I have always loved the Dutch Golden Age Paintings and I have been lucky enough to see examples of them in Amsterdam and in the Louvre in the past but I was thrilled to see some in Sydney. The advantage of seeing them at leisure without enormous crowds and being able to get close enough to see the brushwork is quite wonderful. So I flew to Sydney for a family gathering and managed to get a half day completely to myself to spend at the Art Gallery of NSW – a place of wonderful exploration for me – there is always something new and older paintings get put into new spaces and I love going into the stately reverence of the Asian Art rooms. I am a member too, so can buy lunch and a glass of wine in the members lounge and read art books from their library. A bonus this time was that some of Cressida Campbell’s woodblock paintings were on display there.
Anyway, back to ‘Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age’ exhibition. What hit me first was the sheer beauty of the still life that has been used in the title displays – wonderful rich flowers and insects and all on a dark, mysterious background with intense contrasts and a long hallway with drawings of ships in a harbour – a reminder that the Dutch were incredible sailors (and I am a sucker for old drawings).
We start with portraits and to my pleasure in the first room is one of Maria van Oosterwijck (1630 – 93), one of the few professional female painters in the Dutch Golden Age. It reminded me of a book I read recently and enjoyed, ‘The Last Painting of Sara De Vos’ by Dominic Smith – I learned a lot about painting at the time and especially about the set up of professional painting guilds and why there were so few women….basically because it was a fairly closed shop, it was expensive to be educated and apprenticed and women were expected to be wives and mothers. I also loved some portraits by Frans Hals – as an 11 year old I had a paint by numbers set which included a portrait by Hals – adored that set!
During the Dutch Golden Age artists were fully occupied as the riches of exploration and trading to the East Indies (Indonesia) and other parts of Asia, India and South America poured in to the Netherlands – the Dutch East India Company was really the first global corporate enterprise. This wealth made the middle classes rich and they wanted to display this with paintings of things that were important to them among other arts. There were paintings of far away lands, ships at sea and at war, landscapes and village life, the famous interior paintings by artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt, still lifes of extraordinary realism and beauty.
What struck me most was the relaxed nature of Rembrandt’s portraits and as he matured, the really free brush strokes he used – almost impressionistic. Also intriguing was the lack of blue, purple and red in many of the works – they were, of course, very expensive pigments at the time. Overall I loved the social picture of life in the Netherlands depicted by the wealth of the artistic legacy. In my opinion, a great exhibition!