Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens, Flemish painters during revolution


This video is called Hermitage Amsterdam 2009 – 2013.

The Hermitage in Amsterdam is a museum in the Netherlands. It is a dependency of the Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg in Russia, which cannot expose all of its extensive art collections in its own buildings.

Much of the Hermitage art was once property of the Russian imperial family.

At present, there is an exhibition in the Hermitage in Amsterdam called Rubens, Van Dyck & Jordaens. Flemish painters from the Hermitage.

This video is called Exhibition Rubens, Van Dyck & Jordaens in Hermitage Amsterdam extended to 15 June 2012.

There are 75 paintings and twenty drawings. I saw them on 18 May.

Also Flemish paintings from Saint Petersburg, by painters other than the three famous artists from the exhibition name, are on show there in Amsterdam. Basically, those Flemish paintings have in common that they are from the first half of the seventeenth century. Rubens lived 1577-1640; Anthonie van Dyck 1599-1641; Jacob Jordaens 1593-1678.

That was an interesting revolutionary period in Belgian, Dutch, and European history. It was the second half of the eighty years’ war between the Spanish and Austrian Habsburg monarchs on one side, and the rebels who wanted to break free from the Habsburgs after the revolt against the Spanish king’s economic and religious policies in the 1560s in the Netherlands. So, this exhibition now in Amsterdam brings up questions: of art history, but also of general history.

In this article, I will mainly use “the Netherlands” as authors then used it: not just the present state of that name, but, roughly, present day Belgium (and Luxembourg) as well.

One way to look at that long conflict is to consider it as a conflict between feudalism and the rising bourgeoisie.

Already in the late middle ages, towns and their bourgeois inhabitants were comparatively strong in the western Netherlands: Flanders, Antwerp city in the west of Brabant duchy, Zeeland, Holland.

While the eastern Netherlands (French-speaking Walloon regions, German-speaking eastern Luxembourg, the east of Brabant duchy, Gelderland duchy, Overijssel province) were more conservative, more like much of continental Europe: hierarchical, with the nobility and the high level Roman Catholic clergy more powerful than the towns.

The 1560s revolt against King Philip II of Spain, with its iconoclasm against the rich Roman Catholic church, was especially in the western Netherlands. The bulwark of the townspeople; and of the Protestant religion growing among them.

After defeats in the 1570s, in the 1580s the armies of the Spanish king, now under more able military leadership, starting from the feudal south-east, managed to re-conquer the urban south-west. And the north-east; which, however, they were unable to hold, as the big rivers through the central Netherlands were a military obstacle.

So, the military frontier between the Spanish monarchy and the new Dutch republic became not an east-west divide, but a north-south divide, more or less along the present border between Belgium and the Netherlands.

That was bad news for rebels in the south, many of whom fled to the north. In some Dutch cities in Holland county, the majority of inhabitants now consisted of refugees from the Spanish occupied Netherlands. This contributed to Amsterdam city becoming the commercial capital of Western Europe soon.

Previously in the sixteenth century, that had been Antwerp. When the Spanish forces conquered Antwerp, that was a disaster for that prosperous city. About half the people fled to the northern Netherlands (or to Protestant towns in Germany, like the family of painter Rubens). And for those who stayed in Antwerp, income went down. As the war continued, and the estuary of the Scheldt river, on which Antwerp trade depended, was in rebel northern hands.

The artists Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens had in common that they all worked in Antwerp during that time. In 1609, a twelve years’ truce between the independent and the Spanish Netherlands started. Which meant some economic recovery, and some more possibilities for artists, in Antwerp. Those artists, however, had to recognize the victory of the Spanish monarchy, of the feudal old order, in the southern Netherlands, including Antwerp. The Roman Catholic church needed many new altar paintings after the 1560s iconoclasm, for its counter-reformation propaganda.

As for the position of an artist like Rubens in the southern Netherlands, compared to an artist like Rembrandt in the north, I will now paraphrase from an earlier blog post.

At an exhibition in The Hague, one exhibit made a visual statistic comparison between the paintings of Rubens and Rembrandt.

Rembrandt admired the older Rubens, and bought a painting by him.

Both Rembrandt and Rubens are often seen as baroque painters, influenced by earlier Italian examples.

They spoke the same language, Dutch, and lived in what was still seen as the seventeen united provinces of the Low Countries.

With both the bourgeois republicans who in Rembrandt’s and Rubens‘ days ruled the north, and the Habsburg monarchs who ruled the south, at least initially still hoping to unite all seventeen provinces under their own rule.

Nevertheless, the statistics of the various categories of subjects in Rubens’ and Rembrandt’s artistic productions show significant differences between the two artists.

Differences in artistic views between two individuals, doubtlessly.

But also differences showing how different socially and politically Rubens’ South and Rembrandt’s North had become since the Dutch revolt against the Roman Catholic Spanish absolute monarchy had started in the 1560s.

This video is called The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn (Part I).

And here is Part II.

These are the figures; percent of total works by Rubens and Rembrandt:

Altar paintings: Rubens 15%, Rembrandt 0%

Biblical paintings, not commissioned by a church: Rubens 20%, Rembrandt 20%

Antique mythology and history: Rubens 40%, Rembrandt 5%

Portraits: Rubens 15%, Rembrandt 60%

Self-portraits: Rubens 0%, Rembrandt 10%

Scenes from daily life and landscapes: Rubens 10%, Rembrandt 5%

While Rubens was originally from a Protestant, rebel, and refugee Antwerp family, and made his peace with the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchy later, Rembrandt’s views are closer to the republican Dutch revolt.

The figures show that Rembrandt, contrary to Rubens, made zero altar paintings.

In the northern low countries, the newly established Protestant church did not commission them.

Neither did the Roman Catholic church, now on the margins of legality.

If we put both Christian religious categories together, 20% of Rembrandt’s paintings fitted in the “Christian” category, vs. 35% of Rubens’.

Rembrandt himself was not an official member of any church, and was free to do that in “tolerant” Amsterdam.

The Bible was interesting to him as a source of subjects, but over all, religion did not play as big a role in his work as in Rubens’.

Rembrandt painted far less historical and mythological paintings than Rubens.

In countries other than the Dutch Republic, these types of paintings often made complimentary allusions to contemporary princes and nobles, and/or were often commissioned by them.

In The Netherlands, there was no monarchical court comparable to this.

There was only the Stadhouder‘s court.

Which would have liked very much to be a princely court like elsewhere in Europe; but constitutionally wasn’t.

Rembrandt got a commission from the princely court (princely, as the Stadhouders were also absolute monarchs in the tiny statelet of Orange in southern France).

But when his portrait of Princess Amalia von Solms, wife of Stadhouder Frederik Hendrik, turned out to be not flattering enough, his relationship to that court deteriorated.

The Hermitage Amsterdam exhibition notes that Stadhouder Frederik Hendrik prefered painters from the feudal southern Netherlands, though that region was the military enemy, to “bourgeois” northern painters like Rembrandt. He also prefered Gerard van Honthorst to Rembrandt as a painter of portraits of his wife. Honthorst was not from the Spanish occupied southern Netherlands. However, his home province Utrecht in the central Netherlands was less bourgeois rebellious than Rembrandt’s Holland. And Honthorst had spent much time in feudal Italy.

Nevertheless, if compared to Rubens, Rembrandt painted many more portraits.

Not commissioned by princes or nobles, but by the newly emerged bourgeoisie. Dutch art historian Bert Biemans who studied the economic side of seventeenth century Dutch art, estimates that a million paintings were painted then in the Netherlands. Many, compared to other countries then. As the Dutch bourgeoisie who might buy art bought comparatively more than mainly upper class people in other countries.

That Rembrandt painted so many more portraits than Rubens may be a sign of a stronger bourgeoisie; and of stronger individualism in the northern low countries.

Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens, like Rembrandt, were from “bourgeois” families. However, Antwerp bourgeois, including artists, if they wanted to survive, unlike Rembrandt, had either to become refugees or to accept a social order in which nobles and Roman Catholic clergy were of higher rank than them. Here, one can also see differences between the three individuals. Rubens, being both a successful painter and a diplomat, managed to climb on the social ladder. So did Van Dyck, whom the king of England knighted not so long before the English revolution upset the old order in ways similar to the sixteenth century Dutch revolt. Jordaens, from an affluent merchant family, sold his works to fellow bourgeois, not to the church or the nobility. Except for the court of Stadhouder Frederik Hendrik: a princely-feudal enclave in the northern bourgeois republic.

How Revolutionary Were The Bourgeois Revolutions? by Neil Davidson; review here.

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