Artists paint in a void, but they do not paint in a vacuum. One immediately associates the golden age of Dutch painting with Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals: They possessed, along with other painters only slightly less well known, the Midas touch that earned for the 17th century the epithet "golden."
But there was another man as important to the arts in his own way as its painters: King Willem III.
The William of William and Mary fame, who shared dominion over England, Scotland, Ireland, and the American colonies from 1989-1702 (after becoming Stadholder of the Netherlands in 1672), belonged to the House of Orange Nassau which has ruled the Netherlands from 1559 to the present day.
Historically, William is best remembered for his stand against the French and Catholicism, and his Glorious Revolution won him the devotion of his subjects and a prominent place in history.
Ironically, he is more famous for his hunting exploits than his contribution to the arts, and the exhibition on view at the Pierpont Morgan Library through March 15, "William and Mary and Their House," quite rightly focuses upon this neglected area. "Their house" was, of course, the House of Orange, and the exhibition is an anthology of its taste from the very first William to the incumbent Queen Juliana.
Compared with the French and English royal collections, the Dutch have inhabited the kind of chiaroscuro perfected by the nation's foremost painter, Rembrandt, and this exhibition turns a spotlight upon it at last. Another important aspect of the show is that it justly emphasizes the Dutch influence upon America, artistically as well as politically during William's reign.
These objects are often of greater historical than artistic interest, and the weight of the exhibition is in that direction. In other words, any visitor expecting to see masterpieces of Dutch painting will be disappointed.
There are, however, a few fine specimens, notably Rembrandt's "Self-Portrait as a Young Man," which depicts him flickering like a candle between youth and adulthood, a touching portrait of William's parents betrothed as children from the studio of Anthony van Dyck, and enchanted scene of "Exotic Animals by Melchior d'Hondecoeter, a dramatic portrait of Robert Cheseman by Hans Holbein the Younger, and a portrait of Queen Emma by Jan Toorop that is the quintessence of nobility and austerity.
But sadly missing from the exhibition are such masterpieces as Vermeer's "View of Delft" and Rembrandt's "Anatomy Lesson," which were collected by a later William and also hang in Mauritshaus.
Borrowed from the Queen of the Netherlands, several Dutch royal palaces, and major Dutch museums, the exhibition consists of paintings, drawings, prints, manuscripts, ceramics, porcelain, furniture, jewelry, memorabilia, and objets d'art; in short, a medley of fine and decorative arts. Most of the objects bear a direct relationship to the royal family such as the miniatures and medallions that immortalized its members, the Meissen china, and the carved furniture. Similarly, several of the paintings commemorate grand occasions, such as William's return to the Netherlands after his coronation in England.
The exhibition was organized by Dr. A. W. Vliegenhart, director of the Rijksmuseum Paleis Het Loo in Apeldoorn, and Charles Ryskamp, director of the Morgan Library. Both also contributed two essays to the historically detailed catalog.
Among the decorative objects made for William and Mary, the most impressive are Johann I Bartermann's silver furniture, particularly the table with the embossed top, and the silver sconces and chandelier; the Delftware which took the bizarre form of bulbous tulip vases and even a bust of William; and a towering Thomas Tompion clock.
Notable acquisitions by other Orangian monarchs are a solid gold cup and cover fashioned by the leading Dutch silversmith at the turn of the 16th century , Paulus van Vianen, one of the seven extant letters written by Rembrandt, a goblet with a rare-glass crown, and Queen Emma's spidery black lace fan inscribed with diamonds.
The treasures of the Dutch royal collections are not as effulgent as those from Dresden, for example, but reflects instead a national character more concerned with private pleasures and small moments than with public ostentation. Dutch art, with its celebration of the quotidian, is fundamentally bourgeois, and it is interesting to observe how the taste even of its monarchs reflect the attitude.
The history of the royal art collection prior to William's reign was one of repeated acquisition and dispersal. When William assumed power, the brilliant collection of Dutch painting assembled by his grandparents had all but vanished from the royal coffers.
William, whose interest in art may have derived from the fact that beginning at age two he was portrayed by more than 30 painters, sculptors, and engravers, set about restoring and fortifying the grandeur of the collection. Not only did he purchase works by Ruben, Van Dyck and other Flemish artists but he sought out the Italian masters Raphael, Titian, and Carracci and the German Hans Holbein.