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Dutch Landscapes and Seascapes of the 1600s

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Overview

Seventeenth-century Netherlanders had a passion for depictions of city and countryside, either real or imaginary. Local scenery asserted Holland’s national pride, while vistas of foreign sites recalled the extent of its overseas commerce. Holland’s ocean ports teemed with fishing and trading ships, and the tiny country’s merchant fleet was almost as large as all the rest of maritime Europe’s combined. The Dutch prized seascapes and insisted on accurate renderings of each hull and rigging line. Genre incidents from everyday life animate most Dutch landscapes and seascapes.

Much of the Netherlands is a low marsh formed by the deltas of the Rhine and Maas rivers. A third of the country was actually below sea level, reclaimed behind dikes and drained through pumps run by windmills. In such a flat environment, the horizon seems to lie below one’s feet; so, the sky overhead dominates the view.

A quality that sets Dutch landscape paintings apart from those of other nations is the amount of space devoted to the moist, ocean air and the sun glowing through the ever-present clouds. With their emphasis on atmosphere, Dutch landscapes might better be called “sky-scapes.”

Meindert Hobbema, Dutch, 1638 - 1709, A Wooded Landscape, 1663, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.61

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A fleet of ships gathers in a river lined by trees and buildings in this horizontal painting. The horizon is low, less than a quarter of the way up the composition, and the immense pale blue sky above is filled with clouds with golden tops above dove gray undersides. The river spans the width of the painting and is congested with boats and ships, many festooned with red, white, and blue flags and banners. The vessels are crowded with people, mostly men wearing hats and black or brown garments. A ship to our right seems the closest to us and is the largest in the composition. A rowboat has pulled up to the side of the ship, and is occupied by a seated man wearing crimson, a standing man wearing black, and another wearing brown, who pulls the rowboat closer to the ship. Amid the densely packed deck over the rowboat, a musician plays a drum while another drinks from a flagon. Ships with unfurled sails, rowboats, and ferries fill the river behind and around the large ship. Churches and buildings are clustered along the riverbank to the left and trees line the river to the right.

The Art Market: Collectors and Critics in Holland

Foreigners were constantly amazed at the quantity and quality of pictures in Holland. A British traveler in 1640 remarked, “As for the art of painting and the affection of the people to pictures, I think none other go beyond them…. All in general striving to adorn their houses, especially the outer or street room, with costly pieces…; yea, many times blacksmiths, cobblers, etc. will have some picture or other by their forge and in their stall.”

Another Englishman suggested that the phenomenal investment in art was due to Holland’s small size, which prevented the more usual speculation in land and livestock. Instead, the Dutch stockpiled their profits in pictures acquired through art dealers, at auctions, or from commercial fairs.

In order to attract clients in this open and competitive market, many Dutch artists began to specialize in depicting particular subject areas. Such specialization helped establish a painter’s reputation in a way very comparable to modern brand names, whereby the buyer seeks a product based upon a company’s proven expertise. The artists who chose to define their careers so narrowly are sometimes called the “Dutch minor masters” to distinguish them from painters such as Rembrandt, Cuyp, or Steen who portrayed a broader spectrum of life.

Seventeenth-century theorists held that the principal goal of art was to depict the human body engaged in heroic or moral action. In this aesthetic classification, landscapes and still lifes ranked at the very bottom. As is often the case, however, critical opinion did not correspond to popular taste. Dutch artists created far more scenes of nature than historical allegories, and Dutch collectors often paid as much or more for such seemingly trivial subjects than they did for literary themes.

Aelbert Cuyp, Dutch, 1620 - 1691, The Maas at Dordrecht, c. 1650, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940.2.1

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We look slightly down onto a panorama with dozens of light-skinned men, women, and children skating and standing on a frozen river in this horizontal landscape painting. Most of the men wear black hats and suits, some with white collars and hip-length capes. The women all wear ankle- or floor-length skirts and some are covered with black cloaks that drape over their heads to their feet. Many people wear black but some of the clothing is scarlet, sage-green, denim-blue, beige, or slate gray. The touches of black and other colors alleviate a scene painted almost entirely with cool whites and silvery light grays. A few people draw the eye, like the man standing with his back to us, wearing dark gray and holding a tall pole in the lower left corner. To the right, a man kneels to retie a skate with a brown and black dog nearby. A woman wearing a crimson skirt and a couple clad entirely in fur-lined black clothing look towards a man and woman riding a horse-drawn sled on the ice, at the lower center of the painting. Another black-draped form in the sleigh could be a second woman wearing a cloak. A pair of boys play a game like hockey in the lower right corner. People gather and skate in pairs and small groups or ride in sledges into the deep distance. The buildings and boats lining the horizon, which comes about halfway up the composition, are painted in shimmering grays. The sky above is the same cool white as the ice below. A few birds fly across the scene.

All classes of Dutch society mingle while enjoying winter sports. From the lower left corner, a poor fisherman surveys the many skaters. At the center, well-dressed ladies ride in an elegant sleigh driven by a groom; the horse’s shoes are spiked for traction on the slippery surface. Two little boys in the right corner play a game of kolf, a cross between modern-day hockey and golf. And in the background, sledges act as commercial freighters on the ice.

Avercamp, who combined the Dutch love of landscape with scenes of daily life called genre, was among the first European artists to specialize in depicting winter. The pearly gray tonality here becomes ever paler and the forms less distinct as they move into the distance, subtly conveying a sense of deep space on a frosty day.

The setting may be the quiet village of Kampen northeast of Amsterdam. Very successful financially, Avercamp was called de stomme van Kampen, meaning “the mute of Kampen.” It is known he was deaf throughout his life.

Hendrick Avercamp, Dutch, 1585 - 1634, A Scene on the Ice, c. 1625, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1967.3.1

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The three ships in this large painting are the wide-bellied, seagoing vessels that transported much of Holland’s mercantile cargo. They display the Dutch flag of orange, white, and blue. These symbols of national optimism, however, are in peril of crashing against rocks during a storm. Each ship has a broken mast and, in the lower right foreground, floating wreckage reveals that one vessel has already sunk. Amid the dark gray and steely blue clouds and water, the sun’s golden rays give hope that calmer weather will soon return. The subject may be considered a vanitas, a reminder of the fleeting nature of earthly existence.

Although realistic in appearance, the painting combines imaginary elements that Backhuysen often used in his theatrical compositions. Complex shapes and sharp contrasts of light and shadow heighten the drama as do the massive cliffs and frothy spray.

Backhuysen, German-born, moved to Amsterdam in 1649 to study marine painting. During the last quarter of the seventeenth century he was Holland’s leading seascape artist, with royal and noble patrons throughout Europe.

Ludolf Backhuysen, Dutch, 1631 - 1708, Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast, 1667, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1985.29.1

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During the 1630s and 1640s, Dutch landscapes and still lifes underwent a monochromatic phase in which a single color pervades and unifies each view of nature. Here, a golden brown aura dominates the picture, from the vaporous clouds to the city skyline. Jan van Goyen increased the spaciousness of his scenes by lowering the horizon to give more emphasis to the atmospheric conditions overhead.

Van Goyen was instrumental in leading Dutch landscape painting to its full maturity. Compare his realistic view to Hendrick Avercamp’s Scene on the Ice; both works are monochrome in style. The earlier Avercamp, however, uses an artificial, bird’s-eye vantage that looks down onto the scene, whereas Van Goyen creates the illusion of standing on the shore opposite this bustling port.

Another view of the same city is part of the National Gallery’s collection. Aelbert Cuyp’s Maas at Dordrecht, painted about 1660, owes its convincing perspective to Van Goyen but adds a full range of colors, typical of the later, classical phase of Dutch landscape.

Jan van Goyen, Dutch, 1596 - 1656, View of Dordrecht from the Dordtse Kil, 1644, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1978.11.1

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Two light-skinned men on horseback ride towards us on a rutted, country road set in a sweeping view with a watermill along a river to our left, and a screen of trees to our right in this horizontal landscape painting. The horizon comes about a third of the way up the composition, and many of the trees and the watermill are shown against the white and dove-gray clouds rolling across the pale blue sky. The riders are small in scale when compared to the landscape. The man to our left rides a chestnut-brown horse and wears a brick-red jacket and a black, wide-brimmed hat pushed back on his head. The man to our right, on a silvery gray horse, wears a camel-brown hat and clothing. White streaks at their necks and cuffs suggest lace or linen undershirts. Both horses walk with their bodies angled slightly to our left on the curving path. Two dogs trot ahead of the riders, towards us. A charcoal-gray, wooden bridge beyond the men to our left leads to the watermill. The squat, wide building is constructed on a stone foundation with wooden post and beams that make a geometric pattern within the canary-yellow stucco. The gabled roof is covered with terracotta-red tiles at the peak closest to us, but the rest appears thatched in gray and tawny brown. One small chimney rises from the center and the other from the end farther from us. A tall, water wheel is affixed to the shaded side of the building closest to us. A few ducks float in the grass-lined river near the lower left corner of the composition. The trees that dominate the right half of the canvas are painted with shades of moss, sage, and muted jade greens and golden yellow. Only closer inspection reveals the tip of a church spire rising behind the treetops to our right. Moreover, a man wearing a tall sack on his back and holding a walking stick sits on a low rise near the lower right corner, and a man and child walk away from us along the path in the distance, into the trees. The leaves and twisting, ash-brown trunks are painted with meticulous detail.

Hobbema studied under Jacob van Ruisdael, who is also represented in the Gallery’s collection. As friends, they made sketching trips into the countryside together. The same motifs occasionally appear in the work of both artists, but their attitudes differed greatly. The older Ruisdael invested nature with poetic, brooding grandeur. Hobbema approached nature in a more straightforward manner, depicting quaint, rural scenery enlivened by peasants or hunters.

To create his picturesque canvases, Hobbema rearranged certain favorite elements such as old water mills, thatch-roofed cottages, and embanked dikes. Hobbema’s hallmark is rolling clouds that give promise of a refreshing rain. Patches of sunshine illuminate the rutted roads or small streams that lead back into the rustic woods. All six of the National Gallery’s canvases by Hobbema share these characteristics.

In 1669, Hobbema was appointed Amsterdam’s inspector of imported wine. This civil-service job must have been profitable because very few paintings date from the remaining forty years of Hobbema’s life.

Meindert Hobbema, Dutch, 1638 - 1709, The Travelers, 166[2?], oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.31

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In almost complete darkness, we seem to stand outside near reeds and grasses lining a river spanned by narrow, arched, stone bridge ahead of us, with buildings and trees along the banks to either side beneath a sky filled with clouds that glow blush pink, flint gray, and lavender in brilliant moonlight in this horizontal landscape painting. The horizon line comes about a third of the way up the painting, just over the footbridge. The small, porcelain white moon casts an opalescent gleam on the water under the arch of the bridge. Barely visible in the gloom, a walking path lined by a fence in the lower right corner leads to a copse of tall trees to our right. Closer inspection reveals a man wearing crimson red and a woman wearing pine green standing together near the gate of a walled enclosure beyond the trees.  Moonlight glints on their white collars and cuffs, and on the gold buttons and embroidery on their clothing. Spires and buildings with stepped rooflines along the riverbank are outlined against the illuminated sky, though details are swallowed in shadow.

Van der Neer was in his late twenties when he decided to become an artist. He first painted winter scenes, partly under the influence of Hendrick Avercamp. By the late 1640s, however, Van der Neer developed his own specialty of nocturnes, or night scenes. These mysteriously dark, moonlit pictures belong to the early monochrome period in Dutch art, much as Avercamp’s cool grays or Jan van Goyen’s warm tans.

Here, luminous clouds float before a full moon. Reflecting the moonlight, a stream runs through the center of the scene and directs attention toward a church. A village and a walled estate close the symmetrically composed space at either side. Beams from the moon glint off window panes, glow upon a fashionable couple conversing by the estate’s ornate gateway, and silhouette a poor family crossing a bridge.

This nocturne’s radiance is created by multiple layers of translucent and opaque paint applied with consummate technical skill. Using the handle of his brush or a palette knife, Van der Neer scraped away top layers of dark color to reveal underlying pinks, golds, and blues in the clouds.

Aert van der Neer, Dutch, 1603/1604 - 1677, Moonlit Landscape with Bridge, probably 1648/1650, oil on panel, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1990.6.1

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Ruisdael, who learned his craft from his father and uncle in Haarlem, became the supreme master of Holland’s mid-seventeenth-century classical period of landscape. Here, the precise textures of foliage, bark, grass, rocks, and cascading water are illuminated by the cold, gray light of an approaching storm. Everything is in turmoil: thunderclouds threaten, and shepherds scurry for safety. For all its realism, though, the awesome scene does not portray the Dutch countryside, which has no waterfalls.

Ruisdael developed his majestic subjects by studying the work of other artists, sketching during a trip up the Rhine river to Germany, and consulting books of religious and social symbolism. The rotting trunk and stump of a white birch tree, for instance, relate the concept of death and the passage of time.

Two smaller canvases by Ruisdael are also part of the Gallery’s collection. Landscape contrasts a vibrant tree with a dead trunk. Country House in a Park suggests the vanity of mortal pursuits. In a forgotten, unattended garden, a storm forces lawn bowlers to abandon their frivolous game. Ruisdael’s famous pupil, Meindert Hobbema, adapted many of his mentor’s themes but not these deeper levels of meaning.

Jacob van Ruisdael, Dutch, c. 1628/1629 - 1682, Forest Scene, c. 1655, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.80

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A sand-colored church dominates the right two thirds of this canvas in this horizontal landscape. Low-lying blue-green recede into the deep distance to our left. To our right, the building is made up of staggered, squared-off walls with rectangular windows set at seemingly irregular intervals. To the left and near the center of the composition, a circular building has a low domed roof. Plants growing on the building suggest that this is a ruin. A tall obelisk stands in front of the round portion of the church, to the left of center in the composition. We seem to look into the arched ruins or construction of another building behind and above the church. A dirt road crosses diagonally from our left to right in front of the structure. A person wearing a red hat and purple robe sits inside a carriage drawn by two black horses. The driver wears blue livery, as do two men walking alongside the carriage.

As the foremost innovator in the accurate depiction of buildings, Saenredam has earned the title of “first portraitist of architecture.” The son of an engraver, he developed draftsmanship so precise that it is difficult to believe he never visited Italy to see the site of Saint Peter’s, the subject of this convincing view. In the 1530s, the Flemish artist Maerten van Heemskerck had worked in Rome, and, a century later, Saenredam used Heemskerck’s drawings as the basis for this painting.

The ancient, circular chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre stands beside the famous Vatican obelisk that, in 1586, was moved in front of Saint Peter’s basilica. Behind ramshackle Old Saint Peter’s rise the piers of Michelangelo’s dome for New Saint Peter’s. Saenredam portrayed the whole construction site as though it were an abandoned, overgrown ruin.

An artificial color scheme marks the earliest period of Dutch landscape painting, developed in the sixteenth century. To create a feeling of depth, Saenredam overlapped layers of contrasting tone: a dark foreground, through the buildings’ pinkish yellow, to a distant valley in bright blues and greens.

Pieter Jansz Saenredam, Dutch, 1597 - 1665, Church of Santa Maria della Febbre, Rome, 1629, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.34

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The fifteenth-century Gothic cathedral at 's-Hertogenbosch, a town near the Maas river, glows in soft daylight. The iconoclasts, or “image destroyers” of the Protestant Reformation, had replaced the church’s stained glass and whitewashed its vaults. On the choir stall at the lower left corner, Saenredam identified the subject and dated the picture 1646.

At no single moment in the cathedral's history, however, would all these furnishings, statues, and memorial plaques appear simultaneously. Saenredam's preparatory drawing of the interior, for example, is dated 1 July 1632, twelve years before this painting, and shows the altarpiece empty, hung with a curtain. Prior to his visit, the altar’s painting had been removed by Catholics fleeing the Protestants. Saenredam, a close friend of the altarpiece’s artist, ingeniously reinserted the missing picture in his painting.

Saenredam’s systematic sketches and measurements of specific structures allowed him to create such plausible impossibilities. His scrupulous observation of lighting and textures was to influence the views of domestic interiors by Johannes Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch.

Pieter Jansz Saenredam, Dutch, 1597 - 1665, Cathedral of Saint John at 's-Hertogenbosch, 1646, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.33

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