When you think of Holland today, the words “world power” aren’t very likely to come to mind. But the Holland of the 16th and 17th centuries was a far different place. From modern commodity markets to the microscope to such incredible artists as Rembrandt and Vermeer, it’s hard to believe that so much could spring forth from a country so small. But of course they did, during what is now called Holland’s “Golden Age.”
Thankfully, this golden age of culture and beauty is not lost. One need only walk down to the Yale University Art Gallery to see it.
Until Feb. 3, the gallery is hosting an exhibition titled “Holland of the Imagination: Dutch Prints and Drawings of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” which includes 15 etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, plus works by Jacob de Gheyn II, Esaias and Willem van de Velde, Adriaen van Ostade, and others.
The works come from a Holland that possessed the highest literacy rate and standard of living in all of Europe, a Holland of banks and merchant fleets. And yet they also come from a Holland surrounded by wars, social tensions and religious turmoil.
But for all this, the various drawings, in their portrayal of the pleasures of everyday life, the flatness of the Dutch landscape, and often an admiration of the past, paint the picture of a nation generally at ease — although anxiety may lie below the surface. They use religion as a means to display the ordinary, not the extraordinary. They draw pictures of mud, cows and farms, hardly the classical Italian art form.
These various scenes have been grouped into five separate categories by the curators, but virtually all of them, despite their differing subjects, seem to display the same underlying vision of a unified nation of Holland.
The first section, “Labor and Trades,” contains among its works some engravings based on drawings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. “Big Fish Eat Little Fish” reveals the impact of commercialization on ordinary life. “Prudence” shows us the ideal Christian life, all the while telling us that it is indeed just an ideal, and not a part of reality.
“Peasant Life” brings us images of the simple, ordinary folk, using forms more moderate than those of Hieronymus Bosch and Bruegel. Although the underclass of the time was often considered restless and strong tensions existed among social classes, these works portrayed them as a calm and pacific peasantry.
“Landscape” consists of Rembrandt’s “The Three Trees,” “Landscape with Three Gabled Cottages Beside a Road,” and “The Goldweigher’s Field.” The works in this section display Holland’s countryside as it is: flat and boring, without a complicated history. The point of view is grounded, making viewers feel as if they were standing in that very spot. In a Paulus Potter etching, cows are the main subject, something which would have been unthinkable in an Italian painting. Everything just seems to emphasize the ordinary.
In “National Iconographies,” one can see works dealing with traditional Biblical subjects at a time when the Dutch were searching for a model on which to base their new country, recently freed from the Hapsburg Empire. Johannes Tangena’s “Testament of the Arminians,” which symbolizes Holland’s political crisis as a tower, is particularly interesting.
The last section, “Culture of Art,” consists mostly of self-portraits, three of which are by Rembrandt, and various scenes of art “in progress.”
On Jan. 30 at 12:20, Bryan Wolf, a professor of American studies and English, as well as one of the exhibition’s organizers, will deliver a talk on Dutch art.