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

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Eglon van der Neer, Portrait of a Man and Woman in an Interior, 1665-1667, Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Dutch painters such as Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681), Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), Gabriel Metsu (1629 – 1667), and Jan Steen (1626 – 1679) to name a few produced works that were full of sensual drama, especially if you look way below the surface message of Dutch simplicity and sobriety.

Dutch artists often depicted paintings within paintings to comment on their subjects, and the image of Venus over the mantel in Eglon van der Neer’s painting of a couple in their parlour may very well allude to the couple’s marital harmony.

Dutch Artists in the age of Vermeer specialized in scenes of life indoors, producing works that provided representations of daily life.


Gerrit Dou, ‘The Grocer’s Shop: a Woman Selling Grapes’, 1672, Royal Collection Trust/ (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer is an exhibition by the Royal Collection Trust on show in The Hague until January 8, 2017 at the Mauritshuis Museum.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II holds in trust for the nation a fabulous collection of art that contains works by such well known Dutch painters and the exhibition Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer presented by The Royal Collection Trust will be on show in the Maurithaus Museum at The Hague until January 8, 2017.

The show offers an exceptional opportunity to view over twenty masterpieces including Gerrit Dou’s The Grocer’s Shop painted in 1672.

He gives us a hint of French influence by the choice of comestibles and the costume of the main lady, which reflects her acute sense of changing fashion and this will be the largest loan to a Dutch museum to date of works held in trust by the Queen for her nation.

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Jan Steen, A Woman at her Toilet, 1663, Royal Collection Trust/ (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

‘A Woman at her Toilet’ 1663 by Jan Steen reveals it’s just possible we would hesitate from entering her boudoir by the intimacy of the scene because she is only partly dressed as she hastily pulls on her stocking.

Seductively though Steen is inviting us to enter, although he’s also keeping us out at the same time, daunted perhaps by the impressive classically inspired archway that frames her perfectly

If we hesitate and look hard enough, as well as a cherub in the keystone other allegorical symbols would cause us to pause and reflect on our decision, because we know once we cross the threshold we also may find the temptations of the flesh far too much to resist.

This would mean we risk the loss of our virtue too, not something the contemporary society of Steen’s time is eager to accept.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is another artist whose beautiful paintings I have recognised since I was a young girl when a print of Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman or ‘The Music Lesson’, 1662-5, along with others, hung on the walls in a corridor at the school I attended.

A highlight of the exhibition, this is an image I expect I first plugged into it mainly because I was learning the piano myself at the time.

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Johannes Vermeer, Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman of The Music Lesson, 1662-5, Royal Collection Trust/ (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

Also destined to become an interior designer, it’s perhaps not surprising that from an early age I was observant and loved attention to detail and used to look at it in books at the Randwick Municipal Library.

I examined every inch of the work, the form, the patterns, the bass viol on the floor and particularly the ‘Turkey’ table carpet in the foreground. It was rich, exotic and like no other I had yet seen, except in books.

It posed so many questions.

Who is the player of the viol, is it the man who is teaching her?

The lady herself is and remains a distant figure her back turned, studiously concentrating and it was always interesting to see a piano you stood up at, instead of sitting down like the one at home in our living room.

What was she feeling?

I used to wonder if learning the virginals made her life far less humdrum than mine? The powerful use of perspective draws us into the action between the two main protagonists.

Her face reflected in the mirror above the instrument doesn’t allow us to connect with her at all because we are made aware she’s glancing at him.

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Willem van Mieris, The Neglected Lute, c1708, Royal Collection Trust/ (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The legs of the easel the painter is using are revealed, making us also aware that he is a viewer too, standing within the space, while being outside what is happening between the people involved.

Does the indication of a shared passion mean they share it personally too? What is the artist’s intent?

Scholars who have assessed Vermeer’s works place the lady’s completion during the 1660’s. Does it conform to the notion as an inscription on the work informs us about ‘…the pleasure and melancholy of love’?

Dutch art of this period has always grabbed my attention from the first and has held it forever.

It’s about the reality and the virtuosity attached to the brushwork, the celebration of everyday life and the composition, which is always masterful.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century when King George IV acquired The Neglected Lute painted around 1708 by Willem van Mieris (1662-1747).

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Pieter de Hooch, A Courtyard in Delft at Evening: a Woman Spinning, c 1657, Royal Collection Trust/ (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The artist was skilled at reinforcing the point that music, love and seduction are linked, especially when serving the pleasures of the heart and soul.

To speed the lovers along now toward the ‘enlightenment’, Bacchus the God of Wine, while still about with Cupid aiding the process of temptation for a society, which has a new obsession with oysters.

Recognised for their aphrodisiacal qualities, they bring the lust for food into the equation, fulfilling our need for always expanding our horizons.

These works all had their origin in one of the smallest countries on earth starting at a time when it was taking the leading role in world events. By the middle of the seventeenth century Holland was exceeding France now under the reign of King Louis XIV (1638-1715), who was intently focused on taking it to glory.

The fact they couldn’t beat its economical performance used to puzzle both Louis and his commercially savvy 1st Minister French statesman Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), controller general of finance from 1665 onward.

Holland’s success highlighted that a nation’s significance is not only linked to its size or the number of people making up its population but also about how historically, intellectually, spiritually, architectural and artistically, it gives form, style, strength and purpose to produce art works that reflect it is important to the development of world culture at large.

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Willem van Mieris, An Old Man and a Girl at a Vegetable and Fish Stall, 1732, Royal Collection Trust/ (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

During the seventeenth century cities in Europe were undergoing substantial urban renewal, setting a pattern for future living.

By 1620 most countries seem to have understood the essential principles of civilized life and applied them as best they could.

There was a strong urge by Dutch painters to place viewers outside the scene and give them a sense of longing to want to come in.

Paintings served two functions, one decorative and one that used symbolism to reinforce ideas put forward in the literature of the period.

An Old Man and a Girl at a Vegetable and Fish Stall by van Mieris was acquired by George IV in 1805 and renders lavishly the different produce on sale.

Humanity and humour are combined,if you look to find the rat they cannot see on the lower ledge, who is munching away as they converse as those little putti in cupid’s image, frolic about.

In the north of a country divided by politics and religion, successful merchants and art lovers were kept busy filling their houses with paintings of the first rank, just as other connoisseurs and collectors were doing at the same time in Venice, Madrid and Paris.

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Ludolf de Jongh, A Formal Garden: Three Ladies Surprised by a Gentleman, 1676, Royal Collection Trust/ (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

unnamedThe English were by now irrevocably connected to its development, because from 1656 until his return when King Charles II restored the monarchs of England to the throne.

He had lived in the Netherlands at Brussels, Bruges and Breed and it reinforced a relationship that had been ongoing with the English and Dutch court for centuries.

He spent altogether eight years of exile in Europe including France and Holland where he witnessed first hand as Amsterdam, became the centre where ships of the Dutch East India company brought in exotic goods.

When he finally regained the English throne in 1660 he had gained first hand knowledge of just how sophisticated life was lived.

When William of Orange and Queen Mary arrived it only served to cement what was already, a sound relationship.

Travelling works of great art such as these, which enchant the eye require not only careful handling, but also consideration of the conditions, which need to be maintained to ensure they are not damaged in any way.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

Royal Collection Trust

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

Mauritshuis Museum, The Hague

Watch Our Videos by Carolyn McDowall

Dutch Simplicity, Sobriety and Sensuality

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