Bath Goes Dutch: Ravishing Rembrandts at the Holburne Museum

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Forget the Rijksmuseum, the Holburne Museum is hosting a superb show of 17th-century art from the Netherlands, including two ravishing Rembrandts

If you want to experience the glories of the Golden Age of Dutch painting, there’s no need to fly off to the refurbished Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

 Just go to Bath where the Holburne is showing a simply superb exhibition titled Rembrandt and his Contemporaries. They’ve been gathered from the Royal Collection, all but one of them bought by George IV as Prince Regent and then as King. There are just two dozen works but each is absolutely top notch. George, who had a good eye  himself and had the ambition to collect the best of the best of what was then the  expensive end of the market, was well advised. The works cover nearly the full range of Dutch art in the mid-17th  century – seascapes, interiors, landscapes, still lifes and scenes of merriment and of domestic intrigue – and all are by the finest artists of the day.

The one exception to George IV’s purchasing power is a Rembrandt portrait. The first work by the artist to enter a British collection, An Old Woman, Called “The Artist’s Mother” was presented to Charles I, disbursed in the sell-off of his assets after his execution and then  retrieved (no doubt with a degree of pressure) by Charles II from the British collector who had bought it.

It was painted when the great artist was just 23 and preparing to leave his native Leiden for the bright lights and wealthier patrons of Amsterdam. Although said to be of his mother, as Alexander Sturgis, the Holburne’s  director and organiser of the show points out, she seems rather too old to be his actual mother. More likely it was a showpiece work, a “tronie” or face painted to represent a mood and done to display the artist’s talents to potential clients. Whoever the true subject, however, it is clearly of a real woman, her head wrapped in rich raiment and fur, her face wrinkled, her mouth pursed, the eyes watery as she stares downwards and inwards with a look full of the weight of a lived life.

There’s good art, there’s great art and then there’s Rembrandt. This one is worth the price of admission alone. You could take a folding chair and just gaze at this picture all morning, just absorbing its humanity.

Rembrandt’s other work in the exhibition was bought by George IV. Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb was painted when the artist was 32 and at the peak of his powers and popularity. It hangs on the next wall to an oil sketch by Sir Peter Paul Rubens, The Assumption of the Virgin, painted in 1611-12 as a presentation piece for a commission for the high altar of Antwerp Cathedral.

The two paintings form a fascinating study in contrasts between these giants of Low Countries art. Rubens is all brash and bravura, the Virgin ascending amid a riot of naked babies and great swirls of robes and outflung gestures. Rembrandt has none of the energy of Rubens or the panache. Instead, his  exquisite small work represents the  moment when Mary Magdalene looks up from her keening at the empty grave to see and then recognise the risen Lord as he calls to her by name. The light of the sunrise catches Christ in wide hat and white cloth, carrying a spade as the gardener she first takes him for, and  illuminates one side of Mary Magdalene’s face as it dawns on her just who this is. It’s a study of great precision in the depiction of the vegetation to the right and left of the steps, the towers of the Temple of Jerusalem in the background and the odd touch of one of the angels casually relaxed on the tomb.

Given the presence of two Rembrandts you might think that the other works on display might pall. That they don’t is partly because they are so different in spirit and subject matter. Rembrandt was unusual for a Dutch artist in his pursuit of biblical themes and figures. But he wasn’t unusual in his artistic skill. The Netherlands of his day was teeming with artists, most of them home grown and nearly all well skilled, who had come to the city to  supply the new market for their work.

Just why the Netherlands of all countries should have produced not just a flowering of art in the 17th  century but also one so particular to itself has been the subject of endless analysis. It was a new country that had just thrown off the yoke of Spanish  occupation after 80 years of bloody and exhausting struggle. The young nation felt good in itself and it sought a democratic art free of Church and palace. Above all, its wealth was spread around a middle-class citizenry  that expressed its money and its  confidence in paintings and high-quality crafts to adorn its homes. 

The result was a marketplace in which different artists specialised in different subject matter, be it still lives, harbour scenes or country matters. If it was an art of contentment it was also an art of youthful confidence. The Low Countries tradition of painting the peasantry at play pioneered by Pieter Bruegel in the previous century was elaborated by David Teniers, one of the most expensive artists of George IV’s time as Rembrandt’s. The Holbourne has a  glorious example in his A Kermis on St George’s Day, painted just after the Treaty of Münster had given the nation its freedom. It’s a vision of sheer joy as the locals dance, eat, drink and carouse in cheerful abandon in front of the inn.

Such subjects were common both to the Netherlands and to the southern, Catholic states of what was to become Belgium. What was peculiar to the north was the development of an art of the  domestic interior, in which all sorts of back stories are hinted at but never  elaborated, and the painting of the  landscape, in which the wide skies of the flat land are crafted as expressions of mood and harbingers of future.

The Holburne has both. Jacob van Ruisdael is here with a moody masterpiece, Evening Landscape: a Windmill by a Stream, in which the sky tells of wind and rain to come while the windmill, symbol of prosperity, sit motionless above a dark pond.

It is the genre of interior scenes that most beguile, however. Vermeer is  notable by his absence. The Queen’s  A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman is being loaned to the National Gallery for its exhibition of Vermeer and Music at the end of the month. But even without it, the Holburne exhibition can boast a handful of the best of the genre. Gerrit Dou is justly used on the poster with a detail of his minutely pictured A Girl Chopping Onions, filled with the symbols and mood of carnal promise. Pieter de Hooch’s Cardplayers in a Sunlit Room is a hyper-realist study in light way before its time.

The Golden Age of Dutch Art was no doubt made by the market but it was also about Dutch character, not least its earthy humour and its self-mockery. The most intriguing picture in this show is of cows, or rather A Young Bull and Two Cows in a Meadow by Paulus Potter. You can take it, as may well have been intended, as an allegory for the new nation at peace, with the bull there ready to protect it. But then look carefully at the bull. He’s anything but ferocious. His big eyes stare out at you, puzzled and questioning as the storm clouds recede above him. Or maybe they’re just arriving.

An exhibition of pure pleasure and an excellent short guide to go with it.

Rembrandt and His Contemporaries: Paintings from the Royal Collection, Holburne Museum, Bath (01225 388569; to 29 September

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