Saturday, 31 May 2008

The Dutch masters

For 1500 years or more painters dedicated themselves to religious iconography, then all of a sudden in one small northern European country they changed direction and devoted themselves to more secular things. What was the trigger? Who was it who was brave enough to commission the first non-religious painting? Or was it just an enthusiasm for setting the everyday household items alongside the riches that were suddenly being brought back from other parts of the globe? Perhaps it was that the Dutch as the first to profit from empire had suddenly become rich.

Vermeer’s famous Girl with a Pearl painted in his later period probably in the 1660s was typical. The girl is probably his daughter, but she was no Virgin Mary, just an ordinary girl at first glance, but then why the gold Turkish turban on her head, why such a luminescent engrossed pearl, all luxurious trappings of the new movement asking why it might be that someone who looks so realistically like a farm girl could have such luxuries? She does not smile like the Mona Lisa but there is an engaging, knowingness to her and sophistication in her dressing.

The still life was safe territory to explore, but the first half of the 1600s was still a period of religious passions and a formative era in Christianity. For the first time we can also see women active in art. We see a society in which painting could be seen as a legitimate profession and not just an acolyte of worship and patronage. There was an artistic emancipation. And, of course, the oyster featured prominently in this movement.

Holland, Flanders, northern Germany and Belgium had oyster cultures of their own derived from the 500 miles along the Wadden Sea.