The Dutch Italianates:

17th-century Masterpieces from Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

The Dutch Italianates: 17th-century Masterpieces from Dulwich Picture Gallery, London featured 39 paintings from the collection of Dulwich Picture Gallery, England’s oldest purpose-built public art gallery. It presented Dutch artists, such as Cornelis van Poelenburch (1594/5-1667), Adam Pynacker (1620/1-1673), Nicolaes Berchem (1620-1683), Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691), and others, who were contemporaries of Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) and Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and chose to capture views of the Italian landscape of the seventeenth century as seen through their own eyes or imaginations.

These artists prospered throughout the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, a period known as the Dutch Golden Age, when trade, science, and art were flourishing. With a population of two million inhabitants, the Netherlands enjoyed unprecedented wealth. The Dutch East India Company was the largest commercial enterprise in the world, controlling more than half of all oceangoing trade and carrying the products of many nations. This flourishing Dutch trade produced a wealthy merchant class, and this prosperity brought attention to the visual arts and most importantly created a market for art in Holland.

The Dutch truly had a fondness for pictures that was not confined to the merchant class. Bakers, cobblers, butchers, and blacksmiths also were avid art collectors, creating a new kind of patronage. Painting was no longer primarily the preserve of church or aristocracy or even the very wealthy. This changed the shape of Dutch art, primarily the types of pictures produced, the manner in which they were made and sold, and their appearance. The political, economic, religious, and social circumstances of the Dutch Golden Age created a unique and fruitful climate for the arts. This period in turn produced a remarkable number of pictures, nearly one million, of extraordinary quality.

Of the Dutch works produced in the seventeenth century, the varying subject matter included still life, genre painting, history painting, and landscape. The Dutch Italianate artists preferred landscape painting and were particularly influenced by Italy, which was universally acknowledged to be the home of art in the seventeenth century. Throughout the century, young Netherlandish artists undertook the difficult journey to Italy, either over the Alps or sometimes by sea. Most of them headed for Rome, some to Venice, and others to Genoa and many other locations. These artists turned to the Italian campagna (countryside or landscape) for their subject matter, contributing to the birth of a new genre of pure landscape.

Most Italianate art was produced on the artists’ return to Holland for the Dutch market. Painters such as Jan Both (ca. 1615-1652) and Nicolaes Berchem brought back with them seductive visions of mountains and peasants basking under golden skies. These and other artists filled sketchbooks full of motifs of Italy for inspiration. Their light-filled canvases of seemingly exotic locales contrasted sharply with the flat, openness and often cloudy skies of Holland. The Dutch Italianates appealed to a section of the art-buying market, which signified Dutch society’s growing cosmopolitism. The success of these artists relied heavily upon the style and taste of the buyers, and Italianate landscapes became incredibly popular in Holland. In fact, Dutch patrons were so enamored of the genre that artists such as Aelbert Cuyp and Philips Wouwermans (1619-1668) were inspired to create their own interpretations of a landscape they had never seen.

At the end of the eighteenth century when these works were purchased, Dutch Italianate artists were at the height of their value and reputation. Dulwich Picture Gallery founders Sir Peter Francis Bourgeois R.A. (1756-1811), a painter, art dealer, and collector, and his mentor and business partner, Noel Desenfans (d. 1807), began collecting Dutch Italianate works among many other styles representative of various periods in art history. The Dutch Italianates were known for their glorious tonal control, mastery of color, magical handling of light, humor, and sheer technical brilliance. The beauty of these works is truly remarkable. The Dutch masterpieces represent a unique time in art history when wealth, buyers’ taste, and the artists’ imagination coalesce into one, representing the influence of Italy and the important cultural elements of the Netherlands.

This selection of works from the permanent collection was lent by permission of the Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Tour organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC.

The exhibition was accompanied by a catalogue.


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