Decent From The Cross

Dutch Masters


With an improved political and economic situation in the Netherlands during the seventeenth century, the way in which man and nature were represented by artists took a decisive turn toward realism, although it was not without its romantic sides.

This style expressed a new and refreshing spirit and was especially evident among the younger artists, several of whom are represented here.

This century was particularly fruitful and yielded many great artists: Rembrandt and Rubens of course stand out. But there were countless others whose influence spanned the centuries and extended to distant countries.

This exhibit will illustrate aspects of both the old and new spirit with examples of the work of Rubens, Ostade, Bol, Vorsterman, Lairesse, Vos, Visscher, Floris, Maes, Van Der Werff, Schut, Van Loo, Sadeler and Vliet. Rembrandt and Teniers will have their own exclusive shows at a later date and therefore are not included here.


What the Dutchmen brought with them from Italy, where many visited and studied, was the memory of fierce sunlight and the capture of the play between light and dark by means of a single line. This became an essential feature of their work.

The succinctness of line technique echoed the new spirit of the age. Full characterizations suggested by a limited number of strokes reflected a more democratic way of looking at things. The world was no longer overshadowed by dominating figures, but a place in which peasants and ordinary people had importance too.

Madonna & Child


Despite the powerful influence of foreign artists such as Reni, Guercino, Titian, Veronese, Raphael, Durer and Holbein, Dutch artists retained their individuality.

Freeing themselves from mannerism, the predominant style of the sixteenth century, they discovered the value of straightforward representation.

If one glances through the profusion of drawings that appeared in the seventeenth century, it is possible to trace, through all its diversity, certain common features. Above all, it is the interest in nature and the way people lived that characterizes this period. Its uniqueness rests on an inclination for colorful realistic details and an increasing avoidance of classical idealizations.

Picturesque incidents were sought and found. Plant, flower and animal studies appeared. Artists turned their attention to farmers, peasants, fishermen, tradespeople, skaters and boaters. Wherever possible they captured life and tried to give to the momentary and passing a permanent reality.



Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) is considered the greatest Flemish painter of the 17th century and the dominant figure of Baroque art in northern Europe. He was born at Siegen in Westphalia, but in 1587 moved to Antwerp, where he studied with three fairly mediocre artists, Tobias Verhaecht, Adam van Noordt and Otto van Veen.

In 1600 he went to Italy, where, apart from a trip to Spain, 1603-04, on behalf of Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, he remained until 1608. From 1605 he worked principally in Genoa and Rome. In Genoa he developed a new type of grand aristocratic portrait which was to form the basis of van Dyck's Genoese work.

It was in Rome, however, that Rubens' style was chiefly formed. His drawings show how thoroughly he studied the Antique, the great masters of the Renaissance and the leading contemporary artists, particularly Annibale Carracci, and on this basis he developed a style of heroic grandeur and amplitude.

On his return to Antwerp, Rubens was immediately successful. In 1609 he became court painter to the Spanish Viceroys, Albert and Isabella, and in the same year married Isabella Brandt: his portrait of himself and his wife undated, but presumably painted to mark their marriage, gives a wonderful picture of the young artist's vitality and self-confidence.

The works which established his reputation are the two triptychs of The Raising of the Cross and The Descent from the Cross (1610-11 and 1611-14). Both are works of epic grandeur, and The Raising shows the dynamic energy which was to be one of the leading characteristics of Rubens' work.

After these triumphs, Rubens was showered with commissions, and was able to execute them all only because of his extraordinary energy and highly organized studio. Among great artists perhaps only Picasso has matched his sheer fecundity and only Raphael his ability to organize a team of assistants.

Many of the leading Flemish artists of the time worked with Rubens as pupils, assistants or collaborators (van Dyck, Snyders, Jan Brueghel, Seghers) and his output included not only paintings on virtually every subject but also book illustrations, designs for tapestries and festival decorations.

Because of his courtly manners, great intelligence and linguistic skills, Rubens was also entrusted with diplomatic missions to Spain and England, where he was knighted by Charles I.

It was for Charles that he provided canvases, completed in 1634, for the ceiling of the Banqueting House in London, the only one of his large decorative commissions still in its original position.

Although Rubens' career was so public, there was also a personal dimension to his art, which found expression chiefly in his landscapes and paintings of his family (Helene Fourment with Two of Her Children, c.1637, Paris, Louvre). (Isabella had died in 1626, and he married Helene in 1630.)

Rubens was such a dominant personality that hardly any 17th century Flemish artist remained untouched by his influence, and he employed engravers such as the Bolswert brothers, Jegher and Pontius to reproduce his work and increase his international reputation.

His achievement was so diverse that artists of very different temperaments could respond to his work; Watteau, Gainsborough and Dellcroix are three artists who testify to his posthumous influence.


With the exception of Rembrandt and Jan Luyken (the Bible illustrator who lived late in the century) no seventeenth century draftsman created more than 400 or 500 drawings. Rembrandt created almost 1500 drawings and his pupils did approximately the same number if taken all together.

It is difficult to talk of a Haarlem, Amsterdam, Utrecht or Leiden school. There are differences in drawing style: silverpoint sketches are found alongside delicately shaded and contoured pen drawings and wash drawings with few lines and strong contrasts.

In colored drawings the quest is for atmosphere. Many artists employed chalk more as a means of suggesting than of clarifying. For many of them, a quick sketch was enough. Woodcuts disappeared, and copper engravings were to an ever-increasing extent replaced by etchings.

Artists were trying to free themselves from the restrictions placed on them by the technique of engraving and were attempting to capture the picturesque by the use of varying amounts of etching acid.


In the seventeenth century, painting scenes of everyday life, even the humblest kind, became known as genre painting. The emergence of Dutch genre paintings had its most promising beginnings in Haarlem.

The first subjects were what the Dutch called Merry companies, groups of drunken roisterers. The Merry company scene was soon extended to include guardroom scenes or tavern scenes featuring soldiers.

The peasants were observed with scrupulous objectivity. Scenes could be comic, but neither caricatural nor condescending. People were represented with their weaknesses and their passions, but with great sympathy.

Through the seventeenth century, the demand by the Dutch for portraits was constant, and was answered by a whole range of able portraitists. The themes often concentrated on rich superficial textures of flesh and costume.

Between 1654 and 1670 Delft became an astonishing phenomenon in Europe and the genius who made it so was Vermeer. Vermeer is the one artist in Holland who could equal Rembrandt's intimations of mystery and immortality.


Vermeer's greatness lies in his unique ability to invest the simplest pose or transient gesture of ordinary life with a monumental, spellbinding permanence.

In his utterly calm, detached observation of domestic intimacy, he achieves a celebration of the simple marvel of human life unmatched before or since.

Part of his achievement is the precise structure, the "architecture" of his compositions, and the subtle answering relationships between their component elements - the still life, the rich pattern and texture of materials, the modulation of light from an open window across the wall, of reflected light everywhere. The color range is cool; a favorite color chord is blue and yellow.

The solidity of the forms is both intensified and offset by a highly original use of scattered highlights, virtually dots of light with a pointille effect that makes the surface vibrant.