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Exhibition explores Dutch and Spanish painting of the 16th and 17th centuries
Image of the exhibition galleries. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado.

MADRID.- Velázquez, Rembrandt, Vermeer: Parallel visions is an exhibition that encourages visitors to not only appreciate the quality and importance of the 72 works on display, some by the most admired painters of 17th-century Europe, but also to establish points of comparison between them.

The traditional and long-standing idea of the art produced in different parts of Europe is that it is notably different: that Velázquez, for example, is “very Spanish” and Rembrandt “very Dutch”. This viewpoint is based on the excessive influence that 19th- and 20th-century nationalist mindsets and ideologies have had on our way of understanding art. Studies from that period placed enormous importance on the idea that every nation had a different national character, as a result of which the notion that these differences were manifested in the art of each country became widespread. This perspective functioned to minimise the traits shared by European artists.

The case of 17th-century Spanish and Dutch painting is symptomatic of this. Separated by a war, the art of these countries has traditionally been interpreted as opposing. Nonetheless, the legacy of Flemish and Italian painting, the influence of which defined all of European art, was interpreted in a similar way in the two places. In the 17th century both countries saw the emergence of an aesthetic that departed from idealism and which focused on the real appearance of things and the manner of representing it. In their works the artists represented in this exhibition did not express the “essence” of their nations but rather gave form to the ideas and approaches that they shared with an international community of creators.

“Neither Velázquez nor Vermeer nor other painters of the period expressed the essence of their nations in their art, as has often been said, but rather aesthetic ideas which they shared with an international community of artists.” Alejandro Vergara, the exhibition’s curator

The painters represented in this exhibition worked in a historical and political context largely unknown to most Spaniards today but a legendary one in Holland. In 1568 a series of revolts against the Spanish monarch, Philip II, broke out in the old Low Countries. Led by the local nobility and headed by William of Orange, these revolts gave rise to the Eighty Years War (1568-1648). The result was the creation of two territories that were the forerunners of modern-day Belgium and the Low Countries. The latter, now generally referred to as Holland, is the one that is the focus of this exhibition.

Some paintings produced there and in Spain in the 17th century depicted the war, generally with a propagandistic intention. They include The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez (ca. 1634, Museo del Prado) and Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642, Rijksmuseum). The works on display here are of that type.

The birth of the new nation led many art historians to emphasise its uniqueness and to consider that this was expressed in its painting. Without denying its particular nature, Dutch painting shares many key traits with the art produced in the territories of the Spanish monarchy from which it broke away.

*In the exhibition the modern-day terms “Low Countries” and “Holland” are used interchangeably. The former is the correct usage and the latter the most common, although in reality it is the name of one of the provinces of the Low Countries which is used to refer to the whole.

From the late 16th to the end of the 17th century the social elites in Spain and the Low Countries (the country generally referred to as Holland) dressed in a similar way, more so than other European countries. The preference for black was inherited from the taste of the leading ducal house of Burgundy which came to govern both Spain and the old Low Countries under Philip the Fair, Charles V and Philip II. Possibly for this reason, this fashion persisted in Spain and Holland until well until the second half of the 17th century wheras it fell out of favour in the rest of Europe in the 1630s.

From the starting point of the reality of clothes worn by their contemporaries, artists created the fictions presented in their portraits. Not only clothing but the sitters’ poses, their expressions and their accessories are similar in Dutch and Spanish portraits. This is because the typology of portraits in both countries evolved from common models created in the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy and in the country then known as Flanders (modern-day Belgium).

17th-century Spanish and Dutch painters shared a desire to humanise the subjects they depicted. The gods, saints and classical sages who appear in their works are people with normal features, dressed in humble clothes and inhabiting everyday spaces.

The realism of Dutch and Spanish painting reflected an international trend that arose in the last years of the 16th century as an alternative to Renaissance realism. While in Italy, France and other places this tendency soon died out in the 1620s, in Spain and Holland it survived until well into the second half of the century. This is the principal reason for the evident affinity that exists between many Spanish and Dutch painters.

Furthermore, the term “realism” is misleading: what painting presents to the viewer’s eyes is a transformation of reality, not a transcription of it. Neither Velázquez nor Vermeer simply painted what they saw. While they strove to achieve the appearance of the subject what they offer in their paintings is art, not reality.

Numerous writers in Spain and the Low Countries (the area generally referred to as Holland) expressed their pride in the still lifes painted in the 17th century by Francisco de Zurbarán, Pieter Claesz. and other artists. This pictorial genre emerged in the late 16th century from a cultural background common to all of Europe and evolved simultaneously in Spain, France, Italy, the northern and southern Low Countries and other places.

Art historians have traditionally focused on the local characteristics of still-life painting. Simon Schama observed that those painted in the Low Countries reveal “the Dutch ability to create a lot with a little”. Nonetheless, austerity and careful execution characterise many still lifes, not only Dutch ones. The same could be said of another category of work within this genre that revealed an ever more widespread taste for luxury. The affinities and differences between European still lifes depend less on the geographical origins of their creators than on their interest in different aesthetic trends and on the moment when they were painted.

Other sections of the exhibition offer a reflection on the artistic culture shared by Dutch and Spanish painters of the 16th century, for example focusing on three cases that reveal direct contacts between artists and collectors of those countries.

Some early sources state that Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681) travelled to Spain and painted Philip IV, and it is definitely known that he worked for the Count of Peñaranda in Münster when the latter was head of the Spanish delegation that signed the peace treaty which concluded the Eighty Years War between Spain and Holland.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682) painted various scenes of poor, mischievous boys that were influenced by the Dutch paintings he knew through merchants from Holland living in Seville.

Around 1633-41, Philip IV of Spain commissioned a series of approximately 45 landscapes from artists working in Rome to decorate the Buen Retiro palace in Madrid. They included three Dutch painters: Herman van Swanevelt (1603-1655), Jan Asselijn (ca. 1610-1652) and Jan Both (ca. 1618/22-1652), represented in this section by two paintings.

Many 17th-century Dutch and Spanish painters shared a similar loose, sketchy pictorial technique which left the marks of their activity very visible on the surface of the canvas and which a Spanish critic of the time described as “painting with big strokes of the brush”.

This manner of working was derived from Titian and other 16th-century Venetian painters. It went against earlier practice, which favoured a more descriptive technique with a “softer and more polished” appearance. The influence of Venetian painting persisted in Spain and Holland much longer than in other artistic centres in Europe and this fact explains the affinities between important painters from both countries.

Inspired by nationalist mindsets and ideologies, numerous 19th- and 20th-century art historians looked to works of art to find arguments for affirming national differences. Nonetheless, the pictorial techniques of the artists represented in this section reveal that their shared characteristics are at least as important as their differences.

The exhibition is on view at the Prado Museum through 29 September.

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June 28, 2019

Exhibition explores Dutch and Spanish painting of the 16th and 17th centuries

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