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Essay: Tales of the City

By: Lance Esplund

Dutch weather, much like that of Seattle, is temperamental: A storm is always coming, going or both. And because Holland’s sky—blue, gray, golden, mauve—is so fluid and sweeping, as well as seemingly pressed down to the ground, its architecture and inhabitants appear smaller and more incidental than they actually are. It is not surprising that the Dutch, in the 17th century, invented the genre of pure landscape painting. And it is also not surprising that Holland’s fluctuating sky, which often occupies the upper two-thirds of many of the greatest Dutch landscape paintings, appears to be the central theme of Dutch landscape painting itself. For a painter to ignore or suppress that sky would not only be deceitful but would disregard one of Holland’s chief protagonists. Van Gogh, even while working in the south of France, couldn’t shake it. Perhaps he was in fact something of a realist, his writhing forms the natural expression of a landscape painter who had internalized his native sky.

Many 17th-century Dutch artists thrived, to greater or lesser degrees, in a marketplace hungry for Dutch pictures about Dutch subjects. A proud, wealthy, mercantile nation built on international trade, the Dutch needed to do no more than celebrate the facts of what was before them—that which was recognizable, unidealized, seen, experienced, felt. Dutch artists chose the familiar and the homespun over mythological and religious scenes. Their subjects were their people, cities, landscapes, interiors, coastlines, churches, canals, town squares, markets and civic buildings. The Dutch Republic’s period of immense growth and prosperity, which lasted roughly 1609–72, when the Netherlands was invaded simultaneously by England, France and the bishops of Münster and Cologne, fostered a host of remarkable painters, including Aelbert Cuyp, Jan van Goyen, Frans Hals, Meindert Hobbema, Pieter de Hooch, Rembrandt, Jacob van Ruisdael, Hercules Seghers, Jan Steen and Johannes Vermeer.

Along with their solidification of the secular genres of still life, interior and landscape, the Dutch also perfected the genre of the cityscape. If landscape painting reflects our need to harmonize with our environment, if it is a poetical expression of the spiritual in nature and, therefore, the spiritual in man, then the cityscape acknowledges our dominance over nature. It recognizes, if not glorifies, the human ability to be in concert with nature yet able also to remake the world anew. Cityscapes are the focus of the superb, though uneven, exhibition Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age, on view through May 3 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Organized by Arthur Wheelock Jr., Vermeer scholar and curator of northern baroque painting at the National Gallery, and Ariane van Suchtelen, curator at the Royal Picture Gallery, known as the Mauritshuis, in The Hague, where the show originated,Pride of Place brings together approximately 50 cityscape paintings and more than 20 maps, atlases and illustrated books.

The show’s paintings alternate between views of distant Dutch cities seen from outlying farmland or water and those seemingly painted from the canals, windows and streets of the cities themselves. One of the unusual high points of this exhibition is Jan Micker’s A Bird’s-Eye View of Amsterdam (circa 1652). Based on a 1538 painting of the same subject by Cornelis Anthonisz, Micker’s work depicts Amsterdam as if seen from a hot air balloon around 1540. Amsterdam, which by then was already a leading trading center, with its canals, ships, buildings and surrounding water and farmland, is meticulously delineated. A strange combination of a naturalistic cityscape and a calculated map, parts of the painting stand parallel to the picture plane, while other areas lunge into space. Dappled shadows cast by clouds passing above our vantage point accentuate pockets of sunlight and shroud most of the picture in a veil of gray.

In Van Goyen’s View of The Hague From the Southeast (1650–51), a wide, panoramic view roughly 6 feet high by 15 feet across, the artist immerses us in the landscape yet somehow holds the world at a distance. Multitudes of toy-scale hay bales, livestock, carriages, boats and windmills, as well as figures engaged in boating, fishing, lounging, eating, and raking and loading hay spread across the field under a cloudy sky. It is impossible not to think of Pieter Breugel. Through diagonals, Van Goyen zigzags us to the distant skyline, which is dominated by a church steeple, and back to the picture’s foreground. The painting, which progresses a little too laterally and evenly, never completely gels. But it emits a smoky, dreamy light reminiscent of Camille Corot, and is unforgettable for its naturalism and encyclopedic buildup of tiny incident upon tiny incident.

The show also includes a suite of masterful pictures by Van Ruisdael, who, along with Rembrandt (whose work is not included in Pride of Place) and Vermeer, is unsurpassed in 17th-century Holland for his unification, natural yet sublime, of light, space and atmosphere. In Van Ruisdael’s cityscapes, Haarlem and Amsterdam, respectively, are dwarfed by immense, cloud-stacked skies. In these serene pictures, patches of misty gray and golden light illuminate city and countryside. The distant church in Haarlem With the Bleaching Fields (circa 1670–75) holds its faraway position on the horizon yet forcefully looms toward the viewer, creating an imminent presence that recalls Paul Cézanne’s views, painted three centuries later, of Mont Sainte-Victoire.

But nothing in the exhibition equals Vermeer’s View of Delft (circa 1660–61), painted from outside the city’s walls. The crown jewel of Pride of PlaceView of Delftunfortunately did not travel to Washington. The painting, which came to the United States for the 1995–96 Vermeer retrospective, is thought to be too fragile and valuable to warrant another trip. Wheelock observed that a painting as singular asView of Delft can tend to distract from the larger story of

the exhibit. And its absence from Holland, where it is considered a national treasure, could drastically affect the annual tulip pilgrimage to The Hague. Yet it is precisely the singularity of View of Delft that gives spiritual resonance, weight and context to a show that can, at times, tend toward the factual and pedestrian. It is a canvas less than 4 feet wide, yet it is as compelling as larger cityscapes such as the 14th-century Italian painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s allegorical frescoes on good and bad government, as well as the 20th-century French artist Balthus’ Le Passage du Commerce-Saint-André.

In the greatest 17th-century Dutch cityscapes, the perceived world provided impetus enough: Civic pride and scientific curiosity, wedded with Protestant modesty and restraint, fueled works in which the facts of the world were embraced, not embellished. Things were accepted and enjoyed for what they were, as if their beauty could only be apprehended through humility. In many of these paintings the church or civic tower, though perhaps central to the composition, feels as natural a part of the landscape as the sheep, ship masts, trees and clouds.

In View of Delft, Vermeer has virtually emptied the city’s busy harbor of its ships, focusing instead on water and sky, which are held together by Delft’s wavering, panoramic skyline. Delft’s buildings, boats, bridges and entry gates bow near and far in space, bobbing in the plane, as if the painting were made of water. The light is silvery and cool, velvety and electric. Vermeer lingers just long enough on every relevant perceptual fact—grazing our eyes across brick, steeples, figures, ripples, rooftop and sand. But it is Delft’s twinkling, crystalline light, active sky and water, as well as the reflections of the buildings on the canal, which anchor us within the painting’s luminous atmosphere.

Sometimes, however, the Dutch mania for realism—for facts and nothing but the facts—feels dutiful yet uninspired. When Pride of Place falters it does so in paintings in which facts become more important than harmony. The pleasures of perception can be smothered under the weight of minutia.

Jan van der Heyden painted perfectly competent views of Amsterdam, in which the canals and trees, reminiscent of Claude, feel mystically tinged. But his buildings can appear to have been composed brick by brick, as if the painter, ever aware of the goal of verisimilitude, could leave no detail unaccounted for. The overall effect, as in pictures in the exhibition by artists Gerrit Berckheyde, Carel Fabritius and Daniel Vosmaer, can be weighed too heavily toward the side of the decorous and the documentary. In some of these paintings pride of place and love of light feel strong-armed by a pride in manual dexterity.

Each one of the artworks in Pride of Place conveys something essential about 17th-century Dutch cities. But it is in the paintings of Van Ruisdael, and especially in Vermeer’s View of Delft, in which light animates and orchestrates space, form and atmosphere, that we feel the inimitable presence of Holland but also something charged, humble and mysterious—something that moves beyond both pride and place.

Author: admin | Publish Date: April 2009

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