In the 17th century, art was big business in the Netherlands. According to Peter Raissis, curator of European prints, drawings and watercolours at the AGNSW, “no other country in the span of 100 years produced so many paintings of such high quality as the Netherlands between 1600 and 1700.” Most of them were sold to denizens of the burgeoning middle class who were keen to show off.
“Certainly the Dutch revelled in their material wealth and worldly luxuries,” concurs Raissis. “They celebrated ostentation in the form of pronkstilleven, still lifes of lavish display.” Raissis cites as an example Pieter de Ring’s Still life with golden goblet, 1650–60. In this luscious composition the glistening fruits and seafood on display are so bountiful that they literally spill off the table.
The exhibition Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age includes many such paintings, images of conspicuous consumption. But as Raissis points out, there are plenty of more subtle and introspective works as well. Many of these are by Rembrandt. “His art embraces the magnitude of humanity in all its ugliness and imperfection,” says Raissis. “He understands pain and suffering and redemption. Look at the sympathy and insight with which he observed the life around him in all its wretchedness and then worked this into his most famous etching, The Hundred Guilder Print [Christ preaching, c1648]. Rembrandt is constantly reminding us of what it is to become or remain fully human.”
This etching is on show alongside works by Vermeer and numerous others. “Rembrandt and Vermeer are the artists everyone knows,” says Raissis. “But no doubt there’ll be lots of surprises, like the female painter Rachel Ruysch, whose floral still lifes are astonishing demonstrations of technical wizardry.” And, he explains, she was one of the most highly paid painters of the age.
Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum
Art Gallery of New South Wales
11 November – 18 February 2018.