You Gotta Know These Dutch Paintings
- The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt van Rijn. The centerpiece of the collection of the Netherlands’ Rijksmuseum, this painting depicts a schutterij, a type of civic guard common in Dutch Golden Age cities. The militia company is led by Frans Banning Cocq, who is depicted in black with a red sash, and his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, dressed in yellow. Other standout figures in the painting include a small woman in a yellow dress who carries a dead chicken, a symbol of the militia company. The painting is enormous, measuring nearly 12 feet high and 14 feet wide; it was even wider before it was cut down in the 18th century to fit in the Amsterdam Town Hall.
- The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp (1632) by Rembrandt van Rijn. Commonly known as just The Anatomy Lesson. The painting depicts the yearly public dissection held by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, several of whose members paid commissions in order to be included in the portrait. Tulp’s successor as the city anatomist, Jan Deijman, was also depicted by Rembrandt giving an anatomy lesson. The man being dissected is a criminal, Aris Kindt, who was hanged for armed robbery. A famous anatomy treatise by Andreas Vesalius can be seen opened at the painting’s bottom right corner.
- Belshazzar’s Feast (1635) by Rembrandt van Rijn. The painting shows a scene from the Book of Daniel in which the king of Babylon, Belshazzar, uses the loot his father Nebuchadnezzar stole from the Temple in Jerusalem in order to throw a feast. During the feast, God’s hand appears and writes a prophecy on the wall predicting Belshazzar’s downfall—a vision that frightens the onlookers in the painting as well, one of whom is spilling a goblet in horror. The Hebrew letters in the painting are based on a font created by the Dutch rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, but are written top to bottom instead of right to left.
- The Music Lesson (c. 1660s) by Jan Vermeer. The painting is alternatively titled Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, an exact description of its subject matter. On the floor near the keyboard instrument lies a viol, a large bowed string instrument also common during the Baroque era. In the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, Tim Jenison attempted to test the theory that Vermeer painted with the help of optical devices such as a camera obscura to achieve accurate perspective, a theory also advanced by contemporary British artist David Hockney and physicist Charles Falco.
- The Milkmaid (c. 1658) by Jan Vermeer. The title is misleading, as it actually shows a house or kitchen maid, rather than a milkmaid working with cows. The painting’s striking features include the tiny stream of milk being poured into a bowl and the intricate folds of the maid’s blue dress. The table, which is covered with a blue cloth, is a Dutch gateleg, which has an octagonal shape when unfolded, explaining its odd angles. A foot warmer sits behind the central female figure; in Vermeer’s time, the object would indicate that the woman is single.
- The Art of Painting (c. 1660s) by Jan Vermeer. This painting, alternatively known as The Allegory of Painting, may be either a self-portrait or a depiction of the artist’s craft; the face of the artist dressed in black, who faces away from the viewer, cannot be seen. The blue-clad model in the painting stands near a window and may be portraying Clio, the Muse of History; she holds a trumpet and cradles a large yellow book presumed to be Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Behind the large candelabra in the painting, a map of the Low Countries hangs on the studio’s back wall.
- The Laughing Cavalier (1624) by Frans Hals. This portrait, whose unknown subject is not actually laughing, acquired its common title after being moved to the Bethnal Green Museum in Britain in the 1870s; before that, it was simply known as Portrait of a Man. The painting’s subject is dressed in fine black clothing appropriate to Calvinist sensibilities of the Dutch Republic, wears a giant white collar, has a prominent upturned moustache, and is 26 years old according to an inscription at the upper right hand corner.
- Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (c. 1560s) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The fall of Icarus is not the central image in this painting; the mythological youth’s legs stick out of the water, barely noticed, near a large ship and a fisherman at the bottom right. Most of the painting depicts everyday scenes in the Netherlandish countryside, such as a farmer driving a horse while plowing his field and a shepherd staring up at the sky while attending to his sheep. In the distance can be seen a city with a harbor, which the ships in the painting appear to be sailing towards. The painting is famously depicted in W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” whose title derives from the Brussels museum where the painting is held.
- Hunters in the Snow (1565) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This painting is the most famous of the five surviving paintings from Bruegel’s Months of the Year cycle. Several black birds are perched in the barren, snowy trees above the hunters in this painting, who are returning home with their dogs, having had very little success in their hunt. The town’s rivers and pond have frozen over, preventing its water wheel from working, but the denizens have taken advantage of this and are ice-skating. The painting features in several films by famous directors, such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Mirror.
- The Proposition (1631) by Judith Leyster. Leyster was a female artist whose entire body of work was once attributed to Frans Hals. The painting’s two subjects are a woman sewing by candlelight and a man touching her right shoulder and offering her coins. Unlike in Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, the foot warmer in this painting is partway under the woman’s skirt, indicating that she is married, but potentially interested in a suitor. Despite this, the woman appears to be ignoring the man’s romantic advances.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Will Alston.