Sally Mathews reviews the Dutch Drawings exhibition in the National Gallery of Ireland.
A quote by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) comes to mind when viewing this exhibition: “Life etches itself onto our faces as we grow older, showing our violence, excesses or kindnesses.” As viewers walk into the print gallery of the National Gallery of Ireland, they are greeted with the surprised face of Rembrandt himself, in one of his most famous works of art, his “Self-Portrait in a Cap, Wide-eyed and Open-mouthed” (1630). The widely revered artist is at the core of the Dutch Drawings exhibition in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands. Rembrandt could be said to epitomise Dutch art, but the other artists in this exhibition must not be disregarded; with works from artists such as Jan van Goyen, Hendrick Avercamp, and Jacob van Ruisdael, visitors are treated to a wide-ranging, compelling snapshot of 17th century Dutch life.
Curated by Anne Hodge, the 48 pieces on loan from the Rijksmuseum’s extensive collection in Amsterdam are crucial pieces in the context of Dutch art. The exhibition is divided into sections; first, drawings from life, then landscape drawings, and at the back, an entire section dedicated to Rembrandt himself. This allows visitors to understand the context of Dutch art and become immersed in the various subject matters and areas that defined it. The dimly lit and intimate print gallery which forms the backdrop to these works of art adds to this immersion by creating an atmosphere of reverence and tranquillity.
There is something striking about the way that life is depicted in all its glorious reality, not romanticised or idealised but simply allowed to occur with messiness and truth.
Drawing, due to its portable and inexpensive nature, was an essential tool for the artist who wished to be able to capture a moment instantaneously. Being able to draw from life is the basis of most categories of art and this exhibition is defined by raw authenticity, replete with moments drawn directly from life and placed before us to observe and be immersed in. There is something striking about the way that life is depicted in all its glorious reality, not romanticised or idealised but simply allowed to occur with messiness and truth. As outlined by Anne Hodge: “All of life is here, from studies of plants and animals to portraits of loved ones, and records of conflagrations and comets, architecture and landscape.”
The aforementioned Rembrandt portrait is a highlight of the exhibit for sure – but don’t be disappointed by its miniscule size. Measuring only 5.2 x 4.5 cm, this tiny sketch casts a big shadow as a masterpiece in the art of human expression. Rembrandt’s importance in the canon of Dutch drawing is marked by an entire section of the exhibition which is dedicated to his art and that of his students. The distinctive nature of his work, however, means that even if we didn’t have a placard beside his works, we would know who produced them – there is an undeniable ‘Rembrandt-ness’ that exists within their composition. Works from artists such as Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678), who apprenticed under Rembrandt, evoke elements of the master’s style; the use of light and shadow in his “Incredulity of St. Thomas” (c. 1648-49) is very Rembrandt-esque.
There is a feeling of escape from the busy streets of Dublin city as we are transported back to the rural Netherlands of the 17th century.
While these drawings are primarily produced by male artists, a definite female presence can be felt in this exhibition. The “Two Studies of a Nude Woman”, produced by Jacob de Gheyn II in 1603, are thought to be some of the earliest Dutch drawings of a posed nude female model. The intimate and realistic depiction of the model is refreshing and symbolises a distinct change from the idealising portrayals of the female body that are so pervasive in the history of art. These sketches are placed in the centre of the room, separate from the rest of the pieces, perhaps to suggest that they are slightly out of the norm for 17th century Dutch art.
Gesina ter Borch (1631-1690) is the sole female artist in the exhibition, which reflects how rare it was for women to be allowed to become artists at this time. Ter Borch’s father, Gerard ter Borch, was also an artist who encouraged her to pursue her career. Although Gesina never apprenticed professionally or sold any of her pieces, her talent speaks for itself. “St. Cecelia with Two Angels”, which is on display here, contains incredible attention to detail – undeniable proof that omitting women from the canon would be a real loss to the world of art.
The Dutch Drawings exhibition has offered viewers the opportunity to view works of art that seem simple at first glance, but when we look closer, offer a unique perspective on a bygone way of life. The intimate setting of the exhibition allows spectators to become immersed in their surroundings. There is a feeling of escape from the busy streets of Dublin city as we are transported back to the rural Netherlands of the 17th century. The National Gallery belongs to all of us – let’s escape there more often.