Dutch Masters 

National Gallery (London)

The Dutch Republic in the mid-17th century was a small federal country on the rise, prosperous and tendentially democratic. Its political identity emerged in the 16th century, when the provinces of the northern Netherlands, mainly Calvinist, rebelled against the Catholic Philip II of Spain. The King sent to these lands the Duke of Alba who carried out a bloody repression; however, the insurrection eventually won and the independence’s formal recognition arrived long after, in 1648.

In this context, Vermeer and Rembrandt, the greatest artists of the Dutch Golden Age Painting, lived and succeeded.

Rembrandt (1606-1669) - Belshazzar's Feast, c. 1636-8

Johannes Vermeer from Delft (1632 – 1675) has gained popularity quite recently, after a long period of study that began in mid-19th century and brought him out of obscurity and back to European awareness. The main author of this critical rediscovery was Théophile Thoré, French journalist, art historian and collector, the first one to identify Vermeer as the representative of an art made for the middle class and depicting people, opposed to the baroque “papist” art enslaved to power, predominant in the rest of Europe. Vermeer’s both city landscapes and intimate interiors scenes give us a tangible feeling of the Dutch everyday life at that time.

A young woman standing at a virginal (left); A young woman seated at a virginal (right)

Investigating the figure of the brilliant, prolific and fascinating Rembrandt Van Rijn (Leiden, 1606 – Amsterdam 1669) is not easy. The interpretation problems are mainly linked to the authenticity of his works (numerous and very different in genres and techniques) and to the mystery surrounding the personality of the painter himself, in some way exemplified by the persistent creation of self-portraits. Tzvetan Todorov in his essay on the painter (2011) writes: «Rembrandt belongs to that family of artists for whom the river of life separates into two branches that do not communicate with each other. The painter is sensitive to the humanity of everyone, from the crucified God to the child who learns to walk; the human beings who surround him, however, are put to the service of creation and of the creator.

The poetry and the vision of these two contemporary artists differ greatly and we are lucky enough to be able to admire their paintings at the National Gallery in London. The museum is home of dozens of paintings by Rembrandt whilst only some of them are exhibited in room 22; here we can appreciate a remarkable selection of self-portraits and portraits, as well as biblical and mythological scenes. On the other hand, two paintings by Vermeer are hung in room 16 one next to the other as a pair music themed; he only produced something like 36 paintings throughout his all career, so his presence in museums is still extraordinarily rare.

Partial view of room 22, National Gallery

Get lost with us in Vermeer’s silences and lights and be captivated by Rembrandt’s dramatic chiaroscuro and by the enigmatic looks of his characters!

Camila Ceppini for London Art Walk
March 2024