While in Sydney we were lucky enough to get to this exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW which ran from 11 November 2017 to 18 February 2018. Featuring intense portraits and dramatic seascapes, tranquil scenes of domestic life and detailed studies of fruit and flowers according to the accompanying booklet. And indeed there were all of those things. For instance, this Portrait of Feyntje van Steenkisite, wife of Lucas de Clercq 1635 by Frans Hals. According to the catalogue The quiet monumentality of this painting is in keeping with the sitter’s somewhat restrained character and her sober, modest attire.
And this Old woman reading 1631-32 by Gerard Dou does indeed perfectly evoke the textures of the woman’s skin, the soft fur trim of her clothing and also the Bible in her hands. You can even tell that she is reading Luke 19 about the responsibilities of the rich to give to the poor. This woman’s clothes and jewellery indicate that she is a rich person, and she would probably have chosen this reading material as a demonstration of her piety.
This portrait, Bust of a man in oriental dress 1635, is one of many of Rembrandt’s character heads, called tronies. The contrast between light and dark is typical of Rembrandt. It reminds me very strongly of a friend of mine, Shane Collins. It’s an uncanny likeness. I love the richness of the turban that makes you almost feel the gorgeous fabric. As in all of Rembrandt’s paintings, there is a strong contrast between light and dark. Making them quite intimate I think.
This Self-Portrait as the apostle Paul 1661 is probably the most famous painting in the exhibition. It’s a late self-portrait, described as magisterial in the accompanying panel. I don’t know about that, but do agree the chiaroscuro (the contrast of light and dark) and the depth of emotion in the old man’s face makes this pretty special. He looks so quizzical, almost mischievous; what is he thinking?
I also liked this Portrait of Maria van Oosterwijck (1630-93) flower painter 1671 by Wallerant Vaillant. In part because it shows us one of the few female artists of the Dutch golden age. We were told that she was quite successful, specialising in floral still life paintings. Unlike in the portrait of the old woman reading, experts have not been able to work out what is being read here.
I’ve always associated domestic interiors with Dutch painters. And there were many on display here. But only one by Johannes Vermeer, not surprising given how few he painted. Woman reading a letter 1663. Its terribly interesting that of his 34 paintings, six are of people reading or writing letters. Like this one. Her expression is unreadable. Is she sad or happy? Does the letter contain good news or bad? There is a page on the table. Has it been thrown there or has it fallen? So many unanswered questions. There’s a map on the wall; is the letter writer a traveller? The map is of the Netherlands, so if that’s the case they haven’t gone far. The lapis lazuli blue of the woman’s smock really stands out. Experts say she’s not pregnant as it would have been unheard of at the time for a woman to have been painted in this condition. Its just the style of dress. I love everything about this painting; its sense of place, its domesticity, its sense of mystery.
Here’s another painting that tells a story. Tailor’s workshop 1661 by Quiringh van Brekelenkam. This painter liked painting cobbler and tailor workshops. Here assistants are working away (I love the broad brimmed hat on the nearer one) while their master (also in a flash hat) discusses something with a customer. Is he trying to make a sale? Or is he dealing with a complaint? They look to be discussing a coat. I love the glimpse of everyday life. The woman is carrying a tin bucket; these were what Dutch women used to carry fish purchased at the market. Her outfit is pretty snazzy too.
Here is another painting that could possibly be described as an interior, although the action is taking place outside. Three women and a man in a yard behind a house 1663-65 by Pieter de Hooch. Wonderfully prosaic title. Indeed that is all there is, but it is such a warm, friendly and industrious scene. The painter specialised in painting scenes from daily life; his father was a bricklayer and he certainly renders the bricks on this house well. The level of detail makes us feel that we can eavesdrop on the conversation these people are having.
There were lots of seascapes, including pictures of actual battles during the wars between the Dutch and the English. Lots of quite lovely landscapes. And a small number of still lifes with flowers. Here is Still life with flowers in a glass vase 1665-70 by Jan Davidsz de Heem. The flowers are expensive, and of course, don’t all flower at the same time. So this is a fantasy vase of flowers. But how beautiful it is. Rich people now can probably have vases with this combination, they couldn’t then, so a painting had to suffice. An exquisite alternative.
Back home I’ve come across this review by Sebastian Smee which gives a more expert overview of this wonderful exhibition.