REMBRANDT AND THE DUTCH GOLDEN AGE – EXHIBITION AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS

In 2006, the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts ran an exhibition titled El Greco, Velázquez, Goya: Five Centuries of Spanish Masterpieces, as the first instalment in a series designed to offer a comprehensive insight into some of the grand periods and schools of European painting, building on the core pieces of the Museum’s own collection and supplemented by works on loan from abroad. The next two anthological exhibitions – Botticelli toTitian (2009) and Caravaggio to Canaletto (2013) – respectively undertook a survey of Italian Renaissance and Baroque by a bevy of superb paintings sourced from all over the world. Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age (2014) is the latest in the series. All of these exhibitions have been motivated by a dual purpose: to present the public with a specific period of the history of painting in a spectacular form and of the highest standards – an undertaking obviously calling for at least a few well-known, famous works, and by setting in a broader context major pieces of Hungarian ownership, from the museum in Budapest as well as from smaller museums and private collections, directing the attention to the significance of our own domestic stock. Without a doubt, exhibitions of this type are hardly ever organised these days by the major foreign institutions: London, Paris and Munich all had them in the 1980s and 1990s. There has been a general move toward more specialised thematic exhibitions since they became the most favoured venue for publishing new achievements of scholarship. (But let us leave aside the alarmingly mushrooming thematic shows of the exhibition industry, which tend to rally often very high quality works around a single idea without any correlation in terms of art history or any obvious professional consideration.) Budapest, however, cannot afford to pretend to be “done with” the traditional approach as something that no longer has any use and we belive in carrying on this tradition with a more modern approach. Of course in our day and age, when travel is universally possible and the internet allows access to virtually any famous art works, museums seem losing their raison d’être, but just the opposite happens. This means for the curator that there is a need to tailor the task to the altered circumstances and the new demand in trying to show to the viewers the masterworks of European painting and enrich their visual culture. Now, one way to achieve that goal is the well constructed encyclopaedic exhibition. I remain convinced that the showing of a carefully consideredselection of paintings, with a judicious measure of information can have a great impact.

And it would be difficult to overestimate the fact that hundreds of thousands of visitors discover the difference between a reproduction in a book or on the monitor and the original work. It is this discovery, the experience of meeting the greatest masters, that those exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts had offered to the visitor.

One could have a number of approaches when presenting Dutch paintings from the 17th century because of the exceptional variety and abundance of the period, which also ushered in innovations that were to define European painting for centuries to come. The Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam celebrated its two hundredth anniversary in 2000 by mounting a large-scale exhibition entitled The Glory of the Golden Age with the participation of over sixty loaning institutions, to illustrate the influence of Dutch culture as radiated by painting. A necessarily different selection is when specific museums are relying on their own respective collections, and show it to the public in various locations during the renovation of the museum building back home. A case in point was Mauritshuis housing the Dutch Royal Collection, which used the occasion of its first enlargement, in 1986, to bring its jealously guarded stars to the Grand Palais in Paris for a rare tour. Exhibitions of this type subsequently became established practice for both Rijksmuseum and Mauritshuis while their headquarters underwent renovation. A number of collections in the Netherlands contributed to The Dutch World of Painting, an exhibition of wider scope owing to its division into thematic units, which opened in Vancouver in 1986 and later. As can be gleaned from the catalogues, remarkable concepts and approaches have characterised certain smaller, thematically more focused exhibitions – a type particularly common in America – but one could also go on and on about exhibitions in the Netherlands that have focused on a specific theme or genre.

The kind of exhibition of Dutch painting we wanted to put together in Budapest was supposed to use material kept in Hungary as a starting point, without being compromised in its attempt to provide a comprehensive representation of the Golden Century, or losing sight of current achievements in scholarly research. We strove to cull a diversified, high-quality set of works suitable for being arranged in the available rooms in a balanced, approachable form based on a handful of guiding criteria, giving visitors a colourful survey of the era emblematised by Rembrandt. With its five hundred paintings, the Dutch collection of the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts is the fourth largest of its kind in the world outside the Netherlands. Of this abundant collection, I selected the 40 works I deemed the most significant, and supplemented this set by 31 works from the Nationalmuseum of Stockholm, our chief loaning partner with its main building closed for renovation. Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum contributed 19 and the Kremer collection contributed 11 paintings, while other important pieces were offered by more than 40 public and private collections. The 178 works on display include 20 by Rembrandt and three by Vermeer; the rest are works by 110 of their contemporaries. This grand exhibition was at once a farewell showing for three years since a long-overdue renovation of the Museum of Fine Arts begins in this March.

Given that the exhibition was to be tied to Budapest first and foremost in devising the topics, we had Hungarian audiences in mind, the potential visitors’ interest, their knowledge about the Netherlands. Where can they find some further information? What could we show them further about the history of the Northern Low Countries during the period? And where do we, Hungarians come in? Two of the introductory studies in the catalogue address the last of these questions. Debrecen University professor István Bitskey contributed a lucid and instructive overview of Dutch–Hungarian relations, both historical and cultural, from the impact in Hungary of Humanitas Erasmiana to the Dutch ties of Protestantism to the relations forged by Hungarian university students studying in the Netherlands to the Dutch ties of Hungarian authors, scholars and scientists. Júlia Tátrai, the co-curator of the exhibition, wrote a sweeping essay on the reception and influence of Dutch art in Hungary, also discussing the process of collecting relevant works of art. Without a doubt, her work will open new ground for foreign researchers of Dutch art as well. Two studies are devoted to Rembrandt entirely. The one by Gary Schwartz, author of two monographs on Rembrandt (1984, 2006), is a deeply personal piece reporting on the evolution of the artist’s renown from his own age to our own, enhancing the treatise by snapshots of parallel developments in general and art history. The aesthete András Rényi proposes a dramaturgical analysis for a narrative of Rembrandt’s works from his young period. In the fifth introductory essay, Professor Eddy de Jongh investigates the possibilities of the iconological method in the research of 17th-century Dutch painting and sums up the relevant scholarly debate, providing invaluable assistance for the reader of the catalogue in understanding the specific features of Dutch realism.

Yes, realism. From entering the first hall, one cannot escape the feeling that these masters strove to render everything around them with the utmost verisimilitude, as if they had never had a desire other than to paint well – at least in the eyes of Eugène Fromentin, the 19th century French painter, who for this very reason set them as the example for all others to follow (Les Maîtres d’autrefois, 1875). The same trait is underlined by Svetlana Alpers in The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (1983) when she hails representation foregrounding fidelity to nature as a seminal technical innovation. Yet if we pay attention to the subjects of the paintings by these highly accomplished masters, we will see human faces, characters, events, stories, places and lands, each conveying specific moods and ideas. In other words, the descriptive penchant of Dutch painting also allows us to access the mindset and taste of people who lived in that era. This makes for a worthy foundation (and layout) for a thematic exhibition, where the spectacle of works placed in carefully considered juxtaposition will not only yield a special aesthetic experience but also stimulate thought, guiding the viewer through a string of physically discrete objects toward a deeper understanding of the spirit of the age. The catalogue itself, by an international team of authors, offers an in-depth analysis of each painting as well as important information about the masters. Complete with background basics in cultural and art history introducing seven main topics, the volume offers a comprehensive and up-to- date interpretation of 17th-century Dutch painting, aiming to fill an age-old gap in Hungarian educational literature on the history of the arts.

The first section is devoted to a glimpse of history as seen through painting. The provinces of the Northern Low Countries, joined in the Union of Utrecht (1579), rose up against Spanish rule under the stadhouder William of Orange (aka William the Silent), revered by the Dutch to this day as the forefather of the Netherlands. Following his assassination in 1584, his son Maurice, Prince of Orange-Nassau took over military command until 1625, when he was succeeded by his half-brother Frederick Henry until 1647. The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands formed in 1588 as a Protestant civil government state, which became a global power in the span of a few decades while it waged a war of independence against Spain (known as the Eighty Years’ War), shored up great wealth, and reinvested a significant portion of the proceeds in the advancement of the arts. In what way is all that reflected in the paintings? A decisive battle at sea off the shores of England was immortalised by the first master of the seascape genre, Hendrick Vroom (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), more than likely on commission from Maurice of Orange himself (fig. 4). The mobilisation of the whole fleet at Dordrecht in 1647 is treated in two paintings in a rather different manner. There is a depiction of an episode from the Dutch–English wars at Livorno, or you can contemplate the details of a thrilling cavalry battle, or study the art of hand weapons as depicted on Delft tiles. We made it a point to show a bust portrait of each commander – popular works of the era often hung in the living rooms of their followers. Also, several paintings were devoted to the magnificent sepulchre of William the Silent, a place of national veneration to this day. Crucial junctures in politics were celebrated by allegorical depictions such as Adriaen van de Venne’s seminal painting (borrowed from the Louvre) eulogising the Twelve Years’ Truce from 1609 to 1621, Adriaen van Nieulandt’s large canvas commemorating the 1648 Peace of Westphalia (Rijksmuseum), or Willem de Poorter’s tribute to colonial conquests (from a private collection in Hungary). The set is completed by representative portraits of sea-captains, chief among them Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, who – among other feats – liberated Hungarian Protestant pastors from galley-slavery. His portrait leads us to the second section of the exhibition, where we are greeted by a string of self-righteous Dutch citizens bent on building a new society.

Portraiture took to wings to attain unprecedented heights. On the evidence of contemporaneous inventories, one fifth of all painting comprised portraits. In light of the gems of portraiture by Frans Hals (fig. 2), Bartholomeus van der Helst, or Rembrandt himself, it is difficult to grasp why the theoreticians of the age deemed the portrait, along with the landscape and the still life, to be an inferior genre. Serving as vehicles of self-assertion for the new patrician class and a bolstered, expanding bourgeoisie, portraits fulfilled a traditional status display function and were typically commissioned on the occasion of an engagement, wedding, childbirth or promotion in office. The several types shown here include married couples, separately or together in one painting, posing in the same interior or landscape, in festive dress in the circle of their families, wearing casual home attire, or even a historicised costume. We also had to make room for paintings of group portraiture, a genre unique to the Dutch School, typically commissioned by regents of civil associations such as various guilds, and officers of civic guards and charity institutions to commemorate their labours for the public good. The Banquet of the Officers of the St George Militia Company is a characteristic work by Frans de Grebber from 1619 (Haarlem, Frans Hals Museum), here shown next to the first lesson in anatomy, the first in its genre with 29 members of the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild, as depicted by Aert Pietersz in 1603 (Amsterdam Museum, detail on the cover). Here one should mention two major works by Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp and The Night Watch which, needless to say, we did not have a chance to bring to Budapest. The section is brought up bytheSelf-PortraitofAdriaenHanneman,courtpainterforTheHague,from 1669 (Kremer Collection), a late work in the aristocratic style reflecting the influence of Van Dyck.

The third section is about the contradictions between quickly earned riches and Puritan thinking, and the attempt to find ways to reconcile the two. One could hardly comprehend the dogged fight mounted by the Dutch for independence, rise to dominance and a better life if we did not see how they used, respected and enjoyed the wealth they gained. One sign of this is the multitude of paintings they collected with gusto. Among the suite of splendid still lifes of silk, carpets, fine ornamental dishes and other exotic objects procured from remote lands, the most wonderful are perhaps those painted by Willem Heda (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts, fig. 3) and Willem Kalf (Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza). We are treated to lavish feasts on paintings by Abraham van Beyeren (private collection) and Pieter de Ring (Rijksmuseum). As we delight in colourful flowers courtesy of Johannes Bosschaert, Balthasar van der Ast, Jan Davidsz de Heem (all from Stockholm) and Rachel Ruysch (from a private collection in Hungary), we might be reminded of the craze for tulips (especially the trade and speculation in this flower, which ruined many souls). Next, we can marvel at the destiny of the partridge hung in a wooden alcove in Melchior d’Hondecoeter’s extremely subtle trompe-l’œil painting (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum) suffused with a melancholic mood. Apart from the still lifes, two types of tableau demonstrate the Dutch relish for earthly pleasures. Masters from Utrecht and Haarlem painted youths playing music, drinking, lighting a pipe and reading by candlelight – each an embodiment of the five senses of hearing, smell, taste, vision and touch as different means of experiencing the world. Prominent among them are three superb, famous pieces by Hendrick ter Brugghen (Eger, Dobó István Vármúzeum), Frans Hals (Kassel, Gemäldegalerie) and Judith Leyster (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum). There are also genre paintings composed with tiny figures, evoking the revelry of colourfully clad, dashing youths and the unbridled carousal of merry peasants as conjured up by the brushstrokes of Willem Buytewech, Dick Hals (both at Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts) and Adriaen van Ostade (Munich, Alte Pinakothek).

It may seem all about mirth and glee, but all one needs is to recall how irately more than a few preachers impeached these wasteful and demoralising gatherings to realise the potential of the alluring spectacle to be interpreted as setting a bad example. The laconic final verdict is delivered by Jan Steen with an obvious flair for storytelling in his great painting (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) of the rather cheerful gathering of a well-to-do family and the ironic warning “In Luxury Beware” written on a piece of slate propped against the stairs in a clearly visible location.

The fourth section shows the impact of Protestantism on religious painting. The Seven Low Countries launched their fight for independence in the spirit of Protestantism, and by declaring their freedom from Spanish supremacy in 1581 they effectively established the primacy of Protestantism. Catholic churches were swept clean, their walls painted white to provide a worthy abode for the “true teaching” delivered in the vernacular. Of course, this had a major impact on painting: altar paintings suddenly out of fashion, people chose to keep paintings of biblical subjects in their homes, – henceforth a place for religious education. Stories from the Old Testament, now regarded as parables, were thrust into the limelight. This functional overhaul gave impetus to the special genre of church interiors, exemplified eloquently by Pieter Saenredam’s painting of the Nieuwe Kerk (fig 4. Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts), and designed by Jacob van Campen, the foremost architect of his day. On the large panel, the light pouring in from all directions conspires with the low viewpoint perspective to render the central space monumental, making it exude an air of serenity and solemnity. The portrait of Johannes Wtenbogaert (from Rembrandt’s atelier, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum), the spiritual leader of Remonstrantism, reminds us of the differentiation of the Protestant congregation and the controversy around the dogma of predestination, seconded by two monumental works by major Mennonite painters, Lambert Jacobs and Jacob Backer (also from Stockholm). People of the Catholic faith were relegated to holding mass in churches disguised as residential buildings, fitted with new altar paintings. The archiepiscopal seat of Utrecht, which had retained a Catholic majority, was in a special position and had closer ties to Rome, and this showed in the city’s painting. Returning from study trips in Italy, the painters of Utrecht introduced Caravaggio’s novel and distinctive realism in the North, adopting the style to altar paintings for the so-called school-churches. A fine, rare epitome of this approach is Hendrick ter Brugghen’s The Calling of St Matthew (Le Havre, Musée des Beaux-Arts André Malraux). And there are other works with themes suggesting they were commissioned by a Catholic patron.

Structuring the Rembrandt section required the utmost circumspection. Borrowing any of the truly iconic works of the great master was obviously out of the question; most museums guard even his smaller paintings jealously, and are reluctant to send them “on tour”. It would, therefore, have been a delusion to envision this section of our exhibition based on an ideal list, although one always admittedly thinks in terms of such a list at first. In any event, the 20 Rembrandt works that did travel to Budapest do include a few outstanding masterpieces, affording an exceptional opportunity for us to show the master at his greatest and in full bloom of his powers of innovation. The selection at large provides a fairly representative cross-section of his favourite themes, genres and periods. Facing the small but fascinating Self-Portrait (Munich, Alte Pinakothek, fig. 5), we feel ourselves scrutinised by the 23-year-old youth’s inquisitive gaze from underneath the locks fallen across his forehead. This same searching spirit of experimentation is very much in evidence in a set of works from the artist’s Leiden period. Another self-portrait, painted at the age of 34 (London, National Gallery, fig. 7) exudes the self-esteem of a painter who has made it and is on a par with his great Renaissance forebears, Raphael and Titian. One of the last self-portraits he ever painted, from 1669 (Florence, Uffizi) seems to sum up all the struggle, soaring achievement and profound suffering of his life. Next to it the two portraits of Titus (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches  Museum  and  London,  Dulwich  Picture  Gallery)  and  theenchanting Young Girl at the Window (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum) radiate the awe-inspiring power of the late Rembrandt period. Of particular significance is our good fortune to feature four biblical works, representing the genre in which Rembrandt is credited with ushering in the greatest breakthrough. He depicts episodes in Christ’s life with dramatic force and poignancy, as in The Incredulity of Thomas (Moscow, Pushkin Museum) and The Entombment Sketch (Glasgow, The Huntarian Museum). Finally, selected works by Rembrandt’s disciples and followers serve to throw the master’s seminal influence in stark relief.

The sixth section displays scenes of urban life, including the whirling traffic of public squares and the tranquillity of middle-class homes. Urbanisation started early in the Lowlands, where city dwellers had come to make up 60 per cent of the total population by the mid-17th century. The City Hall of Amsterdam, the most dynamically growing city, was designed by Jacob van Campen and, with its cupola set in place in 1665, became the largest public building erected in Europe in the 17th century (Gerrit Berckheyde’s painting of the Hall with Dam Square was loaned by the Amsterdam Museum). Other paintings in this section show the inner courtyard of the renovated bourse, the fish and bird market, and quiet details along the canals. In one of his most famous works, Gerrit Dou, the founder of the Leiden Fijnschilders (or Leiden School of Fine Painters), portrays a quack hawking his magic potions in one of the city’s squares (Rotterdam, Museum Bojmans Van Beuningen), while Pieter de Hooch pays tribute to the city of Delft with the spire of Nieuwe Kerk in the background of a family portrait (Vienna, Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der Bildenden Künste). The latter artist arrived in Delft in 1652, where several painters had been subjecting interior spaces to experiments with new ways of perspectivist representation, ultimately inspiring the interiors of Johannes Vermeer van Delft. The three featured paintings by Vermeer form the other pinnacle of the exhibition. The Astronomer (lent by the Louvre, fig. 10), The Geographer (Frankfurt, Städel Museum, fig. 9) and the Allegory of the Catholic Faith (New York, Metropolitan Museum, fig 8) are shown in the brace of intimate scenes by Vermeer’s followers and imitators, these typifying the genre of the bourgeois tableau.

The exhibition ends on a selection of landscapes, the genre that had become the most sought-after by the mid-17th century: according to contemporary records, landscapes amounted to 40 per cent of all painting. The assortment on display here easily lends itself to tracing the variety of landscape types and the process of their differentiation from canals in the summer and in the winter to footpaths through the woods, roadside inns, harbours at night, verdant pastures… The motifs may all come from the artists’ homeland, but atmospheric effect gains expression differently in Salomon van Ruysdael’s sandy road (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts, fig. 12) than in Jacob van Ruisdael’s broader twilight panorama with the windmill by the stream (London, Royal Collection Trust, fig. 11). There are also works by Dutch painters of lands far and wide, for instance in Italy and Scandinavia, all rich in mutual influence. Aelbert Cuyp’s Cows in a River (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts, fig. 13), an emblematic summit of Dutch landscape painting, is remarkable for its atmosphere submerged in soft golden light in the typical manner of the Italianate masters.

Being structured around seven major themes, the exhibition is designed to disentangle for the visitor the intricately woven tapestry of social phenomena, events of history and intellectual-spiritual trends of the era, as seen through these paintings. Orientation is aided by background information posted on the wall at the entrance to each new section, as well as by brief analyses of about half of the works on display, although we made an honest effort to avoid didacticism at the expense of the primary visual experience. In addition to – and embedded within – the seven main themes there are a handful of leitmotifs that run through the entire exhibition that will be readily identified by the attentive viewer. One of these is the breakneck advancement of the natural sciences, perhaps the keenest manifestation of the suddenly greater curiosity about the world surrounding us. For instance, the portraits of sea-captains feature contemporary maps to illustrate the significance of cartography. The depiction of scientists culminates in Johannes Vermeer van Delft’s splendid duo of The Astronomer and The Geographer. Severed from each other since 1797, these two works are shown here side by side, which is a rare case. They seem to gain further impact from the splendid terrestrial and celestial globes issued by the Blaeu company of Amsterdam in 1640 and 1645, shown here courtesy of the National Széchenyi Library and its historical Cistercian division in the Abbey of Zirc. The common thread of science is picked up in the group portrait of Amsterdam’s surgeons, commissioned from Aert Pietersz in 1601. It was then that he painted the first lesson in anatomy, establishing a new subgenre of portraiture (cf. above). The floral still lifes, painted with the meticulous precision of a botanist, report on another discipline of empirical science in the flux of revolutionary change, and specifically on the many breeds of tulip introduced to the Netherlands by Carolus Clusius, professor of the University of Leiden from 1595. Although the exhibition’s inventory contains no representation of the microscope, this indispensable tool for the botanist and the zoologist, at least we can marvel at the polished lenses of the novel pince-nez offered for sale by a peddler in The Allegory of Vision, one of Rembrandt’s earliest paintings. Other allegories of eyesight feature young boys caught in the act of reading or studying, epitomising the importance of learning from books. Towering above the others is a portrait of the Palatine Prince Charles Louis, the oldest son of the “Winter King”, painted in 1631 by Jan Lievens, in the company of the youth’s tutor, casting them in the role of Alexander and Aristotle (Los Angeles, the J. Paul Getty Museum). A monumental work by Rembrandt from 1635 portrays Minerva, the patroness of the sciences (New York, Leiden Gallery, fig. 6), placed fittingly in the geometrical centre of the entire exhibition.

The other thought emerging here and there from the interpretation of these works is that of religious pluralism and the tolerance it entails. In the 17th century, there was no Protestant majority in the Netherlands. Early in the period barely one third of the population belonged to this congregation, and although scores of thousands fleeing from persecution in the southern provinces found refuge in the country, the followers of the Calvinist faith never attained an absolute majority, either then or later. While the almost equally populous Catholic communities were barred from practising their religion in public, they were never persecuted but were treated as equal citizens. The altar paintings gracing their concealed churches were commissioned from the finest masters of the day. In his Allegory of the Catholic Faith, Johannes Vermeer, who converted to Catholicism through his marriage, shows Jacob Jordaens’s Calvary in the background. The work of the Antwerp painter must have been owned by Vermeer himself, as it is listed in the inventory of his estate (fig. 8).

Religious tolerance as modus vivendi is exemplified particularly well by a work paintedby the minor Dutch artist Gijsbert Sibilla around 1635, representing a Dutch Reformed service in the Grote Kerk in Weesp (Utrecht, Museum Catharijneconvent). The church interior is combined with the elements of a genre scene and a group portrait by the painter, who happened to be the city’s mayor and Calvinist by religion, but also contributed an Entombment of Christ to the local Catholic church.

The tolerant outlook of the new civic society is illustrated well by its readiness to provide refuge to Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, starting at the end of the 16th century. Groups of Ashkenazi settlers from Central Europe arrived later on. The period between 1671 and 1675 saw the construction of the imposing Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, with an interior immortalised with a precise rendition of proportions and a well-chosen perspective in a painting by Emanuel de Witte, which came to be regarded as the symbol of the tolerance embraced by the Dutch (Rijksmuseum).

Another prevalent theme is the importance of family. This is clearly evident in the section of portraits as well, where portraits of families and married couples, such as the Trip–De Geer, Hinlopen–Huydecoper couples, serve to epitomise the emergence of a new leading class by dint of family relations. The works depicting bourgeois life in the city focus on presenting the home, parents and children, housewives busy with household chores. The central role accorded to the family in the Netherlands of the 17th-century is reflected in the fact that the most popular book at the time was a didactic poem illuminated by engravings about marriage by Jacob Cats. This work took pride of place – next to the Bible, of course – in virtually every respectable household, went through a number of editions, and sold some 50,000 copies in all.

One cardinal tenet of austere Protestant morality holds that all the goods on Earth are derived from God, and that we all must account for what we have been given. A life pleasing God meant diligence at one’s work, ethical probity, a tidy home, tight family relations, and helping the needy. The view of man’s tenure on earth underwent a shift compared to medieval times, when it was regarded merely as preparation for the afterlife. Yet no one ever lost sight of the mutability and transience of earthly pleasures: the dictum of Vanitatum vanitas et omnie vanitas gained expression in many symbolic representations often forming entire symbolic systems. Indeed, Vanitas iconography appears in many guises in the pictures of the exhibition. Willem de Poorter’s Vanitas painting (Stockholm) operates with easily deciphered symbolism: we see a beautiful young woman putting on jewellery at the dresser, with a pile of gold and silver vessels at her feet representing earthly riches, and Death holding a mirror to her face. Death also makes an entry into the studio of Jan Steen’s zealous scientist/doctor (Prague, Národní galerie) to warn of the ultimate futility of human learning. The magnificent still lifes composed of quickly fading flowers naturally evoke associations of mutability, as do the pretty empty shells of snails and mussels that no longer harbour any life. Intimating the soul fleeing from the body after death, butterflies at once symbolise resurrection. The theme of death is also central to still lifes that take hunting as their subject. Even light-hearted youths engaged in music-making remind us of oblivion and decay, since the art of fleeting sounds is the very embodiment of all things ephemeral. The mirror held by Paulus Moreelse’s terrestrial Venus (Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum) symbolises vanity, the futility and perils of love. The soap bubbles blown by Rembrandt’s impish little Cupid (Vienna, Liechtenstein Collection) signify the equally ephemeral nature of the passion aroused in us by his arrow. This same symbol of homo bulla is hidden in the scene of a child playing with a pig’s bladder in the backdrop of Isaac van Ostade’s Cut Pig (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts). Landscapes also tell us about human evanescence by depicting the process of nature, the infinite sea, the rushing streams, or a solitary, dried-up tree by the lake.

The exhibition Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age undertakes to present this peerlessly fertile period of Dutch culture with the broadest possible reach, in all of its variegated splendour. Some of the major works on display will be familiar from many reproductions; others have been shown more rarely, or displayed here for the first time. These paintings are among the most coveted objets d’art for collectors. Dutch exhibitions with a special thematic focus have attracted large crowds around the world. This certainly also seems to be the case in Budapest, where the exhibition has been visited by 235,000 visitors.

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