Time and transformation in 17th-century Dutch art

8 April - 19 June 2005

Abraham Bloemaert, Pollard willows. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Abraham Bloemaert, Studies of Pollard Willows, (pen and brown ink, green watercolor
over traces of black chalk, 210 x 310 mm), Metropolitan Museum of Art New York,
Rogers Fund, inv. no. 1970.242.3

Curator

Susan Donahue Kuretsky, the Sarah Gibson Blanding Professor of Art at Vassar College

This exhibition comprises 93 paintings, prints and drawings from American collections that illustrate the transformative effects of time and circumstance on the physical world, as explored by Dutch artists of the 17th century. Most are landscapes featuring architectural ruins (either local or Italianate), but related themes are also included, such as studies of ancient trees and other rustic motifs, depictions of fires and floods, and a few vanitas still lifes and images that illustrate various kinds of bodily transformation. The intention of the exhibition is to stimulate thinking about Dutch artists’ pervasive interest in ruins, while drawing attention to the new consciousness of time that developed during this period.

Museum press release, February 2005

Landscape paintings with ruins, scenes of weathered cottages, still lifes that feature human skulls, pictures of newsworthy catastrophes: these were among the notable subjects of Dutch art of the Old Masters, as museum goers have long known. Until now, though, no single exhibition has identified and explored the theme that runs through all of these images.

The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College will offer just such a far-reaching exhibition when it presents Time and transformation in 17th-century Dutch art. Organized by Susan Donahue Kuretsky, the Sarah Gibson Blanding Professor of Art at Vassar College, the exhibition is the first to examine how Dutch artists of this period dwelt on the workings of time and circumstance upon the physical world.

Time and transformation draws together a wide range of exceptionally fine works from the Art Center itself, from private holdings, and from the collections of more than a dozen major American museums. Included are some ninety paintings, drawings, prints, and illustrated books, ranging in date from 1600 to 1690. Among the artists represented are Rembrandt van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Joachim Wtewael, Abraham Bloemaert, Hercules Segers, and Daniel Vosmaer.

“The Dutch used this kind of imagery both to recall their communal past and to reflect upon the varied conditions of life in the present,” notes Susan Kuretsky. “An exhibition focusing broadly on this material may help us further understand the complex relationship between art and life in the Dutch Republic.”

Following its presentation at Vassar College, the exhibition will travel to the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida (August 20-October 30, 2005) and the J.B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (January 10-March 26, 2006). To extend the impact of the exhibition, Vassar College will publish a major catalogue, featuring entries and an overview by Susan Kuretsky and essays by five noted scholars.

Time and transformation in 17th-century Dutch art is supported by generous grants from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Inc., Smart Family Foundation, Inc., and Vassar College’s Agnes Rindge Claflin Fund.

Depicting the passage of time

Based on Ms. Kuretsky’s research, and on seminars she’s taught at Vassar College, Time and transformation highlights for the first time one of the key cultural innovations of the Dutch Republic: the depiction of the passage of time, as shown in non-devotional images that encompass both secular subjects and religious narratives.

As early as the fifteenth century, Ms. Kuretsky notes, artists in the Netherlands had created devotional paintings that incorporated images of ruins. By locating the nativity or the adoration of the magi within a crumbling shed, artists expressed both the humility of the holy family and the passing away of the old, pre-Christian order. An important example in the exhibition is Joachim Wtewael’s painting Adoration of the Shepherds in the Ruins, c. 1600 (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). In the following century, when many churches were destroyed in northern Europe during the Protestant Reformation, Dutch artists continued to incorporate ruins into narrative works such as the tower of Babel or the disasters of the Jewish people.

But it was only in the seventeenth century, when an independent Dutch Republic became established through religious and political warfare with Spain, that entirely secular images of ruins began to appear. Such images first became common as prints, Ms. Kuretsky observes, suggesting that they appealed to a popular taste and often served a patriotic purpose. Because many of the buildings being shown as ruins were local sites that had been damaged during the wars with Spain, “These pictures were not only images of transience but also reminders of the new nation’s recent and heroic past.”

Among the outstanding works to be shown in this context are a rare etching by Hercules Segers, The ruins of the abbey at Rijnsburg, n.d., on loan from the Cincinnati Art Museum, and paintings by Aelbert Cuyp, Landscape with ruins of Rijnsburg abbey, c. 1643-45 (Detroit Institute of Arts), Jan van Goyen, Riverscape with the Pellecussen gate near Utrecht, 1648 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts), and Jacob van Ruisdael, Landscape with half-timbered house and blasted tree, 1653 (Speed Art Museum, Louisville).

In making such pictures, many Dutch artists drew on a well-established practice of visiting Italy and studying the relics of its past. As a result, a large category of Dutch ruin scenes consists of Italianate landscapes. Many of these were made for art collectors who wanted to experience Italy without the hazards of an actual journey; and some were even painted by artists who had never left home. Notable paintings of this type in the exhibition include Willem van Nieulandt’s Laban searching for his idols, 1630 (Worcester Art Museum), Jan Baptist Weenix’s Ruins in the Roman campagna, c. 1650-55 (The Wadsworth Atheneum), and Adriaen van de Velde’s Figures and cattle with a ruined aqueduct, 1664 (The Art Institute of Chicago).

But to suggest time’s passing, a building did not have to be antique or medieval. As part of their development of a landscape tradition, artists of the Dutch Republic also painted images of weathered, rustic structures. Important works of this type are Willem Kalf’s tiny painting, Barn interior: the ruined cupboard, 1643 (Detroit Institute of Arts), Jacob van Ruisdael’s drawing The collapsed hut (The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York), and Rembrandt van Rijn’s etching Oblong landscape with cottage and hay barn, 1641 (Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College).

Although Dutch artists rarely depicted contemporary events except in the form of allegory, printmakers and painters of this period did make a number of extraordinary pictures recording the aftermaths of floods, fires and other memorable catastrophes. Among such works on view are Daniel Vosmaer’s painting The Delft thunderclap, 1654 (The Wadsworth Atheneum), Ludolf Backhuysen’s painting Ships in distress off a rocky coast, 1667 (National Gallery of Art) and an illustration by Jan van der Heyden from his innovative handbook on firefighting, published in Amsterdam in 1690 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Rounding out the exhibition are telling images of non-architectural ruins, such as Gerard Dou’s painting Ancient hermit with dead tree, 1670 (National Gallery of Art), and N.L. Peschier’s painting Vanitas still life, 1661 (Philadelphia Museum of Art).

Transcending the memento mori, the image that reminds viewers of their own mortality, these pictures show us, Ms. Kuretsky says, “The very process that erodes or weathers a building, a landscape or a human being also, in a sense, recreates it, allowing it to reveal its own history. When the temporal process is made visible, the aliveness and immediacy of the physical world becomes deeply intensified.”

Catalogue

Vassar College and the University of Washington Press will publish a major catalogue in conjunction with the exhibition Time and transformation in 17th-century Dutch art. Susan Donahue Kuretsky supervised the book, and also contributes the catalogue entries and an introductory overview of the subject. Essays in the catalogue are by Catherine Levesque (Associate professor of art, College of William and Mary) on ‘Haarlem landscapes and ruins: nature transformed’; Walter Gibson (Professor emeritus, Case Western Reserve University) on ‘Bloemaert’s privies: the rustic ruin in Dutch art’; Lynn Federle Orr (Chief curator, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) on ‘Enhancing antiquity: the Dutch response to Roman ruins’; Arthur Wheelock (Curator of northern European art, National Gallery of Art) on ‘Accidents and disasters in Dutch art’; and Erik Loeffler (Assistant curator, department of drawings, Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, The Hague) on ‘Ruins in the Netherlands: the present situation’.

Other venues

Sarasota, Florida, John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (20 August–30 October 2005)
Louisville, Kentucky, J.B. Speed Art Museum (15 January–15 March 2006)

Sponsors

Time and transformation in 17th-century Dutch art is supported by generous grants from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Inc., Smart Family Foundation, Inc., and Vassar College’s Agnes Rindge Claflin Fund.