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The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting from the Stadel Museum at the Guggenheim
ertgen van Bilderbeecq' (1633), by Dutch artist Rembrandt that forms part of the exhibition 'The golden age' at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, northern Spain. The exhibition shows part of the funds of Frankfurt's Staedel Museum, which is considered to be one of the more important collections of Dutch and Flemish painting of the 17th century of Europe. EPA/LUIS TEJIDO.

BILBAO.- From October 7, 2010 to January 23, 2011, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao will present The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting from the Städel Museum, a splendid selection of masterpieces from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, one of Europe’s most important institutions. The Museum owns a unique collection of seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings from the so-called Golden Age, the period of greatest Dutch hegemony.

Installed in the galleries of the Museum’s third floor, and sponsored by Fundación BBVA, the exhibition offers visitors a journey through 130 masterpieces from the period, most of which have never been on display in Spain before. Through historical painting and portraiture, as well as genre painting, landscapes, and still lifes, these works showcase the Dutch elite’s specific taste and particular ideals.

Curated by Jochen Sander, Deputy Director and Head of German, Dutch, and Flemish Painting at the Städel Museum, the exhibition includes masterpieces by over 80 artists, including the most prominent ones from this period: Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Peter Paul Rubens, the Brueghels, Jordaens and Teniers, Gerard ter Borch, Jan Steen, Jan van Goyen, Cornelis de Heem, Karel van Mander, Dirck van Baburen, Abraham Mignon, or Adriaen Brouwer, among others In the decades after 1568, when the Netherlands revolted against Spanish Habsburg rule, the United Provinces in the north successfully became a decisive power in world trade. A sense of identity and national pride was formed against this background and the bourgeois business elite, who were accumulating vast fortunes in those years, wished to capture their values and ideals in the paintings that adorned their halls. From the standpoint of historiography, this period of economic bounty, reflected in the quality of Dutch artwork, was called the Golden Age.

The seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings that played a central role in the collection of merchant and financier Johann Friedrich Städel (1728–1816) make up a large part of the Städel Museum collection, which was created in his hometown, the commercial metropolis of Frankfurt, after his death in 1816. The contents of this collection, which has been built up for almost 200 years through donations, as well as planned purchases of outstanding individual works, offer an overview of European painting from 1300 to the present. Specifically, the collection of Dutch and Flemish painting from the Golden Age garnered fame in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, ranking among the world's foremost collections thanks to extraordinary acquisitions that continue to enrich it even today.

Scope of the exhibition
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao presents an extensive selection of Dutch paintings enhanced by significant and representative Flemish Baroque works in a thematic tour of five major sections that correspond to the major painting genres in which the artists of the day specialized: still lifes, history, landscape, portraiture, and genre painting and interiors, which attest to the Dutch elite’s tastes.

The achievements of the so-called Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish paintings, a period that spans from approximately 1580 to the early eighteenth century, are exceptionally represented in The Geographer , a masterpiece by the great Dutch painter Jan Vermeer that is on display in Spain for the first time. The colorful pictorial elegance, optical delicacy, fusion of levels of consolidated genres, and union of art and science combine to make this painting a symbol of Dutch painting of the period and thus, one of the exhibition’s pivot points. For the first time since it was inaugurated, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is welcoming a work by this great master, a pioneer in the use of optical tools, such as the camera obscura, who produced just over thirty works during his career and whose relevance to art history was not recognized until two hundred years after his death.

Still lifes
The exhibition of Dutch and Flemish paintings from the Städel Museum collection starts with a magnificent selection of still lifes in gallery 304. Still life painting was established as a separate pictorial genre for the first time in the late sixteenth century, almost simultaneously in the Netherlands and Italy. Still life painting occupied a secondary place within the hierarchy of genres in seventeenth-century art criticism because it depicted inanimate objects. However, still lifes from the Golden Age more than offset the lack of human interaction though a realistic reproduction of detail that fascinated collectors of the day. In fact, many of these works were coveted on the international art market and automatically became status symbols for their owners.

Still life paintings in the seventeenth century had nothing in common with mere reproductions of the visible world. The sumptuous subjects by the acclaimed Jan Brueghel the Elder contain allegorical or moral interpretations, as well as a famous staging of luxury and the refinement of the plants exhibited. One example is Bouquet in a Glass Vase, located in the section of cabinet paintings in gallery 303 because of its small size. However, the floral pieces by painter Rachel Ruysch, the most widely recognized and successful female artist of the day, give precedence to an interest in botanical and zoological accuracy over moral evocation. Still Life with Bunch of Flowers in a Glass Vase is a magnificent example of her remarkable talent for painting. In turn, the vanitas ostensibly evokes the perishable nature of earthly goods and represents the quintessence of the Baroque sense of life, as demonstrated in the splendid Vanitas Still Life by Peter Willebeeck, a master of the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp.

Still lifes also served to demonstrate their owners’ pretensions to status. As Dutch trade companies came to dominate world trade and the bourgeois elite amassed huge fortunes, the objects depicted became more exotic and valuable and their arrangements increasingly sophisticated, as shown by Sumptuous Still Life with Copulating Sparrows , a masterpiece by Cornelis de Heem. In the monumental Fish on a Kitchen Bench by Jacob van Es from Antwerp, the objects depicted also reflect Holland’s rise as a world trading power that exported local goods such as fish, cheese and beer.

This exhibition of local products was soon replaced by luxury goods—glassware and tapestries from the Mediterranean, spices and shells of exotic marine animals from India and Indonesia and luxury china—which became common motifs in still life painting. Still Life with Fruit, Pie and Drinking Vessels by Jan Davidsz de Heem is a virtuoso display of high table culture through sumptuous dishes and expensive imported goods.

It is not surprising that in the wealthy Dutch middle class’ gradual shift towards the aristocratic lifestyle, still lifes would incorporate hunting motif in the second half-century. Still Life with Dead Hare and Birds by painter Jan Weenix from Amsterdam is a magnificent example of the wealthy class’ pretensions.

History painting had a special meaning in the seventeenth century. To be able to reproduce Biblical themes, ancient poetry, and contemporary literary works, artists needed to be knowledgeable in the fields of literature and history, as well as possess the skills specific to painters of still lifes and landscapes. All these skills aimed to help the paintings’ viewers properly understand the action represented. The principles of history painting, developed mainly in Italy, were summarized in the Schilder-Boeck (Book of Painters), whose author, Karel van Mander, also worked as a history painter in Haarlem (Holland).

David Playing the Harp before Saul by Dutchman Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn occupies a prominent place in the exhibition. If paintings by the so-called “pre-Rembrandists” are often characterized by an elaborate staging and complex series of figures, Rembrandt managed to convey the characters’ moods better than any other artist in history, representing the moments of maximum tension in each scene. This painting masterfully reflects the inner tragedy of Saul, King of Israel, and portrays the moment when, overcome by jealousy, he decides to kill the young shepherd David with a spear while the latter is playing the harp. The number of illustrations of this painting and copies made afterwards provide an idea of the importance and consideration with which it was viewed by Rembrandt’s contemporaries.

Other pieces featured in this section are a study of a head entitled King David playing the Harp , a painting begun as a particular type of representation known as tronie, by another great master of history painting, Flemish Peter Paul Rubens, court painter to Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella and creator of popular large-scale historical altar paintings with extremely rich compositions. Initially a study head of an anonymous elderly man created by Rubens in preparation of his great narrative paintings, the tronie was reworked after Rubens’ death by Jan Boeckhorst. He enlarged the painting on two sides, added hands, harp, the brocade mantle and the ermine collar as well as the gold chain and thus transformed the study haed into a narrative depicting King David playing the Harp to glorify God.

Coastal regions played an important role in seventeenth-century Holland, since the sea ensured the Republic’s economy through fishing and maritime trade; yet it was also a naval threat, since enemy fleets arrived by sea. Hence, pictorial depictions of ships sailing across stormy or calm seas became the works most demanded by the mid-seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish bourgeoisie, more so than history, genre or still life paintings, to the point that landscape was long regarded as “typically Dutch” and even today defines the concept of the Golden Age. The beautiful seascapes by Simon de Vlieger, such as Single-Mast and Frigate Firing Salute on a Calm Sea, and those by his follower Willem van de Velde are good examples of this.

Few Dutch painters of the time could capture the expanse of sky and vivacity of clouds as adeptly as famous Dutch painter Jan van Goyen, whose monochrome landscapes feature prominently in this section of the exhibition. From the middle of the century on, van Goyen gave a new and decisive impulse to landscape painting and was responsible for the Netherlands’ typical image; he also introduced dune landscapes that quickly became very popular.

The show also includes extraordinary examples of topographical townscapes represented by brothers Job and Gerrit Berckheyde, who attested to economic activity and prosperity.

Canal Landscape is a major, high quality example of the early work of Aelbert Cuyp, one of the distinguished classes’ favorite painters, who flooded Dutch landscape paintings with shepherds, cattle and a golden light that would give them a southern air. Northern Europe also offered exotic motifs. Jacob van Ruisdael and Salomon van Ruysdael dominated the art of filling landscape depictions with intense Scandinavian-looking atmospheres, as can be seen in the dramatic Wooded Landscape with Waterfall and Approaching Storm by Ruisdael and Ruysdael’s idyllic River Landscape with Ferry .

Most Dutch painters created numerous small cabinet pieces often painted on copper plate. Many paintings adorned the walls of bourgeois homes in Holland, but particularly valuable works had their own place: they were either stored in especially designed storage furniture from which they were taken out for presentation or they were permanently installed in so-called art cabinets, richly decorated pieces of furniture that in turn were opened only to select visitors. In the center of this section of the exhibition a smaller exhibition space houses a selection of these jewel-like cabinet pieces.

Portraits served a social function to a greater extent than other genres, since they represented the status of the figures represented, as well as their social and family ties. One of the peculiarities of Dutch painting during the Golden Age were the group portraits that reflected individuals depicted on the basis of their activity, e.g., members of civilian militias or the surgeons guild.

However, most Dutch portraits were made for the family sphere. In the seventeenth century, it was customary to order double portraits (pendant) or replicas of portraits on the occasion of an engagement or wedding. After several years of marriage, couples also commissioned portraits to strengthen their link, visibly and subsequently transmit this to their heirs, so that over time, galleries of ancestors were formed in bourgeois homes that attested to a family’s antiquity as well as its social advancement and prosperity.

Since the demand for portraits was ample and unceasing, each city had specialized portraitists. This section displays masterpieces by two of the main exponents: Frans Hals, the most famous portraitist in Haarlem, who adeptly characterized his models in brushstrokes with an almost abstract effect, and Rembrandt, the coveted history painter who conquered the Amsterdam portrait market in the 1630s and experimented with unusual poses.

Among the highlights of this genre are the anonymous ladies by both Johannes Verspronck, a guild member and probable apprentice to Frans Hals, and Nicolaes Maes, a disciple of Rembrandt’s and one of the main representatives of a new courtly portrait style in the northern Netherlands. The attention and care devoted to ornamental details can be appreciated in Verspronck’s Portrait of a Woman in a Chair , while Maes’ exceptional Portrait of a Woman in Black Dress includes a view of a landscape that thus links it to the Flemish tradition introduced by Anton van Dyck and represented the ambitions of citizens who yearned for a aristocratic lifestyle.

Head of a Bearded Man in Oriental Costume by painter Arie de Vois of Leiden, another masterpiece in the exhibition, is a typical example of tronie, a type of representation masterfully cultivated by Rembrandt and Frans Hals, among others, in which the model’s individuality was subordinated to the affection expressed.

Just as family portraits often reflected a family’s economic well-being through its dress or stately interiors, children’s portraits had a special charm, since the somewhat rigid representation of adults aware of their social status contrasts with the casual air and joy in these paintings. The Portrait of Susanna de Vos , Daughter of the Painter by history painter Cornelis de Vos of Antwerp, the only Flemish artist to specialize in children’s portraits in the early years of the 1620s and 1635, depicts the girl sitting in her baby chair happily swinging her feet while looking at the viewer.

Genre painting and interiors
Genre paintings put the finishing touches on the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao’s exhibition of Dutch and Flemish painting from the Golden Age. As examples of depraved life, smokers and drinkers are two of the favorite motifs in seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting and beloved by prosperous bourgeois who, because of their social status as well as cultivated education, distanced themselves from these amoral behaviors.

As a mode of depiction, the scenes and protagonists could and had to be unpleasant, which is why the protagonists of these pictures were often farmers and individuals from lower social strata, following the rules of commedia.

A prime initiator of genre painting was Pieter Bruegel the Elder. In turn, Adriaen Brouwer, who had worked for a season with Frans Hals in Haarlem before returning to his native Flanders, disseminated these rough themes in both north and south. Drunken Peasant and the famous The Bitter Drink , a work of great technical virtuosity depicting a farmer and his contorted face, are outstanding examples of the genre. His fame at the time is attested to by the multiple copies and graphic painted reproductions that were made of it until the mid-twentieth century.

In Antwerp, David Teniers the Younger carried on the family tradition; he married Bruegel’s granddaughter and before working as a court painter for Archduke Leopold-Wilhelm in Brussels, he was especially and preferentially devoted to painting scenes of peasants, fairs and taverns. The exhibition contains a number of his most important works, such as Two Peasants Smoking at a Coal Fire and Smoker at an Inn.

In Holland, this genre—considered of low status—was above all practiced by painters from Haarlem such as Jan Miense Molenaer, whose famous work Man Smoking and Holding an Empty Wineglass can be seen in the exhibition; Adriaen van Ostade, who introduced elements of barn scenes in this genre; and his disciples Cornelis Bega and Cornelis Dusart.

These artists all had in common loose brushstrokes in which the lines remained visible. This somewhat “rough” and untidy manner seemed well-suited to themes of low moral and social status in which Jan Steen, a Leiden-born painter and pupil of landscape painter Jan van Goyen, achieved a special mastery. His famous works Tavern Scene and The Alchemist showcase his contemporaries’ vices and defects with a biting irony and sympathy.

Woman with Wineglass , by Gerard ter Borch, Woman Setting the Dinner Table by Gerrit Dou and Roman Tinker by Jan Baptist Weenix as well as the exquisite representation of Interior with Painter, Woman Reading and Maid Sweeping by Pieter Janssen Elinga are other outstanding examples of masterpieces featured in this section of the exhibition.

Guggenheim Museum | Stadel Museum | Jochen Sander |

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