Saturday, 15 September 2018

the Rijksmuseum - Amsterdam's Louvre pt 1

I guess the problem when it comes to the Rijksmuseum is that I didn't actually walk through it in any particular order, and never really noticed whether there was any particular order until long after I left. However, I should mention that the museum itself is huge. Well, not quite as big as the Louvre (which happens to be the biggest museum in the world) but it is still pretty massive. We didn't actually get to explore all of the Rijksmuseum either, though I'd say that we saw about 90% of the place, and the rest of the 10% we simply rushed through trying to find the way to get to where we wanted to go.

This was actually one of the really annoying things about the Rijksmuseum, and that is that it can be nearly impossible to get around. The museum is sort of divided into two halves, and while you can easily navigate it on the top level, as you go down, it is near impossible to get from one side to the other, and sometimes getting from one floor to the other, even on the side you want to be on, can be a challenge in and of itself - and we even had a map.

However, enough of that, and instead lets explore some of the artworks that I discovered as I wandered through this place taking photos of literally anything and everything, though another problem ended up being that since my phone was running low on juice it was going to be touch and go as to whether I would get to the end before it died. I did have my camera on me, but that is shocking for taking photos of text, and since the memory card I had at the time was minute, the problem there came down to making sure I had enough space on it.

So, I'll start with an artist named Francios Spierling, who was actually famous for weaving tapestries. Belgium actually had a huge textile market during the 15th century, but when the Dutch revolt broke out in the 16th century, and the region was engulfed in war, many of weavers fled to the northern regions of the Netherlands, where they continued to practice their trade. It was here that Spierling rose to fame, who happened to be the son of the mayor of Antwerp, and produced many of the tapestries, a couple of which we shall be looking at.

Spierling was fascinated with the story of the Greek Goddess Diana and many of his tapestries reflect that. This one is called Meleanger and Atalanta. The story goes that Diana (or Artemis as she is known to the Greeks) sent a huge boar to go ravaging the kingdom of Calydon. The king then offered a reward to anybody who would kill the boar, so his daughter (of all people) decided to go and hunt it down. She was sort of successful in finding, and wounding it, but it was Melanger who eventually killed it. Since Melanger was in love with Atalanta, he decided to give it to her as a gift (not something that I would recommend replicating these days and ages).

This tapestry, called Latona and the Lycian peasants, and a fable that basically explains why you shouldn't, well, be a prick. The story goes that the goddess Latona, and her two children, Apollo and Diana, were thirsty so they went and had a drink in a pool. Well, the farmers weren't particularly impressed with that so they decided to stir up the pond and make it extra muddy (and might have done a few other things to it as well). Not surprisingly, Latona wasn't all that impressed, and so she went and turned them into frogs. This is one of the reasons why hospitality is so important in some cultures, because as the Bible suggests, in being hospitable, one might find themselves serving Angels (as was the case with Abraham).

This painting, by Gerard van Nijmegen, is called 'A Mountainous Landscape near Dusseldorf'. It figures an unfarmed view of nature and in a way prefigures the romantic movements of later centuries which seeks to explore nature in its original form. Though it isn't entirely without signs of civilisation, as there appears to be a fortified outpost on the hill, and we also have a wagon train making is way along what appears to be a remarkably unkept road. However, the outpost is actually a ruin, suggesting that nature has this habit of quickly reverting to its normal form.

A painting by Cornelius Saftieven shows the average life in a small town. This painting is called 'Figures before a Village Inn' and here we see ordinary people doing ordinary things. However, it seems as if there is a storm brewing, but people are simply just caught up in their daily activities. For instance an intoxicated man orders more to drink, and notice how we have a friar, who apparently has taken a vow of poverty, ingrossed in a game of cards. This is a ordinary scene that tells us a lot about the ordinary people.

Another village scene, this time by Teniers, and it is known as Peasant Kermis. Here we see a scene of revelry on what appears to be a nice summers day. A couple dance in the middle of the scene, most likely to music, while an older lady assists a man, who might have had a little too much to drink, get back on his feet. Here, nobody is excluded, as the wives have also brought the babies along to join in the festivities. Yet we also notice how the animals are never too far away, and the pigs seem to nuzzle themselves.

This time we have a sculpture by Jan Pieter Van Baurscheit, and is known as Topers, since this is what they are (though I'm not entirely sure what a Toper actually is). This sculpture warns the viewer of the dangers of gluttony, since excessive drinking, not surprisingly, leads to drunkenness, and this undermines the work ethic. These types of characters make appearances in plays of the time, which also made mockery of the character tropes, as a warning to the audience not to follow in their paths. Sometimes, though, I suspect that such warnings go unheaded.

It seems that drinking was a big problem in the Netherlands at the time, but then again that is not at all surprising since the water, particularly in the urban areas, wasn't all that safe to drink. This is something that seems to repeat itself throughout history, though these days our water, at least in some places, is actually quite drinkable. However, the Dutch were always looking for an excuse to have a party, and thus in turn looking for an excuse to have a drink. Okay, while they suggest that parties lasted from about midday well into the night, this doesn't suggest that they were 'big' parties, since some ancient parties would last for at least a week.

This painting by Franz Janz Post is called the View of Olinda, Brazil. It is rather interesting to note that the Dutch did have colonies in Brazil, which they captured from the Portuguese. I guess there are still remnants of that colony on the North coast of South America known as the Guayanas. Here we see what appears to be a ruined cathedral, but the people standing in front suggest that it is still in use. However, notice how at the bottom of the painting we have some uniquely South American creatures, such as the sloth and the anteater.

I probably should have left this till last, since it is the centre piece of the Rijksmuseum, and probably Rembrandt's most famous work. Yes, it's The Night's Watch, a name that was given to the painting much later. It was painted by commission of the Amsterdam Civic Guard, and true to Rembrandt's style, he did something slightly different. Normally such paintings would be painted where the main figures were indoors, but Rembrandt painted them during an action scene. Notice also the little girl, who is apparently the watch's mascot.


The Dutch had a huge colonial empire built entirely on trade. Initially it was to the west, namely to Suriname, the Antilles in the Carribean, and West Africa. Here they would transport numerous commodities not available in Europe and made huge profits in the process. However, later on they engaged in the slave trade between West Africa and the Americas, a trade that was vastly more profitable, particularly since it meant that the ships didn't travel across the Atlantic empty. Of course, the practice absolutely devastated the lands from which the slaves were taken, to a point that the legacy still haunts the region today.

To the East, the Dutch established themselves in Batavia, modern day Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. From there, they spread throughout Asia, trading, raging war, planting crops, and making huge amounts of profit. Indonesia was known as the 'Spice Islands' for the rare spices that were there. Previously, such spices had to come through the Middle East, forcing Europeans to pay huge mark ups to the Arab and Turkish traders. However, after the Portuguese defeated the Arabs in the Indian Ocean and took control of the route, the Europeans were able to cut out that middle man, and take the profits themselves.

This is a model of a Dutch Merchantman known as the Prins Wilhelm. It first set sail in 1651 and made five trips to Batavia in Indonesia before sinking with no survivors.

This is indicative of the maps drawn by Wilhelm Janzoon Blau in his atlases. The colours on this particular map actually have no meaning whatsoever, and are really only representative of his style. However, his maps are well known for their detail (even if not particularly accurate, but then again he didn't have the luxury of relying upon satellite images). He is also well known for his intricate cartouches, which are also a mainstay of his maps.

Dirk Janzs van Santen was very popular in his time, and he could command a premium for his drawings, such as the one above, which is a reconstruction of the temple mount in Jerusalem. The view is looking to the east, and is the original temple built by Solomon. This drawing was actually taken from a display that had reconstructed the temple that was in Amsterdam at the time.

While there was a lot of hand drawing and painting around this time, woodcut prints were also quite popular. However, the actual colourist usually worked anonymously, generally in the employ of the people producing the prints. However, prints were very popular, particularly since they were somewhat cheaper, though of course, if they were hand-coloured then that was an entirely different story. Some colourists, such as van Santen, did actually make a name for themselves, and were well sort after even though the profession was an highly specialised one as is.

Paintings like this one from Dirzk Hals tend to have a double edged sword. In one sense it is a scene of artiscratic merrymaking (not that there were any aristocrats in the Netherlands at the time - it was a Republic), but in another sense it is a subtle warning against the futility of merrymaking - eating, drinking and the like. We see a monkey sitting, with a chain around his neck, which is representative of the sinful man, who is chained to his wanton desires.

While this looks like the tool box of the painters, it quite possibly isn't. Rather it is what is known as an objet d'art, or decorative art. Basically, it is one of those objects that is so decorated that you actually never use them, like those touristy things you happen to buy in gift shops (though I do drink out of my beer mug I bought in Dusseldorf). While there are bottles in here containing pigments what the purpose of it is to be more decorative, particularly with the various scenes painted inside and out.

Interestingly enough the Netherlands of this period was very much like today. In fact it was not uncommon to find paintings in the homes of the less well to do. Obviously, you wouldn't find paintings of the well known artists, such as the Rembrandts, who generally only adorned the walls of the upper classes. However, painting was still a lucrative business for those who had the skill, though many artists would stick to a specialisation, something that a master like Rembrandt didn't need to do.

This painting, by Adrieen van de Venne is called the Departure of a dignitary from Middelburg. Notice how the ship is being towed out to see by some draft horses, which is another interesting reflection of times past. The person on that ship must have been very important, though we have no idea who it actually was, because it seems that a lot of important people, including the mayor, are standing on the docks watching him leave.

Here we have an interesting piece of religious propaganda by Adrieen van de Venne. The painting is called Fishing for Souls and on the right we have the Catholic Southerners and on the left with have the Protestant Northerners. Here they are both attempting to 'fish' for people to bring into their respective churches. Notice how on the left the sun is shining and the trees are in full bloom, and that the opposite is the case on the right. Another thing to note is that the Protestants seem to be having a lot more success than are the Catholics.

Dutch History

One of the great things about museums like this is that there is a lot of history interwoven between the works of art. For instance, as mentioned earlier, the Dutch and the Spanish were at war, the main reason being that King Phillip of Spain had inherited the Holy Roman Empire. However, while he was an absolutist monarch, you couldn't quite do that with the Holy Roman Empire since they were more a loose collection of independent states. However, he did attempt to do that, and this led to a revolt by the Dutch, a revolt that lasted for years. Eventually they signed a truce, however that didn't stop the internal rivalries and religious power struggles between the Catholics and the Protestants, and between the extremists and the moderates. People were arrested and executed, which only fueled the tensions, and relics belonging to those executed were collected and venerated in remembrance of them.

When peace came about, the Netherlands found itself divided into two. The southern part, which is now known as Belgium (though at the time was known as the Spanish Netherlands) and the northern part became the Netherlands we know today. When the Spanish captured the city of Antwerp many of the inhabitants fled to the north. At the time Belgium was the centre of trade, and the textile industry, and also holds itself out as the birthplace of modern capitalism. As such, as they moved north, a lot of the influences spread there, and that begun what we know as the Dutch Golden Age.

Now we get to see some of the works of the Antwerp painters, and least those who moved north to the Netherlands. This is by Jacob Jordeans and is called Odysseus and Naussica. It is a painting of a scene from the Odyssey where Odysseus, naked and alone, has washed up on the shore of the land of the Phaeceans. The princess Nausica is heading out for her morning frolic in the sea when she is led by the goddess Athena to where Odysseus is lying.

Another work of a story from Classical antiquity, this one by Karel van Mander. This is called the Continence of Scipio, and is a story of clemency which we see throughout the classical world. Here Scipio Africanus, the conquerer of Carthage, handing a beautiful young maiden back to her fiance, even though he had captured her as booty. These scenes are interesting, though is also reflective of the time when religious art was generally not accepted among the extreme protestants of the Netherlands.

Another objet d'art, this one by Johannes Lecker. It is a collection of mythical creatures with a dolphin being ridden by a triton, a creature with the torso of a man, the legs of a horse, and dwells in the sea. On top of the triton is a nereid, a sea spirit from Ancient Greece. No doubt this was never meant to be used, and also shows the movement away from Christian art and towards art of classical mythology.

This is an example of a cabinet that would have been used by an art merchant. The various drawers and trays were used to hold art that the merchant was attempting to sell. The doors could be then closed to allow easy transportation. No doubt this would have been in display in one of the outdoor market stalls. Over time the original contents have since 'disappeared' with only the cabinet remaining.

These two paintings, Democritus on the right, and Heraclitus on the left, form a pair and was painted by Henrick ter Brugghen. These two ancient Greek philosophers exist at the opposite end of the spectrum, with Democritus being a joyful hedonist while Heraclitus is the mournful cynic. Both of them are leaning on a globe, as if to suggest that it does not matter whether you are laughing or crying, the world just continues to stumble along its foolish path to destruction.

We shall finish this part of my exploration of the Rijksmuseum with another mythological work by Brauban, this one called The Chaining of Prometheus. Interestingly Brauben borrowed the style from Caravagio, particularly the sun burnt complextion of Prometheus. This scene is where he is being chained by Vulcan (or Hephaestus, the blacksmith God), and is about to be chained to a rock to have his liver pecked out repeatedly by a vulture.

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the Rijksmuseum - Amsterdam's Louvre pt 1 by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images or videos that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are are not intended to assert ownership. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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