CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer

Exhibition: 13 November 2015 - 14 February 2016

Information from the museum, 23 July 2015

Twenty-eight of the finest 17th- and 18th-century Dutch paintings in the Royal Collection, including Vermeer’s ‘The Music Lesson’, will be brought together in a new exhibition opening this November at The Queen’s Gallery, London. Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer includes works by some of the finest artists of the day, among them Gerrit Dou, Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen.

Produced during the Dutch ‘Golden Age’, when the Netherlands was at the forefront of commerce, science and art, these works represent a high point in ‘genre painting’ – ordinary scenes of everyday life rendered in extraordinary detail. Renowned for their exquisite depiction of space and light, Dutch artists of the period also included humorous or moralising messages in their work for the contemporary viewer to decode.

Johannes Vermeer is perhaps the most highly regarded genre painter of his generation, despite only 34 paintings being attributed to him today. In Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, or ‘The Music Lesson’, 1662–5, Vermeer uses the horizontal grid of the floor tiles to create the illusion of depth within the painting. The viewer’s eye is drawn into the room, where a woman stands with her back to the observer and a man at her side appears to sing. Their relationship is ambiguous and has been the subject of much debate. However, clues such as the inscription on the lid of the virginal – music is a companion in pleasure, a remedy in sorrow – suggest that there might be a romantic association between the figures.

The shared pleasures of music and love underlie the subject-matter of Gabriel Metsu’s The Cello Player, c.1658, in which a female figure is greeted adoringly by a pet dog, while her suitor tunes his cello. The Neglected Lute, c.1708, by Willem van Mieris presents a similar theme, but this time in the form of a seduction. A woman in a sumptuously decorated room eats oysters and drinks from a delicate glass, while a lute, an erotic symbol to a contemporary audience, rests on the floor at her side. By contrast, Jan Steen’s A Woman at her Toilet, 1663, contains a moralising message. The viewer takes on the role of voyeur, observing through an archway a young woman on an unmade bed in a state of undress. A lute with a broken string, a skull, and a candle with its flame extinguished carry the warning that yielding to sensuality could lead to ruin.

Scenes of provincial Dutch life, in taverns and cottages and at village fetes, were popular subject-matter for artists. Adriaen van Ostade’s The Interior of a Peasant’s Cottage, 1668, is a sympathetic image of peasant family life, with a mother cradling her baby and an older child eating obediently at a table, while their doting father looks on. The perspective of the composition leads the viewer’s eye into the depths of the room, where other figures appear from the shadows. A Girl Selling Grapes to an Old Woman, c.1658, by Frans van Mieris the Elder, shows a young girl selling produce door to door from a wheelbarrow. The rich variety of fruit and vegetables on offer advertises the fertility of the Dutch soil and reflects the development of horticulture during the Golden Age.

In one of Pieter de Hooch’s early works, A Courtyard in Delft, c.1657, a woman sits spinning in shadow while another crosses from sunlight into the shade carrying a jug, a dramatic bright-blue sky overhead. The artist skilfully records all aspects of the scene, from the patchy whitewash on the brickwork to the two towers in the background. The quiet, contemplative character of De Hooch’s composition contrasts with the strange artificiality of Ludolf de Jongh’s A Formal Garden: Three Ladies Surprised by a Gentleman, c.1676, in which the four foreground figures appear to be actors in a play.

The importance of trade in the Netherlands during the Golden Age is reflected in Gerrit Dou’s The Grocer’s Shop: a Woman Selling Grapes, 1672. Here two women busily weigh goods in a shop selling exotic imported items such as lemons and sponges. As if caught in an unguarded moment, another in the background, holding a coffee pot, looks directly at the viewer. In Willem van Mieris’s An Old Man and a Girl at a Vegetable and Fish Stall, 1732, beneath the baskets of dried herrings, walnuts and gingerbreads, a rat nibbles an apple unnoticed by the figures in the shop, providing a humorous touch for the viewer.

The exhibition is introduced by an exploration of the long-standing relationship between the British and Dutch royal families, and the history of British monarchs as commissioners and collectors of Dutch art. Included in that story are four works by Rembrandt van Rijn, among them Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638, acquired by George IV. The King’s fondness for Dutch paintings and, in particular, scenes of everyday life, is captured in Charles Wild’s contemporary watercolour views of rooms at Carlton House and Windsor Castle, in which a number of the paintings in the exhibition can be seen.

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