In Arts + Entertainment

Rembrandt and Vermeer: Nothing Was Too Lowly For The Dutch Painter’s Brush

Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum is now on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

“Nobody paints soft morning light falling across a white plastered wall like Vermeer,” Peter Raissis, curator of European printers and drawings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, tells me.

I glance into the frame he is talking about, ‘Women reading a letter’ (1663), the sole painting on a navy wall, that sits directly opposite one of Rembrandt’s later self-portraits. I can’t help but agree with him. (Although there’s not much to argue with).

Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum is now on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, part of Sydney's International Art Series.

Johannes Vermeer, ‘Woman reading a Letter’ 1663, oil on canvas, 46.5 x 39 cm Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam (A. van der Hoop Bequest)

I’ve been trying to work out what captivates me most about Vermeer’s work. The way he uses light? His understated elegance? The way he exalts in monotony, in the everyday? Perhaps all three. “You just look at the background,” Raissis says, “the blue subtleties, the ochres, the yellows. He has this shimmering quality of light that transforms the scene. He takes something very ordinary – a real woman in an intensely private moment – and turns it into something memorable.”

Vermeer’s 1663 ‘Woman reading a letter’ is on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of the museum’s Summer International Art Series: Rembrandt and the Dutch golden age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum. It’s the first major exhibition of Dutch masters in Sydney, and includes six Rembrandts from the Rijksmuseum and one from the National Gallery of Victoria that has been specially cleaned for its first showing in 30 years.

Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum is now on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, part of Sydney's International Art Series.

Jan Davidsz de Heem, ‘Still life with flowers in a glass vase’ 1665– 70, oil on copper, 54.5 x 36.5 cm Rijksmuseum, on loan from the City of Amsterdam (A van der Hoop Bequest)

This particular work – one of 35 Vermeer’s around the world – is not only rare, but representative of the work produced by Dutch artists at the time. These works provide a unique window onto Dutch society – they say we have more of an accurate picture of 17th century Dutch society, than any other society in Europe. Why? Because the Dutch were prolific.

“It is estimated that no other European country produced so many paintings, of such a high quality in the space of 100 years,” says Raissis. “Something between five and six million pictures – that is a phenomenal amount.” We also have a porthole into their lives more generally – their work shops, homes, families, the list goes on.

Having sloughed Spanish rule and fought for independence, the new Dutch republic had an appetite for art – and it wasn’t just the nobility that wanted their portraits painted. While most 17th century European portraits featured princes, cardinals and entitled aristocracy, the Dutch painted cloth merchants, artists, physicians, doctors – essentially regular citizens.

Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum is now on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, part of Sydney's International Art Series.

Richard Brakenburg, ‘The feast of Saint-Nicholas’ 1685, oil on canvas, 49 x 64.5 cm Rijksmuseum, Dupper Wzn. Bequest, Dordrecht

“The big difference is that it’s art for every day people, regular citizens, the Dutch Burghers,” Raissis explains. 17the century Dutch painting marks “this real opening out and democratisation of art and… a completely new audience.” With the absence of papal rule, the new Dutch republic no longer had an aristocracy, nor an institution responsible for commission art (the Catholic church was possible the most important patron of the arts at the time.) Dutch artists ceased painting for the aristocracy and started painting for the people.

“It was the beginning of the art market as we know it,” Raissis says. With the removal, or absence, of great aristocratic commission and patronage, “the noisy stuff” as Raissis calls it, battle scenes, allegories, myths and grandiose religious paintings went out of fashion. These works were replaced with an increased concentration of the artists’ immediate surroundings, like Vermeer’s painting of the woman reading a letter. And in this new period of art making, nothing was too lowly for the Dutch painter’s brush.

Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum is now on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, part of Sydney's International Art Series.

Aelbert Jansz van der Schoor ‘Vanitas still life’ c1660–65 oil on canvas, 63.5 x 73 cm Rijksmuseum

There is a sense of humility, of openness and mystery in Vermeer’s Woman reading a letter. “It’s the quality of mystery,” Raisses says, “that sets it apart. He’s working within an established genre, but taking it to another level.” His works are quiet, intimate interior views, with a single figure or two, the light coming in from the left. “He’s not concerned about who the person is, but takes this kind of image to consummate perfection,” he says.

“When you look at it the idea of turning to the everyday, to recording reality, you notice [these artists] are also manipulating reality,” Raissis says. “There is so much mathematics and geometry behind the compositions. The intervals are so subtle, the relationships, the shapes, based on classical geometry. This adds to that intense mood of reflection. It’s the vehicle that carries the mood of the painting.”

Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum is now on at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, part of Sydney's International Art Series.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn ‘Self-portrait as the apostle Paul’ 1661 oil on canvas, 91 x 77 cm Rijksmuseum, de Bruijn-van der Leeuw Bequest, Muri, Switzerland

Vermeer’s work is sat directly opposite Rembrandt’s ‘Self-portrait as the apostle Paul’ (1661) in the center room of the gallery. (At this point Raissis notes that Rembrandt made about 45 self portraits throughout his career – more self portraits than the number of works Vermeer painted). While Vermeer is interested in understatement – the moment the woman is absorbed in her letter, Rembrandt gauges the viewer’s interest. “He’s interested in what happens when your eyes meet his eyes,” Raissis says.

In both works, Vermeer’s ‘Woman reading a letter’ and Rembrandt’s ‘Self-portait as the apostle Paul’, the subject is holding a text. Rembrandt is holding the epistles of St Paul; “You get the sense that he has read those epistles,” Raissis says. The work portrays “the thoughts and consequences of his mind. He’s looking at you, interrogating you and you get this incredible subtlety and complexity of inner life.”

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, ‘Bust of a man in oriental dress’ 1635 oil on panel, 72 x 54.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, gift of Mr and Mrs Kessler-Hülsmann, Kapelle op den Bosch

While Vermeer’s subject doesn’t engage the viewer into her text, Rembrandt does. “He’s looking straight out at us, as if the contents of the manuscript he’s holding is being absorbed, he’s considering the consequences, imploring you to engage with the book he is holding,” Raissis says.

This work, one of Rembrandt’s later self-portraits, is one of thought and feeling. He uses his limited colour range to magnify the drama of light and dark. “The paint is so candid, expressive and juicy and brilliantly captures the light with white and yellow falling across the turban, over his nose, onto the book he is holding,” Raissis says, “it could also refer to the apostle’s conversion from Saul to Saint Paul, when he was struck by light.”

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, ‘The three crosses’ 1653 (state III of V) drypoint and surface tone, 38.7 x 45.5 cm Rijksmuseum, Mr and Mrs De Bruijn-van der Leeuw Bequest, Muri, Switzerland

Van Gogh once said that Rembrandt’s work, “goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in language.” There’s a certain subtlety and complexity of emotion that you can’t quite take in at first glance. “This is what makes it so engaging,” Raissis says, “there is a whole lot of emotion going on there. Even a great novelist couldn’t describe in his pages what [Rembrandt] gets in one image. He is quizzical, worried, interrogating us… I always get the feeling he’s saying: ‘I know something about you that you don’t know about yourself.”

It’s what sets Rembrandt apart from the other Dutch masters – and the reason the Art Gallery of New South Wales has dedicated an entire room to his paintings and etchings.

“There’s such a kind of wealth of lived and imaginative experience in his art,” Raissis says. “And not only is he embracing the magnitude of humanity, but exploring the possibility of paint. He is prodigious and prolific.”

While Rembrandt embraces the magnitude of humanity, Vermeer gives a crystallised view of something transcendently beautiful. “He takes one of 100 inconsequential events that fill your day,” Raissis says, “and makes it magical.” I think that might be why I like Vermeer’s paintings so much.

(Lead images: Pieter de Ring, ‘Still life with golden goblet’ 1650–60 oil on canvas, 100 x 85 cm Rijksmuseum and Jan de Bray ‘The governors of the Guild of St Luke, Haarlem’ 1675 oil on canvas, 130 x 184 cm Rijksmuseum)

Published 30 November, 2017