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Dutch Still Lifes and Landscapes of the 1600s
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Overview

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.

Aelbert Cuyp, Dutch, 1620 - 1691, Herdsmen Tending Cattle, 1655/1660, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.59

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We stand on a dirt road looking at a group of light-skinned men, women, and children along with a few horses and dogs forming a loose line across the road, which is flanked with rows of buildings on both sides that converge in the tree-filled distance in this horizontal painting. The scene is painted mostly with sage and moss greens, peanut and caramel browns, cream-white, and black. Most of the people wear hats or caps. The women wear long dresses and the men wear jackets and pants. One man wearing a black jacket with buttons down the front, and with white at the neck and cuffs, leans down from atop a black horse at the center of the group. Another man with a tall, cream-colored, brimmed hat and white collar stands behind a dappled horse to our right of center. Men, women, and children, most wearing tattered and worn clothing, look on. One woman to our left holds a baby strapped to her back and others gather around the horses. A pair of men in front of a stone building to our right smoke long, white, tobacco pipes. Others peer out of the open door and windows. An illegible sign above the door suggests that this is a tavern. Leafy vines grow over parts of the building façade. In a doorway to our left, a woman sits on the ground and holds a spindle as she feeds wool with a spinning frame. A man leans down to touch the frame and a child looks away from us, into an enclosure in front of the building. People, horses, dogs, and chickens are scattered along the road into the distance, and a church steeple rises against the ivory-white clouds in the sky beyond. A partial inscription with the artist’s name and date appears in black paint in the lower right corner: “Isack van Os 164.”

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.

Isack van Ostade, Dutch, 1621 - 1649, The Halt at the Inn, 1645, oil on panel transferred to canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.49

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The life-sized depiction of animals creates a tangible sense of reality. In fact, many Dutch still lifes are full-scale representations of the real objects they portray. This quarry fancifully includes a domestic rooster, wild hare and partridge, and several songbirds. Also hanging from the cords are two red velvet hoods used to train hunting falcons. The only sign of life is a fly attracted to the blood on the cock's comb.

Hidden in the shadows behind the game pouch's silver buckle, a classical bas-relief is carved in the marble pedestal. While nymphs watch, the chaste goddess of the hunt, Diana, splashes water on Actaeon, a mortal hunter who surprised her at her bath. In punishment for embarrassing Diana, Actaeon sprouts the antlers of a stag and will be killed by his own hounds.

Van Aelst, who worked in Paris and Florence before settling in Amsterdam, was one of the first still-life painters to depict hunt trophies. His superb illusions of fur, feathers, and flesh set a major precedent for later French, British, and American sporting still lifes.

Willem van Aelst, Dutch, 1627 - 1683, Still Life with Dead Game, 1661, oil on canvas, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund, 1982.36.1

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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.

Holland's Maas river flows through France and Belgium, where it is known as the Meuse. In Aelbert Cuyp's radiant vista over the Maas' estuary at Dordrecht, crowds jam the docks, bugles and drums sound fanfares, and cannons fire salutes. Near the end of the Eighty Years' War, Dordrecht hosted a two-week festival in honor of 30,000 soldiers. On July 12, 1646, a huge fleet of merchant and navy ships set sail to return the men home from active duty.

This vast, sunny composition specifically accents one figure: the young man standing in the dinghy beside the large ship. The anchored ships at the left create a wedge-shaped mass that points toward him, as do some rigging lines. His head lies directly before the horizon, and his stark black outfit is silhouetted dramatically against the palest area of the picture, the morning mist over the far shore. Because he wears a sash with Dordrecht's city colors of red and white, he may be the festival's master of ceremonies and is probably the patron who commissioned Cuyp to document this historic event.

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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An elegantly dressed man and woman ride horses that seem to walk toward us and to our right in a landscape with low, rolling hills, stone buildings, and trees in this horizontal painting. The two horses and riders take up the right half of the composition. Both people have pale skin and look at us. The woman has a high forehead, a straight nose, a round face, and curly blond hair falling to her shoulders. She wears a sapphire blue dress with ornamentally slashed sleeves to reveal a white garment below. Her hat is adorned with blue and white feathers and she wears a string of pearls around her neck. The legs of her white horse darken to black below the knees, and the bridle is tied with blue bows near the horse’s ears. The sidesaddle sits on a woven, rug-like blanket. Next to her, to our right, the man rides a larger chestnut-brown horse with a white triangle between its eyes. The man looks at us out of the corners of his dark eyes under gathered brows. He has a long, straight nose and is cleanshaven, though a hint of a five o’clock shadow slightly darkens his cleft chin. His light brown hair falls in curls down past his shoulders and he wears a dark brown coat with voluminous white fabric rippling out above tan-colored gloves. He holds a riding crop in his right hand, on our left, resting against his hip. Near the white horse’s feet, to our left, a dark brown dog with a white nose sniffs at a plant. Behind it, another reddish-brown dog sniffs the ground near the horse’s back hoof. A third dog stands beyond, partially obscured by bushes and plants growing in the lower left corner of the canvas. A man wearing a tall black, wide-brimmed hat and carrying a long staff leads two slender dogs resembling greyhounds on leashes along the path, a little behind the riders. Two more elegantly dressed men ride horses toward us father back on the path. Sand-colored stone buildings, hazy in the distance, are clustered around a squared tower, possibly a bell tower, to our left. The land dips gently to the horizon line in the deep distance. The riders are silhouetted against a swirling slate-blue cloud that fills most of the sky in the top two-thirds of the painting. The sky clears to pale blue to our left and then warms to golden yellow along the horizon, beyond the buildings. The artist signed the painting near the lower left corner: “A. Cuijp.”

This double portrait on horseback is unique in Dutch art and seventeenth-century Europe, because equestrian likenesses usually were reserved for individual monarchs. The couple is probably husband and wife. Cuyp originally included a larger hunting party. Presumably the sitters wanted more attention directed to themselves, so Cuyp reworked and simplified the composition. The burdock plants at the left, for instance, conceal traces of several dogs now overpainted.

Reusing favorite motifs, Cuyp repeated the lady's white steed in his Horsemen and Herdsmen with Cattle. That picture, which portrays an imaginary hunt, is set against ruins of German castles and monasteries that Cuyp sketched during a trip up the Rhine river.

Outside the Netherlands, the five Cuyps in the National Gallery constitute the most varied collection of his work. River Landscape with Cows and Herdsmen Tending Cattle combine landscape subjects with genre scenes of daily life and animal studies. The artist, a prominent citizen of his native Dordrecht, very often depicted the cheerful optimism of a golden dawn light.

Aelbert Cuyp, Dutch, 1620 - 1691, Lady and Gentleman on Horseback, c. 1655, reworked 1660/1665, oil on canvas, Widener Collection, 1942.9.15

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A jumble of pewter plates and a pitcher, glass goblets, a gold chalice, a brass candlestick, and other vessels along with lemons, olives, and the remains of a mince pie are arranged on a creamy white tablecloth bunched on a dark evergreen tabletop in this square still life painting. The scene is painted almost entirely in shades of cool grays, gold, brown, and white against a deep beige background. The objects span width of the canvas across its center. At the left edge of the painting, a vibrant yellow lemon has been cut so its rind curls in a spiral that hangs over the front edge of the table. Behind the lemon, a scissor-like candle snuffer is propped against the wide ledge of the tall brass candlestick, its white candle nearly burned down. A few glistening olives sit in a small pewter plate and one olive sits on the tabletop near the lemon and candlestick. A glass goblet with a wide stem with textured knubs rests upended on an elaborately chased, gold, footed vessel that has been tipped over so its wide shallow bowl faces away from us. The tall pewter pitcher behind this is dented on its rounded body. The lidded gold chalice next to the jug is the tallest object in the painting. Next to the chalice, along the right half of the painting, is a glass oil cruet with a long, curving spout, a tall, cylindrical vessel holding a small pile of salt, and a straight-sided, low glass holding beer. In front of these objects, an untouched bread roll and knife sit on a pewter plate at the center of the composition, tucked partially under the rumpled white tablecloth. The remains of the mince pie with its pastry crust on a large pewter plate sits behind another plate holding a broken goblet and a piece of black and white paper rolled into a cone. A few empty oyster shells sit on the table to the left and right, near the lemons and mince pie. The artist signed and dated the painting along the edge of the white cloth near the lower right corner: “HEDA 1635.”

Heda's largest known painting appears, at first sight, to extend the hospitality of a sumptuous feast. Yet platters and knives teeter precariously over the table's edge, while goblets and compotes already have toppled. Perishable or expended items symbolize life's transience: a snuffed–out candle, spilled olives, half–eaten minced pie, and a lemon, only half–peeled.

From the 1620s to the late 1640s, Dutch artists preferred monochromatic tones for their still lifes and landscapes. Heda was a master of such cool gray or warm tan color schemes. Here, the gold, silver, pewter, and Venetian glass play against a neutral setting and a white tablecloth. Somewhat later in the mid–1600s, brighter colors would characterize the classical period of Dutch painting.

A specialist in banquet still lifes, Heda also painted "breakfast pieces" and, as a writer in 1648 noted, "fruit, and all kinds of knick–knacks." Willem Claesz Heda taught several apprentices including his son, Gerrit Willemsz Heda (the sz at the end of many Dutch names is an abbreviation for szoon, meaning "son of"). Gerrit's Still Life with Ham, dated 1650, reveals a strong debt to his father's style and motifs.

Willem Claesz Heda, Dutch, 1593/1594 - 1680, Banquet Piece with Mince Pie, 1635, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1991.87.1

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Gardening and the breeding of beautiful hybrids satisfied the Dutch interest in art and in science. Exotic flowers also indicated their far-flung explorations and their expertise in botany. In fact, a "tulip-mania" swept Holland soon after tulips were imported from Turkey in the 1550s. In 1637, Amsterdam's commodity market in tulip bulbs crashed, causing capitalism's first depression.

The thirty-one species of plants in this vase cannot bloom in the same season. Many of these blossoms have emblematic meanings. The upper flowers thrive in the sunshine that streams through De Heem's studio windows which we see reflected in the crystal vase. The lower plants, farther away from the light of heaven, droop and wilt.

Near the bottom, a salamander stares hungrily at a spider, while a snail, moth, and ants crawl on the marble shelf. All these creatures symbolize night and decay. On the white poppy at the top, a caterpillar and butterfly evoke the idea of rebirth from a cocoon or tomb.

De Heem spent most of his career in Antwerp in Flanders. Colorful extravagance, typical of Flemish taste, imbues his still lifes, and De Heem passed this opulence on to his followers, including Abraham Mignon.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Dutch, 1606 - 1683/1684, Vase of Flowers, c. 1660, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Fund, 1961.6.1

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We look across a dirt road or path at a tall, brick wall flanking an ornamented, stone gateway with a white, marble manor house in the distance beyond in this horizontal landscape painting. Atop a low hill, the sunlit manor is outlined against a vivid, light blue sky with silvery gray, fluffy clouds, which fills the top two-thirds of the composition. Statues line the gray, tiled roofline along the central section of the house, and more statues stand in the grassy lawn to either side. Closer to us, the gateway and people around it are cast into shadow. The arched gate is flanked by flat columns and is topped with a triangular pediment filled with relief sculpture of people and ornamental scrolls. A ramp leads up to the opening of the gate. Two men passing under the arch have long, brown hair and wear brimmed hats, long coats, breeches tied at the knee, and stockings. The man in front carries a walking stick. A woman wearing a white head covering and long, dark dress, carries a baby tied to her back and holds her hand out toward the men. Three brown dogs walk by the men, one raising a leg against the gate, and a fourth sniffs at the side of the ramp where it meets the ground. The red brick wall is topped with a balustrade. To our left of the gate and on the far side of the wall, two men lean on the balustrade, angled in toward each other as if in conversation, near a fountain with a female person on an ornamental urn. Below them, at the foot of the brick wall, a man sits on a cracked piece of marble, presumably an antique sculpture from a building, next to three long, trimmed logs. Wearing a royal blue suit with golden yellow stockings and a tan, brimmed hat, he leans forward to touch the collar of a dog while four other dogs stand, sit, and lie down near the man. To our right, the roofline of a large, red brick building is seen over the tops of a grove of trees on the far side of the wall. The painting style throughout is detailed and precise, so one could conceivably count the individual bricks in the wall, for instance.

Van der Heyden specialized in architectural scenes, often recording accurate views in Holland, Flanders, and Germany or rearranging actual buildings into fantastic groupings. This scene, though, is entirely imaginary; no marble palaces are known to have existed in seventeenth-century Holland. The classical mansion reveals Italian influence but is peopled with Dutch figures. Leaving the sculpted gateway with his pack of hunting hounds, a gentleman suddenly encounters a beggar with her baby. Within the sunlit formal gardens it may be assumed that all is a dream; reality lurks outside its shadowed walls.

Blocking out his compositions in broad masses of lighted versus shaded forms, Van der Heyden depicted textures meticulously. On close inspection, one notices that every single brick can be counted!

Also an urban planner and inventor, Van der Heyden understood the practical side of architecture as well as its beauty. He designed the first street lighting in Amsterdam, was fire chief of the metropolis, and is credited with the invention of the fire hose.

Jan van der Heyden, Dutch, 1637 - 1712, An Architectural Fantasy, c. 1670, oil on oak panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1968.13.1

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An abundance of plants, fresh fruit, flowers, birds, small animals, insects, and recently caught fish are piled in and tumble out of a woven basket in woodland setting in this vertical still life painting. The color palette is dominated by rich, fall harvest colors of jade and pine greens, plum purple, butter yellow, pumpkin orange with touches of silver and robin’s egg-blue. The scene is lit strongly by our left and the background is swallowed in shadow. The wicker basket with its tall, arched handle seems to have been set before a rough-hewn, stone archway. Birds perch in the tree branches above the basket and on the handle. The fruit in the basket includes green, red, and purple grapes, peaches, plums, oranges, and yellow pears. Tendrils of wheat intertwine through the fruit and leaves, and around the handle. Green, striped gourds sit to our left next to a cantaloupe at the foot of the basket. Emerald-green frogs, a live and a dead lizard, a caterpillar, snail, and insects sit, lay, or move on the dirt ground around the gourds and melon.  To our right, about a third of the way up the composition, worms spill out of a wooden box from which hang several fishing lines holding recently caught, silvery fish. A small, ivory-colored butterfly with black markings and a patch of vivid orange on each wing sits on the lid of the box. Above the box of bait, a nest with four cream-colored eggs is tucked among the branches of a hibiscus plant with pale blue, flaring blossoms. A mossy, narrow oak tree trunk bearing acorns rises between the basket and in front of the stone arch, and off the top edge of the painting. A fishing rod and a cylindrical wooden case painted golden yellow with rust-red designs rests at an angle across the basket to the ground behind the tackle box to our right. Cattails, rocks, and the profile of frogs are shown in shadowed silhouette around a pool of water in the lower left corner.

Many Dutch still-life painters silhouetted their carefully arranged foreground objects against neutral, blank backgrounds. Similarly, the forest backdrop here is so dark it nearly conceals a stone archway. The abundance of the sea and the land is suggested by the fishing rod, bait box, and catch of fish that surround a wicker basket overflowing with fruit and vegetables.

The work forms an allegory on the cycles of life. A nest of birds' eggs implies birth. Full blossoms and ripe fruit suggest maturity. The gnarled tree stump characterizes old age. Ultimately, death appears with the fish and a lizard, being eaten by ants. The wheat and grapes offer salvation by symbolizing Jesus' blessing of bread and wine at the Last Supper.

An early biographer noted that Mignon was "especially diligent," a quality that this stunning array of textures certainly proves. After training in his native Germany, Mignon moved to Utrecht. While there he probably worked in the studio of Jan Davidsz de Heem, who had briefly returned from Antwerp. Mignon consequently acquired De Heem's Flemish taste for rich color and complex design.

Abraham Mignon, German, 1640 - 1679, Still Life with Fruit, Fish, and a Nest, c. 1675, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. H. John Heinz III, 1989.23.1

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We seem to stand on a dirt road next to a row of buildings and houses that extends into the distance at an angle to our left in front of us in this vertical painting. People, all with light skin, come and go through doorways and hatches, work unloading goods next to a horse, and gather under a tattered awning down the road. Most of the people wear hats and dark clothing in tones of chocolate and pecan brown, black, golden yellow, with a few touches of brick red. A jumble of objects, including a barrel, a wooden trap, and a ceramic vessel, and some chickens are gathered in the lower right corner of the panel, seeming closest to us. A boy holding a long-necked vessel stands at an open hatch leading to an underground level of the structure closest to us. That building has a large, steeply pitched, thatched dormer on a red tile roof. Green vines grow over parts of the peanut-brown stone and brick façade. A white stork with long legs and a long beak stands at a nest built on top of the chimney. A sign hangs above an open door, through which a person leans, and a birdcage hangs below the sign. In front of the open door, two men, one wearing a golden yellow vest and one wearing teal, unload large wooden barrels from a horse-drawn sled. The chestnut-colored horse holds one back foot off the ground and the side of his hide is marked, perhaps with a sore. A tall tree with dark, moss-colored leaves separates the building closest to us from its neighbor. A group of people and children are gathered under an awning there. One boy in the group pets a white, long-haired dog. Nearby, a man using crutches makes his way down the road towards us. A pair of dogs, one black and one brown and white, tussle over something in the lower left corner. The row of buildings extends in a line into the distance with steeply pitched, pointed rooflines. A tower, perhaps for a church, appears in the hazy distance to our left, near the left edge of the panel. Clouds with pale peach tops and lilac-gray undersides sweep across the sky above, parting to reveal on a couple slivers of blue sky beyond. The artist signed and dated the panel with black paint in the lower right corner: “Isack van Ostade 1645.”

Tavern drinkers and idlers frequently appear in Dutch genre scenes of daily life, but depictions of workers restocking an inn are very unusual. Two laborers here are yoked together to haul beer kegs off a sledge. Their overworked, underfed horse bears the scars of a hard existence. At the cellar door a small boy carries a jug of ale, while the street teems with beggars, peddlers, and fighting dogs.

Like one other Isack van Ostade painting, The Halt at the Inn, this picture may suggest conflicting values represented by the tavern and the church. In both scenes, church steeples rise over the villages. Here, moreover, the inn's chimney supports a stork's nest, a traditional sign of good luck.

Isack was trained in Haarlem by his older brother Adriaen van Ostade, whose Cottage Dooryard reveals similar textures such as ivy climbing on crumbling brick.

Isack van Ostade, Dutch, 1621 - 1649, Workmen before an Inn, 1645, oil on panel, Gift of Richard A. and Lee G. Kirstein, in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the National Gallery of Art, 1991.64.1

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