An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 139

Clinton Howell Antiques - August 2, 2021 - Issue 139

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

The Rijksmuseum has undergone a substantial restoration since the last time I visited which is roughly 35 years ago. Of course, I hardly remember what it was like then so as far as I was concerned, this visit might as well have been the first for all that I remembered. No matter, because museum visits are difficult from the point of view of absorbing all that you see--there is always too much to see. And, if you look at paintings to determine precisely what it is about them that grabs you, it can be utterly exhausting to look at more than a handful. Every artist is telling a story and the why, what, when and how of that story is nigh on impossible to fit on the information card that talks about it. (There has to be a word for those cards, but I don't know it.) But what I like about the museum as it is now is how it is arranged--essentially, the paintings, objects and furniture are grouped in time periods and, Holland being Holland, the most interesting time period for me was the floor that covered 1600-1700.

Understanding western history, European and American specifically, is a function of following the money. However, there is a layer of social consciousness behind this wealth so the manifestation of this plenitude is different from nation to nation and, in fact, likely to be different from city to city--think New York City and Los Angeles, for example. Holland's wealth explosion likely started in the mid 16th century as world trade was cranking up and the Dutch seafarers were among the most pervasive in their search for products. You might think it would be the French or Italians to have focused on the spice trade, as well as such luxuries as coffee, chocolate and sugar, but it was the Dutch who capitalized on this trade with the English hot on their heels.  The money created by this trading built cities, Amsterdam being one of many cases in point. And when you build, you then need to fill that home with furniture and decoration. And the Dutch? They loved paintings--on one of the cards I read in the museum, it was noted that the Dutch even hung paintings in their kitchens!

But what do the paintings tell us about the Dutch? It is important to remember that the northern Dutch provinces were Protestant and one of the primary schisms between Catholic and Protestant interpretations of religion was Protestant iconoclasm. So while the Catholics in Florence, for example, were paying artists to paint religious devotional scenes (and by the late 1500s inserting portraits of the artist's patrons in the devotional scenes) the Dutch were painting pictures of traders examining cloth for quality. As I walked around the 1600-1700 hundred floor in the museum, one of the things I kept in mind was how often I saw religious based art and it was de minimis--not much at all. And so Dutch art is largely about Dutch life--pastoral scenes, cityscapes, still lifes of silver jugs with nautilus shells and ripe fruit--a horn of plenty without the horn, vases of flowers, domestic scenes, nature up close and lastly, and most importantly, portraits. Of course, it is Rembrandt that stands atop the portrait painting peak and it is clear to me why that is, now more than ever. His art was never static. You can see that he is pushing himself to try things as, for example, in a portrait of a couple dressed in ancient costume where Rembrandt uses great gobs of paint. (Not being an art historian, I would guess that kind of paint usage is rare until the mid 20th century.) Nevertheless, this floor, 1600-1700, is a story to behold--every painting revealing something about the moment, about Dutch history, about the painter and the art "scene", about craft and about how the Dutch saw themselves in the world. I recommend a visit.