The British Royal family holds one of the world’s greatest private collections of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Over the years, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has been particularly generous in allowing parts of this collection to be placed on public display in the Queen’s Galleries at Buckingham Palace in London and in the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. The present exhibition on Dutch genre painting, Masters of the Everyday; Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer, thus follows upon earlier shows dedicated to Dutch landscape painting (2010-2011), and to Golden-Age pictures in general (2004-2005). Masters of the Everyday, featuring twenty-seven beautiful pictures by some of the most outstanding Dutch masters of the seventeenth century, has been enthusiastically received by the British press; indeed, one newspaper called it “simply ravishing.” The accompanying catalogue is equally splendid: comprehensive, lavishly illustrated entries on all twenty-seven works in the exhibition follow introductory essays by its two curators, Desmond Shawe-Taylor and Quentin Buvelot.
Desmond Shawe-Taylor’s essay, “‘The ‘Broad-Bottomed Dutch School:’ Royal Taste and Netherlandish Painting,” explores the vicissitudes of taste that have affected the English response to Netherlandish painting – Dutch and Flemish paintings generally were lumped together under this rubric – in the centuries proceeding the Golden Age. As the author demonstrates, the ever-fluctuating state of Anglo-Dutch relations, the widespread British perception of the technical perfection of continental art, changing aesthetic ideals, evolving market conditions, the tragic political and economic consequences of the French Revolution, and even the rise of the British novel during the nineteenth century all played roles in influencing English views of Dutch art in general and in structuring the acquisition habits of the Royal family vis-à-vis Dutch pictures in particular. Shawe-Taylor’s overview of the development of the Dutch-painting collection is a fascinating one, with his discussion of Charles Wild’s early nineteenth-century watercolors of various rooms adorned with pictures in the Prince Regent’s now-demolished residence, Carlton House, providing a highlight for this reviewer.
Quentin Buvelot’s contribution, “Scenes of Everyday Life? Some Reflections on Dutch Genre Painting in the Seventeenth Century,” first traces the socio-economic and pictorial origins of Dutch genre painting before the discussion shifts to the extraordinary pictures produced in the wake of the Treaty of Münster (1648), at which time the genre would reach its thematic and technical zenith. In certain respects, this essay will prove less useful for Dutch genre painting specialists as it rehashes well-hoed terrain, but it does provide a suitable and informative introduction for lay readers. Buvelot takes a cautious approach to interpreting the genre paintings presented in his essay, appealing in the end, to “a little common sense” and an “attentive eye” and, of course, “a certain knowledge of seventeenth-century art and culture” (45) when attempting to decipher them. This caution is carried through in the catalogue entries themselves.
As noted above, the exhibition is comprised of twenty-seven Dutch genre paintings. Jan Steen is particularly well represented (six works in total) and the show includes some of the true icons of the genre, among them two extraordinary panels by Godefridus Schalcken and Johannes Vermeer’s celebrated Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman. But other, less familiar pictures are also on view, such as Willem van Mieris’s Neglected Lute, Karel Dujardin’s engaging portrayal of peasants playing morra and Hendrick Pot’s astonishing Lady and Gentleman in an Interior, “A Startling Introduction.” Apart from a Hendrick ter Brugghen’s canvas portraying a laughing musician, Gerrit Dou’s stunning yet comparatively early Girl Chopping Onions, and two intriguing works by Isack van Ostade and the understudied Pot, all of the pictures on display postdate the Treaty of Münster. And, with the exception of the pictures by Ter Brugghen, Pot, and the aforementioned canvas by Vermeer, all were acquired in the early nineteenth century by George IV, mostly during his years as the Prince Regent (1811-1819). Notwithstanding Shawe-Taylor’s informative introduction then, Masters of the Everyday is largely focused upon the acquisitions and hence the taste of just one Royal during a circumscribed time period, the core of whose collection was built upon the purchase of pictures hitherto in French and Dutch possession.
The authorship of the catalogue entries themselves was almost evenly divided between Buvelot and Shawe-Taylor. Buvelot, who has published extensively on Dutch seventeenth-century genre painting, tends to focus on interpretive analysis, bolstering his arguments with the frequent citations of scholarship in this field. Shawe-Taylor, by comparison, is generally less attentive to problems of interpretation that preoccupy Dutch genre painting specialists, even if his identification of the potential historical and literary underpinnings of Pot’s Lady and Gentleman in an Interior is masterful. Shawe-Taylor’s entries are compelling for the subtlety of his visual analyses (especially as they pertain to qualities of color and light) and the eloquent manner in which he articulates them. Lastly, one senses in this catalogue, as well as in the exhibition itself, the influence of Sir Christopher White, whose landmark book of 1982, Dutch Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen, has just been reissued in a revised and enlarged edition by the Royal Collection Trust.