Dutch art in the age of Rembrandt: How art connects us to the past

Lydia McKelvie | Staff Writer

Staged pictures people made of themselves with expensive items, beautiful arrangements of food and flowers positioned to look just right and perfectly posed images of someone’s family pop up here and there. No, this isn’t your Instagram feed. This is Dutch art made over 300 years ago, now on show in the new exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum, “Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt.” Yet somehow, the subjects and ideas may not be as far removed as we might at first believe.

The exhibit, made up of works from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, intends to capture the complexities of Dutch life in the 17th century, and it is organized in several sections. The sections begin with portraiture and from there, the museumgoers can work their way around to still lifes, depictions of religious architecture, biblical and historical paintings, genre paintings and finally landscapes. Despite the fairly small regional and temporal scope of the exhibit, the range of work is vast and has something for everyone to enjoy. Here are a few pieces from different sections to look out for.

Portrait of the De Kempenaer Family (the Margaretha Portrait), by Jan Baptist Weenix, 1653

This painting depicts a family made up of a recently widowed mother and her three daughters, all wearing beautiful clothing of the era. Make sure you take note of the background, with noticeably classical and Roman influences despite a Dutch origin, likely due to contemporary value placed in the aesthetics of Greco-Roman antiquity. The painting also has an interesting story for how it has been passed along. The subject to the farthest left, Margaretha, depicted holding a doll, started the tradition of passing the painting down only to other women in the family named Margaretha. As such, it’s called the Margaretha Portrait!

Still Life with Flowers,by Rachel Ruysch, 1709

This beautifully intricate still life is one of the most popular works by Rachel Ruysch, an acclaimed female artist of the era. She experienced exceptional success during her lifetime, selling her paintings for high prices and even being the subject of poetry. Take some time to look at the details on the different flower specimens and take in the vibrant color and the play of light in the arrangement. Maybe practice your botany and see if you can name them all! The expense of the painting, as well as the imported flowers itself, convey both the wealth and worldliness of the patron.

Reverend Johannes Elison and Maria Bockenolle (Wife of Johannes Elison), by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1634

Representing two of the three Rembrandt works present in the exhibition, these paintings are certainly must-sees! They are imposing, much like the subjects themselves, due to their massive size—a size of portraiture usually reserved for nobility. These portraits of a reverend and his wife bring the religious life of the era to the forefront. The subjects worked in England, likely for a congregation of Dutch immigrants like themselves, fleeing the Catholicism mandated by Spanish rule in the Dutch Republic at the time. This painting represents, as such, an intersection of power, displacement and religious conflict that creates a much messier narrative of the era than may be expected from works like these still lifes.

An Elegant Company Playing Cards, by Jan Havicksz Steen, c.1660

This painting, portraying common occurrences of Dutch life put in a narrative—often categorized as a genre painting—is showing much more than what first meets the eye. Look closely at the various scenes depicted, both in the foreground and displaced in the background. The setting, which appears to be a luxurious home, is actually an inn or brothel with a loose connection to a more public, moral life. Images of sex workers and courtesans are present throughout the exhibition, in varying degrees of subtlety. These images are in stark contrast with the images of religious and public life, but are no less real. Life of the time period, just as life today, was filled with complexities of class, gender and the collision of public and private lives.

This exhibition does an excellent job of showcasing not only the narrative of the era, but the complexities underneath. Class, globalism, gender dynamics, religious life and themes of morality are present in substantial ways that pose questions that may not be as different as we think from the questions we ask of our own modern society. This only further displays the importance and relevance of art in the modern era, as it has the capacity to reach out and connect us across time, place and circumstance.

The exhibit is available to view from Oct. 20 through Jan. 12, 2020. Student tickets are $12, and all exhibitions are free on Fridays.

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