Traversing the canals and dikes of the Netherlands in April 2006, I was charmed by windmills, espaliered linden trees, step-gabled houses, and Delftware flower pyramids. But nothing compared to seeing Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Contained in a cabinet decorated with tortoiseshell marquetry and engraved pewter, this captivating showcase of luxurious miniature objects was assembled by a wealthy silk merchant’s wife in the late 17th century. It offers a fascinating glimpse at how well-to-do Dutch homes of Petronella’s day were furnished.
Not long before Petronella commissioned craftsmen to create this work of art for her, a gifted artist was amassing his own exceptional collection of interesting objects, not to display in a cabinet, but to use as props in the Biblical and Classical history paintings that he created in the studio of his Amsterdam home. The exceptional paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn and his contemporaries became the hallmarks of the Golden Age of Dutch painting.
Dozens of Dutch Golden Age artworks are on view in Life in the Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Masterpieces from the Dordrecht Museum, an exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art through June 16.
The Netherlands flourished during the 17th century. Thanks to trade and industry, middle-class Dutch leaders had money to spend on art to decorate their homes. Artists responded to these insatiable collectors by painting portraits, landscapes, seascapes, genre scenes of everyday life, still lifes, and architectural interiors. As in Petronella’s dolls’ house, the details in these works provide a fascinating look at that world.
Several Rembrandt etchings on view demonstrate the famed artist’s pioneering technique of employing subtle hatching to create dramatic lighting effects and expressive subjects.
Look for works by Samuel van Hoogstraten in the exhibition and you’ll discover that this pupil of Rembrandt’s was an accomplished painter from Dordrecht who developed an international reputation. Besides being a skilled illusionistic painter, he wrote plays, poems and a treatise on painting, and was an officer of the Mint of Holland in Dordrecht.
While capturing the likenesses of his fellow Mint officers in a group portrait, van Hoogstraten placed himself prominently in the front row to indicate his status. With hand on hip, seated at a right angle, and wearing a medal of honor that Emperor Ferdinand III awarded to him in 1651, van Hoogstraten commands the whole composition.
That same medal appears in one of the strikingly realistic trompe-l’oeil letter-rack paintings for which van Hoogstraten was known.
Van Hoogstraten was particularly fascinated by the perspective box. By looking through the hole at one end of a large box with painted interior surfaces, the viewer saw a three-dimensional scene. Click here to learn more about his perspective box with views of a Dutch domestic interior, now in the collection of the National Gallery in London.
Dutch painters realistically captured the flat horizons, cloudy skies and folk dress that characterize their homeland. Winter scenes with ice-skaters emphasize the longstanding tradition of both recreational and practical skating in Dutch culture.
Tulips are most commonly associated with the Netherlands, and in the 17th century, these flowers became such prized and popular status symbols that they were sold for exorbitant prices. “Semper Augustus” tulips, with flame-shaped red markings on white petals, were the most expensive of all; if the flowers themselves weren’t affordable, artists gladly accepted commissions to paint them instead. The frogs included at the bottom of the painting convey how precisely Golden Age artists depicted the natural world.
Tulip mania famously swept Holland, but did you know that the Dutch were also “shell lunatics?” Shell collecting was a form of productive leisure during the 17th century, and the hoard of opulent corals, sea urchins, and shells depicted in Abraham Susenier’s Still Life with Shells was an expensive expression of that fascination with maritime treasures from overseas colonies.
The arrangement of objects in sumptuous still lifes and popular genre paintings suggested hidden meanings meant to spark conversation. Can you detect the clues to what the artist was trying to say in this allegory? (“Life is short, so be good!”)
The whitewashed walls of stripped-down Dutch Protestant church interiors transform scenes into beautiful light-filled, distraction-free spaces, sometimes portrayed with dogs, who were allowed to wander inside.In contrast, imagine how opulent seven floor-to-ceiling landscape panels on view would have seemed when they were originally installed on the walls of a Dutch interior. The exhibit also features works of The Hague School, a late–19th century artistic movement that depicted Dutch rural life. Darkly lit, with a thickly applied palette of grays and browns, the paintings recall Rembrandt’s style, while their spontaneous brushwork shows the influence of French Impressionism.
Several carefully chosen objects complement the paintings. Silver salt cellars in the form of a male and female fish seller indicate the importance of seafood to the Dutch economy, while Chinese porcelain vases suggest how international trade led to financial prosperity.Two unusual silver goblets are particularly captivating. A “windmill cup” was filled with wine; then, the drinker blew into a tube to make the windmill blades turn, and tried to drink all the wine in the cup before the blades stopped spinning. A “Hansje in the Cellar,” used when a family was expecting a baby, had a tiny figurine hidden within a chamber at the center of the goblet that popped up as the cup was filled. To see how a goblet like this works, click here, then skip to 0:53.A high chair with a rounded shield in front to prevent the baby from slipping out resembles that in The Troublesome Guest, a Hague School genre scene.
Nineteenth-century Dutch children carried their books, paper and pens to school in this decoratively painted wooden box that could also be used as a writing surface. I would love to carry one of these!This 17th-century Dutch drinking glass is called a roemer; its stem is covered with little balls of glass called prunts, to help the drinker hold on to it. It’s similar to one pictured in a Flemish still life hanging nearby.For more, read Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art: Treasures from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, by Ruud Prie; Masterpieces of Dutch Painting: The Detroit Institute of Arts, by George S. Keyes, Susan Donahue Kuretsky, Axel Rüger and Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr.; The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad, by Anna Pavord; Dutch Art: An Encyclopedia, edited by Sheila D. Muller; Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Walter Liedtke; Artifice and Illusion: The Art and Writing of Samuel van Hoogstraten, by Celeste Brusati; The Universal Art of Samuel van Hoogstraten: Painter, Writer, and Courtier, edited by Thijs Weststeijn; The Visible World: Samuel van Hoogstraten’s Art Theory and the Legitimization of Painting in the Dutch Golden Age, also by Thijs Weststeijn; The 17th-Century Dolls’ Houses of the Rijksmuseum, by Jet Pijzel-Dommisse, translated by Patricia Wardle, and The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton, a novel inspired by Petronella Oortman’s dolls’ house.