The seventeenth century will always be, for most of us, the “Golden Age” of Dutch art. At its close, economic stagnation and the increasing cultural hegemony of France sent the vibrantly original spirit of Dutch painting into a Cinderella-like trance, floating in the somnolent self-congratulation of placid landscapes and nostalgic interiors, to awaken only centuries later in the ecstatic grip of Van Gogh and Mondrian. The casual museum or library visitor will have difficulty finding substantive evidence of the generations of competent masters who gently navigated past the disintegrating shoals of late Baroque preciosity and through the tides of Rococo, Enlightenment, and Romanticism. Yet, one local tradition has emerged vigorously from oblivion with a number of recent exhibition catalogues and scholarly studies. Dordrecht, home of Albert Cuyp and Samuel van Hoogstraten, while participating in the general decline of economic strength and artistic patronage after 1675, maintained a lively tradition of decorative, landscape and genre painting, culminating in the work of the brothers Abraham (1753-1826) and Jacob (1756-1815) van Strij. Their multifarious skills in portraiture, genre, landscape and scenography, demonstrated in both oil paintings and accomplished drawings and watercolors, are comprehensively showcased in the catalogue published for the retrospective exhibition of their work held in Dordrecht and Twenthe in 2000.
Born in a house at the center of Dordt, around the corner from the Grotekerk, the brothers Abraham and Jacob van Strij grew up working in their father’s ‘schilderswinkel,’ where decorative painting took precedence over ‘fijnschilderij,’ a trend of increasing importance to the art market of the eighteenth century. After studying with the decorator Joris Ponse, Abraham enrolled at about age eighteen in the Antwerp painting academy, where Jacob followed him a few years later. In 1774, Abraham returned to Dordrecht and collaborated in the founding of Pictura, a confraternity of draughtsmen in which he participated actively throughout his career. Jacob, too, joined Pictura and lectured before the group on art theory, but also developed more humanitarian interests, becoming a founder of the ‘Maatschappij tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen,’ dedicated to the education of disadvantaged children. As painters, their complementary thematic interests offered a range of options for the collector. Abraham excelled at genre interiors but also produced portraits and wall decorations, while Jacob became a master of sun-dappled landscapes both large and small. In summary accounts of the Dordrecht tradition, Jacob has languished in his brother’s shadow, an oversight that this catalogue should rectify.
As a publication, In helder licht is clearly designed to function as a monograph well beyond its service to the exhibition. The catalogue of works shown is relegated to a checklist at the back of the volume, accompanied by small black-and-white illustrations. The bulk of the book consists of eight chapters by a team of authors, surveying the life and stylistic development of the Van Strij brothers (Floor de Graaf, Jacob M. De Groot), their work as decorative painters (Charles Dumas), their relationship to the seventeenth century (Eric Jan Sluijter), their drawings (R.J.A. te Rijdt, E. Caljé-van den Berg), studio estate (Charles Dumas) and activity as founding members of Pictura(Paul Knolle and Ton Geerts). Useful apparatus includes an annotated map, extensive bibliography, and numerous high-quality illustrations. Of central importance is the chapter by Eric Jan Sluijter exploring the Van Strijs’ creative dialogue with predecessors such as Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Albert Cuyp. The brothers made careful watercolor copies of paintings by the old masters and developed their own techniques and themes in obvious homage to the Golden Age. Abraham’s domestic genre scenes seldom take place in the whitewashed neoclassical interiors for which his own decorative schemes provided adornment, but rather create the impression that Dordtenaars of c.1800 lived happily amidst the heavy furnishings and tiled floors of their Golden Age grandparents. (Figures depicted may wear contemporary clothing or, like their settings, revert to the picturesque past.) Jacob’s landscapes, like those of his illustrious role model, Albert Cuyp, are bathed in an impossible golden light and peopled with complacent rustics and plump cows lounging before hazy mountain landscapes more evocative of Tuscany than Zuid-Holland.
While aesthetic and iconographic continuity is readily apparent, it is more difficult to articulate the qualities that set these painters apart from their predecessors. This task is supported by several essays in the catalogue, but also requires thoughtful perusal of the works themselves. Color harmonies recall the Rococo, a juicy Fragonard warmed with a touch of Aert de Gelder. Mimesis is balanced with subtle artfulness, the choreography of sunlit forms and spaces orchestrated with a transcendent self-confidence. Equally important, as the catalogue makes clear, are the Van Strijs’ meticulous approach to draughtsmanship (the serious preoccupation of Pictura) and achievements in decorative painting (from vast, airy landscapes to neoclassical grisailles). In these respects, the work of Abraham and Jacob van Strij moves beyond the conventions of the seventeenth century to establish an independent presence.
Significantly, In helder licht is available only in Dutch. Perhaps, unlike Rembrandt and Vermeer, the Van Strijs will never stimulate an international industry of picture books, novels and souvenirs. Yet, their work deserves attention, if for nothing else than the pure pleasure of basking in its opulent tranquility. As a well-researched and well-produced account of two underappreciated masters, this book takes a valuable step towards a fuller picture of Dutch visual culture.
Herron School of Art
Indiana University-Purdue University