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Rubens: 1600-1640

Rome is the cradle of the Baroque, seen already in certain aspects of Caravaggio. But it is a northern artist who provides in this city the first fully realized paintings in the new style.

Leaving his home in Antwerp in 1600, at the age of twenty-three, Rubens finds employment at the court of Mantua and travels on to Rome towards the end of 1601. He begins an assiduous study of antique sculpture and of the masters of the Italian High Renaissance. His own talent is soon so evident that in 1606 he is given a most prestigious commission. In preference to all the artists of Rome, Rubens is invited to paint an altarpiece for Santa Maria in Vallicella, recently built for the Oratorians.

The painting, completed in 1608, can be seen as the first Baroque masterpiece. St Gregory, wrapped in gorgeous swirling robes (and with a hand thrust out at the viewer as dramatically as in Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus), stares ecstatically up towards a holy image of the Virgin and Child around which plump cherubs disport themselves. Sumptously robed saints to either side of Gregory share his pleasure. The entire painting, in its warm hues and harmonious lines, invites us to do the same.

This luxuriant ease of composition and of colour becomes Rubens' hallmark, whether he is dealing with biblical themes or classical mythology (Greek goddesses, in his hands, become the most comfortable of nudes).

Rubens returns to Antwerp in 1608 and rapidly establishes Europe's most successful studio. He works very fast, as is evident in the brilliantly free oil sketches which he produces in preparation for any major painting. With an army of assistants filling in the unimportant parts of a canvas, he is able to fulfil an unprecedented number of commissions.

Prominent among his patrons are some of the leading rulers of Europe, often known personally to Rubens from the diplomatic missions entrusted to him by the regents of the Spanish Netherlands.

In 1622 Rubens receives a major commission from Marie de Médicis, until recently the queen regent of France. He is to transform her somewhat controversial life into a triumphal sequence of narrative paintings. He achieves this task with magnificent skill, completing by 1625 the great series of twenty-one canvases now in the Louvre.

Three years later Rubens goes on a diplomatic mission to Madrid, where he becomes friends with Velazquez - and so impresses Philip IV that as many as 100 paintings from Rubens' studio subsequently enter the Spanish royal collection. In 1629, after helping to negotiate a peace between Spain and England, Rubens travels to London.

Charles I knights the painter for his diplomatic achievements and commissions him to paint the ceiling in the Banqueting House, recently built by Inigo Jones. The great canvas panels are designed to celebrate the achievements of the Stuart dynasty. They are shipped from Antwerp to London and are installed in 1636. (Just thirteen years later Charles I steps out, from beneath this triumphal ceiling, on to a scaffold in Whitehall for his execution).

By that time another painter from the Spanish Netherlands has made a stir in London - providing the superb portraits by which Charles and his queen, Henrietta Maria, are familiar to the world. Also from Antwerp, and also knighted by Charles I, he is Anthony van Dyck.

Van Dyck: 1618-1641

Van Dyck works in Rubens' studio in Antwerp between 1618 and 1620 and then spends most of the 1620s in Italy. In Genoa he makes an extremely successful career as a portrait painter, providing elegant and darkly dramatic full-length portraits of the city's aristocracy.

It is this same elegance, in a slightly gentler vein and with a lighter palette, which later makes van Dyck the favourite portrait painter in English court circles. He moves to London in 1632 and is immediately encouraged by Charles I, a most enthusiastic and knowledgeable collector of paintings. Within weeks of Van Dyck's arrival the king and queen are sitting for him. That same summer he is knighted.

There are to be many more such portraits of the royal pair. The charming but weak face of Charles I, with the delicately trimmed beard, and the fragile beauty of Henrietta Maria are the most familiar images of British monarchs, in the entire long span between the queens Elizabeth and Victoria, entirely thanks to the skill of van Dyck.

Other members of the aristocracy are as eager to use his services. They glow in his canvases, handsome and arrogant Cavaliers in fine fabrics (John and Bernard Stuart in London's National Gallery are a perfect example). Nemesis awaits them when civil war breaks out in 1642. But the painter who gives them immortality has died in the previous year.

The great Dutch century: 17th century

While Rubens and van Dyck are international ambassadors for the painting skills of the southern Netherlands, the newly independent northern provinces are also entering an extraordinarily prolific period in the visual arts.

Holland and its neighbouring provinces have a new prosperity in the 17th century, and the Dutch burghers are determined to enjoy in pictorial form the fascinating world in which they live. For the first time there is a thriving middle-class market for art. The painters respond eagerly to the available opportunities, producing a flood of work across a very wide range.

There is no subject with which the Dutch painters of the 17th century do not busy themelves. Portraits, landscapes and seascapes, biblical and historical scenes, subtly lit interiors containing just a few characters in enigmatic relationships, riotous taverns, winter festivities, still lifes, and sinister allegories pointing up the vanity of human existence (even though all the other paintings seem to state just the opposite) - all these are produced in abundance, to standards ranging from brilliant to less than middling, in the studios of Amsterdam, Leiden, Haarlem, the Hague, Delft and many other smaller towns.

John Evelyn, visiting the Rotterdam fair in 1641, is astonished at the Trade in paintings.

From the many practising in each field there emerge a handful of outstanding masters. In landscape Aelbert Cuyp achieves, from the 1640s, exceptionally beautiful effects of warm and gentle light in broad tranquil vistas.

Jacob van Ruisdael, a few years younger, is the greatest of the Dutch landscape painters. He works a more dramatic vein than Cuyp, finding romance in wooded landscapes among which streams tumble or half-hidden roads wind their way. Ruisdael's theme is followed by his pupil Hobbema - though Hobbema's most famous image, The Avenue at Middelharnis, is untypical in its boldly formal design.

There are two outstanding names among the Dutch portrait painters of the period. The elder by more than twenty years is Frans Hals, whose brush strokes seem to exult in their speed and facility - giving a breezy informality to his sitters. His most original achievement is his group portraits, beginning in the 1620s and 1630s with several magnificent paintings of the civic guards of Haarlem. Each is the equivalent of an officers' mess photograph, potentially lifeless and dull. But Hals presents these jovial amateur soldiers as completely convincing individuals, interacting naturally within the group.

Rembrandt, a generation younger, is an artist of such broad and diverse talents that he needs a section to himself.

Of all the many subjects being treated in Holland at this time, that of the Dutch interior is the most distinctive. Again there is one master so exceptional that he must be treated on his own - Vermeer. But others achieve almost as much within the limited setting of ordinary rooms.

Pieter de Hooch opens the window most fully on to the austerely comfortable houses in which Dutch merchants and their families now live. With him one catches glimpses from one room to the next, down passages, through the hall, along the garden path. The viewer, in the world of de Hooch, seems to know his way around.

Other painters tend to concentrate on a single corner of a room, framed by two walls. Here Gabriel Metsu is likely to show everyday events of household leisure, such as a man writing a letter or a woman drawing. Gerard Terborch more often presents two or three figures caught in a teasingly mysterious relationship. In either case the silks and furs will be painted with a rich brilliance, sufficient to make any envious viewer dream of a trip to market.

Gerrit Dou, a pupil of Rembrandt, also paints people in tight corners. He does so with an exquisite precision of detail which has caused his followers to be known as the fijnschilders (fine painters). Even Vermeer paints in corners. But his brilliance is more than in the detail.

Rembrandt: 1625-1669

The life and work of Rembrandt fulfil in many ways the modern romantic notion of an artist. He shows an easy brilliance in three fields of art (oil painting, drawing, etching), yet his prolific output seems to be as much for his own pleasure - in capturing life in all its fascination - as to meet specific commissions or the demands of the market. He makes a great deal of money but is hopeless at keeping it. He paints obsessively the people closest to him - his women, his son, himself - and thus allows us, through his art, into his private world.

Others have done this, but few so extensively. We have almost 100 self-portraits of Rembrandt, at all stages of his life.

Like Dürer, who begins the theme of the artist as his own central character, Rembrandt is incorrigibly histrionic. He depicts himself in exotic hats, costumes and poses. His early works, while he is still in his home town of Leiden, are of a kind unfashionable in the practical Dutch world. They are history paintings, for which a sense of drama is essential.

This is a field in which Rembrandt in his maturity will produce powerfully dramatic masterpieces, such as the Blinding of Samson in Frankfurt or Belshazzar's Feast in the National Gallery in London. Both feature Rembandt's wife Saskia in the only female role (as also does The Night Watch in the Rijksmuseum). Once again we are close to the artist's own world.

Rembrandt moves from Leiden to Amsterdam in 1631 and in the following year paints The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. Like the group portraits of Frans Hals of this same decade, the picture binds together several figures who are nevertheless treated as individual portraits. In this case they have an unusually strong focal point, in the corpse with his arm flayed for inspection.

The painting makes Rembrandt's reputation in Amsterdam, and ensures his a steady stream of commissions for portraits during the 1630s. At the end of the decade the Amsterdam militia, headed by Captain Frans Banning Cocq, select him for the large group portrait which is by now an essential attribute of any such company of guards.

Rembrandt goes one stage further than Hals in the originality of his response to this challenge. He presents the proud part-time soldiers at their best moment - not enjoying a social occasion, but marching off to the beat of a drum.

Saskia, painted so often and so dramatically by her husband and now seen incongruously amid the military turmoil of The Night Watch, dies at the age of thirty in the very year of the painting's completion, 1642. Three years later another companion, Hendrijke Stoffels, enters Rembrandt's life and becomes in her turn his favourite model. She and his son Titus together manage his affairs for a while from 1656, to help him through the financial crisis of his later years.

Rembrandt is a superb draughtsman in pen and ink (equally sure with landscape and the human figure) and he is one of the three greatest etchers in the history of the art - along with Goya and Picasso.

His etchings survive in numerous states, revealing the process of their creation, and they are treasured in their own time as much as today. The title of Rembrandt's best-known print reflects the value put on them. His etching of Christ surrounded by the sick, done in about 1649, acquires its popular name half a century later because of the extraordinary price paid for one impression - the Hundred Guilder Print.

Vermeer: 1653-1675

The artist now most highly prized, among all painters of Dutch interiors, rises from obscurity to the pinnacle of fame in a few decades at the start of 20th century.

At his death in 1675 Jan Vermeer is an unknown artist outside his home town of Delft. He becomes a member of the painters' guild in Delft in 1653 but apparently sells very little of his own work during his lifetime, living instead as a dealer. At his death he is bankrupt; his wife gives two of his canvases to settle a bill with the baker. For the next two centuries Vermeer's paintings, if appreciated at all, are usually attributed to others. In the early 1880s his exquisite Girl with a pearl earring goes for the equivalent of five shillings in an auction in the Hague.

By that time scholars are beginning to recognize his genius (there is the first glimmer of interest when his superb View of Delft is put on public show in the Mauritshuis when the gallery opens in 1822). Gradually his works become correctly attributed. There are few of them, not many more than thirty in all - a small output even for a life which ends relatively early, at the age of forty-three.

A measure of the esteem which these works acquire during the early years of the 20th century is that Vermeer, of all other Dutch artists, is the one whom van Meegeren chooses to forge when he hopes to sell expensive fakes to the Germans during World War II. But the forger could hardly have chosen a master more impossible to imitate.

The magic which Vermeer somehow works with space and light, within the simple confines of his scenes, is easy to appreciate when standing in front of a painting but is very hard to analyze or to describe in words.

In Vermeer women read letters, play harpsichords, pluck lutes or sip wine in quiet corners of everyday rooms just as they do in so many other Dutch paintings of the period. But an extra dimension is miraculously added in the way he captures the effects of light, filtering through latticed windows, casting gentle shadows on walls or floor, bringing up warm bright patches in fabrics and gently rounding out the flesh of face or hands.

This transformation of the everyday world into art is celebrated in one of Vermeer's most famous works, The Art of Painting. A tapestry curtain is pulled back to reveal, as ever, a quiet corner of a room. Light streams in from a hidden window to fall on a woman posing as Clio, the muse of History (she holds a book and a trumpet to reveal her identity). In the foreground a painter sits at his easel. He is just beginning to sketch her on the canvas.

Art is being created before our eyes. Yet in a more real sense it already exists, also before our eyes, in the enticing tones of Vermeer's finished painting. We can dwell at our ease within one beautifully achieved trick of reality, while observing the creation of another.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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