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Three Paintings By The Masters
One rarely thinks of Dutch painting of the seventeenth century in terms of local schools. The country is too small and painters like Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer are too great for purely geographical classifications to assume any considerable significance. Influences travel quickly in such a small country from one city to another and so do the masters themselves. Rembrandt had painted in Leyden before he settled in Amsterdam and though the local masters in that great city at first exercised some limited influence upon his style it was in the long run Rembrandt who changed the aspect of painting in Amsterdam. Still there are at the same time some masters in Amsterdam hardly distinguishable from some others who painted in Haarlem under the eyes of Frans Hats, Jacob Ruisdael's artistic career begins in Haarlem and ends in Amsterdam; who can say that his later pictures would have been different from what they are if he had stayed in Haarlem all his life.
One has to look very close to find the traces of local schools where personalities are so much more important. Almost the only exception is Utrecht where a group of painters are so unified in purpose, and on the whole so little influenced by Dutch painting outside their city that in speaking of the school of Utrecht we mean something more definite than when we speak of the schools of Amsterdam, of Haarlem or even of Delft.
The members of this group are not so popular today, as some of the minor masters of Amsterdam names like Bloemaert, Baburen, Terbrugghen, and even Honthorst are hardly known to the general public. Yet in their own time the influence of the these painters upon the greatest of their contemporaries was one of the decisive factors in shaping the course of Dutch paintings.
The political position of the city of Utrecht is as exceptional as the artistic position of these painters.Utrecht the only city in Holland where Catholicisut found a refuge even under the rule of the States General. Consequently cultural relations with Italy were closer than anywhere else in Holland. Honthorst, Terbrugghen, Baburen, Jan van Bylert spent their most impressionable years, when they were between 20 and 30, in Italy. They all became interested in the new great art of' Michelangelo da Caravaggio. The ruthless naturalism and dramatic contrast between black darkness and flaming light in the pictures of Caravaggio was bitterly opposed by many of his Italian contemporaries; they saw in them only a complete break with the classical tradition of the Renaissance. But this first generation of Dutch seventeenth century painters found in Caravaggio an ideal that reminded them of the great tradition of their own artistic past. The detail observation of nature and the light problems of the van Eycks and their followers seemed related to this new art. In the early "twenties all these young men are back in Utrecht spreading the influence of Caravaggio not only among their colleagues in that city but all over Holland. At the age of 21 Rembrandt begins to develop his famous style of light and shadow painting under the influence of Terbuugghen. Between 7625 and 1630 Frans Hats paints his many pictures of mandolin players and singing boys, which go back to the same Utrecht inspiration. Even twenty-five years later the early paintings of Jan Vermeer still bear witness to the profound impression created in the young painter's mind by the unconventional genre scenes of the Utrecht masters.
In European Museums Gerard van Honthorst is well represented not only with his early Caravaggiesque pictures but also his later elegant portraits. The fashionable portrait painter Paulus Moorelse, likewise a member of the Utrecht school is also not infrequently seen in public and private collections. But some of the other masters of Utrecht are relatively rare.
The Girl playing a lute" by Jan van Bronekhorst, strikes a familiar note: it is this kind of subject Matter that is so frequently found in pictures bv Frans Hals. But the execution, the facial type,the expression, are tottally diffent. In fact the inspiration is notderived from Hals:we have seen on the contrarv that Hals borrows these musical themes which Caravagrio had been the first to develop from the painters of Utrecht, particularly Honthorst. This master is also the source from which Bronekhorst drew. For be had no direct access to Caravaggio: he had never been in Italy. Born ca. 1603 at Utrecht, he is about ten to fifteen years younger than most of his fellow-citizens who had gone to Rome; he died in 1661.
It is, of course, not only the choice of subject-matter that is Caravaggiesque in the "Lute player," but also the soft light from an invisible source (probably a candle) concentrated on parts of the figure so that others are cast in deep shadow. Caravaggiesque is also, in contrast to the restraint of the Renaissance, the very direct approach towards the spectator which makes the lute stand out so far beyond the figure that one is tempted to touch it. Incidentally the instrument with its double arrangement of strings on two necks is found again, identical in every detail, in Bronckhorst's signed picture "'Che Concert" in the Braunachweig museum. The girl on the left of this picture is obviously the same model that posed for the "Lute player". The painting at Braunschweig is dated 1644 and undoubtedly the "Lute player" dates from the same relatively early period. The picture of a lady playing a guitar, formerly in a Munich private collection , is quite different in style. This is really a portrait of an elegant lady, in contrast to the less sophisticated features of the girl in "The Lute Player", whose tearful eyes hint that she might be a representation of"Melancholy".The cool , but finely differentiated scale of colors in our picture: dark purple, silvery white and pale yellow (in the hair), contrasts with the emphasis on the texture of the silk dress in the later painting. This difference is typical of a general change for the elegant in Dutch painting after 1650; it is found for instance in the later pictures of Gerard Terborch.
The painting of a mother with two children by Jan van Bylert is a good example of this change in taste. Van Bylert was born at. Utrecht in 1603 like van Bronekhorst. But in contrast to Bronekhorst he spent some years in Rome, returning to Utrecht in 1625. He brought back a first hand acquaintance with the paintings of Caravaggio which he displayed within the next years in paintings following not only the style of the great Italian but also his choice of popular subject-matter. He likes to illustrate banquets where boys eat macaroni with their fingers (This painting is in the Braunschweig Museum') and like all other Utrecht masters who had been to Italy he paints his own very Dutch version (in the Budapest museum) I of the "Calling of St. Matthew". Caravaggio"s famous painting in Rome.
The dark curtain and the rather formal pilaster (on the base of which we read the signature: J. V. Bylert fec. are reminiscent of van Dyck: the emphasis on the heavy yellow silk of the woman's dress corresponds to that change in taste around 1650 which we have just mentioned. As Bylert only died in 1671 there was plenty of time in his career for such a development. By the addition of an old tnaid-servant the portrait is disguised as an allegory of "Vanity": and this is the official title of the Cassel picture. The "Lady with two children" stands quite similarly halfway between a portrait and an allegory: it might have been intended for a representation of "Charity". All this is very typical of the middle of' the century, to which the Casscl picture and a number of other allegorical portraits by Ian van Bylert belong. The most beautiful and also the most mysterious of our three paintings is the last one, called "Poniona" by Paulus Moreelse. This master belongs to an older generation than those we have discussed so far. He was born in 1571 at Utrecht, became the distinguished painter of portraits found in many galleries in, and outside Holland, and died in 1638. He also enjoyed considerable reputation its 'in architect. He was forty when the young master who had been to ltaly began to return with the new gospel of Caravargio. Their enthusiasm did not Induce him to change his style very much although a series of his paintings (done mainly between 1625 and 1630 show at least in the subject-matter some approach to the new ideas. These pictures represent young shepherdesses and women in fantastic apparel looking into mirrors: there we have again allegories of vanity, but without the character of the. portraits.