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Art owes much to genius nurtured in Holland

By Theodore F. Wolff / November 14, 1983


The Dutch have every reason to be proud. From the late 15th century until deep into the 20th, they've produced a succession of truly remarkable artists - to say nothing of four or five who are universally acknowledged to be great.

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Name the world's greatest and best painters and the list will include a large number of Dutch artists, from Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, Ruisdael, Hobbema, De Hooch, Terbrugghen, Honthorst, and Steen - all from the magnificant 17th century - to Jongkind, Van Gogh, and Mondrian of more recent date.

Discuss the world's great printmakers, and Rembrandt will almost certainly be the first named. And when it comes to landscape painters, the 17th-century Dutch practically swept the field until the days of England's Constable and Turner (both of whom, however, owed a considerable debt to the Dutch conception of landscape) and France's great Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

For years, many laymen equated the word ''painting'' with Dutch works of the 17th century. In their mind's eye, they envisioned very realistically executed paintings that were rather dark and brownish in tone, and that depicted genre scenes, quiet interiors, panoramic landscapes, or men or women posing in their Sunday best. Such paintings were also easy to understand, heavily varnished, and enclosed within a heavy, carved, gilt frame.

Well and good. Dutch paintings of the 17th century, by and large, did look like that. They were, after all, intended to depict and to celebrate the newfound power, position, and wealth of the Dutch nation, and to show its pride in its accomplishments, its lands, and its cities. Newly rich businessmen demanded portraits of themselves and of their wives - as well as ''portraits'' of their homes and estates and of the other things they owned. Still-life paintings were bought and commissioned as evidence of the good life, and many a landscape depicted leisurely walks in the woods or streets, or showed the lush richness of the flat Dutch fields stretching toward the distant horizon.

Nothing could be more neat and tidy, more conservative in spirit, than that. And yet, ironically, only two other European countries, Italy and France, have produced more truly revolutionary painters, more artists who created new modes of expression, or who pushed toward greater formal realization of human reality through paint. In Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Mondrian, the Dutch gave the world three artists who helped mankind to know and to see itself better, and one who may have helped change the course of world art.

One cannot spend much time in the Netherlands without becoming very much aware of these four figures, and of how deeply rooted they were in Dutch life, geography, and culture. Vermeer, in particular, seems quintessentially 17 th-century Dutch - at least he does to this American viewing him and his time from a distance of several centuries, and from the perspective of a very different kind of world.

But not only that. The parallels I've always sensed in Vermeer's and Mondrian's art seem more obvious than ever after a few days here. Both artists had such an extraordinary sense of order, such an exaggerated sense of neatness, and such an uncanny and awesome ability to evoke stillness through their canvases that I cannot help feeling they would have understood each other very well - once Vermeer had overcome his shock at seeing Mondrian's abstract paintings.