: a particular place, its towns, its landscape, its skies, domestic settings, the manners of its people. In Dutch paintings, Fromentin wrote, man was as put back in his place or simply done without. The emergence of such an art during the first decades of the 17th century seemed related to the truce concluded with Spain in 1609 and hence to the birth of a Dutch nation.

It is curious that paintings which take such obvious delight in human satisfactions – the picturing of tables laid, flowers arranged, travels through a peaceful land, neat, well-lit households, orderly meetings of corporate boards – have been the subject of so much dispute. Fromentin’s two basic insights about the portrayal of the visible world, and about the nation have both been contested in recent times.

First came a challenge to the notion of portrayal. Viewers may delight in the depiction of people and objects, but, so a new interpretation went, we were really meant to attend to the moral instruction offered. What you see is not what you ought to get. Is Dutch culture and its art a balancing act: the bountiful returns of early capitalism tempered by a Calvinist discomfort or guilt about worldly rewards? This, the theme of Simon Schama’s Embarrassment of Riches, is not inconsistent with the view that moral warnings against worldly pleasures lurk beneath the surfaces of the paintings. Dutch art in this account is an art of proscribing, not an art of describing.

Combined with the assault on portrayal is another agenda: was there indeed such a thing as Dutch art at all? Or, better put, was there one thing that could be called Dutch art, as Fromentin had proposed? At first, the question seems odd. Surely, to deny that there is something we refer to as Dutch painting is rather like denying that there was an Elizabethan English theatre, or a Russian novel. It is not quite national determination that is signalled here by the terms ‘English’, ‘Russian’, ‘Dutch’, but rather the kinship within kinds or genres of art made at a certain time in a certain place. Further, it is not just Fromentin’s proposal that is at issue. Evidence is offered by generations of painters – from Chardin and Hogarth to Constable, Manet, Cézanne, Picasso and Braque – that a secular, domestically oriented, realist mode of painting with roots in the Netherlands has been a continuing feature of the European tradition.

The question of Dutchness has historic roots and it is not only a matter of painting. Many cultural norms were under construction in Dutch 17th-century life and in Dutch 17th-century painting: a bourgeois way of living and sense of individuality, ways of organising society from banking to the bourse, bourgeois notions of punishment, of civic charity, and most particularly, of the household and the family order. But it is notable that while travellers and policy-makers from abroad repeatedly marvel at the economic miracle of the Netherlands and comment on what seems to them striking about the society, the native people lacked chauvinism. Is it possible that it was uniquely in their paintings that they sought to define and display themselves to themselves?

Dutch resistance to Dutchness has continued. One is struck today by the reluctance of Dutch historians to make claims specific to their culture. They want their findings about Dutch history not to be Dutch-specific, but to corroborate general truths. A conference of younger Dutch historians convened a few years ago to consider the theme of Unity in the Netherlands’ Past had the surprising subtitle ‘Dutch History as a Deviation from the General Human pattern’.

As for the characterisation of Dutch art, two different things seem to be at work: the desire not to be different from other Europeans (we also feature gods, saints and heroes, to paraphrase the title of a 1980 exhibition of Dutch paintings selected to make this point); and the desire not to be party to nationalistic fervour (hence, our art is not specifically Dutch). At one extreme there is a worry about deviating from the norm, at the other there is a worry about forcing others to accept one as the norm. This historical suspicion of national pride was renewed by the Second World War.

Recent political events have focused our attention on the inevitability as well as the dangers of nationalist claims. There are a number of reasons why suspicion of these has a long history in the Netherlands. There is a sense in which the Netherlands is a nation-state that was not one. It was created out of a rather reluctant and ad hoc uniting of independent provinces in 1579 in order to fend off the Spanish armies. Failing to find a proper monarch for itself, the union made do without one, keeping a royal family in reserve alongside a republic which preserved provincial independence and strong cities. Until late in the 17th century, Dutch political writings concentrated on the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, without attempting to provide a rationale for republican government. This was not, then, a self-conscious, nation-building revolution like the American and French ones that followed.

Again with reverberations in our time, the northern Netherlands was an asylum land, taking in many and diverse immigrants – among them, the rush of refugees who came north from Antwerp in the 1580s. It was tolerant, but the price for toleration seems to have been a kind of low-keyed conformity, developed to cover or protect difference. In this situation, to claim something as distinctively Dutch was perhaps to threaten the single fabric woven out of different people. The lieutenant leading the civic guard in the great painting by Rembrandt we call the Night Watch came to this doubly public position – leading the Civic Guard and featured in a group portrait – from a family that had immigrated from Germany only one generation before. Is this fitting-in, this being semblable, what it was to be Dutch – like the apparently characteristic Dutch art of Jan Vermeer, who was himself a Catholic convert? (One must remind oneself that in what we tend to think of as a Protestant republic nearly half the citizenry was Roman Catholic.) But, then, similar to what?

This is the question that seems to be posed by The Dawn of the Golden Age: Northern Netherlandish Art 1580-1620, the hefty, seven-hundred page illustrated book that remains after the large exhibition that closed at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam in March. The dates chosen are a bit arbitrary – the Union of Utrecht was in 1579, the Spanish retaking of Antwerp 1585, and the 1609 truce ended in 1621 – but they are designed to follow on from previous exhibitions of ‘Medieval Art’ and ‘Art before Iconoclasm’. The interest of this exhibition and the book that went with it is that they show us what preceded Dutch art as we think of it and know it. (If one thinks of the classic Dutch painters Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer as falling into three successive generations, this exhibition only takes us through the earliest works of Hals.) They make us consider once again Fromentin’s points about portrayal and the nation.

The joy of Amsterdam on a January day is being in a town built to a human scale, under a pale blue sky, in winter sunlight with shadows softly marked, a town looking (as so many writers and travellers have remarked) very much like the paintings of itself, like a city view by Jan van der Heyden or Gerrit Berckheyde. The exhibition complicated this impression. It was labyrinthine; familiar rooms were totally rebuilt and reshaped for the occasion. The familiar chronological path and its landmarks were erased. In their stead, a maze of windowless rooms with few directions marked, and a profusion of objects, diverse in kind as well as in scale: silver tableware, tapestries, maps, pottery, cupboards, stained glass, clothing, paintings, drawing, prints ranging in size from metre upon square metre of canvas filled with nude figures uncomfortably posed in some hard-to-decipher Biblical or mythological event, to very small pieces of paper on which a skilled hand guided by an attentive eye had portrayed the 15-year-old Hugo Grotius – future author of the doctrine of the freedom of the seas – or the stretch of dunes near Haarlem. It all added up to a latterday Kunstkammer, perhaps, but one without any clear ordering principles. The day I saw it, the exhibition was packed with Netherlanders bundled up against the cold taking justified pleasure in a particular patch, richly displayed, of their heritage. But what did they make of it? Was an insider’s view of the show subtly different from that of an outsider?

As the historical essay which introduces the book notes, the explosion of artistic production of so many kinds during this time of troubles is remarkable. People under attack, uncertain, forced to be on the move, nevertheless took the time and patience to make, use and enjoy art. The native stock was fertilised by imported works and immigrant talent: Mannerist figural prints made by Spranger were recycled by artists in Haarlem; vases of flowers were painted by Abraham Bosschaert, an Antwerp painter displaced to the Hague: landscapes by David Vinckboons from Mechelen and Antwerp; and architectural fictions by Paulus Vredeman de Vries, another refugee from Antwerp who eventually settled in Amsterdam by way of Danzig and Prague. It is persuasively suggested that the marked specialisation characteristic of Dutch painters in the 17th century had its beginnings in the immigrants’ early careers in large Antwerp workshops where division of labour was the rule. Specialists in the painting of landscape, architecture or flowers were used to supplying accessories for figural works while making cabinet pieces of their own. When they moved north where the workshop set-up was uncommon, they went on to make and sell their works for a burgeoning domestic marketplace. Certain types of painting, such as portraits of groups of guild or civic guard officers, were already established in the north, and continued to be produced, though Frans Hals, among the greatest to paint them, was Antwerp-born. But the book and exhibition draw attention once again to the fact that many specialities which, with the advantage to hindsight, settle in as Dutch, had roots elsewhere.

Given how many 17th-century specialities or genres were already in place by the end of the two decades following the turn of the century, it is interesting to see which ones are absent. One is, for instance, reminded by their absence here how late the domestic interiors we find in de Hooch, ter Borch, Vermeer and others appeared.

In the book, as in the exhibition, individual talents are divided up and dealt with under a number of different rubrics. This is in a way misleading, because when one leafs through the book it becomes clear that the great talent in the northern Netherlands in these years was an artist native to the region, Hendrick Goltzius. His is, admittedly, hardly a household name today, except perhaps among print-lovers. But his skill as a draughtsman and printmaker, and his range – from uncanny replications of Dürer engravings, studies after Antiquities in Rome and portraits, to a drawing of a naked woman or of the dune landscape between Haarlem and the sea – are astounding.

Further, it is Goltzius who highlights what seems particularly emergent, and perhaps latent in the northern Netherlands: the skilful display of the pen or burin-wielding hand. (The essay on print-publishers in the book corroborates the point.) Look at the marvellous series of landscapes engraved by Esias van de Velde, or by Willem Buytewech, or the calligraphic flourish of a title-page drawn by Jan van de Velde I. Calligraphy and the miniature painting that once went with it are at the heart of this draughtsmanly matter. And it was out of this habit of drawing that some tried to paint. The results are curious mixed media pieces: de Gheyn’s extraordinary drawing of death – a pallid woman portrayed in bed juxtaposed with coloured surroundings; the eccentric coloured landscape etchings of Hercules Segers, described as printing paintings at the time; and last but not least, Goltzius’s heightened pendrawings, engraving-like in linear manner but, like painting, executed on canvas.

The taste for Goltzius these days, and there is one, is perhaps the consequence of a Post-Modern uncertainty, hence curiosity, about how one is to paint at all. In Goltzius’s case it looks as if, while desiring some effect to painting, he was reluctant to leave drawing behind. Perhaps he was right. From 1600 until his death in 1617, he produced only ambitious but disappointing oil paintings which lack the skilful, observational play of his hand.

To return to the overall picture to the dawning of Dutch or northern Netherlandish art as it is referred to here: one’s objection to the huge paintings of twisted, posing nudes (or indeed to a good deal of the figural history painting that follows) is less that they are repulsive – though this book acknowledges that – or that the figures fail to enact the scenarios in which they appear than that the artists lack the skill and interest in rendering by means of drawing. Was it perhaps this that was pre-eminent in the culture?

It might make sense to see confidence in a habit of drawing as more basic than portrayal to a common Dutch ground. This moves the fault-line away from questions of theme, and has the advantage of including Rembrandt, a great Dutch draughtsman who is less easily classifiable in his handling of paint. And it could lead to the consideration that the great later painters such as de Hooch and Vermeer, who notably left no drawings at all, had internalised the Dutch habit of observation and fine handling into the improbable enterprise of delineating light. In the end, despite the variety of its arts, despite its diversity as a nation, one cannot deny that something special, and I find myself still saying something Dutch, was created there.