The Dutch and Flemish Masters

The Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is incredible presentation of the supreme mastership of the old Netherlands Masters.

In the 17th century the middle and upper classes of the Netherlands played a central role in the History of Arts. Their enthusiasm in collecting Masterpieces and decorating their homes with paintings greatly influenced artistic production and led to the unprecedented growth of the Art Market during this “Golden Age”. Amsterdam and Antwerp, the most important Dutch and Flemish commercial and artistic centers, witnessed a rapid rise in collecting activity.

Henriette Rahusen, in her presentation of the Exhibition, describes amazingly the epoch and rising of the Dutch and Flemish Masters.

The preeminent role of the Dutch and Flemish middle classes as art patrons is closely intertwined with the political and religious events that shook the society in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Dutch revolt against Spanish control, which began in 1568 under the leadership of Prince William of Orange (1553-1584) and which lasted intermittently until 1648, reshaped the region’s political and cultural boundaries. The seventeen provinces that made up the Netherlands split into the independent northern Dutch Republic and the Southern Netherlands, which remain under Spanish control. In the Dutch republic, the increasingly prosperous middle class gained control of government and civic institutions. As patrons, they commissioned and purchased art in both the public as well as the private spheres. In the Southern Netherlands, patronage from the Habsburg court and the Catholic Church remained strong, but merchants, tradesmen, and guilds also actively collected and commissioned works of art.

Habsburg emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) amassed one of the most famous encyclopedic collections of the period. Cabinet pictures, often painted by leading Dutch and Flemish artists who worked at his court in Prague, were displayed among his exotic specimens and scientific instruments. Rudolf II particularly prized highly detailed and jewel-like landscapes bustling with activity, such as Jan Brueghel the Elder’s (1568-1625) exquisite River Landscape.

In Brussels the court of Archduke Albert (1559-1621) and Archduchess Isabella (1566-1633), governors of Southern Netherlands, was another center of art and humanist learning. The couple retained in its service the leading artists of the day, among Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and, following his return from Prague, Jan Brueghel the Elder. The governors visited the Galleries in Antwerp, and sponsored the artists there too.

In the Dutch Republic, the court of the Princess of Orange did not play a major role in the history of Art until the 1630s, when Prince Frederik Hendrik (1584-1647) and his wife Amalia von Solms (1602-1675) began using art patronage as a means to enchance the court’s international structure. They acquired cabinet paintings and commissioned works of art to decorate their residences in and around the Hague. For large-scale history paintings Frederik Hendrik often patronized Flemish Masters such as Rubens and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), who were familiar with Italian traditions and who excelled in the depiction of grand religious and mythological subjects.

Still-life paintings, such as those that Balthasar van der Ast (1593-1657) painted in early 1620s, were greatly prized.

Landscapes and cityscapes, painted by artists like Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712), Cornelis van Poelenburch (1594-1667) and others, were also highly valued.

Small-scale portraits of family members and well-known citizens were found in virtually every collector’s cabinet. The Masterpieces of Thomas de Keyser (1596-1667), Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Jean Lievens (1607-1674)and Frans Hals (1582-1666) were highly valued too.