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Historical Context and Major Features
The Dutch Protestants and the Flemish Catholics went their separate ways after the later sixteenth century. The situation is so completely different in Holland that it is difficult to imagine how, within such a tiny area, two such opposite artistic cultures could flourish.
Although closer in outlook to the Germans, the Dutch were ethnically the same as the Flemish, who were, in turn, closer in viewpoint to their neighbors to the south - the French. A Catholic, aristocratic, and traditional culture reigned in the Flanders of Rubens.
In Holland, severe Calvinistic Protestantism was puritanical toward religious art, sculptural or pictorial although many of the Dutch were Catholics, including a number of painters.
The churches were swept clean of images, and any recollection of the pagan myths, the material of Classicism, or even historical subjects, was prohibited in art.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, religious subjects and, later, Classical and historical subjects had been the major stimuli for artistic activity.
Liberated of these sources, what remained to enrich the lives of wealthy Hollanders? For they were wealthy!
During the early part of Spanish rule, the Dutch, like the Flemish, prospered The East India Company was formed, and the discovery of the New World opened up further opportunities for trade and colonization. The wars of independence from Spain made Holland the major maritime country of Europe; its closest rival was England, another Protestant power in the times of the Spanish decline.
The great Dutch commercial cities, such as Haarlem and Amsterdam, had been stimulated and enriched, and civic pride was strong. Although it was not internationally recognized until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, Holland in fact had been independent from Spain since about 1580 and was extremely proud of its hard-won freedom.
The Dutch are 'the envy of some, the fear of others, and the wonder of all their neighbours'. So wrote the English ambassador to the Dutch Republic, Sir William Temple, in 1673.
In the 17th century, the Dutch republic became an economic and military superpower. It was also an era in which Dutch science and arts blossomed. This era is usually referred to as the Dutch Golden Age.
A Woman Peeling Apples (c. 1663) is a painting by the Dutch Golden Age painter Pieter de Hooch in the Wallace Collection in London. It is a genre painting showing a quiet domestic scene from the time, like most of de Hooch's works.
The elaborate fireplace and fur and embroidery in the mother's clothes show a prosperous household, and the cupid between the two figures implies a happy one. Its sensitive handling of light — in particular, natural light filtered into an otherwise unlit interior space — led 19th century art historians to attribute it to Johannes Vermeer, with whose work the painting does bear strong similarities. However, Vermeer's work typically portrayed a woman working alone instead of a family scene as in A Woman Peeling Apples. Most scholars also now believe that de Hooch was influenced by Vermeer instead of Vermeer by de Hooch.
In the right-hand corner of a room sits a woman, facing the spectator. She wears a black velvet jacket trimmed with fur, a red skirt, and a white apron. In her lap she holds a basket of apples which she is peeling. She holds out a long rind in her right hand to a little girl standing to the left and seen in profile. A tub is on the floor at the woman's feet. To the left is a fireplace with a kettle on the fire. The fireplace is lined with Delft tiles, and is enclosed with pilasters worked in low relief. Behind the woman hangs a mirror in a black frame. The sunlight enters through a window above to the right and illumines the wall and a corner of the mirror. The floor is composed of brown and white tiles.
Still life with a Page - the dramatic, monumental composition set in a grand architectural interior is typical of Fyt’s work and of mid-seventeenth century Flemish still-life painting in general. A note of extra drama is added to the composition by the blood-stained cloth and the contrast of the dead game with the live monkey, dog and parrot. The boy appears to have been added by another artist: an attribution to Erasmus Quellinus has been suggested.
The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals is the exuberant half-length portrait, a young man poses, arm rakishly akimbo, against a plain grey background. The painting is inscribed with the date (1624) and the sitter’s age (26). The work is unique in Hals’s male portraiture for the rich colour that is largely imparted by the sitter’s flamboyant costume: a doublet embroidered with fanciful motifs in white, gold and red thread, with a gilded rapier pommel visible at the crook of his elbow.
Neither the identity of the sitter nor the function of the portrait has yet been firmly established. The dazzling costume may offer some important clues, however. The motifs embroidered on the sitter’s doublet have been identified in emblem books of the time and were symbolic of the pleasures and pains of love; they include arrows, flaming cornucopiae and lovers’ knots. As allusions to gallantry and courtship, they may indicate that the work was painted as a betrothal portrait (cf. Van Dyck, P94), although no companion piece has been identified. It has also been suggested that the motifs (particularly the caduceus, the attribute of the Roman god Mercury) allude to an occupation in commerce and Pieter Biesboer has recently proposed that the sitter is Tieleman Roosterman, a wealthy Harlem textile merchant.
Hobbema, a pupil of Jacob van Ruisdael, began painting his characteristic richly textured woodland views in around 1662. This painting is an excellent example of this new phase in his art and may be dated to 1663 – 5. It demonstrates his delight in creating woodland vistas, varied with differing tree forms and patches of light, opening onto illuminated clearings with picturesque cottages. Even with the threat of an impending storm, his vision of nature is cheerfully domestic, in contrast to the dramatic intensity of his former master, Ruisdael.
Gardner, Art History Through the Ages,
The Wallace Collection website