“The Dutch Masters” refers to the Dutch painters of the Dutch Golden Age, which roughly spans the 17th century, in other words, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Frans Hals, Hendrick Terbrugghen, Willem Kalf, Rachel Ruysch, Pieter Claesz and Jacob Isaacksz Van Ruisdael.
The influence these masters had on not just European art, but indeed, art from all over the world is undeniable. Rembrandt’s mastery of light and shadow, Hal’s customary loose brushwork, the endearing chaos of Steen’s work, the dark, spirited portrayal of the human psyche through nature that was van Ruisdael’s signature style – these hallmarks and more were passed down, reinterpreted and redefined for centuries.
Influential as they are, the Dutch masters do not represent the entire breadth of artistic talent that The Netherlands has created over the years. And so, for this reason, in this blog we’re exploring the art of three equally influential Dutch artists whose work has had a powerful resonance over the last fifty years.
To kick things off, let’s take a quick trip 500-odd years back in time to the little-known Duchy of Brabant…
Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516)
To stare for too long at Bosch’s most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights is to truly feel your mind slowly unravel. From left to right, this famous triptych depicts the garden of Eden. The garden of earthly delights and hell. The triptych is comprised of hundreds of tiny figures, each rich with religious symbolism and meaning.
Garden of Eden
For this reason, and because very little is known about Bosch’s life, art scholars and historians have poured over The Garden of Earthly Delights for hours on end, speculating as to what it’s hidden meaning might be.
Many critics agree that the triptych serves as a warning as to the consequences of a life of unrestrained pleasure. Among countless other artists, Salvador Dali drew inspiration from Bosch’s work, as did the Surrealist painters René Magritte and Max Ernst.
His works are scattered all over the world, namely in the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Accademia in Venice, the Metropolitan in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. A handful of his paintings remain in The Netherlands at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, though the museum is currently closed for renovations.
Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890)
Unbeknownst even to the artist himself, by the time van Gogh died at thirty-seven, he had created some of the most astounding artworks the world has ever seen.
To dwell on the ironic tragedy of van Gogh’s life, the fact that he was basically unknown as an artist and only ever sold one painting while he was alive, living in abject poverty, would be to flog a tired cliché to death.
Instead, consider this: van Gogh painted the bulk of his life’s work (900-odd paintings!) in just ten years. In other words, he was averaging 90 paintings a year, or one painting every four days for an entire decade!
He was mentally ill, but though that illness manifested in hallucinations, seizures and depression, they also resulted in masterpieces like one of the most famous pieces the art world has ever seen, Starry Night, which he painted from within the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum.
Much loved by his brother Theo, who himself died within six months of van Gogh taking his own life via a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, van Gogh at least had one lasting, powerful connection throughout his life. After his death, Theo wrote a heart-breaking letter to their sister Elizabeth where he said, “People should realize that he was a great artist, something which often coincides with being a great human being. In the course of time this will surely be acknowledged, and many will regret his early death.”
How true those words have proven to be.
The best place to view van Gogh’s work is The van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
M.C. Escher (1898 – 1972)
Arguably the world’s most famous graphic artist, MC Escher’s work not only represents the perfect intersection of mathematics and art (an impressive feat for someone who was not a mathematician and did badly at maths at school), but is so strikingly poignant that Cosmologists think the universe may in fact be Escher-shaped!
Another prolific artist, over the course of his life Escher made 448 lithographs, woodcuts and wood engravings and over 2,000 drawings and sketches. His art defies logic completely. His famous works ‘Ascending and Descending‘ (1960) and ‘Waterfall‘ (1961) become more believable and at the same time impossible the longer you examine them.
Day and Night
His artistic style is neatly summed up by his famous quote, “In my prints, I try to show that we live in a beautiful and orderly world and not in a chaos without norms, as we sometimes seem to.”
To go back to the statement that the universe may be “Escher-shaped”, this is what modern Cosmologists have said about his woodcut “Circle Limit III” which they hail as an astonishingly accurate representation of space as it edges toward infinity, which is apparently “absolutely right to the last millimetre”.
There is a permanent collection of his work at Museum Escher in het Paleis in The Hague which is well worth a visit the next time you’re in The Netherlands.