Dutch Painters Enchant The Eye At The Queen's Gallery

By Mark McLaughlin | 09 June 2004
Shows a painting of a harbourside view. Set against a blue, but cloudy, sky, the scene is littered with yachts, while in the foreground there are a couple of men working on the shore.

Photo: A Calm: a states yacht under sail close to the shore, with many other vessels by Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707). The Royal Collection. © 2004, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Strapping on his clogs, Mark McLaughlin grabbed a tulip for his buttonhole and headed to Holyrood to see what the Dutch were up to back in the 17th century.

Pre-1600 Holland was often referred to as "The Buttock of the World", while today it is regarded by some as a vice-ridden land of abundant drugs and liberal prostitution.

However, in the 17th century Holland enjoyed something of a renaissance as one of the central trade and culture societies in Europe.

Along with this new cultural generation there came a vibrant art scene led by the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Cuyp.

These artist, among many others, are the basis of Enchanting the Eye – Dutch Paintings of the Golden Age, showing until November 7 at the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh.

Shows a portrait of famous Dutch painter Rembrandt. He is looking straight out of the canvas and his face is slightly illuminated. He is wearing a red tunic underneath a black coat and a black floppy cap.

Photo: Portrait of Rembrandt in a flat cap by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). The Royal Collection. © 2004, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

It is another fine showcase for the Royal Collection, beautifully displayed in Edinburgh’s newest exhibition space.

The Queen’s Gallery, a compact but comfortable space, is little more than 18 months old but has already seen some of Scotland’s finest exhibitions in recent years.

This is one more pleasing addition to its CV, combining fine art with historical significance. The first painting we encounter, Gerrit Houckgeest’s depiction of a dinner held by Charles I in 1635 reminds us of the close links the Netherlands had with Britain and also that we are in the east of Scotland home of the Royal Family.

Shows a painting of a girl chopping onions, which are set in a huge bowl on a table in what appears to be a kitchen. There is a chicken strung up beside her and in the background a child holding a ball up in the air.

Photo: A Girl chopping onions by Gerrit Dou (1613-75). The Royal Collection. © 2004, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

It is a testament to the royals that their family history goes back centuries, so that while most of us can only marvel at polaroids of our parent’s dodgy 60s flat parties, the royal family have a wealth of canvas depictions stretching back throughout the ages.

This exhibition doesn’t stop at the recent past of the royals though; it stretches back through the birth of Christianity and into the time of ancient Egypt.

Our first stop is 33AD, Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb by Rembrandt (1630). Rembrandt’s biblical depiction is a departure from those of his other European contemporaries in that it depicts Jesus as a humble gardener, the way he seemed to Magdalene upon his revelation, rather than a glowing resurrected God-man.

Mary Magdalene appears with her trademark ointment jar, while Jesus stands over her with a spade, a knife in his belt and a rather comical peasant’s hat in place of his customary saintly halo. Two angels sit to the side of the piece, reclining nonchalantly as if their presence is nothing unusual.

Shows a painting of an idyllic landscape scene. A predominantly blue sky is broken by a patchy raft of cloud above a field containing trees, sheep and a person on horseback.

Photo: An Evening Landscape with figures and a sheep by Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691).The Royal Collection. © 2004, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The other historical work on display is Jan de Bray’s depiction of The Banquet of Cleopatra. It recreates Pliny’s tale of Cleopatra flaunting her wealth to her Roman lover Mark Antony by dissolving a pearl in a glass of wine and then drinking it.

What this scene lacks in scientific viability (it’s chemically impossible to dissolve a pearl in wine) it makes up for in historical accuracy.

Rather than presenting us with the raven-haired Elizabeth Taylor image this generation associates with the Egyptian queen, de Bray opts for the less flattering, portlier curly-haired Cleopatra that appeared on Roman coins.

It is interesting to note the resemblance the artist’s mother, who modelled for Cleopatra in the painting, bears to the historical queen.

Shows a painting of a woman sat on a bed removing a stocking, as seen through a stone archway, balanced on the step of which is a lute.

Photo: A woman at her toilet by Jan Steen (1626-79). The Royal Collection. © 2004, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

These Dutchmen of the 17th century were not only historically aware they were fantastically well travelled.

Paintings of Italian landscapes by Nicholaes Berchen, Cornelis Van Poelenburgh and Johannes Lingelbach are accompanied by a picture of a Brazilian village by Frans Post. These were some of the finest landscape pictures of their time, and it is this genre that gained 17th century Dutch painters the most renown.

Another was their still life work. Two flower paintings by Maria van Oosterwyck showcase her beautiful mastery of colour, while Still Life on a Table by William Claesz. Heda illustrates the high standard of living at the time in his presentation of a half finished dinner on silver platters.

Shows a painting of a still life, which consists of a glass of wine, an upturned silver platter, a half-eaten pie and a partially peeled orange.

Photo: Still-life on a table by Willem Claesz. Heda (1593/4-1680/2). The Royal Collection. © 2004, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

The gallery’s side-room further demonstrates this standard of living in an array of portraits, landscapes and action paintings depicting Dutch life from the peasant’s hut to the nobleman’s party in which one recurring theme appears - happiness.

Enchanting the Eye does exactly what it says on the tin. There is no hint of suffering or self-pity in any of the paintings on display, the characters are joyful and the subject matters are predominantly parties, family and love which demonstrates that the 17th century really was Holland’s 'Golden Age'.

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