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September 04, 2007

Christie Davies is once again overwhelmed by the wonders of Dutch art and drawn to the portraits of this so likeable and so ludicrous a people: Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals at the National Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals
National Gallery, London
27th June - 16th September 2007
Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

Though it pains me to speak well of one of our traditional national enemies, the Dutch are a likeable people and must have been so in the seventeenth century. It is a quality that glows out of many of the portraits in this exhibition. One of their many amiable qualities is their capacity for enjoying themselves, whether in their families or in social and professional gatherings. As Calvinists they ought to be dour and glum, serious and stingy like the Scots but they are not; they have gezelligheid, which is like gemütlichkeit but more organized. This is the dominant feeling that emerges from their portraits. They know they are likeable and want to be liked for it.

An odd example of this is Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy's The Osteology Lesson of Dr Sebastiaen Egbertsz, 1619, a jolly portrait of the surgeon's guild in Amsterdam. We all know the serious version, Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, 1632, where Dr Tulp the praelector anatomiae, the reader in anatomy, dissects the arm of the habitual criminal Aris Kindt, who had just been hanged. The seven anatomists, who have come to learn, are perfectly posed, some looking intently at the innards of the limb and some outwards at us. Each has an individual face and personality but the magnificent, serious Tulp, the "Amsterdam Versalius", in spotless black gown and wide-brimmed black hat and fine white lace collar, is the dominant figure. They are men at work, yet also men on display and the Dutch love display. It is a well-known and much imitated image.

Pickenoy's sawbones at their osteology lesson are quite different. They are looking not, as in the Rembrandt version, at a sad cadaver laid out horizontally (almost like a Pietá), pale in death but reminding us of life, but at a merry skeleton hung vertically from the ceiling, its jaw wired eternally into a grin. There is also a faint smile on the face of Egbertsz as he pokes the skeleton, all that remains of an English pirate, as if to ask, "Where are your skull and cross-bones now?" The six doctors in the picture do not have the intensity of gaze of their successors, depicted by Rembrandt when portraying the same guild 13 years later. Rather their schnapps-ruddy faces reveal that they are in a good mood and full of Dutch courage. They had been having a good time and could hardly suppress the fact for the portrait. Had they been telling jokes about the "orthopaedic surgeon - strong as an ox and twice as intelligent"?

Today, as we know from Giselinde Kuipers' study of the mop, Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke, the educated netjes Dutch upper middle classes do not tell jokes, since they see such items as crude, boisterous and for the lower classes. Perhaps orthopaedic surgeons are different or perhaps in Pickenoy's times class distinctions based on refinement were not as extreme as they are in the class-ridden Netherlands of today, so very different from our own matey, joke-exchanging society. Perhaps too, those who have produced humorous parodies of the Rembrandt version knew Pickenoy's painting.

Pickenoy's surgeons are but one group out for a day's enjoyable display to be captured by talented Dutch artists. Look at Franz Hals and Pieter Codde Officers and other Guardsmen of the 11th District of Amsterdam, known as the Meagre Company, 1633-7, or Rembrandt's Portrait of the Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild, 1662.

Each person is a unique individual recorded for eternity but in true Dutch style they are all held in a group: cosy individualism. Everyone is on display, much as today the Dutch live in well lit goldfish bowls, the fronts of their suburban houses fitted with big, uncurtained windows, so that you can freely admire them and their possessions. They cannot understand the English taste for hedges, privets for privacy, and drawn curtains after dark. A colleague of mine who had gone to live in the Netherlands suddenly realised one evening that some of his Dutch neighbours were lined up outside his house looking through the front window to see how the new arrival had furnished his front room. Somewhat riled, he went outside and said to them in English:

Perhaps you would like to come inside and have a better view?
The Dutch replied:
Yes, we would.
Blow me if the whole lot of them didn't troop into his house. The Dutch don't do irony. The Hollanders' English is perfect but they are quite impervious to the subtle ways in which we make distinctions between straightforward and ironic statements.

As thrifty Calvinists the Dutch ought to eschew display. Many of those portrayed by these artists are clad only in black garments, set off by the white of a huge ruff or a lace collar. But it is the finest of blacks and the brightest and most delicately designed of white decorations around their necks. They may be Calvinists but their thrift and investment, shrewdness and hard rational pursuit of gain have brought them serious wealth and now it has to be displayed. The virtue of thrift begets wealth and wealth begets the sin of pride. The Dutch in their ships have become or are about to become the masters of every sea from New Amsterdam to Curaçao, from Cape Town to Colombo to Penang to Nagasaki. The Dutch for a time conquered Brazil and they discovered Australia but had the good sense not to settle there. Their merchants loved display because they had so much to display. Apart from the Jews and the Athenians, no other small people have achieved as much as the Dutch. Both the skill of the painters and the contents of the paintings are a measure of Dutch greatness.

Modesty was dead in Holland except among the few quietly pious ones, such as the sober plain Mennonites of Jan de Bray's Double Portrait of Abraham Castelejn and Margarieta van Bancken, 1663 or the austere predikant in Franz Hals' Portrait of a Preacher, 1660.

The quietness of the preacher's appearance is emphasised by Hals' deliberate omission of detail in his clothing and indeed the way his coat blends into the background. The black of his coat is not so black, the white of his collar not so white as those of the more worldly and wealthy who usually commissioned portraits. All that we see is a face with spiritual depth beneath a black skull-cap, the very antithesis of a richly dressed, princely powerful, Velázquez pope or cardinal. In the Netherlands wealth and power had gone secular.

Merchants they may have been but the very existence of the Netherlands had come about through war, the battles to secede from the rule of Spain, so well captured from the other side by Velázquez. It is doubtful whether the seventeenth century town guards of these portraits had much to do or ever used their weapons but they show the prestige still associated with the military in this commercial society.

We can see this in Franz Hals' two portraits of Willem van Heythuysen a textile merchant. In the 1625 version the sword-holding Willem looks down at us with a proud and aristocratic air from a large formal portrait with a background of classical columns and draperies. Even in the informal, relaxed, tipping back in his chair, 1634-5 version Hals is still stressing the good Willem's social position. He is shown as a hunter in boots and spurs holding a riding-crop, outfitted for a sport reserved for the nobility. Given that the Dutch cavalry was to fight under Marlborough, smashing and slaughtering the French at Ramillies 1706, Oudenaarde 1708 and Malplaquet 1709, van Heythuysen was not entirely the anachronism he would be today.

Yet it was their navy that enabled the Dutch to build and sustain their empire, to displace the Portuguese and hold the British back. Ferdinand Bol and Willem van de Velde the Younger's official Portrait of Michiel de Ruyter, 1667 has the hero holding a baton and resting his elbow on a globe, the globe that belonged to the Dutch. He stands on a balcony beyond which we can see his fleet at sea with his flagship, De Zeven Provincian (The seven provinces), the fleet which in 1666 had destroyed the British navy in the Four Days Battle. The portrait is hung in a richly carved and gilded frame festooned with cannon, guns, armour, shields and spears and below the conquering hero, a great drum.

History is written by the losers; most of it is them whingeing about "injustice". But portraits are painted by and of the winners. It was the Spaniard Diego Velázquez not a Dutchman who painted the humane, touching, La rendicion de Breda (The Surrender of Breda), 1634-5, after the Dutch garrison surrendered the town to Spain in 1625. Above me as I write hangs an Ethiopian painting of their victory over the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. In many such paintings the Italians are all shown only in profile and have very bad teeth; an African racist touch is that the Italian's Eritrean allies are, like the Ethiopians but unlike the Italians, shown full face. I would be very surprised if an Italian artist has painted the same scene or indeed a portrait of General Oreste Baratieri, who lost the battle due to foolishly listening to the urgings of the politicians back home.

Likewise I doubt if any British municipalities or counties commissioned portraits of the English admirals defeated by de Ruyter; only the Dutch provinces could. It was their triumph and Britain's humiliation. One can imagine Dutch music hall crowds singing:

We don't want to fight, but by Jingo if we do, we've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too.
It was Dutch revelling and British grovelling. The Dutch broom had wept them off the sea. The Dutch enjoyed a Roman triumph and Caractacus was paraded through the Batavian streets in chains.

That is what portraiture is all about - power and money, the power to command and the money to pay. The artist merely provides the talent and there was plenty of that in the Netherlands.

But wait, did I not say the Dutch are likeable? Under the age of three they certainly are. With the exception of newly hatched ducklings, Dutch babies are the most winning young creatures on the face of the earth. Who could not be entranced by Frans Hals' Portrait of Catharina Hooft and her Nurse, 1620, with the nurse holding an apple out to the baby who ignores it, pushes and holds the nurse and looks at us winningly? The three ripe spheres of nurse, child and apple form the corners of a triangle. Yet even here there is display, the child's elaborate, expensive dress would have paid the nurse's wages for decades.

Emanuel de Witte's Portrait of Adriana van Heusden and her daughter at the Fishmarket in Amsterdam, 1662, has another charming child who steals the picture from the bottom left hand corner, as she peeps at us round the skirts of the right hand corner of her mother's bottom. The mother holds her with one hand and uses the other to gesture her importance to the fishwife.

At the other end of life are found Rembrandt's Double Portrait of Jan Rijcksen and Griet Jans, 1633, where the wife comes into the study of her elderly husband, a naval architect and reaches across to hand him a letter. It is Rembrandt at his greatest, the master of light, composition and movement. The husband hard at work with plan and dividers looks irritated at having his thoughts interrupted, the wife is in haste to come in and go out again ….and yet we know they belong together, a true double for a portrait. You see, I told you the Dutch could be likeable. And who better to like than Shell of Brent Spar the Dutch sponsors of the exhibition.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Mirth of Nations and when not laughing at the Dutch is lost in admiration of their talent for art.

To read Lilian Pizzichini's take on this exhibition, see: The stories behind the portraits of the Dutch Golden Age bring these paintings alive to Lilian Pizzichini.

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