The golden age of Dutch art never ceases to amaze

This year’s Vermeer exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Frans Hals retrospective at London’s National Gallery are testaments to the enduring appeal of the Dutch artists of the Golden Age. When the 80-year war between Spain and the Dutch Republic ended in 1648, it left the Dutch strong in military and economic terms. They founded colonies across the world. The affluence and stability provided the perfect medium for creativity. Painting flourished, and buying art was no longer the domain of the wealthiest. Benjamin Moser’s first book since winning the Pulitzer for Sontag explores this burgeoning world. The lives and works of the greatest and lesser-known Dutch artists of

Why is Frans Hals still not considered the equal of Rembrandt?

Who was Frans Hals? We know very little about him. He was baptised in either 1582 or 1583 in Antwerp. He died in 1666 at the age of 83 or 84. Approximately 220 works survive. One discredited narrative claimed Hals was a drunk – an inference probably based on his subject matter. There are several depictions of drinkers. On the other hand, there is his evident industry. Two streets in Haarlem, where he lived his entire life, have been identified, but not the actual houses. He was buried in St Bavo’s church in the Grote Markt, which was originally Catholic but became Protestant. There are two commemorative slabs next to

The art of the monarchy

Elizabeth II spent virtually all her life surrounded by one of the world’s greatest art collections. Even when she was a child, and the likelihood of her inheriting the throne still seemed remote, visits to her grandparents at Buckingham Palace involved looking at pictures, since George V enjoyed showing her the Victorian narrative paintings that hung there, such as William Powell Frith’s ‘Ramsgate Sands’. Nobody knows exactly how many works of art there are in the Royal Collection, but at the end of Elizabeth II’s reign nearly 300,000 objects had been catalogued online, probably just under a third of the whole. Among the many masterpieces are Andrea Mantegna’s monumental sequence

A showstopper is at the heart of this winning show: Dulwich Gallery’s Reframed – The Woman in the Window reviewed

Themed exhibitions pegged to particular pictures in museum collections tend to be more interesting to the museum’s curators than to the general public. But with Reframed: The Woman in the Window Dulwich Picture Gallery is on to a winner, as not only is the particular picture a showstopper, but the theme opens up a whole can of feminist worms. Whether it’s her pensive pose, her idle fiddling with her necklace or the shy look in her shadowed eyes, Rembrandt’s ‘Girl at a Window’ (1645) is impossible to walk past. Scholars continue to bicker about her status. Serving wench? Kitchen maid? Prostitute? Rembrandt’s lover? Whoever she was, hers was the face

The guileful, soulful art of Khadija Saye

Gwyneth Paltrow has a new neighbour. On the same block in Notting Hill as Gwynie’s Goop store, with its This Smells Like My Vagina scented candles and must-have child-calming essential oil sprays, a shopfront has been taken over to display a poignant series of self-portraits by a rather different woman. Khadija Saye died three summers ago with her mother in the Grenfell Tower fire. Much of the 24-year-old artist’s work was destroyed in the blaze, including three tintype images from a series of nine called ‘in this space we breathe’. The other six were displayed that summer in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in Saye’s first major international

Every bit as well observed as Rembrandt – and often funnier: Nicolaes Maes reviewed

Nicolaes Maes (1634–93) relished the simple moments of daily life during the Dutch Golden Age. A woman peeling parsnips over a bowl; a young girl threading a needle; a peasant lugging pails of milk to sell on the doorstep. His paintings are sensitive, not showy, and, as you would expect from a pupil of Rembrandt, rendered with the most exquisite use of light. Maes was apprenticed to the Dutch master for about five years in his teens. He returned to Amsterdam later in life, but worked for two decades in his hometown of Dordrecht, 11 miles southeast of Rotterdam. Several of his paintings, including ‘The Apostle Thomas’ and ‘Christ Blessing

On Van Gogh and Rembrandt

Being in the south of France obviously gave Vincent an enormous joy, which visibly comes out in the paintings. That’s what people feel when they look at them. They are so incredibly direct. I remember in some of his letters Vincent saying that he was aware he saw more clearly than other people. It was an intense vision… [H]e must have been doing some very concentrated looking. My God! After working for a long time, I get very tired eyes. I just have to close them… Photographs of those fields around Arles that Van Gogh painted wouldn’t interest us much. It’s a rather boring, flat landscape. Vincent makes us see

Northern lights | 16 August 2018

The Rembrandt show at the National Galleries of Scotland (until 14 October) has a problem. A mighty haul of Rembrandt paintings and prints are arrayed against a backdrop that mines the historical impact of his work on British artists and collectors. This is interesting. The problem is that the Rembrandt works are so astounding that there’s a danger you won’t bother with the rest. You should, because here Reynolds and Raeburn and Ramsay and more, all inescapably influenced by Rembrandt, tell fascinating and sometimes complicated tales of artistic heredity and homage. There’s no disgrace in going only for the Rembrandts, though. Hell, go there just to see the one wall

Woman to woman

Bump to bump they stand: Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, both pregnant, both apple-cheeked and glowing as expectant mothers should be. It is a moment of shared joy. The whispered intimacy of ‘I’m pregnant!’ ‘Me, too!’ Joseph and Zacharias stand sheepish in the background, as men do on such occasions. Joseph has more reason than most to feel left out. The baby isn’t his in the conventional sense. Zacharias has the look of a man overtaken by events. After so many ‘barren’ years, here is Elizabeth, pregnant and beaming with the future John the Baptist. The Visitation, the moment of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in Judea to share the news

On the trail of a lost masterpiece

On 27 May 1939, the German liner St Louis docked in Havana with 937 passengers on board: all but a handful of them were Jews in flight from the Third Reich. After a dismal farrago of diplomatic obstruction, bare-faced corruption among local officials and the incitement by Nazi propaganda of anti-Semitic prejudice ‘even’ (as Leonardo Padura sorrowfully puts it) ‘among the open and happy Cubans’, only a score of refugees could disembark. The US refused entry to the rest. Their ship of despair sailed back to Europe. Around this shaming episode, the genial gadfly of Cuban literature has built a digressive, eccentric but deeply absorbing novel: part-detective story, part-historical enquiry,

Going Dutch | 27 October 2016

In debates about what should and should not be taught in art school, the subject of survival skills almost never comes up. Yet the Dutch, who more or less invented the art market, were already aware of its importance in the 17th century. In his Introduction to the Academy of Painting (1678), Samuel van Hoogstraten included a chapter headed ‘How an Artist Should Conduct Himself in the Face of Fortune’s Blows’. Top of his casualty list of artists ‘murdered by poverty …because of the one-sidedness of supposed art connoisseurs’ was the landscape painter and printmaker Hercules Segers (c.1589–1633). This year, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has mounted three shows devoted to

Skinny dipping

For a 21st-century gallery, a Victorian collection can be an embarrassment. Tate Modern got around the problem by offloading its Victoriana on to Tate Britain, but York Art Gallery decided to make the best of it. As the birthplace of William Etty, York found itself lumbered with a major collection of work by a minor Victorian artist whose reputation nosedived after his death. While Etty’s statue still dominates the gallery forecourt, most of his paintings languish in the stores. For contemporary audiences, though, he has a USP. An avid frequenter of the life room, Etty acquired a mastery of flesh tones and a penchant for painting nudes that many of

Public offence

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Stephen Bayley and Posy Metz from Historic England discuss public artwork” startat=1206] Listen [/audioplayer]There are, as adman David Ogilvy remarked, no monuments to committees. (That’s not quite true; Auguste Rodin’s ‘Burghers of Calais’ — you can find a version in Victoria Tower Gardens — is somewhat collectivist in subject matter.) But there are certainly abundant monuments to the committee mentality, the bureaucratic spirit and art-world groupthink. That is what most contemporary ‘public art’ amounts to. You will have seen ‘public art’ if you wander through developments of luxury apartments on, say, the southbank Thames littoral between Lambeth and Battersea. Or on a progressive university campus anywhere. Sometimes public

Lines of beauty | 10 September 2015

Marshall McLuhan got it at least half right. The medium may not always be the entire message, but it certainly dictates the kind of message that can be transmitted. This is one lesson of Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns, an exhibition at the British Museum that is packed with subtle masterpieces, and as a bonus contains — for those who like such things — two of art’s great studies of dogs. I might as well start with those: one by Albrecht Dürer from around 1520, ‘Dog resting’, and the other by the later Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius of his own pet, curled up and sleeping in

Seeking closure | 13 August 2015

A while ago, David Hockney mused on a proposal to tax the works of art stored in artists’ studios. ‘You’d only have to say they weren’t finished, and you are the only one who could say if they were,’ he suggested. ‘There’d be nothing they could do.’ This is the state of affairs examined in Unfinished, a thought-provoking little exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery. Once upon a time, it was as clear whether a painter had completed a picture as it was whether the gardener had thoroughly mowed the lawn. Indisputably, Perino del Vaga downed tools for some reason halfway through his ‘Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist’ (1528–37).

‘Paint goes on living’

Maggi Hambling is 70 later this year, and a career that took off when she was appointed the first artist in residence at the National Gallery, in 1980, shows no signs of slackening in momentum. Hambling is still as uncompromising as ever, and as difficult to categorise. An artist of sustained originality and inventiveness who fits no pigeonhole and is part of no group, she is a resolutely independent figure (she enjoys the description ‘maverick’) who considers it her duty to keep questioning assumptions (her own as much as other people’s) and looking afresh at the world. Occasionally she succumbs to an idée fixe — for a long while she

The dos and don’ts of the Russian art scene

They’re doing fantastic deals on five-star hotels in St Petersburg the weekend the Francis Bacon exhibition opens at the Hermitage. With tensions between Russia and the west at their highest since the Cold War, ‘no one’, I’m told, wants to come here. No one, that is, except large numbers of elderly but well-heeled people from the Norwich area, many of them trustees and friends of the University of East Anglia’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts — co-organisers of the exhibition — who have flown out here for the gala opening. If 2014’s UK-Russia Year of Culture passed virtually unnoticed for political reasons, the western visitor won’t experience the slightest sense

Martin Gayford’s five favourite exhibitions of 2014

1. Late Rembrandt, National Gallery (15 Oct – Jan 18) (see image above) Some achievements, and some exhibitions, are virtually beyond criticism, and this is one: a superb assortment of works by a supreme artist. 2. Anselm Kiefer, Royal Academy (Sept 27 – December 14) A revelation – to the British public at least – that Kiefer is a great living artist, and above all a painter. 3. Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, Tate Modern (17 April – September 7) In his old age Matisse was an invalid, confined to a wheel chair, but succeeded in escaping triumphantly into a world of exuberant light and form: this exhibition was a triumph

2015 in exhibitions – painting still rules

The New Year is a time for reflections as well as resolutions. So here is one of mine. In the art world, media and fashions come and go, but often what truly lasts — even in the 21st century — is painting. Over the past 12 months, there has been a series of triumphs for pigment on canvas, including the glorious Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery, and a demonstration by Anselm Kiefer at the Royal Academy that we still have painters of towering stature among us. What will 2015 hold? Well, as far as painting is concerned — both old master and contemporary — there are some extremely promising

Rembrandt at the National Gallery: the greatest show on earth

At the opening of Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery (until 18 January), I met a painter friend of mine in the final room. This was, he said, one of the most magnificent exhibitions he had seen in his entire life, which — considering he is perhaps 70 and a frequent visitor of galleries — was praise indeed (and entirely deserved). Mischievously, I mentioned that he had also been highly enthusiastic about Veronese at the National Gallery a few months ago. ‘Ah, but there is a huge difference between Veronese and Rembrandt,’ he vehemently responded. ‘When you look at a Madonna by Veronese, you see a glamorous model