Dutch Landscapes in the Palace

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The 17th century saw an astonishing upsurge of painting in the Netherlands. Alastair Sooke admires its earthy charm.

An exemplary exhibition: Meyndert Hobbema, A Watermill Beside a Woody Lane, 1665/8

Dutch Landscapes
Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Reading the crisp catalogue that accompanies the Royal Collection’s new exhibition offers a reminder that art from the Netherlands hasn’t always found favour in Britain. Horace Walpole, the 18th-century antiquarian and man of letters, deplored Dutch artists as “drudging Mimics of Nature’s most uncomely coarsenesses”. In a letter of 1779, he complained that they “thought a man vomiting a good joke; and would not have grudged a week on finishing a belch, if mere labour and patience could have compassed it”.

By the following century, British tastes had changed: 34 of the 42 paintings in this exhibition were acquired by the future George IV between 1809 and 1820. But we can, at least, understand where Walpole was coming from.

Take Paulus Potter’s 1651 painting of two huntsmen on horseback stopping for refreshment at a tumbledown inn, after a spot of shooting in the dunes. As a cloddish lad adjusts the stirrups of the cavalier in sumptuous finery in the centre, the hunting companion in the background watches while his startled steed urinates copiously into the dirt. Her Royal Highness’s wall label is too polite to mention this scatological detail: in the catalogue, the curator, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, decorously refers to the “fondness” of Dutch artists for “supplying more information about country life than seemed strictly necessary”.

One of the chief pleasures of this exhibition is the close observation of everyday life by masters such as Philips Wouwermans and Aelbert Cuyp. There are several scenes of merrymaking, replete with people boozing, smoking, swaggering and dancing. There are country fairs abuzz with activity, as well as busy vistas of agricultural labour. Alongside hunting parties and well-to-do landowners and burghers, we find a ragged rabble of floozies and farmhands, blacksmiths and street-vendors, barefooted scamps and beggars with peg legs. What Walpole deplored as “coarseness” today registers as a pleasing refusal to pander to airs and graces, and a willingness to transcribe the sweat and stink of humanity — fitting for a country that, by 1650, had become the most populous nation in the world.

Often, the down-to-earth, homespun nature of Dutch painting is its most alluring quality. You can bet your bottom guilder that you’d encounter hospitality beside the hearth of the rickety public house in Isaac van Ostade’s Travellers Outside an Inn (1647). A ramshackle, endearing structure, as knobbly as the tree that rises up before it, it is the very definition of what my Dutch grandmother would call “gezellig” — a word that loosely translates as “cosy homeliness”.

This is not to say that Dutch artists during the 17th century were exclusively masters of boisterous scenes. Far from it: Dutch Landscapes contains an attractive spread of styles and subjects. Most of the pictures date from the middle years of the century, though one or two are earlier. Adam Willaerts’s The Embarkation at Margate of Elector Palatine and Princess Elizabeth of 1623 feels distinctly archaic. It depicts a scene of pomp and pageantry in Margate as James I sees off his daughter Princess Elizabeth, who had married Frederick, Elector Palatine. But the galleons and barques in the background bob upon a sea that looks a little too much like a rolling vegetable patch, with cresting waves emerging like florets of broccoli sprouting from the soil.

The painting forms part of a section devoted to maritime canvases by Willem van de Velde the Younger and others, in which the vessels upon which the prosperity of the Dutch Republic was founded are depicted with tenacious accuracy (and a whiff of self-congratulation). In his River Landscape with Sailing Boats (1651), however, Salomon van Ruysdael captures the subtle light of dawn with silvery serenity, infusing the whole with a sense of poetry.

Nearby is a glorious canvas by Salomon’s nephew, Jacob van Ruisdael, the greatest landscape painter of the age. The dark mass of a windmill, silhouetted against a dramatic cloud-filled sky, dominates the picture, the success of which depends upon the subtle interplay of light and shade (look out for the workers bleaching linen in the sunlight in the distance). The painting inspired Constable, who encountered it at the Royal Academy in 1821, and admired the “acres of sky expressed”.

Ruisdael’s painting is flanked by two landscapes by Meyndert Hobbema, who could imbue the natural world with fairytale-like enchantment. His trees seem to tremble and shiver with a frisson of wildness, animating the pictures with a spirit of mystery absent from the more ordered views of Jan van der Heyden, in which the application of oils is meticulous and finely tuned.

There are some duff notes: The Young Thief by Paulus Potter is a piece of sentimental, hyper-realistic kitsch (the dappled mare in the stable looks like a toy pony for a little girl). Unlike Shawe-Taylor, I find the same artist’s Young Bull of 1649, designed to be a rousing symbol of the republic, a pathetic specimen, crooked-eyed and scatterbrained — more milksop than proud beast.

But for the most part this is an exemplary exhibition, showcasing the artistic talent that flowered during the Dutch Golden Age.

  • Until October 9; 020 7766 7301
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