Our friends in the north: When Low Countries art went Dutch


An exhibition at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts revisits a curious collection of family portraits, unfortunate peasants, farmyard beasts and extravagant Italian fantasies

A fresh look

While the Baroque was bursting out all over Flanders in the 17th century, the newly formed Dutch Republic to the north was keeping it real with sober still lifes and cool portraits. This division in styles is explored in a new exhibition at Ghent’s Museum of Fine Arts, drawing on work from its extensive permanent collection.

When the Low Countries split at the end of the 16th century, the south remained under the control of Spain and the Catholic church, while the north chose independence and Calvinism. Artists in the south continued to paint religious subjects, restoring the grandeur of churches damaged during the religious war and producing Counter-Reformation propaganda. The Baroque style flourished through painters such as Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Jacob Jordaens.

The north did not have centres of artistic production to match Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels, but its merchants had plenty of money to celebrate their own achievements and their new national identity. The paintings they commissioned and bought off-the-easel were more restrained, with a tendency to realism rather than extravagant religious imagery.

As big as it is, the museum’s collection cannot offer a complete picture of the Dutch Golden Age. It contains nothing by the period’s undisputed masters, Rembrandt and Vermeer – although it does boast a fine painting by celebrated portraitist Frans Hals. An older woman dressed in the austere black and white characteristic of the period looks out at us with a stern expression that seems on the brink of sorrow.

Instead what you get are the kinds of paintings that relatively wealthy people would have had in their homes. Hence the portraits tend to be of family members rather than public figures, and there are none of the guild or other civic portraits (such as Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”) that stand out in the period.

Calm before the storm

So what did the Dutch like on their walls? For entertainment they favoured scenes of peasants behaving badly, getting drunk at fairs or in taverns, or suffering the misfortunes of everyday life. This ranged from major disasters, such as Roelant Savery’s Bruegel-ish scene of a village being plundered, to smaller hardships, such as getting medical attention from a barber/surgeon, as shown by Egbert van Heemskerck.

They also liked landscapes, from extravagant fantasies of Italy to more domestic river and farm scenes. Life was sufficiently urbanised in the 17th century that rich Dutchmen could dream of the healthy air and freedom of country living without having to deal with its harsh realities.

Yet there is also something sombre about many of these landscapes, with the farm scenes often shown at nightfall or before a storm.

Animal pictures were also popular, from farmyard beasts to more exotic species. The birds are particularly impressive, from Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s sumptuous large painting of exotic water fowl (pictured above) to the more domestic birds painted by Aelbert Cuyp. It’s hard to say which has the more colourful plumage.

Once the birds are dead, they become part of another genre, the still life. This is where Dutch realism, and the museum’s collection, starts to excel. Tables are shown deluged with fish or fruit and vegetables, and cupboards are hung with feathery corpses. 

Advertising in the Golden Age

One of the highlights is a pair of studies by William Gowe Ferguson, a Scotsman shoehorned into the exhibition because he lived and worked for a time in The Hague and Amsterdam. His brightly plumed game and farm birds shine against the black-brown background of the larder, a drop of blood hanging dramatically from a rooster’s beak.

Some of these still lifes allow for deeper readings. AE van Rabel’s rendering of fish, bread and wine can easily be seen as a reference to the Last Supper. Meanwhile, Hubert van Ravesteyn’s study of a pipe, nuts and pitcher has recently been restored to reveal a branded packet of tobacco in the bottom left-hand corner, an early example of product placement.

Best of all is a series of “vanity” pieces, still lifes intended to make the viewer contemplate the fleeting nature of life and its material possessions. A skull rests on old books with curled pages in Jan Hendricksz van Zuylen’s vanity piece, while in the anonymous painting alongside, the skull is wreathed in ivy and a bird appears to have ended its life by diving head-first into an hourglass. Hendrik Andriessen’s vanity piece is simpler: a skull, a rose, a pipe and a twist of tobacco.

Finally, an encounter with the architectural studies of Hendrik van Vliet proves fascinating. On first glance these seem to be simple exercises in perspective, obsessed with the gaps between pillars. But once you learn to read them, the austere Calvinist interiors give up stories of freshly dug graves and mourning families concealed in the shadows. (Clues for the uninitiated are limited to the exhibition guide, which is only available in Dutch.)

The exhibition concludes with a selection of larger canvases that compare and contrast what was going on in the Dutch Republic with developments in the south. So, to counter van Vliet’s modest church interiors, we are shown the overwhelming grandeur of Saint Peter’s in Rome, painted by Wilhelm Schubert van Ehrenberg.

And to complement the still lifes, there is “The Fishmonger’s Stall” by Adriaen van Utrecht, which once hung in the kitchen at Sint-Pieters Abbey in Ghent.

The Golden Age Revisited, until 2 February, MSK Gent, Fernand Scribedreef 1

Photo courtesy MSK Gent