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Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Little Masters

River Landscape, 1652, Jan van Goyan
Americans seem to have an affinity for Dutch art, especially that from the seventeenth century. Undoubtedly one of the reasons is that Dutch society, the art market, their taste in painting, and their economy was very much like our own today. Some paintings were sold in expensive galleries, others in shops along the street, others by dealers (who might be painters themselves) from their homes, and even in street markets like so many apples or melons. Artists such as Rembrandt (when he was in vogue) would get hundreds, even thousands of gilders for their work while etched prints sold for little more than mere pennies. And, like Americans today, everyone had framed art on their walls corresponding in price and quality to their economic station in life. However, one of the more surprising difference not so common in American art today but very prevalent in the Dutch art scene was a surprising degree of specialization insofar as subject matter was concerned. If you wanted to buy a painting, you chose your artist based upon your choice of subject.

Amsterdam Seen from the South, 1680,
Jacob van Ruisdael
A major form of subject matter, then, as now, was landscapes, but then there were those who painted only riverscapes, while others did only seascapes, or cityscapes, or even travelscapes, which presumably covered everything in between. Beyond this, other artists painted only winter scenes with canals and lots of skaters (this is Holland remember), while others painted only moonlight scenes (obviously the night shift). Being a great seafaring nation, ships were quite popular, but here again, some artists painted only single ships (as in ship portraits) while others painted shipping in general or perhaps battle scenes. Genre scenes of common everyday life were very popular, and you chose your artist depending on whether he painted exterior or interior scenes, and beyond that, whether you wanted a neatly scrubbed interior or one displaying less than immaculate housekeeping. Other painters specialized exclusively in garden scenes, broken down into those depicting polite conversation, genteel games, or romantic intrigue. The buyer could also choose painters who painted only scenes of light housekeeping or those doing the macho tavern brawl scene. If your tastes were more spiritual, a few artists specialized only in church interiors (with or without ongoing services).

Avenue at Middelharmis, 1689, Meyndert Hobema
If you liked animals, there were artists who specialized in cows and bulls. Others painted only horses or hunting scenes. Still-life painting was another major category elevated for the first time to a place of equal importance with everything else. And of course, there were portraits--single portraits, double portraits, sedate group portraits, or rowdy street gangs (as in Rembrandt's famous Night Watch). The number of specializing artists ran in the hundreds with perhaps thirty or forty of them being quite exceptional. Together, this group has come to be known as the "Little Masters." Often mentioned among them are those such as Jan van Goyen (river scenes), Jacob van Ruisdael (cityscapes), Meyndert Hobbema (travelscapes), Albert Cuyp (cows and sundry livestock), Pietre de Hooch (immaculate interiors), Jan Steen (drunken parties), Adrian Brouwer (just plain drunks), Willem Claesz Heda (breakfast still-lifes), Pieter Saenredam (austere churches) and the irrepressible Franz Hals (really exciting portraits with any number of subjects). Of course neither Hals or Rembrandt were "Little Masters," and Rembrandt limited himself only insofar as he painted mostly people, but in the helter-skelter Dutch art market of the seventeenth century they competed right along with the others, and sometimes not too well, I might add, for the generous art dollar (or gilder, as the case might be) that floated about really quite freely.

The Bitter Draught, c. 1635,
Adriaen Brouwer

River Landscape with Cows, c. 1635,
 Aelbert Cuyp

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