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If Holland were a university, then "The Glory of the Golden Age: Dutch Art of the 17th Century," the exhibition that runs through September 17th at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, would be its reunion of reunions. Some of the alumni on show—300-odd of them from every faculty (paintings and sculptures, drawings, prints, and decorative objects)—have not had to travel very far, of course. Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, for example, has come from the Mauritshuis in The Hague—though it has not been seen in Amsterdam for more than 170 years. Some are still on staff, so to speak: Forty percent of the works, like Frans Hals' merry Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, are from the Rijksmuseum's own collection. But others have had long journeys: a Hendrik ter Brugghen from Oberlin, Ohio, for instance; a Joachim Wttewael from Kansas City; and Jacob van Ruisdaels from Dublin and Detroit. Some, you'd have sworn, could not possibly have made the trip. A beautiful Rembrandt drawing from The British Museum had never been on a plane, and Vermeer's The Glass of Wine, from Berlin's Gemäldegalerie, was in far too fragile a state four years ago to join the rest of its companions at the famous Vermeer exhibition. (It has since been restored for this show.) Others you'd never have imagined traveling at all: a Cesar Boëtius van Everdingen built into a painted banquet hall in Queen Beatrix's palace, and a pair of statues by Hendrik de Keyser that are part of a royal church shrine in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft. There's even an immense copper candelabrum, presented by the Dutch Republic in 1640 to a Japanese shogun and housed in a temple-and-treasury complex in Nikko ever since. It had to be taken apart (the first time in 360 years) and then carefully reassembled in order to make the 5,800-mile trip.

But this is only the first sense in which this extraordinary show—the last comparable one was at the National Gallery in London in 1976—is an unprecedented reunion. For the Dutch artists who've been gathered together for a five-month run at the Rijksmuseum, which this year celebrates its 200th anniversary, were members of the same guilds, they worked in the same commercial marketplace. They knew one another's work, if sometimes only from prints. They competed, taught each other, collected each other, and sometimes collaborated—and not only as master and pupil. Pieter Codde, for example, was commissioned to finish Frans Hals' picture of an Amsterdam company of crossbowmen after Hals refused to travel from Haarlem for individual sittings, and a Hercules Seghers mountain landscape from the Uffizi in Florence was almost certainly reworked by Rembrandt, who owned seven Seghers. He probably "improved" this one by elevating the mountains and adding a horse and cart, a man on foot, and a more dramatic sky.

Some of the artists in the show were uncle and nephew (Salomon and Jacob van Ruisdael), some were brothers, like the silversmiths Adam and Paulus van Vianen and the painters Dirk and Frans Hals, and some were even married, as Jan Miense Molenaer was to Judith Leyster. They appeared in each other's pictures, as Herman Saftleven does in his brother Cornelis' The Duet, and their paintings even put in an occasional appearance in the work of another artist—as Dirck van Baburen's The Procuress (from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and once owned by Vermeer's mother-in-law) does in two works by Vermeer, A Lady Seated at the Virginals and The Concert (which are not in the show). In all, they covered no more than three generations in what were by our standards small towns (Leiden, Delft, Haarlem, Utrecht, and Amsterdam) in a marsh-ridden corner of northern Europe. So the first question we must ask in confronting their convocation is: Why on earth did they happen here? Why does the history of 17th-century art belong so firmly to the Dutch, just as 16th-century art, say, belongs almost exclusively to the Italians? And why did Holland produce no remotely comparable artists from the end of its golden age—around 1700—until some 200 years later?

The answer, in part, lies in political history—and in the founding of a brand-new Dutch state. For centuries the various provinces of the Low Countries had nominally belonged to a series of potentates who had (more or less) left them alone. Then, in 1555, they were inherited by Philip II of Spain, who wanted not only to grind more tax money out of them but also to put down once and for all the heresy of Protestantism that had spread there from Germany. In 1581, with their ranks organized around Prince William the Silent, a collective treaty was signed by a number of the provinces, formally ousting Philip II as sovereign. A Spanish army was soon dispatched, but the power at sea remained in the hands of Dutch mariners; although the southern Flemish provinces were retaken, the seagoing northerners managed to blockade Antwerp (the south's main port and the source of most of its wealth) so effectively that it died commercially. Protestant and Catholic Flemish merchants, who were the wealthiest in the world, flocked northward, and with them came most of the painters and master craftsmen who'd served both the merchants and the Brussels-based nobility. Soon afterward the south became poor, both in money and in art— in the latter realm it was left with only the studio of Peter Paul Rubens. In the meantime, the entrepreneurial and highly literate Dutch north, infected with a new spirit of patriotism, became richer in both than almost anywhere else on earth. The population of Amsterdam tripled in size between 1572 and 1600, and the city of Haarlem became the first of a number of blossoming new art centers. In their new home in the flatlands, imported styles and genres (the Flemish still life, Italian and French Mannerism, Caravaggio's dramatic chiaroscuro) started to merge into the broad and brilliant stream of 17th-century Dutch art.

The exhibition has more than 30 ensembles of paintings, sculptures, furniture, and decorative objects (inclusion of the last two is one of the show's great strengths). The first grouping, located at the entrance to the Rijksmuseum's long Gallery of Honor, showcases two of the most significant of the imported styles. It consists of two statues by the architect and sculptor Hendrik de Keyser from the assassinated William the Silent's tomb (currently under renovation in the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft), along with the work of a number of artists who either emigrated from the south or returned home to the north after long stays abroad. There's a chased silver jug and dish featuring Diana, Actaeon, and Callisto by Paulus van Vianen, who was for a time court silversmith to Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, and a tapestry that was designed by Karel van Mander and executed by the workshop of François Spiering—both Flemish immigrants—which takes up the Diana theme (this time saying farewell to Procris). Both works are unabashedly Mannerist, as is a St. Sebastian by the painter Joachim Wttewael, who lived for a time in Padua. Beside the Wttewael is another St. Sebastian, this one by Hendrik ter Brugghen, who also spent timein Italy, although in his case it was Rome.

The contrast in these works could not be greater. Where Wttewael's Sebastian is an idealized figure—he even has a putto holding a laurel wreath and a palm branch flying toward him—Terbrugghen's is a raw-boned, simple young Dutchman. The light that plays on his upper torso as he is folded into the arms of Irene is dramatic; the figures in the painting's compact unified grouping have obviously been taken from real life. Terbrugghen was a member of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, part of a general movement that led away from Mannerism to what the remaining ensembles at the Rijksmuseum enshrine: the essentially democratic, and secular, ethos that lies at the heart of the Dutch golden age.

The Mannerism that prevailed in the United Provinces at the beginning of the 17th century was at its core an aristocratic art. It harked back to the great masters of the High Renaissance, with their bright, refined colors and complex compositions, and its natural subjects were religious and mythological. It tended to favor large crowds of nudes—often elongated, small-headed, and unnaturally posed—set in landscapes that were equally unnatural (tapestrylike trees), and it evinced no concern at all for a true representation of space. Mannerism, in fact, was show-offy and look-at-me, the victory of artificialism over naturalism. It was clear, soon enough, that this did not at all suit the emergent Dutch nation. Calvin— the Protestant reformer—had said that only what could be seen with the eye should be portrayed. And that's exactly what the Dutch now both wanted and needed—an art that was neither fantastic nor grandiose but that could show them what it meant to be who they were: a people proud of themselves and of their new country. This called for still lifes you could almost touch, landscapes that were real, and portraits that weren't idealized but instead snatched out of motion, like snapshots.

They could afford to pay for them too. For although there were no rich institutional patrons in the provinces (the Protestant Church was inimical, by and large, to all art, and the stadtholder's court in The Hague was extremely modest), money (and a taste for the paintings it could purchase) filtered down to virtually every level of Dutch society. John Evelyn, the English writer, noted that there was plenty of art even in farmers' houses. And another traveler, Peter Mundy, who visited Amsterdam in 1640, remarked that "all in generall [strive] to adorne their houses, especially the outer or street roome, with costly peeces, Butchers and bakers not much inferiour in their shoppes, which are Fairely sett forth, yea many tymes blacksmithes, Coblers, etts., will have some picture or other by their Forge and in their stalle." There arose, in other words, a voracious, highly competitive market in which painters, who were mostly poorly paid, could rarely afford to generalize. To stay ahead, they had to specialize, and they constantly had to refine their specialties in response to an increasingly educated public.

Evidence of this is exactly what unfolds as you progress down the length of the Gallery of Honor. The refined and precise portraits of Amsterdammer Thomas de Keyser (Hendrik's son) are played off against the more florid and colorful style that grew in Haarlem in and around the work of Frans Hals. You can see the Mannerist paysages of, for example, Abraham Bloemaert give way, little by little, to the meticulously observed and busy winter scenes of Hendrick Avercamp and the beautifully gradated tonal landscapes of Salomon van Ruisdael. There are superb examples here of symmetrical Flemish-style still lifes gradually transforming into brilliant tours de force of competing patinas, textures, and lusters in the hands of artists such as Willem Claesz Heda and Jan Davidsz de Heem. There are the urgent, foreground-pressing dramas of the Utrecht Caravaggisti, like Terbrugghen, Gerard van Honthorst, and Dirck van Baburen, and the blithe, subversively moralistic "merry companies" of the Hals brothers and Pieter Codde. And, presiding over the first part of the proceedings with his enormous Nightwatch, there's the towering figure of Rembrandt van Rijn.

Rembrandt arrived in Amsterdam from Leiden in 1624 and began studying with history painter Pieter Lastman (whose Orestes and Pylades Disputing at the Altar is here). Along with The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which made his reputation the year he came to the city, he's represented here not only by pieces from the Rijksmuseum's own remarkable collection but also by paintings from around the world: The Rape of Europa, from the J. Paul Getty Museum; The Wedding of Samson, from the Old Masters' Gallery in Dresden; and A Girl in a Window, from Stockholm's National Museum. You can see, as you pass through the first part of the exhibition, that in a sense he's the exception who proves the rule. For Rembrandt—who was the master of physical presence and light—turned his hand to virtually every genre. Although he was influenced by the Utrecht Caravaggisti, and in later life (like Hals) adopted an increasingly gestural and laconic style of pure painting, he—more than any of the others—transported the art he knew from prints and from his own extensive collection of paintings into the future. Rembrandt deliberately vied with past masters—The Nightwatch, for example, is a clear attempt to beat Rubens at his own game. (Not long after that, he proceeded to take on Titian and the Venetians.)

Through his example, and through the pupils whom he taught, Rembrandt cast his spell forward into many of the pictures that make up the second part of this exhibition. One of his apprentices, for example, Samuel van Hoogstraten (Trompe-l'oeil Still Life), became a portraitist and architectural painter who worked in Vienna and London. Another student, Aert de Gelder (Ahimelech Giving the Sword of Goliath to David), became a history painter, a masterful manipulator of costumes and accessories. And a third, Carel Fabritius (The Goldfinch and Self-Portrait), by moving to Delft, became an extremely important influence on such late-Delft-school painters as Gabriel Metsu and Jan Vermeer.

"The Glory of the Golden Age" continues with a gallery given over to auricular ornamentation, followed by another filled with the secular church interiors of Pieter Saenredam, Gerrit Houckgeest, and Emanuel de Witte. But then the exhibit opens out into masterpiece after masterpiece in every sort of genre, and you have the growing impression of a society that's become secure enough now to free its artists into a new realm of purely personal expression. There are late works by Rembrandt (The Syndics) and Hals (The Regents of the Old Men's Almshouses in Haarlem), both bristling with self-confidence, their brushwork arrogant, nonchalant, and unerring. There are monumental romantic landscapes by Albert Cuyp and Jacob van Ruisdael, and elaborate, voluptuous table still lifes by Willem Kalf and Abraham van Beyeren. Above all, in a quite remarkable gathering, there are works by Fabritius, Vermeer, Metsu, and Pieter de Hooch, all symphonies of light and color imbued with a serene joy.

As you continue through the ensembles, you also have the sense of something ending, as if there were no place left for these artists to push forward, except to a modernity that was not yet available. And so, in the end, it proved. The national enterprise faltered with a war against France and England, and no private art, however brilliant, could attempt to revive it in the same way that a more public art had helped give it birth. The art market dried up. Vermeer died bankrupt; and when Jacob van Ruisdael followed him in 1682, the golden age was drawing to a close. Albert Cuyp, Philips de Koninck, and Emanuel de Witte were all dead by the early 1690s, and although Meindert Hobbema, Van Ruisdael's pupil, survived until 1709, he painted little or nothing in the last decade of his life. The only golden-age painters to continue working into the new century were Adriaen Coorte (Three Medlars), Willem van de Velde the Younger (The IJ at Amsterdam with the "Golden Lion"), and Ludolf Backhuysen—whose 1694 masterpiece, Two Ships in a Storm, provides the envoi, the last chronological flourish, of the show.

During my visit to Amsterdam, I met Judikje Kiers and Fieke Tissink, the two young curators who'd spent the past four years gathering in the golden age's alumni from their various scattered residences. I asked them why they thought the golden age had withered so abruptly. "It was partly to do with the economic situation," said Kiers, "and partly because the world had finally arrived—French style, the style of Louis XIV, had become more important." Added Tissink, "There was also a glut. The Dutch had bought so many paintings, maybe they'd simply had enough. Dutch artists had reached the top in everything. Now the only way to go was down."

Whatever the reason, the Dutch failed to produce another great painter for almost 200 years, until the moment in 1885 when a 28-year-old artist stood in front of the picture that Frans Hals had refused to finish for the company of crossbowmen. He noticed that the crossbowman on the extreme left (the only one painted wholly by Hals) was better than the rest, and he later wrote of him in awe: "Seldom have I seen such a marvelously beautiful figure." The picture was in the Rijksmuseum then—as it is today—surrounded by friends and acquaintances from across the world. The admirer's name: Vincent van Gogh.

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about the new architecture of Berlin in the last issue of Departures.

"The Glory of the Golden Age: Dutch Art of the 17th Century" is on exhibit in its entirety at the Rijksmuseum through July 16th, when the drawings and prints will be taken down. The rest of the show continues through September 17th. The exhibition catalog, published in two volumes, one covering paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts (by Judikje Kiers and Fieke Tissink), the other drawings and prints (by Epco Runia), is available for $60. Stadhouderskade 42. For information: 31-20-674-7171. For advance tickets: 31-70-419-5545; fax 31-70-419-5519.


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