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Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age, Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum (AGNSW, Sydney)

While Western Europe’s 17th century was disfigured by both religious wars and wars of territorial ambition, Holland a land reclaimed from the sea, nonetheless prospered. When she extricated itself from Spanish control to become Europe’s first republic, the stage was set for a breathtaking trajectory. As Holland became fabulously wealthy from trade, shipping, insurance and banking, growing numbers of burghers and other substantial citizens availed themselves of the signs of luxury which had formally been the preserve of royalty, the nobility and the church. This helps to explain how Holland created the first thriving market-place for artists who painted with real and anticipated clients in mind — not unlike our art market place today.

While tastes still ran towards biblical themes and the escapades of gods and goddesses from classical mythology which aimed to demonstrate a knowledge and appreciation of ‘elevated’ subjects on the part of the owner, there was a growing demand for virtual inventories of the lavishly appointed interiors of houses and of their tables groaning with luxury foodstuffs, rare blooms and finely crafted metalworks. Landscapes, often quite intimate in scale, recorded the broad encounter of earth and sky, and stripped of the classicist overtones of the ‘arcadian’ landscape established by the French painters Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, recorded contemporary scenes: frozen ponds, unruly rapids, ragged trees and villagers going about their daily routines.

While Rembrandt is the anticipated drawcard for this show, it is the entire spectrum of Dutch art of the period which the engaged viewer will savour.

Rembrandt & the Dutch Golden Age, Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum is a perfect encapsulation of Dutch preoccupations and also the largely Protestant religious imperatives which coalesced in the injunction ‘memento mori’ — be mindful of death. The accompanying catalogue is a handsome one. Its illustrations are excellent and the text is crisp, informative and surprisingly anecdotal. For example, we learn that one of Rembrandt’s pupils, the talented young Carel Fabritius (who painted the celebrated ‘Goldfinch’ in 1654) died in a gunpowder explosion in the town of Delft, that very year. A painting by Egbert Lievensz Van Der Poel depicts the furnace and the residents fleeing the town.

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‘The governors of the Guild of St Luke, Haarlem’ by Jan De Bray

While Rembrandt is the anticipated drawcard for this show, it is the entire spectrum of Dutch art of the period which the engaged viewer will savour — from church interiors, tavern scenes and humble domestic tasks to mouth-watering still lives and gaping skulls. There is enough of Rembrandt in the exhibition to encapsulate his etching skills, mutating painting styles and his enduring concerns: religious subject matter and the phenomenon of aging for which his own face provided a ready subject. His earliest paintings, dating from the 1630s evoke in full, the visceral qualities of silks and furs, pearls and gold, skin, beards and hair. While it appears that around 1650 his characteristic manner of painting dismantled itself and a highly original style — or rather cluster of styles –developed. One characteristic of this is dry and scratchy brushwork and the intense concentration of light in one area of the canvas, while the subject dissolves into velvety darkness. These later works, according to Gregor Weber, head of fine and decorative arts at the Rijksmuseum, suggest that “the late Rembrandt is the Rembrandt Rembrandt”.

His Self-portrait as the apostle Paul, (main image above, detail), painted in 1661, which gazes ruefully at us from the exhibition is not dissimilar to the work Self Portrait purchased for £26,500 by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1933. In the heart of the Great Depression this gallery found itself with bursting coffers, thanks to the Felton Bequest, which allowed it to compete on the international stage with giants like the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery in London for significant works. It was purchased, on the recommendation of Sir Charles Holmes, Director of London’s National Gallery.

The still life works display something beyond photographic realism …they are not merely recording surfaces that are slippery, dewy, pearly, glassy or furry — they remind us of the inevitable decay of all things.

The painting had come to light in a fashion much loved by art sleuths and dealers. A member of staff from the National Portrait Gallery had been at Welbeck Abbey owned by the Duke of Portland and had noticed a dusty and inconspicuous picture hanging over the doorway. Once cleaned, the signature was clearly decipherable, but the date was slightly obscured. It was thought to be possibly 1660 or 1668. When the work arrived in Melbourne, J.S. MacDonald, writing for The Sun, announced that the gallery “had been diddled again”. Others agreed. The work was informally demoted by sundry experts and the coup de grâce would be delivered in 1984 after a visit by the Rembrandt Research Project. It would hence be labelled: ‘in the manner of Rembrandt’.

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‘Bust of a man in oriental dress’ by Rembrandt

The still life works in the exhibition at the AGNSW display something beyond photographic realism and claim our attention when we understand that they are not merely recording surfaces that are slippery, dewy, pearly, glassy or furry — they are reminding the viewer of the inevitable decay of all living things. Two examples will suffice: Still life with books by Jan Davidsz de Heem and Still life with golden goblet by Pieter de Ring.

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‘Still life with golden goblet’ by Pieter de Ring

The former suggests a disorder, a kind of entropy where age and use has reduced crisp volumes to limp and soiled husks — a reminder of the impermanence of worldly possessions. The composition is sophisticated, precarious and almost monochromatic. Still Life with golden goblet is a celebration, a cornucopia of plenty. The lobster and the curlicue of the peeled lemon each dangle from the table. The flesh of white peaches, of the grapes and oysters are set against more resilient objects: the intricately worked gilded goblet, the silver salt cellar and the blue and white porcelain plate.

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‘Still life with books’ by Jan Davidsz de Heem

In the 17th century the Dutch imported vast quantities of blue and white porcelain which were made expressly for export by China. They were much sought after by the Dutch and feature in numerous still lives of the period. One tiny object in this painting caught this writer’s eye: a gold ring set with a diamond whose octahedral point sits in a shallow bezel. This was at the very moment when new technologies were allowing the diamond to be faceted and it reminds us of the great changes taking place in scientific enquiry and culture, not only in Holland but throughout western Europe.

The exhibition runs until February 18, 2018.

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