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The Dutch and the Art of Close Observation

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), “The Hundred-Guilder Print.” Etching; drypoint and burin on paper.

 (Photo by The Morgan Library and Museum)


If you go to the Morgan Library’s exhilarating exhibition “Rembrandt’s World: Dutch Drawings From the Clement C. Moore Collection” expecting to see a lot of Rembrandt, you will be disappointed. The name Rembrandt may be the drawing card, but Rembrandts are hard to come by; we must consider remarkable the presence of as many as four original Rembrandt drawings in a show from a single private collection. What you will come away with from this exhibit is an increased appreciation for the culture and countryside of the Netherlands of Rembrandt’s time. And you are guaranteed to discover many artists you have never heard of—wonderful ones! The best known of the artists include Ferdinand Bol, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Abraham Bloemaert, Aelbert Cuyp, and Jan van Goyen. But there are so many more! It makes you wonder how many artists in history have been hidden to us that we really ought to know—and have been missing out on all these years. The exhibition focuses on artists from Holland, who, like Rembrandt, never traveled to Italy or France, but instead chose to remain in their homeland and paint local subject matter.


Going to this lovingly curated exhibition can be compared to being welcomed into someone’s living room to see his treasured private collection. (The collector is Clement C. Moore, and if the name sounds familiar, it’s probably because he’s a direct descendant of the likely author of the poem commonly known as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”) Moore, a retired businessman, has delved deeply into the art of Holland during the 17th century, the nation’s golden age, when it had become a world power. In that era, the Dutch were affluent merchants and observant connoisseurs who were obsessed with looking and collecting.

They were also obsessed with vision and were the acknowledged leaders in the field of optics and optical devices: Three Dutch eyeglass makers are credited with the invention of the first useful telescope (between 1590 and 1608). The great Dutch scientist, Anton van Leeuwenhoek, sometimes known as the father of microbiology, used microscopes extensively. He started to grind lenses around 1668 and made about 500 microscopes—and observed countless microscopic creatures—during his long life (he died in 1723, when he was almost 91). He was most likely a friend of the famous painter Jan Vermeer, who was also born in 1632. I bring up these facts because one thing that all of the drawings in this show have in common is an acuteness of observation. 

My first impression upon entering the gallery was how startlingly fresh and modern the drawings looked. Having just taught a course on Vincent van Gogh (1851-1890), I recalled reading that van Gogh had been considered a pioneer in portraying real down-to-earth, dignified peasants rather than demeaning them (as drunkards in taverns, as Jan Steen regularly did, for example). But many of these 17th-century artists did display respect for peasants, representing people farming, fishing, and going to market. The artists seemed ahead of their times in other ways, too: some tiny figures in a moonlit scene by Pieter de With (c. 1625-after 1689) look forward to work by the 19th-century German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Others predict Realism and the Barbizon School of mid-19th-century France, whose members are frequently credited with being the first painters to set up their easels out of doors. Abraham Bloemaert, for example, “regularly sketched en plein air,” according to a Morgan wall label. (Technically that is not the same as painting out of doors, but these were almost like paintings in that they were considered to be finished drawings.)

In fact, these drawings are all unusual insofar as all were considered finished works of art rather than merely sketches for paintings (which had been the function of most drawings during and before the 17th century). But these framed and signed drawings would have been sold and purchased; their audience was the bourgeoisie, a new merchant class of connoisseurs who could afford them.

The exhibition is organized thematically rather than chronologically. Since Holland’s predominant religion was Protestant, there are very few religious paintings, (none of the Madonnas and lives of the saints so common elsewhere in Europe at the time). There are a few biblical scenes and allegories, but they are far outnumbered. The curators have broken down the 90 or so drawings into categories of portraits and figure studies, seascapes, and genre and market scenes among other categories. Toward the end of the show, there is a whole wall of animal depictions and scenes from nature.

One example is Cornelis Saftleven’s Two Cows by a River With a Church Steeple in the Distance, dated 1670. Like so many of the drawings in the show, it looks ahead to 19th-century Realism (in the art of the Frenchman Jean François Millet, for instance). It had been unusual to depict subject matter such as cattle before 1600, but with the increase in dairy farming during the 17th century, the cow became both a symbol of the new prosperity of the Dutch, and a sentimental look back at a peasantlike simplicity and piety of rural life. The drawing certainly would have appealed to wealthy collectors.

In general, the show gives us a picture of both what the Dutch wanted to see and celebrate. Since the nation was a sea power, there are quite a few depictions of Holland as a great seagoing nation. There are many farmhouses, market scenes, and (of course) windmills. 

And then there is Rembrandt.

The great Rembrandt print depicting Jesus healing the sick (commonly known as the “Hundred Guilder Print”)—and a rare pen-and-ink study for it that’s dated 1647-49—are special sights. The quick, emotionally rendered sketch of a woman in prayer at the center of the finished print, where she lies on a mat at the feet of Jesus, has been reversed and altered, as is usually the case when transferring a drawing into a print, however it still gives us an unprecedented look into Rembrandt’s working methods. The study in this collection is believed to be one of the last in private hands related to the famous print.

The period covered by the show happens to coincide with the founding of New Amsterdam—New York—by Dutch traders, so collector Moore found it especially appropriate that his collection should have its first public showing here in New York City at the Morgan Library.


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