The central motivation behind this exhibition was to place the National Gallery of Ireland’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Rembrandt in a wider context. One of the great achievements of the show was the unique opportunity it afforded to hang Rembrandt’s only nocturnal landscape alongside Adam Elsheimer’s Flight into Egypt from Munich, which may have prompted the Dutch artist’s composition and handling of light, and which he probably knew through Hendrick Goudt’s reproductive engraving. [Elsheimer’s painting recently was the subject of a small exhibition in Munich: Adam Elsheimer. Die Flucht nach Ägypten ; see under New Titles .] Beyond this fortuitous juxtaposition, the exhibition investigated the phenomenon of the Netherlandish nightscape, a limited and imprecise subcategory of landscape art most comprehensively surveyed by Wolfgang Stechow in the final chapter of his Dutch Landscape Painting of the Seventeenth Century (London, 1966). The Dublin exhibition, shown in one venue only, was a small, focused show of 31 paintings and 20 works on paper. The lenders were predominantly Dutch and German museums and private collectors, with the Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam, providing the majority of the prints and drawings. Adriaan Waiboer, the National Gallery of Ireland’s first specialist curator of Northern European Art, deserves immense credit for having conceived and staged this exhibition almost within twelve months of having taken up his appointment.
Like most modern terms applied to subject matter from the seventeenth century, when classification was more fluid, the word ‘nightscape’ is inadequate to encompass the theme represented here. Many of the exhibited works depict scenes actually set in the late evening and twilight. Moreover, the figures and the narrative sometimes dominate the landscape elements, as, for example, in Rubens’s Flight into Egypt (Kassel), another response to Elsheimer’s seminal interpretation of the same subject. The prime stimulus of other works extended not from an abiding interest in nature or the night, but rather from an interest in documenting disasters such as fires, unusual natural occurrences like comets, or firework displays and other festive occasions which took place at nightfall. With the exception of Aert van der Neer and Egbert van der Poel, few artists turned their attention to the night scene with any regularity. Most only produced one or two examples, perhaps largely to demonstrate their facility at representing complex lighting effects.
Unfortunately the viewing experience was not aided by the installation of the show in the National Gallery’s uneasy labyrinth of cramped and sterile temporary exhibition rooms in the new Millennium extension. In particular the lighting system was a gimmicky and unnecessary intrusion. The decision was taken to blacken out the overhead windows, the only source of natural light, and to illuminate the works with a soft diffuse spotlighting from above. While the resultant semi-darkness may have been atmospheric, it created serious problems in fully and clearly apprehending the exhibits: a few of the more subdued works were so poorly lit that their detail was barely decipherable, others had cast shadows from frames, and some of the prints were given an odd glowing quality. The lack of light also made many of the information panels largely redundant.
The other problem with the layout of the exhibition was that there were insufficient numbers of high quality works to hold the visitor’s attention throughout. The first room, which contained the aforementioned trio of paintings by Rembrandt, Elsheimer and Rubens, provided an early crescendo which reverberated only faintly in the subsequent four spaces. In the latter rooms the works were hung in a thematic arrangement which was instructive if sometimes forced: biblical nocturnes, the rise of secular landscapes, the Antwerp nocturne, Aert van der Neer, the heyday of the Dutch nocturne (c.1645-60), and fire, fireworks, comets. Given the short timeframe in which the exhibition was put together and the difficulties in transporting works on panel, there were obvious problems in finding appropriate loans. Apart from the Kassel painting, Rubens was represented with a sunset landscape from the Louvre and the small-scale and briskly executed Landscape with Gallows from the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Visitors had to make do with engravings by Schelte Adamsz Bolswert after Rubens’s more important nocturnal and evening landscapes. [It should be noted however that Rubens’s most beautiful nightscape, in the Courtauld Institute Galleries, cannot be lent.] The Evening Landscape from the Bredius Museum, which was exhibited as an undisputed work by Aelbert Cuyp, was excluded from Stephen Reiss’s monograph on the artist (Aelbert Cuyp , London, 1975) and rejected by Alan Chong (Aelbert Cuyp and the Meanings of Landscape , diss., New York, Institute of Fine Arts, 1992, vol. 2, p. 449, no. C9) as probably the work of a later imitator. There were, however, some sparkling gems in the self-imposed gloom of the National Gallery of Ireland. In Leonaert Bramer’s evocative Herdsmen near a Campfire (Fondation Aetas Aurea), the grey-blue of the slate support doubles as the nocturnal sky, which occupies one-half of the composition. Also memorable was Nicolaes Berchem’s Landscape with Crab Catchers by Moonlight of 1645 (private collection), which again successfully engages with Elsheimer’s challenge of depicting a variety of light sources in a darkened setting.
A short catalogue containing two essays and brief entries on all the exhibited works accompanied the exhibition. Waiboer’s introductory essay traces the evolution of the Dutch and Flemish nocturnal landscape from its origins in the fifteenth century to the late seventeenth century. In a wide-ranging survey, he deals succinctly and efficiently with issues such as the contemporary reception of the night piece and the technical advice given to painters of such scenes. The second essay, by Michiel Franken, is a lively account of Rembrandt’s artistic relationship with Elsheimer in the context of seventeenth-century notions of emulation. Using Ernst van de Wetering’s method, he demonstrates how Rembrandt’s understanding of concepts such ashouding and kenlijkheyt was superior to that of the older artist. This publication is an important addition to the meagre literature on this often overlooked aspect of Netherlandish landscape art.
University College, Dublin