If ever there was a time to be in the Netherlands to admire seventeenth-century paintings, it is this fall. Hermitage Amsterdam brings us Dutch Masters from the Hermitage, presenting masterpieces from the treasury of its big sister in Russia. Combine this with the already exquisite collections of the Rijksmuseum, the Mauritshuis, and the Frans Hals Museum. There really is no better time to be in the Netherlands if you love the art of the Golden Age.
This article appeared first in Hello Amsterdam.
Starting 7 October, Hermitage Amsterdam is hosting the highly anticipated exhibition Dutch Masters from the Hermitage, Treasures of the Tsars. For the first time in its history, Hermitage Amsterdam presents great treasures of the other Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The State Hermitage’s collection of seventeenth-century Dutch masters is the largest outside the Netherlands, with around 1500 works of Golden Age stars. No other collection in the world includes so many paintings by Rembrandt. 63 pieces by 50 different masters will be traveling to Amsterdam.
Almost all the great Dutch Golden Age masters will be represented. Expect to see the names of Ferdinand Bol, Gerard ter Borch, Gerard Dou, Govert Flinck, Jan van Goyen, Frans Hals, Pieter Lastman, Paulus Potter, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Jan Steen. No less than six works by Rembrandt are joining in, too. Most of the works have never been back to the Netherlands since they were acquired for this art collection of the State Hermitage. Normally these masterpieces are on permanent display in the Russian museum. But for this exhibition in Amsterdam, they are making an exception.
Dutch Masters of the Golden Age
In the seventeenth century, the Northern part of the Netherlands was a prosperous place. The merchants of cities like Amsterdam and Haarlem became rich and famous, bringing wealth to the cities. Their fortune triggered a boom in science and the arts in the Low Countries, in particular that of painting.
In previous times the clergy and noblemen were the main commissioners of artworks. Now, the merchants were the ones that sponsored the artists. Emerging painters, wanting a successful career, started to settle where the money was. They moved to cities like the capital. Artists started to create history paintings, landscapes, seascapes, still lifes, genre-painting (scenes from everyday life), and of course portraits. The glorifying of the well-to-do men even lead to a whole new genre of portraiture, exclusive to the Netherlands: large group portrait painting. Of this genre, the Nightwatch by Rembrandt is the most famous example.
Becoming a master
During these times, competition among the artists was strong. Some painters were able to master different genres of painting, but most of them specialized themselves in one particular genre. They really had to step up their games, if they were going to sell their works. Many of them succeeded mastering a genre while creating their own unique style within it. Jacob van Ruisdael and Jan van Goyen became masters of landscapes. Gerard Dou and Jan Steen really knew how to depict scenes from the everyday life of the common man. Frans Hals and Govert Flinck became the portrait painters we still know today. Only a handful of the artists of that time could do it all, of them Rembrandt being the most recognized artist today.
This specialization of artists in a certain genre is one of the key features of the painting of the Golden Age. It is a reason why Dutch artists became successful and famous worldwide. Dutch painters created many masterpieces, which now occupy the best spots in museums worldwide. The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg takes the crown, with its largest collection of Dutch Golden Age artworks outside the Netherlands.
Russia’s love for Dutch art
The productivity of the Golden Age painters was by all means impressive. Several million paintings are thought to have been produced during the period, being incredibly popular by both wealthy people as well as the poor. Many people could find money to spare for a painting by a local talent.
In the eighteenth century, those works became more and more popular outside the Low Lands, particularly among the extremely wealthy. The second half of the eighteenth century brought a growing demand for Dutch Golden Age painting from collectors throughout Europe. The market was enormous, especially in Russia.
That the Russians were so fond of Dutch art was connected to the taste of Tsar Peter the Great, who loved the Dutch masters. The realistic depictions of everyday life, especially the domestic themes, was particularly popular. A Russian art collector in 1807 put the love of Dutch painting in these words: ‘The Dutch school is in some respects superior to others. It aims to be as faithful to nature as possible. […] The paintings are extremely detailed. The Dutch also have an excellent mastery of the art of color shading and color contrasts: this enables them to paint light itself, if I can put it that way.’
The Tsar family starts collecting
Dutch masters from the Hermitage will leave us in awe of the greatness of the Dutch masters but is also designed to explore the Tsars family’s love of these artists. The exhibition explains how these works were acquired or traded. When Tsar Peter the Great traveled to the Dutch Republic, little was known in Russia about Dutch artists or their works. Peter was one of the first Russians to show an interest in the art of the Low Countries. In 1716, at the age of 25, he acquired Rembrandt’s David and Jonathan. This was Russia’s first Rembrandt. It became part of the modest collection of artworks Peter the Great had started.
Catherine the Great
In 1762, Catherine the Great became Empress of Russia. It was she who started to build up a large art collection, as she wanted to present herself as an enlightened monarch. Catherine came up with a highly ambitious idea: to create a massive art gallery alongside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. She is responsible for creating the Hermitage as a museum. Between 1763 and 1789, she made many art purchases in Western Europe. Many Dutch masterpieces were acquired by the agents of the art-loving empress, who were active all across Europe.
Catherine’s descendants followed in her footsteps. Nineteenth-century Tsars Paul I, Alexander I and Nicholas I further expanded the collection, albeit on a less ambitious level than Catherine. By Nicholas’s time, it was becoming increasingly common to welcome the public to art collections. This development eventually led to the building of the New Hermitage, where the Tsars reserved special exhibition areas for the Rembrandts and other paintings from the Low Countries.
The Golden Age revives
Today, for a period of about eight months, Hermitage Amsterdam turns into a must-visit for anyone interested in this special chapter of the Dutch Golden Age. Many of the paintings have been restored or cleaned for this exhibition. A number of them even have new frames. The public, therefore, is able to see these extraordinary masterpieces in all its glory.
In addition to Dutch Masters from the Hermitage, visitors can cross the building to see the Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age exhibit, which is a treat in its own right. And don’t forget the seventeenth-century building itself. Dating back to 1683, it was originally meant as a home for elderly women. Various rooms from that period are now on view as part of a historical tour of the museum. You can complete the tour by a visit to The Wonder of Amsterdam, a new multi-media attraction about the early development of the city that just opened.
Dutch glory outside Amsterdam
Even though the Hermitage serves as the center of the Golden Age painters the coming months, your hunt for those type of treasures doesn’t have to stop in Amsterdam. Other great institutions that specialize in the art of the Golden Age tell the story from other perspectives. Visiting them will add to your knowledge of this important cultural period.
The Mauritshuis in the Hague is an excellent museum to visit. It is home to some of the best in Dutch painting from the Golden Age. Masterpieces such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt and The Goldfinch by Fabritius are on permanent display.
More than two hundred works from Dutch and Flemish masters are on display in the historical interior. To see them in the intimate rooms of the seventeenth-century monument near the buildings that house the Dutch government is a treat. Walking around in the Mauritshuis really transports you back in time, giving you a sense of what life was like in The Hague as a rich man.
Frans Hals Museum
If Haarlem is on your visiting list, go and see the Frans Hals Museum. The museum, named after the most famous Golden Age painter from the city, boasts the largest collection of paintings by Frans Hals in the world. In addition to paintings by Hals, the museum has work by his predecessors and his contemporaries
The earliest paintings date from the 16th century, which are mainly biblical scenes. Around 1590 Haarlem became the center of a new style called Mannerism. Typical of this style are masterfully painted figures in twisted poses. It paved the way for the art of the 17th century, in which Haarlem became a prosperous city and a center of art and culture. Frans Hals specialized in portraits but also painted large group portraits. In the museum, five of those large civic guard pieces are on display. Furniture, ceramics, and silverware complete the image of Haarlem as a center of wealth, art and culture.
The greater Amsterdam area is the perfect place to admire the Dutch painting from the seventeenth century this fall. Hermitage Amsterdam serves as a Golden Age hub, treating you to some of the finest masterpieces by Rembrandt and his contemporaries. These are works that normally don’t leave the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, so that makes it an extra special occasion. If you venture outside the capital, go and have a look at the Mauritshuis and the Frans Hals Museum. You will leave the Netherlands feeling like a Golden Age expert.
Dutch Masters from the Hermitage. Treasures of the Tsars. Hermitage Amsterdam, 6 October 2017 – 28 May 2018. Amstel 51, Amsterdam.
Mauritshuis, Plein 29, The Hague.
Frans Hals Museum, Groot Heiligland 62, Haarlem.