Review of the 'Dutch Masters' Exhibition

In 2005 I was very lucky to be able to go down to Melbourne for the weekend and see the Dutch Masters at the NGV. Art Exhibitions Australia is an organization, that with the help of its partners, the NGV, and other Victorian government agencies, is able to bring quality overseas exhibitions to Australia. In 2004 they brought ‘The Impressionists’ (from the Musee D’Orsay, in Paris) out to the NGV. The Dutch Masters Exhibition is an extensive collection from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, handpicked by the Director General to demonstrate “the incredible creative energy” that the Golden Age in the Netherlands produced in its paintings, sculpture and decorative arts.

The exhibition is cleverly divided into the different styles of painting and within that context the decorative arts are aptly placed. For instance a painting may contain an elaborate piece of silver ware or ornate beer glass, that item is placed with the painting for easy reference. The extent of artists and craftsmen represented is vast, from Rembrandt to Jan Steen

Although many genres are on display there were two portraits by Frans Hals that really captured my attention. They are of a husband and wife, most probably Nicolaes Hasslaer and Sara Wolphaerts van Diemen, circa 1633-35.

Both portraits are oil on canvas and both measure 79.5 × 66.5 cm. Although they were painted shortly after one another they are not wedding portraits as they were married about ten years earlier. Nicolaes Hasselaer was a successful beer brewer and captain-major of a military body in Amsterdam. It is thought that Hasselaer may have been personally acquainted with Hals as Hals was based in Haarlem and Hasselaer in Amsterdam.

What impressed on me the most was the style in which these paintings were rendered.

Hasselaer’s pose is quite informal, his view directed past the viewer and his hair unkempt. The painting includes references to his position as a commander with his hand on a staff. Hals’ brush work is very painterly and loose yet he is able to capture the light on the fine lace work and capture the details of the hand in a few brush strokes. The painting has nonchalant atmosphere which depicts its subject’s personality as quietly confident. This is quite the opposite in the wife’s portrait.

The portrait of Sara is a lot more formal, as decorum of the times would have dictated. She he looking directly at the viewer, her hair is very neat, as is her total appearance. Not even the hands are visible (placed neatly in her lap). Hals has painted her with care and very realistically. Very few brush strokes can be seen. He has successfully produced a painting that would win the approval of society at the time – very proper.

Why then do these two paintings sit so well together? Hals cleverly uses the direction of light to unite the paintings, together with uses of colour in the palette. The slight opening of Sara’s lips very subtlety reduces her stiffness and further unifies the two.

The Dutch Masters was an extensive exhibition with many highlights within its paintings. The star of the show was without doubt Vermeer’s, The Love Letter but it did not lessen the impression which the other artists left. The NGV exhibited the works magnificently and the catalogue they produced is extremely well done, especially when one cannot take in the whole show in one sitting.

Priem, Rudd
. Dutch Masters
. National Gallery Victoria, 2005

Review of the 'Dutch Masters' Exhibition

Marilyn Brown

Joined May 2007

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