National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Dutch Still Lifes and Landscapes of the 1600s
Overview

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Paintings depicting aspects of the natural world were so characteristic of the Netherlands that, during the seventeenth century, the Dutch words stilleven and landschap were adopted into English as "still life" and "landscape." Before the mid-1600s, though, the Dutch themselves usually referred to pictures by their individual subjects such as "breakfast piece" or "winter snow scene."

The apparent realism of much Dutch art can be deceptive. Many floral still lifes, for instance, show combinations of flowers that do not bloom at the same time of year. Likewise, some lavish banquet tables are set with partially uneaten meals, interrupted midcourse. And the landscapes may stress the hopeful light of a new dawn or the dark threat of an approaching storm. These incredible illusions of space, solidity, texture, and light often assume the role of memento mori ("a memento of mortality")—a reminder that life is fleeting and that God is good, but his judgment is stern.

Therefore sunny or overcast landscapes can signify, respectively, promise or menace. Imaginary bouquets might remind the viewer that real flowers, like everything else in the world, must inevitably wilt and die. Similarly, unfinished banquets may allude to life's uncertainty or serve as a call for moderation.

The Development of a Uniquely Dutch Taste

The religious and political wars that racked the Low Countries in the 1500s forced the population into mass migrations. By the mid-1600s, the survivors had settled into two lands with distinct social values and different tastes in art.

Flanders, essentially modern-day Belgium, which was the southern area closer to Catholic France and under the domination of Spain, remained Catholic and royalist. Altarpieces, court portraits, and allegories glorifying the monarchs typify many of the Flemish paintings in the Gallery's collection. Flemish artists like Rubens and Van Dyck relished vivid colors and lively movement.

Breaking away from Flanders, the northern Low Countries, nearer to Protestant Germany and Britain, merged into the United Provinces. This confederation, commonly called "Holland" after its most powerful province, became a republic mainly populated by Calvinists.

These early Protestants believed that altarpieces encouraged idol worship. Ruled by princes in name only, the Dutch elected their leaders. Therefore, without church or court patronage, artists turned toward nature and daily life for subject matter. And compared to Flemish painting, Dutch art normally employs more balanced compositions, limited palettes, and clearer light.

No hard and fast line, however, separates Dutch from Flemish styles. The two countries' largest cities—Amsterdam in the Netherlands and Antwerp in Belgium—were only ninety miles apart. Moreover, in the seven Dutch provinces themselves, all the major cultural centers lay within a day's journey of each other by horse or boat. Artists moved freely throughout the Low Countries, sharing experiences, techniques, and choices of subject matter.

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