Exhibition: Going Dutch at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum
These 17th-century paintings are from a collection on Warwick’s doorstep… and many are on display together for the first time.
Portraits, landscapes, biblical, botanical… this exhibition of Dutch and Flemish paintings ticks a fair few boxes.
I’ll admit I haven’t delved too deeply into this period during my degree. However, I have always admired the exceptional naturalism of Dutch still-life.
At the beginning of my first year, during lockdown, the History of Art department ran ‘All About Art’ live chats online – these were fun, informal discussions about selected artworks.
It was during this time I discovered a little more about the moral messaging often imbued within many genre paintings of this period.
The 17th century was also a time of political and religious upheaval in the Netherlands, which coincided with a unique period of artistic development in Europe.
Many of the works on display here are attributed to workshops and copyists – but that shouldn’t discourage you from paying a visit. If anything, it helps us to question the need for a headline-grabbing name or an ‘original’ at all.
Instead, enjoy the exhibition for what it is – a varied assortment of artworks that capture a significant moment in European art history.
These are a few of my favourites.
Godfried Schalcken, Self-Portrait by Candlelight (1692-97)
I’m a sucker for a dramatic portrait and I’m especially drawn to artists’ self-portraits.
It’s always fascinating to read them as having a dual purpose; as an expression of personal identity, and a device to demonstrate their skills.
This portrait is no exception given the artist’s mastery of light and shade; the candle delivers a hefty dose of dramatic chiaroscuro. And he boldly points to his palette to state his case as the highly skilled maker of the work.
Unfortunately, the portrait didn’t have the desired effect at the time – Schalcken (1643-1697) had hoped to win a place as a court painter in England. Though he didn’t succeed, I’d say he should be pleased to be chosen as this exhibition’s worthy poster boy.
(Manner of) Nicolaes Berchem, Halt at the Ruin (c. 1640-1800)
This painting is thought to have been made in the 18th century by an artist inspired by Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683), a painter of Golden Age pastoral landscapes.
However, though the surroundings are suitably Arcadian, the gallery label finds the figures ‘clumsy’ and lacking the correct perspective.
It’s true, they are awkwardly proportioned in places, but it doesn’t detract from the overall effect for me. I enjoy the arrangement – especially how the man in red has raised his arm and effectively blocked our view of the woman beside him.
It adds a kind of urgency you might expect in a photograph. Or perhaps the artist just wasn’t very confident painting faces?
In any case, the donkey’s expression is hilarious, especially close-up. He looks absolutely done with that journey.
(Manner of) David Teniers the Younger, Winter Landscape (c. 1775-1825)
Another later creation inspired by the popularity of winter scenes in the art of the 17th century. David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) was well known for his peasant genre scenes, and this pays admirable homage.
The pastel pinks and pale greys of the sky somehow manage to suggest that muffled yet crisp effect you find in the air on a snowy day.
The pair of chimney sweeps to the right seem almost ghost-like, since the snow mounds behind them are just visible through the paint, as with the woman collecting firewood.
But it’s the dark, L-shape shadow beside the tree that I love most; it kind of balances the composition by framing the receding pathway which draws the eye deeper into the scene.
Attributed to Leiden School, Allegory of Poetry (date unknown)
Because I’m a nerd, I like to guess the identity of saints and allegories in art by their attributes, before reading the label (obviously). And I’m happy to say that I got this one right.
She’s a dead giveaway for Poetry, to be fair… she’s writing with a stylus on paper, and has a lyre in her arms. Poetry was often sung in antiquity, which her robes and laurel crown also reference.
I think the artist has painted her lips parted to show us just the tip of her tongue; it’s as if she’s about to speak, or is trying to find the words, while gazing upwards in thought.
If you want to brush up on your allegories and their emblems, Iconologia (1600) by Cesare Ripa is a good place to start. There is a free version in English, with illustrations, available online.
Maria Sibylla Merian, Insects of Suriname (1705)
This installation is highly significant as it reflects the intersection of several issues relevant to contemporary cultural understanding; namely colonisation, art and science, and female artists.
An entomologist and artist, Merian was inspired to travel to Suriname, in South America, to study the insects that had been brought back to the Dutch Republic from countries it had colonised for the purposes of trade.
The relevance of Merian’s detailed observations and naturalistic illustrations cannot be untangled from the difficult history of European colonisation, which this exhibition acknowledges.
Her book is on display behind a case as her illustrations flash above on a screen. It is a shame they were not presented on a larger, vertically orientated monitor.
However, the bird-eating spider illustration on view seemed realistic enough to warrant its containment behind glass.
Despite her pioneering findings, Merian’s work as an artist was later dismissed as amateur. However, now her work – and her art – is recognised for its contribution to scientific understanding in the field. It is, however, important to reference the impact of such ‘discoveries’ made in the name of empire.
- Going Dutch: Seventeenth Century Paintings from the Collection runs at Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum until September 10, 2023. Entry is free.