February 2018

Arts & Letters

‘Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age’

By Sebastian Smee

Johannes Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter, 1663, oil on canvas, 46.5 × 39 cm, Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam

Treasures from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

You stroll through Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum (Art Gallery of New South Wales, until February 18) admiring this, nodding at that – now portraits, now seascapes, now church interiors, now street scenes – without either head or heart ever quite shifting up a gear. It’s only about two thirds of the way through that you get to the semicircular gallery with the single Vermeer, Woman Reading a Letter. Everything else melts away.

So supremely blended and concentrated is Johannes Vermeer’s vision that it wipes from your memory everything that came before it. Jan de Bray? Ferdinand Bol, one of Rembrandt’s best pupils? Paulus Potter and his bloody cows? You wonder why they bothered.

A young woman stands side-on in front of a large, blurred, tawny bronze map in a tight space defined by two chairs – one against the back wall on the left, the other on a slight diagonal, cropped in the foreground at right. She inclines her head to read the unfolded letter she holds in two hands.

Holds? The verb is almost clutches, except that nothing in this painting is allowed to breach decorum. To modern eyes, her ballooning short jacket makes her look pregnant, but scholars doubt this. In any case, she is concentrating. Her mouth hangs slightly open, in a way characteristic of focused readers.

The busiest part of the painting, from which so much else in the way of anecdotal detail has been ruthlessly excised, is exactly where her own attention is focused: on the letter. A feeling of expectancy, of anticipation, rises off it.

Anticipation is built into the act of reading: What words, what sentence will come next? With what carefully chosen valediction will the letter-writer sign off? What kind of response will be called for? How easy will it be to find the right balance between poise and passion, or honesty and kindness?

All this inferred turmoil is purely psychic. It goes by the name “inner life”. There is, in fact, no story attached to the picture, or at least none we can do more than speculate on. The most we can be sure of is what Vermeer shows us: a woman is reading a letter.

Standing there, in the painting’s grip, it’s hard not to marvel at how it was put together. Everything about Woman Reading a Letter expresses utmost calm and quietude. There are no visible lines, no unblended textures. All is smooth, evenly amalgamated, and strangely insubstantial. It is almost as if the world, in Vermeer’s conception of it, were a purely optical phenomenon: cool, clean, transparent, formed by light alone. (The painting was given a good clean back in 2010–11.)

The quadrants of the composition, alternating light and dark, are as balanced as in a painting by Mondrian. The background is more light than dark, creating a feeling of openness and circulation, despite the tight, shadowy foreground. The slight angle of the chair at right is what ushers us into the otherwise perpendicular space.

There are really just two colours: blue and an ochre resembling old parchment, which here and there shifts into a softly gleaming, burnished gold. Vermeer’s blue derives from the costly semiprecious stone lapis lazuli. Pale and chalky on the front of the woman’s coat, worn and velvety on the chairs’ upholstery, it lifts into an almost otherworldly ultramarine on the map roller and finial against the wall. Here it is further intensified, say the experts, by an undercoat of copper green. Even the wall is tinged blue, as if such an abundance of the colour couldn’t help but leak into its surrounds.

There are only 34 extant paintings in the world attributed with confidence to the hand of Vermeer. Woman Reading a Letter is one of the best of them. “Nothing, ever,” wrote the Dutch painter Jan Veth in 1911, “has been painted in a more distinguished and careful way than this young woman.”

The Rijksmuseum owns it, along with two others, The Milkmaid and The Love Letter. The latter is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, this summer, along with nine other Vermeers, for a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition called Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting. (It has come to the United States after stints in Paris and Dublin.) The Washington gallery owns two of the 10 gathered for that show, so those two haven’t had to leave home. And yet still: that’s a lot of Vermeers out on the town at one time! People don’t lend them easily. Sydney is lucky to have one.

But you can gorge on looking, even at a Vermeer, for only so long. Eventually, you come back to yourself – a return to self-awareness that mirrors what awaits the young woman who will soon, perhaps after multiple readings, be done with her letter. Tearing yourself away (when will you next get to stand so close to a Vermeer?), you turn around and see, across the threshold to the adjacent gallery, on the far wall, a self-portrait by Rembrandt.

The show at this point has finally come to life. You walk through to the Rembrandt, located in a room lined with his paintings and etchings. They’re all wonderful (they’re Rembrandts). But you don’t need to be an art critic to sense immediately that the self-portrait is in a special category.

Puzzled, sceptical, inexplicably resigned (from life? from pretending? from caring?) – we have caught Rembrandt playing dress-ups again. He poses here as the apostle Paul – although without much conviction. You can feel, as so often in Rembrandt, an old trunk heaving with props and costumes in a corner of the studio, just out of the picture’s frame. The “apostle’s” hammy outfit is like a scaffold designed to fall away in the viewer’s imagination, leaving behind the subject’s all-the-more-vulnerable essence, like a clam stripped of its shell.

In Vermeer’s Woman Reading a Letter, the woman is absorbed in the words she reads; here Rembrandt has turned from the manuscript in his hands to look out at the viewer. His plaintive expression is so distinctive, so specific, that you feel you might, if you concentrated hard and opened yourself up like a medium, divine something essential about his soul. But this is an illusion. His soul, his thoughts, his character – they are all impenetrable.

You’re drawn in by this – by the darkness, by what is unseen, unknowable. But then you take in the painting’s extraordinary textures, which are picked out by localised light. They seem to have been formed from substances so far removed from those that constitute the Vermeer that they must surely derive from an alternative periodic table. You notice, in particular, Rembrandt’s raised, quietly befuddled eyebrow, which blends with the wobbly horizontal crenulations of his wrinkled forehead. These wrinkles rhyme in turn with the tauter folds and pleats of his tightly wound turban. The cloth feels secure. The flesh beneath feels sweaty, oily, deliquescent.

Behold this bewildered, mortal man! Rembrandt as Paul – or really, as himself – is not pretty like the young woman in the Vermeer. He is not ethereally blue, not clean, nor composed solely of light. There is nothing Petrarchan or Platonic about him. He is earthy, shadowy, Shakespearean – mercurially brilliant yet at the same time base, a quintessence of dust.

So what are we to make of this face-off? What connects these two artists? They seem diametrically opposed.

And yet the show does, in fact, offer clues to help us understand what links them. In the process, perhaps inadvertently, it helps round out our idea of Dutch art and its extraordinary legacy.

As you walk from the Vermeer to the Rembrandt, you pass a masterpiece by Gerrit Dou. His picture seems to draw on elements from both artists. Like the Vermeer, it shows a woman from side-on, absorbed in the act of reading. But she is not young. She’s old, and reminiscent of Rembrandt’s indelible cast of old women, including his portraits of Aechje Claesdr and Aeltje Uylenburgh, and in particular the Rijksmuseum’s An Old Woman Reading, Probably the Prophetess Hannah.

Dou’s old woman, like Rembrandt’s probable prophetess, is not reading a delicate love letter. She is reading from a large and heavy-looking Bible. Straining to read the words, she holds the book close, just as we (in another of those arresting tautologies brought on by the matchless illusionism of Dutch painting) move in closer ourselves, trying not to let our noses bump against the paint.

Dou’s precision is amazing. He lets us see not only that she is focused on the bottom half of the left-hand page but also that she is reading a particular passage from the Gospel of St Luke. The passage concerns the duty to share material goods with the poor. Her expensive fur hat, rendered with bravura fidelity, is held in place by a cloth band. Its taut folds call to mind the headwear in the Rembrandt self-portrait and the neighbouring Bust of a Man in Oriental Dress.

Dou’s prices during his lifetime outstripped almost all of his peers’, and you can see why. He was born in Leiden and never really left. Leiden was also Rembrandt’s hometown. Dou entered Rembrandt’s busy studio at the age of 14, so his connection with the master – above all, his love of chiaroscuro, his brilliant textures, and his line in expressive head studies (known as “tronies”) – shouldn’t surprise us.

But Dou was also at the forefront of important developments in genre painting, in particular a new focus on amorous high life and on attractive women in genteel interiors. These subjects are so closely identified with our mental image of Dutch painting, and especially Vermeer, that we tend to assume they were always part of the repertoire. In fact, they only began to be painted around 1650, under the influence of Dou and, above all, of Gerard ter Borch. They were spurred into existence by an affluent collecting class wanting sophisticated, graceful images and by an atmosphere of intense competition among the painters themselves. They are the focus of the Washington, DC, show – the one boasting 10 Vermeers, no fewer than 13 ter Borchs, and six Dous.

Along with ter Borch (whose work is sadly missing from the Sydney show), Dou had a powerful influence on the younger Vermeer, as well as on fellow alumni of Rembrandt’s studio, among them Nicolaes Maes.

Happily, Maes is represented here by two gorgeous paintings. In one, known as The Daydreamer, a young woman with her chin in her hand looks out of an arched window, lost in thought. Her rosy cheeks rhyme tangily with the peaches and apricots that garland the window and with the open shutter, which is also painted an orangey-red.

Maes’ palette is closer to Rembrandt’s, who also favoured the autumnal end of the spectrum. But Maes’ decision to use strong colour not just locally but all over, as a compositional device and creator of mood, is heavily reminiscent of Vermeer’s blue Woman Reading a Letter.

Meanwhile, Maes’ smaller Young Woman at a Cradle shows an intimate scene swaddled in Rembrandtian darkness. Here again, however, it is closer to Vermeer in the delicacy of its mood and in its tender focus on a lovely young woman. Maes was fascinated by optics, and engrossed in the challenge of getting paint to achieve shifting degrees of textured clarity and ethereal, almost photographic blur, often in the same painting. An Old Woman Praying (in the Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts), for instance, seems to go out of its way to bridge the chasm between the visions of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Vermeer’s marvellous A Maid Asleep (in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art) was influenced directly by Maes’ Interior with a Sleeping Maid and Her Mistress, just as his Lacemaker, from the Louvre, was almost certainly a response to paintings of the same subject by Dou and Maes.

So you see how it goes. Whenever you dig into 17th-century Dutch painting, connections like these spray out like pinwheeling fireworks. They were the product of competition and rivalry, but also open admiration. Dutch painters were always paying homage to one another’s innovations, quoting one another’s compositions, then extending an allusion or technique in one or another direction to consolidate a distinct personal style. There were other important, if more prosaic factors, too. The handy proximity of all the main centres of art making in the Netherlands, for instance, did a lot to facilitate artistic exchange.

If you come away from this show with an image of Vermeer as blue and Rembrandt as brown, you will have proved that you were paying attention. But it’s worth noting that Rembrandt also resorted to blue in a peculiar rendering of two dead peacocks. The work, which hangs to the left of the self-portrait as Paul, is his only still life.

In the 17th century, peacocks used to be cooked as game in pies and so forth. You could hang them for a few days to help make their meat more tender, as in the bird on the right in Rembrandt’s Still Life with Peacocks. But even so, they never tasted good, and were used mainly for show at banquets. Soon, according to the catalogue, they were replaced on banquet menus by turkeys.

Pigs, on the other hand, have always tasted good – never mind how they look. Among Rembrandt’s prints – displayed beside an etching of a man and woman rutting vigorously in a French bed – is a hairy, sleeping sow, ready to be slaughtered. Behind her is a butcher, an axe, and an upended trough or slaughter table.

Is Vermeer, I briefly wondered, a peacock and Rembrandt a pig? That’s to say: is Vermeer just for show, a delicacy, all optics and no substance, while Rembrandt has weight, is nourishing and tasty, endures?

Perish the thought. Vermeer’s distilled poetic vision is unassailable. But it’s true that, like Shakespeare (and unlike Vermeer, who had almost no interest in narrative), Rembrandt was a marvellous storyteller. No artist was better than he at using pictorial mechanics and subtleties of action, gesture and expression to convey drama, to get at the nub of human interactions and their consequences. He had an unerring nose for the “decisive moment”, which art critic Peter Schjeldahl once described as the point when “the past, as blind preparation, pivots and becomes the future, as all-seeing consequence”.

We see the storytelling impulse in Dutch art in the show’s penultimate room. It includes paintings that illustrate episodes from the Bible and from Greek mythology. A few are quite shockingly violent. A painting attributed to the circle of Rembrandt, for instance, shows a decapitated head on a platter. It belonged to John the Baptist. But just in case we were in doubt as to its earlier attachment, the artist has made sure to show us the headless corpse in the foreground. The individual vertebrae push through the skin of the dead man’s prone, curving back, calling to mind Francis Bacon’s appreciation, in his interviews with David Sylvester, of the exposed spine in a bather by Degas.

Nearby, Arnold Houbraken paints Agamemnon in the catastrophic moment before he sacrifices his bare-breasted daughter, Iphigenia. And a painting by Jan de Bray shows Judith standing over a naked Holofernes, her sword poised actively over his passive, oblivious neck. A decisive moment if ever there were one.

Wanting to disentangle and somehow purify distinct art forms, critics in the 20th century took to regarding “illustration” as a perversion of art’s descriptive essence, and so they downplayed the storytelling aspect of Rembrandt’s artistry. The period coincided with Vermeer’s ascension into the pantheon after centuries of neglect.

But in truth, Rembrandt’s figures never did exist solely in the fulcrum of history. They exist also, like Vermeer’s, in the trembling present, and in that part of truth that hinges on light, description and stasis, each of these analogous, perhaps, to what the French philosopher Blaise Pascal coolly called “the motions of grace, the hardness of heart, external circumstances”.

There is no story in Rembrandt’s self-portrait as the apostle Paul. There is really just presence. Such presence can never be entirely divorced from narrative: the fact of mortality is in itself a great engine of narrative, and it never cuts out. But it may occasionally idle. Like the beautiful Vermeer, the Rembrandt speaks to the part of our existence that idles, that cannot be seduced, betrayed or explained away by false accounts of who we are, or who we feel ourselves to be.

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is the art critic for The Washington Post and winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of The Art of Rivalry, and a forthcoming book on Berthe Morisot and Édouard Manet.


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