Out from the shadows
Art by 17th-century Dutch masters is being viewed with a new fervor. An exhibition in Denver shows why.
She's beautiful, elegant in ermine and yellow silk, sitting at her writing table, pen in hand, light flowing over her from the window. She looks up at us, but her mind is still partly on her letter. It's not just her beauty that speaks to us, or even the grace with which she has been painted. It's the balance of forms that are perfectly in harmony with one another and, in that balance, elements of a vast stillness.
The master of stillness in Western art is Johannes Vermeer, and his "A Lady Writing" exemplifies the spiritual insight of Dutch art of the 17th century, the golden age of the Netherlands.
Interest in 17th-century Dutch painting seems to be cresting, including several current popular novels that are set in that period. A thrilling exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, "Art and Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt" shows why. "A Lady Writing" is just one of some 50 paintings by Dutch masters in the show, which manages to uncover the very roots of modern thought in art, religion, and democratic social structure (the rise of the middle class and the importance of the ordinary person). The paintings celebrate daily life among rich and poor alike, domesticity, and the economic contributions of women to the household. And they celebrate the inte- rior spiritual life, the common man or woman alone with God.
Clearly, writers, readers, curators, and viewers are experiencing 17th-century Dutch art with a new fervor. According to a survey by The Art Newspaper in London, the most popular art exhibition in the world last year was "Vermeer and the Delft School," which averaged more than 8,000 visitors per day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last spring.
In her novel "Girl in Hyacinth Blue," author Susan Vreeland tells the history of a Vermeer painting, moving backward through time from the 20th to the 17th century. It doesn't matter that she made up the painting she was inspired by and used elements from Vermeer's real work.
Author Tracy Chevalier ("Girl with the Pearl Earring") spins a romantic fable about a young girl who sat for a Vermeer painting, which results in the master and model falling in love. Among other novels about this period are Gregory Maguire's "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister," Michael Frayn's "Headlong," and Deborah Moggach's "Tulip Fever."
Asked why so many books have appeared about this period now, and why these paintings speak to modern viewers, Ms. Vreeland says, "Tracy [Chevalier] and I have talked about this together. She said, and I agreed, that we live at such a frenetic pace these days [that] a painting that is an invitation to slow down and be still is needed by the culture. The culture seems to be wanting approbation for momentary stillness."
"I like the books," says Mariët Westermann, curator of the "Art and Home" exhibition and a native of the Netherlands. "I think it's very telling that these paintings stimulate a great contemporary interest, so much so as to yield new literature."
These novels, like the exhibition, try to give these great works of art the "homiest" framework they can. The show includes household comforts from furnishings to tableware, books, globes, and maps objects like those figured in the paintings. All are part of the tranquility of the ideal home, which, instead of the church, becomes the center of the universe in 17th-century Dutch culture.
The novelists also address "home" from various points of view, not by any means all flattering. But the role of women is always central. In Vreeland's "Girl in Hyacinth Blue," the painting passes through many hands, inspires its owners and sometimes rebukes them for the lives they lead instead of the lives they should lead.
The most touching of the stories concerns a poor farmer and his repressed wife, who finds the painting and a baby wrapped together adrift in a boat with instructions to sell the painting for the child's upbringing.
The farmwife is so moved by the child and the art that she can hardly bear to part with the painting. But nothing she owns is worth much except the painting. The well-being of the household and the child depend on her sacrifice of it. So, the story explains the painting's ability to uplift the heart of this poor woman just as the painting reenforces the idea that the woman's home is of primary importance. The spiritual content of the painting touches the woman, filling an emptiness in her heart.
"[The Denver show] looks secular, but [it] has a spiritual dimension that people see," Ms. Westermann says. "It sets the stage for a quite modern sense of home.
"The decorative arts were made for the home. The Dutch Republic had declared itself independent from [Roman] Catholic Spain. There was a strong economic reason for this the rising merchant class didn't want to pay taxes to Spain. But there was also a very strong religious dimension. Protestant leaders were eager to have freedom of worship which they then somewhat denied to Catholics."
Catholics and Jews were allowed to worship, but not publicly (a kind of don't ask, don't tell situation). Thus artistic commissions for the Roman Catholic Church abruptly ceased. But the great artistic tradition in the Netherlands didn't dissolve when Catholic patronage dried up, Westermann says. It found other ways to express the spiritual. For example, it de-emphasized the depiction of Jesus as an object of worship as God and put a greater emphasis on his teaching or healing.
At first glance, these domestic paintings are secular, Westermann says. Traditional sacred subjects, like the holy family, are no longer seen as something to genuflect before, but instead reappear in the guise of a secular family. Yet there is no mistaking Mary and the baby Jesus.
In "Two Women by a Cradle" (1670), by Samuel Van Hoogstraten, the way the young woman's face is lit and the way that light forms a classical triangle with the baby's face points to a deeper significance. The older woman is meant perhaps to represent Mary's mother. This may look like an ordinary middle-class woman with her firstborn, but, if so, she emulates the Virgin and child of Christian traditions.
A strong theme in the exhibition is godliness in daily life. Jan Steen satirizes those families who are living it up at the expense of their children's moral development in paintings like "The Dissolute Household" and "As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young." At the center of the godly household is the woman doing ordinary things household tasks, caring for children, or even praying.
Even older women are given meaningful roles as grandmother or as elderly widow, as in Rembrandt's "Portrait of a Lady, Aged 62" (1632) and Nicolaes Maes's "Old Woman Praying" (circa 1655). The Rembrandt confers dignity and intelligence on its subject (she reminds one of Vermeer's mother-in-law, Maria Thins, in "Girl with a Pearl Earring").
The Maes is moving because it captures an ordinary lady in a private moment of prayer. Light illumines her features. Her meal, symbolically fish and bread, is simple, but she still holds the keys (female power) over her own house. And in the foreground, comically, a cat reaches for the fish. These are commonplace elements of life.
Dutch art doesn't always court stillness, Vreeland says. But, in general "it is so homey. It validates the individual. We don't have to be a hero from myth or from the Bible or from political history to be a deserving subject for art.... [A] little child who is stooping to pick up a leaf is as worthy a subject ... as Mary Magdalene.
"Much Dutch art is intended to evidence a high standard of domestic living," Vreeland continues. "That's not what I responded to so much as that honey-colored light bathing [Vermeer's] figures.... My relationship with Vermeer is a very personal one of gratitude that his images were uplifting to me and provided tranquility and assurance...."
Gregory Maguire, whose novel "Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister" was made into a TV drama that aired last Sunday, sets his revisionist Cinderella tale in 17th-century Holland. The story revolves around the home and the wicked stepmother taking over the reins of power. Much of the tale takes place in the kitchen, where Cinderella escapes her stepmother and the responsibilities of her beauty.
One of the characters is a master painter who paints Cinderella holding a bunch of tulips as an advertising ploy for her dad's tulip business. But the "ugly" stepsister also has a great heart and a keen eye and becomes a painter herself.
"I do think there is something about Dutch painting," Mr. Maguire says, "a celebration of a certain kind of stillness. There is something of beauty here that will last forever.... We can recognize ourselves and what we truly are in these paintings."
"These paintings can serve to uplift the spirit," Vreeland says. "[Art] is a way for us not only to experience human beauties, but the divine spirit as well."
'Art and Home' continues at the Denver Art Museum through May 26.