The castle at Bentheim: an essay of random thoughts on landscape, history and money, modernity and nostalgia in the Dutch Golden Age.
Look at this. Don’t by the way try reading this piece on a phone. Wait until you have access to a proper screen. Then look at this.
It’s a detail of a work titled Castle at Bentheim, by Jacob van Ruisdael.
This painting is often thought to be his masterpiece, we’re lucky to have it in Dublin at the National Gallery of Ireland. I’m there 4 or 5 times a month and I find myself drawn to it, again and again.
Van Ruisdael was of course a landscape painter from Holland’s Golden Age, of the 17th century, when most painters were “genre artists”. That is to say, specialists in one type of painting and the skills each of these genre subjects required. The particular skill in the depiction of clouds say, the sea, or a bunch of grapes, amid a table-ful of silver and dead game.
These days we remember van Hals, van Steen, Rembrandt of course, and Vermeer and, I hope, Gabriele Metsu. Rembrandt in particular, an individualist if ever there was one, was a history painter who took on big biblical subjects. But most Dutch artists- hundreds of them- were genre specialists. That includes van Rusidael. You can see the results for yourself.
Virtuosity like this, engendered to a great extent by specialization, was highly prized by the large, sophisticated, middle classes of the time. Dutch art was a product and consequence of its society and culture, (although not necessarily in the way we might expect.) But the first, key thing to understand about this society was its sheer money.
It is hard to overstate the wealth or technological sophistication 17th century Holland possessed, also their long-term influence on the rest of the world, and even on global history. Put baldly then, this is what art from the most successful, highly developed nation on earth looked like.
Yet this image may not be what we could reasonably expect from such a culture at that point in its history. More of which anon.
But how did the Dutch become so rich in the first place? Many of Holland’s merchant-adventurers amassed extreme, extraordinary wealth, easily rivaling the greatest landed magnates of Europe. But they did it through commerce, notably the spice trade with the Indies.
Advances in shipbuilding, accurate navigation and cartography greatly facilitated that endevour. So also, crucially, did new forms of banking, share-owning, insurance and finance. In basic terms the import export trade encouraged the innovation and development of stocks, shares, joint capital ventures, of modern banking and of insurance and reinsurance. Modern capitalism in other words, was invented by the Dutch.
It gave them an extraordinary edge over rival trading powers. Its material advantages over were graphically (and fatefully) spelt out when the Dutch navy trounced the English one, burning many of their their ships at anchor, and towing away the two best ones. In the humiliating aftermath and soul searching that followed, the English administration concluded their enemies had been able to mobilize, man, equip and supply their fleet in a fraction of the time primarily because they possessed more fluid capital, because in turn of more supple and sophisticated financial systems.
The English drew the appropriate lessons. And the rest, quite literally, is history.
I don’t exaggerate. Let me give you just one, telling example. Many of us are brought up to believe that the 1685 coup d’etat just twenty-ofdd years later, known as “the Glorious Revolution” which saw James II of England toppled by his nephew –the Dutch prince and protestant icon William of Orange- was a religious affair, triggered primarily by prejudice and anxiety (about a Catholic succession on the throne of England). So it was. Some modern scholars however, make the important, overlooked footnote that when William took the crown of England he brought over to London the Dutch financial systems and know-how: something prized and sought out by the English Whig oligarchy who’d invited him in the first place.
It was fateful. It’s no coincidence that in the following 18th and early 19th centuries Britain became the world’s wealthiest, most highly developed nation in turn.
Yes, the British had the Industrial Revolution, raw materials like coal and iron ore and some excellent engineers and inventors. But they also had the capital systems to mobilise, exploit and employ them. (You need more than one ingredient to become the preeminent power on earth) This combination of material and capital – each prompting and enabling the other of course- created the largest empire of the age and even now, after nearly a century of first relative, then absolute, imperial and industrial decline for the UK, the City of London as a financial capital obstinately remains in obnoxiously robust health. Repulsed by fractal lending and banker bonuses? You can blame the Dutch.
I’m fascinated by what paintings can tell us or imply about history and societies, but also of course by paintings themselves. So much for the 17th century Dutch, their money and historic influence. What about their art?
We might, initially, imagine the most developed society in 17th century Europe would celebrate that status with an Art extolling technical prowess, or at least with notions and symbols of progress. We would be wrong. On the contrary, Dutch artists instead celebrate the traditional, the familiar, the comfortable and established. They ruminate on virtue, on order and tradition. On the earth and the sky.
Do these Dutch painters make art about the glories of wealth and technology? No they do not. Yes, there’s an amazing tradition of still live painting, that celebrates material luxury. (Who after all, ever painted silver plate, glass crystal, or the weave of fine tapestry better than the Dutch? ) But that is just one genre from many. And in any case, on closer inspection even these still lives turn out to be metaphorical ruminations, on mortality, morality, vanity, death and decay. This is an anxious art then, keenly aware of risk, fate and defeat, of temporality and impermanence.
Let’s look again at van Ruisdael’s castle view. He actually made several paintings of the castle. Here’s another, painted from a different angle.
In the National Gallery of Ireland version, I love the drama of the fortress, solidly perched on its rocky buff…
You have to admire also the structure and mass (and great virtuosity) of the trees and vegetation, and the way those funny, saggy little houses, the way they seem to blend and bleed and disappear into the woods and trees.
Many Dutch painters had traveled to Italy, to draw, paint and study. They were greatly influenced by Italian art and, once back home, influenced their own compatriots in turn. Clues here include the un-Dutch, warm golden light. Dutch painters were also influenced by the dramatic rolling Italian landscape, and by the treatment of that landscape by their Italian artistic contempories, by that Italian genius for combining drama and harmony in successful compositions.
Given how the Dutch lived with a constant awareness of flood and their battle with nature, you can understand the appetite for paintings like this one above.
The critic and art historian Simon Schama has gone further. He notes that during this period the landscape of the Low Countries was itself undergoing huge change. It was constantly, endlessly, being dammed, drained, reclaimed and reshaped. This, Schama argues, prompted a consciousness, an anxiety and nostalgia about the earth itself.
Hence a hunger for images of landscape, perhaps even for images of solidity, of certainty and tradition.
It’s surely significant that this picture depicts a castle, the symbol of an older, feudal order. It seems counter intuitive, this surely was the antithesis (one might think) of the values of the outward, forward-looking bourgeois Dutch Republic.
There are no landscapes like this in Holland. That is part of its exoticism and appeal of course. Yet van Ruisdael did not have to travel far to this castle. Just over the boarder, to neighboring Lower Saxony.
The castle is still there. It is impressive but in real life, in truth, nothing as dramatic as his image. He has artfully exaggerated and romanticized the shape and form of the landscape, the lines and profile of the castle, for narrative power and dramatic effect. It’s almost as though he has used a wide-angle fish eye lens.
Indeed, he may just have used his knowledge and skill to distort, but it’s not inconceivable van Ruisdael used some form of optical device, to observe or even to slightly distort the forms he recorded.
The accuracy, and life-like quality, the sheers verisimilitude, of images like this from the Dutch Golden Age and indeed from contemporary Italians, are staggering. Think of Canaletto and his extraordinary canal views or vedute as such works were known, packed with vast quantities of highly precise, immensely detailed visual information, perfectly rendered. How the hell did they all do it?
Only people who’ve tried to record large amounts of complex shapes and to locate them convincingly in space know how difficult, how time-consuming it is. I spent weeks once looking at a view of Piazza Navrona in Rome by the contemporary (17th century) artist Gian Paulo Pannini, (one of the 2 pictures he painted of the Piazza is in the National Gallery of Ireland). The piazza is a space I know well, having lived close by in Rome years ago. Very long and very thin, it’s not wide enough to stand back to take in the view all at once. I concluded that not only was it impossible to for Pannini to have painted the image unassisted; it was impossible even for him to have seen it in one coherent view. You can’t stand back far enough to see the piazza all at once. This view (below) is impossible, you would be have to be looking through other buildings, about where the first line of people are standing.
And was about the sheer mass of complex detail? Up close with this work, you see thousands of angles and doors and tiles and window frames, often with people inside.
Again and again with some 17th century works, and some earlier ones, the more you look, the more you’re tempted to ask, how on earth was it done?
In the last 10 years an amazing book written by the British artist David Hockney provided at least part of the answer to that question. His interest piqued, by the near-impossibility of the challenges many historical artists took on, he investigated the visual and optical aids available to them from the 16th century on, such as camera lucida, camera obscura, and mirror lens projections.
He then conducted his own experiments, mostly in the form of drawings using, and assisted by those technologies available at the time.
There’s plenty of evidence in Hockney’s book. Certain patterns occur. Once you know how these devices worked and how they were used, including both their advantages and their limitations, it’s often possible to discern their use by informed observation of the paintings themselves. His conclusions are more than convincing. They seem irrefutable.
Hockney’s wonderful book is in my opinion, the most original input to our understanding of old master paintings of the last 50 years. Yet remarkably, when it should be on the reading list of every student of art history, it’s out of print. This seems bizarre. The book provoked quite a lot of criticism, even hostility. It has has fallen victim, one suspects, to a misunderstanding of its message, namely that his findings somehow diminish the skill or achievement of the artists he discusses. That is a misunderstanding. They do nothing of the sort.
Such techniques and devices only assist the artists in observing scenery, city-scapes or still lives. They do nothing to help make the marks, brushwork, handling of fluid material or other virtuosity that record that information, the fluid stunning touches of paint and brilliantly balanced light and dark and colour that make these paintings so beautiful. Only the artist can do that.
Only people who wish to see art as luxury items of status, and some sort of mysterious magic trick, could be so entirely uninterested in their making.
I’m sure I’ll write about Hockney’s book again more fully in some future post but lets’ return briefly, finally, to van Ruisdael’s painting.
The light and the brushwork is extraordinary. Look at the sky here. Those cream greys.
And the way he has treated the mass and volume of the woods, feathery yet solid all at once.
There are even tiny figures, almost hidden in the landscape.
When I bring tour groups and workshops to the National Gallery, I often invite them to find and count these figures. We never fail to get a delighted kick out of this game, a sort of Where’s Wally, in old master form…
Sometimes when i go to the national gallery, if i have the chance, I try drawing the paintings, to try and understand them better.
Here’s a picture of a dead hare, from a Dutch still life or game piece work.
Recently I’ve tried drawing the Bentheim picture a few times too, to try and understand that better. Here’s an unfinished version. As you can see I didn’t have time to get in the old square stone tower this time.
here’s a detail from the same drawing. I was reasonably happy with these houses, with net saggy organic nature of them But in fact they are all out of place.
I tried again a few weeks later. This drawing below feels a bit dead.,,
It’s all bloody difficult, which is of course a reflection of my abilities and says nothing (of course) at all about the use or otherwise of optical aids in the orginal work. But drawing it still brings insights.
And not only through observation. Sometimes they come in unexpected ways. Recently, during one of my drawing sessions, one of the gallery staff approached me. He made some kind remark about my efforts and we started discussing the painting. He’d spent a great deal of time with the picture in the course of his work and he loved it.
He asked me how many figures had I spotted. I answered 5 to date. He pointed out 4 more!
Look, very carefully, at the skyline, the prow of the hill around the windmill. (Or better still visit the National Gallery) Either way, you’ll have to squint. There’s a figure on the ladder, and at least two other figures standing nearby
Each is minute, each done with the single hair of a sable brush, so tiny as to be almost imperceptible. It was another insight into the genius of van Ruisdael, and the genius of Dutch art.
It was a lesson in looking.
Thank you for reading, and feel free to leave a comment. Its always great to hear from readers.
Arran Henderson leads workshops at the National Gallery, by request for pre-booked groups, afternoons or on Thursday evenings. Details on the “tours” page.
Works referenced and/or used as sources primarily: “The Embarrassment of Riches, Dutch Culture in the Golden Age” – Simon Schama, and “Secret Knowledge, Rediscovering the lost techniques of the old masters” David Hockney. Further background, and basic date/fact/spell- checking: Wikipedia, and EH Gombrich the Story of Art.