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The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Se­bas­tian Smee on ‘Rem­brandt and the Dutch Golden Age’

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-al­ife­time 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.

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)

Is Ver­meer, I briefly won­dered, a pea­cock and Rem­brandt a pig?

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.

There is no story in Rem­brandt’s self-por­trait as the apos­tle Paul. There is re­ally just pres­ence.

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.

Above: Rem­brandt Har­mensz van Rijn, Self-por­trait as the Apos­tle Paul, 1661, oil on can­vas, 91 × 77 cm, Ri­jksmu­seum, de Bruijn-van der Leeuw Be­quest, Muri, Switzer­land

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Still life with Flow­ers in a Glass Vase, 1650–1683, oil on cop­per, 54.5 × 36.5 cm, Ri­jksmu­seum, on loan from the City of Am­s­ter­dam (A. van der Hoop Be­quest)

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