An exhibition of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings acquired by the National Gallery of Art through the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund over the past twenty-five years is now on view in the West Building’s Dutch and Flemish Cabinet Galleries. Having recently been refurbished for the current exhibition, the Cabinet Galleries are meant to emulate the kind of domestic environments for which these modestly sized works would have been made, and to provide a sense of this for the contemporary viewer. With one of the three rooms lined with vitrines that display some of the works, whether they actually achieve this goal is debatable, but the superb organization of the exhibit and the black period style frames employed throughout certainly help.
One of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition is the variety of subject matter in the group, as well as of artists—not all of them well known outside of scholarly circles. Yet, they all present an impressive level of quality attesting to the wide range of talent in the region, and the discerning patronage that supported it. The work produced by these artists also demonstrates the general sense of optimism cultivated by the Dutch in this period, celebrating the extraordinary prosperity and recognition the tiny Republic had achieved through their extensive global trade. On the other hand, in almost all the paintings one can perceive the dichotomies of society that sustained a certain tension underneath all that wealth and optimism. A painting like Jacob Ochtervelt’s A Nurse and a Child in an Elegant Foyer (1663) is an especially poignant example. The central focus is a child, a boy who is not quite five years old as he is still unbreeched, in a crisp white linen dress. We can tell it’s the male heir of the approving couple in the background by the gold medal and chain that he wears across his chest. He stands with his nurse behind him holding his hand. With his other he drops a coin into the proffered hat of a poor boy whose mother stands outside the door nursing a baby. The child’s expression is arresting. He looks out at the viewer with a satisfied smile showing that he understands this act of charity, even at such a tender age. The sharp distinction between the interior with its marble floors and clean walls, and the torn clothes of the beggar, even in color, shows the consciousness that the wealth of the nation was hardly distributed equally. Practicing Christian virtues like charity while enjoying the pleasures of wealth, or even aspiring to them was a way of dealing with this dilemma on the part of a population that aimed at being a perfect Protestant society.
Dutch citizens of the seventeenth-century were fond of pictures that showed them carrying out ordinary activities, and although these were nearly always imaginary scenes (all of them painted in the studio), they were highly prized. Europe was in the middle of a climate interval that lasted about 500 years known as the “Little Ice Age” (roughly 1300-1800) when temperatures were generally low all the time and the winters were frigid. Optimism rules in Adam van Breen’s (1611) view of people of various classes enjoying themselves skating on the frozen river. While members of the upper class huddle near the river edge, a boy identified as an orphan, a municipal ward, by his red and black jacket, is seen behind them. The setting is imaginary, but the references are quite real.
Frozen or not, Holland’s waterways were vital networks for travel and commerce, and the country’s seacoast was its connection to the world. Many seventeenth-century genre paintings featuring both the rivers and canals, as well as marine subjects, some of which are in this exhibit, attest to this.
A largish painting from 1649 by Salomon van Ruysdael is a good example. The classically balanced composition is roughly divided into three parts: the land with an imaginary castle to the left, the water that extends to the horizon and comes around toward the picture plane and the sky, the largest area occupied by scudding clouds. The brushwork, while fairly smooth, captures the sense of the wind pushing these clouds up and left, while the low sun illuminates them from below. Near the anchoring tree is the ferry boat loaded with people and animals. An artistic fiction, it is infused with a sense of the plausibility of the everyday.
Near in date, but quite different is the painting by Jan van Goyen showing men working in the frigid temperature near an observation tower, while a horse drags a sled carrying people across the ice. The palette here is very limited, predominantly browns and grays, with touches of blue in the sky. No one looks very happy here, and all the figures seem to tuck in their hands against the cold. What is interesting about this work is the difference in the brushwork that is especially loose and tactile, particularly in the area of the tower and house to the right. The composition is balanced only by division of dark and light, and the feeling of a cold wind blowing inland is achieved with the painterly rendering of the speeding clouds that seem to weigh down on the scene below.
Botany and scientific illustration were passions of many in both the Spanish Netherlands (Flanders) and the Dutch Republic in the period. Since they were barred from training in life drawing of unclothed models, women artists were especially associated with still life renderings of flowers and of insects that were avidly collected by naturalists and kept in cabinets. Small paintings on copper or wood would often be used as covers for these illustrating the kind of specimens kept inside. Indeed, while many artists made spectacular still lifes in the period, often full of symbolic reference, a few women painters excelled at the floral bouquets.
Clara Peeters is among the few women artists practicing in Flanders in the period. Known especially for her flower paintings, although she also made still lifes of other subjects, Peeters was a prodigy beginning to paint complicated images from as young as fourteen. The current exhibit includes one very small work by Peeters that she probably painted in 1610, that is at age sixteen. Painted in oil on copper, a common support at the time employed to boost the luminosity of the paint, it features an oval form that simulates a portal. In it, a drinking glass containing various flowers rests on a stone ledge. Although the flowers look as if they were just picked and casually placed in the glass, the arrangement can be understood to carry a more complex message. Each of the flowers selected has a Christian reference. For instance, the red anemone is associated with the Blood of Christ, while the narcissus signified rebirth. Peeters signed her name, CLARA P, directly under the glass. Surrounding the oval are exacting depictions of various insects and a snail. The significance of the insects is variable, but were usually warnings of transience and vices. The snail may recall the Augustan motto festina lente—”make haste slowly”. The precision of Peeter’s rendering is reminiscent of manuscript illustrations of natural specimens and were likely painted from life.
A similar effect is seen in a much later work by Jacob van Kessel. On loan from the Folger Private Collection, the painting is not unique in this Flemish artist’s inventory, but it is the best preserved. Here one sees a combination of botanical and entomological illustration, but arranged in a harmonious composition that, with the lack of setting, reminds me of the “carpet mosaics” of late Roman art.
I’ll close this with mention of what was for me the most remarkable painting in the entire show—a small still life by Jacob van Walscapelle from 1675. A spray of purple grapes, a cut open pomegranate, hazelnuts and a Venetian style glass of sparkling white wine sit on the corner of a stone table that suggests an altar. The paint is completely smooth, the still life illumined with intense clarity from the left. The grapes, each depicted with extraordinary skill, including one wrinkled one, fall over the edge where the artist signed and dated the work. The central focus is on the pomegranate whose red arils are symbolic of the suffering of Christ. Yet, when planted they grow, signifying the Resurrection. The tripartite character of the hardy hazelnut symbolized the Trinity, it’s small size the extent of God’s power even in the smallest of things. Walscapelle’s still life is a near perfect combination of masterly painting and symbolic reference.
Clouds, Ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings, National Gallery of Art, West Building, October 17, 2021-February 27, 2022. Open Mon-Sunday 10am to 5pm. No reservations needed but masks are required.
 This association was suggested by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. in his entry on the painting in the exhibition catalogue, Clouds, Ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2020, p. 143.
Caption for banner image: Thomas de Keyser, Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Fancy Ruff, oil on copper, octagonal, 11 x 8 11/16 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery.