Light in Darkness: A Circle of Dutch Life

By: Sarah Ben-Nun  |  November 21, 2019

By Sarah Ben-Nun 

Galleries 964 and 965 are the hidden underbelly of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Walk through the front doors, and keep walking until you hit a stairwell. Descend the stairs at the Lehman Collection, and there you are: in a circular gallery, covered in paintings on both sides of the wall, all the way around, in continuum. You’ve reached “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at the Met.” The only indication of where to start within the dizzying array is that two of the paintings are larger than the rest: Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer and Gerard de Lairesse’s Apollo and Aurora. They also face each other across the wall.

According to a guest speaker on the Met Audio Guide podcast, “Rembrandt isn’t afraid of the dark.” I think what he means is that Rembrandt has completely mastered the art of the portrayal of light. That mastery is simply all he needs to capture and direct the viewers’ attention precisely and completely. The mood of Aristotle with a Bust of Homer is dark and pensieve; it is iconic, canonical. His artistic depiction is unapologetically real, yet truly captivating. 

Rembrandt was breaking new ground, shaping and defining Dutch art, with this style of unapologetic truth. It was not traditional. People at the time, Eaker explained, were more familiar with the classic Italian artistic style. He didn’t limit his fantastic realistic portrayals to classical figures — in the two year span between 1665 and 1667, he painted the Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse. This painting is located further down the hall, almost just across from Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer. Fellow artist Gerard de Lairesse was sick at the time, with what historians believe to be hereditary syphilis, yet Rembrandt didn’t miss a beat: careful brushstrokes realistically render his deformed nose and sunken eyes. Gerard de Lairesse is later said to have criticised Rembrandt for his honest and artful portrayal. 

Right next to Rembrant’s portrait of de Lairesse is de Lairesse’s own workApollo and Aurora. Soft and gentle in a more classic, less dramatic, less revolutionary way than Rembrandt’s, de Lairesse radiantly portrays the Greek myth of the sun god Apollo and sun goddess Aurora. This art, in line with classic Italian tradition, would have been celebrated in his day. By positioning these two works (Rembrandt’s Aristotle and de Lairesse’s Apollo) directly across from, and in direct view of, each other, the curators of this collection succeed in displaying what art –and life– often are: various expressions of opposing truths. And, in between, the daily grind. 

True to honest displays of life, a major theme (not exclusively Dutch, but nevertheless present here) is the fallacy of immortality, the unpredictable disarray and certainty of death. See Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, and Otto Marseus van Schrieck’s Still Life with Poppy, Insects, and Reptiles

Death is only one of the truths of life presented here. Others include: the expression of loyalty to different beliefs (Johannes Vermeer’s Allegory of the Catholic Faith), how people sometimes hypocritically and foolishly live (Jan Steen’s The Dissolute Household), the cultural significance of physicality (Gerard ter Borch the Younger’s The Van Moerkerken Family),  the blatant truth of what life actually looked like, what it actually carries in its meaningful institutions (Hendrick van Vliet’s Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft) and finally, the little moments in life (Nicolaes Maes’s Young Woman Peeling Apples). 

Johannes Vermeer, perhaps one of the essential Dutch masters, succinctly presents the merits and unique character of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. In his Young Woman with a Water Pitcher he shows an ordinary, everyday moment, except he portrays that moment so masterfully that just looking at it has a calming, mesmerizing effect. The exhibit succeeds in collecting these moments, these real life experiences, in a way viewers can identify with. Moments like Vermeer’s are honest, recognizable, and covetted in this harried life, even today. 

This article was modeled after the Met’s Audio Guide for this exhibition. Only a few pieces from the gallery were discussed in this article.