The compelling exhibition, Dutch Painters at the Prado (Holandeses en el Prado), which was on view from December 2, 2009 through April 11, 2010 in Madrid, assembled the most important Dutch works from the Prado’s collection. Many of these works had rarely been on view before and, collectively, when assembled, they offered a broad overview, as the brochure indicated, “of all the genres typical of Dutch painting: seascapes, winter landscapes, genre scenes, still lifes, hunting scenes, battles and history paintings.” There were no Vermeers, though, and only one Rembrandt and, while there is an outstanding Rubens collection at the Prado, Rubens is more properly associated with the Catholic-oriented Flemish School, which largely contrasts with Protestant, primarily Calvinist Holland in the 17th century.
Actually, the nearby Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, another of the three great museums of Madrid, along with the modern Reina Sophia, has an extensive Dutch collection of its own that, in a way, compensates for some of what the Prado lacks in terms of the limitations of its Dutch collections. But the Prado does have enough (in fact, so much more than enough) representative work of the Dutch Masters that it has no difficulty in revealing the artistic essence of Dutch creative genius in the 17th century. The exhibit also helps us to comprehend the zeitgeist of seminal capitalism in the Netherlands and what it reveals in this regard is very telling.
Rembrandt's portraits reveal selves that are so deep that they clearly have the potential to ultimately break the bonds of any society that would try to constrain them. Rembrandt knew this to be so, at least obliquely. He saw the future.
So much of Dutch artistic skill, at that time, was devoted to the growing demand of the Dutch burghers for artistic work that was relevant to their experience, to that which they could relate. Holland was so prosperous in the 17th century, giving rise to a whole class of wealthy businessmen who, like the nobles of Europe, had money to spend on luxuries like art. As the Prado Guide
indicates, “in response to this growing demand, Dutch artists produced pictures of a suitable size for domestic interiors, choosing to represent scenes of everyday life and settings familiar to their clients.” The naturalism of the paintings was rooted in an earlier, fifteenth century, Netherlands tradition but these 17th century works were unique in their “depiction of the opulence of the society they sprang from,” which was “evident in the objects and foodstuffs shown in large numbers of still lifes, in the fertility of the landscapes, and in the elegant apparel of the figures.” (374)
These were paintings that portrayed a rich, successful, satisfied world – a world of early capitalism, an inchoate capitalism if you will. This was a capitalism that had not yet become linked with unbridled Hobbesian individualism or social Darwinism. It was still circumscribed by the limiting connectives of societal restraint. The Dutch certainly regarded wealth and prosperity as honorably valid pursuits, as indications of God's favor. Riches had their place in an ordered life. But they were not ends in themselves.
As Sidney Schama writes in the Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (1987), “At the center of the Dutch world was a burgher, not a bourgeois. There is a difference… for the burgher was a citizen first and homo economicus second. And the obligations of civism conditioned the opportunities of prosperity. So, with regard to Dutch citizens, if any one obsession linked together their several concerns with family, the fortunes of state, the power of their empire and the condition of their poor, their standing in history and the uncertainties of geography, it was the moral ambiguity of good fortune.” (7) After all, “intimations of mortality – their own and that of their worldly goods – saturate their art.” (8)
... for the burgher was a citizen first and homo economicus second. And the obligations of civism conditioned the opportunities of prosperity.
For an example of this, one need look no further than the Prado’s Pieter Van Steenwijk’s Emblem of Death
. (c 1650). In this work, as described in the Guide
, the artist paints a table with objects arranged in disorder, in “a confusion of papers, musical instruments, extinguished pipes, the remains of a frugal meal,” and a box of jewels. The painting is really an allegory in which Van Steenwijk shows that “everything that gives pleasure to man or distracts him, such as reading, music or smoking, serves for nothing after death, to which the chilling presence of the skull and the spent candle refer.” (379)
Clearly, the 17th century Dutch had doubts about their prosperity. They questioned what it was all supposed to mean. When you look at their world in their paintings – the quiet homesteads of the rural farmers or the wealthy interiors of the urban businessmen, for example, is it all double-edged? Could prosperity be a snare? Surely Calvinism played a role here in Dutch thinking, as did the real Protestant work ethic i.e,, the idea that worldly success would only ultimately be justified by a higher, spiritual purpose.
Think Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, not the Prado). In this painting, the burghers are all on night patrol, doing their duty, giving back. True, Rembrandt did not depict each member of the guard clearly, thereby generating a storm of protest from the portrayed burghers who had commissioned him, but the ego burnishing of the burghers had not been his goal. Instead, he wanted to stress something else, not their instantiated individuality but, rather, their collective duty, their communal obligation. The message was that they had not achieved their prosperity alone – no one ever does. Our successes, in the end, are always built on those of others. Rembrandt wanted to show that we are part of a fabric and that we owe something to that fabric.
This was a capitalism that had not yet become linked with unbridled Hobbesian individualism or social Darwinism. It was still circumscribed by the limiting connectives of societal restraint. The Dutch certainly regarded wealth and prosperity as honorably valid pursuits, as indications of God's favor. Riches had their place in an ordered life. But they were not ends in themselves.
This concept is always clear in 17th century Dutch art with its emphasis on the home, the community, the larger society, on nature and family. It is evident in the intimations of spiritual balance, composure and tranquility in Vermeer and in the depth of personality that goes beyond any superficial, bourgeois acquisitiveness in the revealing portraits of Rembrandt. Rembrandt's portraits reveal selves that are so deep that they clearly have the potential to ultimately break the bonds of any society that would try to constrain them. Rembrandt knew this to be so, at least obliquely. He saw the future. His piercing portraits reveal the depths of people’s souls and anticipate the intensive, Western individuality yet to come. But such societally explosive individuation would not really be fully unleashed for some time. In the 17th century, though, Rembrandt’s art still fit within a capitalist society whose materialism was yet balanced by a social, spiritual dimension of structured restraint.
Needless to say, we are a long way from this now. Centuries of expanding individuation at the cost of social bondedness and restraint has left us with a capitalism whose self-regarding transgressions speak to us daily from the news headlines – this is the capitalism of Massey Coal, BP Oil, Enron and Goldman Sachs. We have gone from the civic mindedness of the Dutch burghers to the avaricious transactionalism, the rapaciousness, of the contemporary, uninhibited bourgeois. We now operate within an isolated, capitalist paradigm without the countervailing forces of civil, moral and spiritual limitations.
The structured, balanced order of 17th century Holland is long behind us and the genie is permanently out of the bottle. We live in a very different capitalist world now but, when viewing a collection of impressive Dutch art, like the one recently at the Prado, and prompted by the darker intimations of a Steenwijk or a Rembrandt, one can see it all coming.