Dutch & Flemish masterpieces
As a prelude to Sotheby’s Old Master Evening Sale in London on July 4, a selection of Dutch and Flemish masterpieces will be exhibited at Sotheby’s Gallery in Hong Kong from May 25-28.
“Together [the works] tell the story of one of most important moments in the history of Western Art: The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Art,” states a press release by the auction house.
Dutch or Flemish: the difference
In the 16th century, the Dutch Republic – as it later became – was still one country with the Southern Netherlands (also known as Flanders, and now called Belgium), and both areas were under the rule of Catholic Spain. However, rejecting Catholicism, the Protestant northern part of the territory fought long and hard for independence, which it won in 1588. The newly-formed Dutch Republic (today called The Netherlands) then quickly became one of the richest and most powerful nations in Europe.
Both the northern and the southern Netherlands produced some of the greatest artists of the 17th century, but the religious differences between the two areas meant the art that they produced was also very different. Flemish art personified by Rubens, was luxurious, courtly and often religious, whereas the Protestant Dutch Republic was a nation of commerce, science and secular art – art which celebrated the real world.
In addition to traditional, more established portraiture and works of a religious nature, the Golden Age saw the birth and development of new genres of art. Still life painting became an independent art form, while artists such as Jan Brueghel the Elder popularised landscape painting to new levels of commercial viability. Genre painting – the depiction of everyday life in extraordinary and beautiful detail – was also realised in this period, with artists such as Johannes Vermeer creating works of supreme quality which continue to be revered to this day.
Dutch merchants of the time became extremely wealthy and their interest in the individual resulted in the popularity of portraiture, whilst a desire for the real found its reflection in paintings of interiors and landscapes. These merchants were Protestant, unlike their Flemish counterparts, and with this new financial independence and freedom were able to commission art that reflected both their status and interests. A clear contrast can be seen when comparing the Catholic, flamboyant, Baroque influences on Flemish art during the same period.
Featuring great masters of the Dutch and Flemish Golden Age, including Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn and Sir Anthony Van Dyck, the exhibition will present works by some of the world’s most renowned artists and offer a survey of one of the most profoundly important periods of Western art history.
Five art genres of the Dutch & Flemish Golden Age
Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish)
Portrait of a Venetian nobleman
Oil on oak panel
Estimate: Around £3,000,000
Rubens was, with Caravaggio, the most influential painter of the 17th century in Europe. The artist was Flemish and worked in the exuberant Baroque tradition. Painted in the 1620s, at the height of Rubens’ career, this depiction of a Venetian nobleman is believed to have been kept by the artist until his death. Although Rubens almost certainly based this study on a Venetian prototype, quite probably by Tintoretto, his subject is largely the product of his own immensely creative imagination.
Sir Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish)
Christ on the Cross
Oil on oak panel
This densely packed scene centres on the poignant image of the crucified Christ, a subject that Rubens was to return to repeatedly throughout his life. The scene depicts a religious subject, which was popular among Flemish, Catholic artists. Christ on the Cross captures the artist’s inventiveness, spontaneous brushwork and ability as a colourist.
Pieter Brueghel the Younger (Flemish)
Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery
Oil on oak panel
The elder son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Brueghel the Younger was a Flemish painter famous for his depictions of peasant life in rural settings. This painting is the only work with an autograph signature and date among 15 versions of this composition by Pieter Brueghel the Younger or his workshop. The artist has interpreted the scene in his own characteristically colourful palette, granting a fascinating insight into Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s artistic vision and interpretation of his father’s work.
Sir Anthony van Dyck (Flemish)
Adoration of the Shepherds
Oil on oak panel, painted circa 1627-28
58.5 x 47 cm; 23 x 18 1⁄2 in.
Anthony Van Dyck was a Flemish Baroque artist, much celebrated both at home and abroad during his life-time and ever since. Painted just before he settled in England (where he quickly became leading court painter to King Charles I), this oil sketch is remarkable not only for its execution but also its size, being much larger than most of the artist’s other sketches of the period. Although almost monochromatic, Adoration of the Shepherds brings the young Van Dyck's extraordinary pictorial talents into sharp focus.
With a surge in interest in the natural world, from botanical encyclopaedias to cabinets of curiosities, natural specimens served as models for painters seeking to portray a sense of realism and novelty in their work. The birth of the Still Life genre coincided with the vast increase in trade with the Far East from 1600 (birth of Dutch East India Company in 1602) – with a multitude of new floral specimens being brought back to the avid Dutch consumers. This was evidenced in the outpouring of tulip mania where the introduction of this fashionable flower created a sensation, with the bulbs becoming a highly luxurious and coveted item.
The great diffusion of natural specimens and the burgeoning interest in natural illustration throughout Europe, resulted in the popularity of the ‘still life’ (deriving from the Dutch ‘stilleven’) as a genre.
Balthasar van de Ast (Dutch)
Still life of flowers in a glass beaker on a stone ledge, together with insects and a lizard
Oil on copper
Balthasar van der Ast was a painter of considerable versatility and energy. This superlative and beautifully preserved example of his work dates from the year 1622 – the middle of what was to be Van der Ast’s most successful and productive period - and may be considered among his very finest works of this date.
Though few in number, female artists were nonetheless important contributors to the still life genre, despite the difficulties they faced in making a mark in an art world that was predominantly run by all-male art guilds. Peeters was an influential figure as a still-life painter, known for her meticulous brushwork. Other leading female artists of the period included the German illustrator and naturalist Sybilla Merian and Rachael Rysch, who came to focus predominantly on the detailed depiction of flowers in her work.
Clara Peeters (Flemish)
Still life with flowers in a glass vase
Oil on copper
Clara Peeters was a still-life painter who started life in Antwerp, a city in what now is Belgium, and therefore trained in the tradition of Flemish Baroque painting. In fact though, she spent much of her life working in Amsterdam, where she was to become the earliest significant female painter of Dutch Golden Age of painting.
This ravishing still life constitutes an important addition to the small body of work by Clara Peeters. Comprising a delicate arrangement of late spring flowers framed by a white border with a careful assemblage of small creatures, this recently discovered work - all the more exciting for being as yet unpublished is prominently signed at the lower centre and is one of the most original works ever painted by this great still life specialist.
Landscape as a subject was of great importance to artists such as Brueghel (and subsequently to his followers) who developed the ‘world landscape’ style. Depicting imagined panoramic landscapes from elevated bird’s-eye viewpoints containing small figures, this style reflected the advances in cartography and the period of discovery in which the artist’s works were produced.
Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen (Flemish)
Diana and her nymphs after the hunt
Oil on oak
The subject of Diana and her nymphs was a prevalent subject for Jan Brueghel and a theme that saw particular popularity in 17th-century Flanders and The Netherlands. Brueghel, who executed the landscape, animals and still life, and van Balen, who painted the figures, frequently worked together on paintings like this, creating at least five other renditions of this subject, which all date, like the present work, to between 1620 and 1625.
Lucas van Valckenborch (Flemish)
A view in the Taunus near Bad Schwalback, with travellers beside a mountain stream
Oil on panel
Estimate: £200,000 - 300,000
This beautiful example is a late work by Valckenborch, painted just before the turn of the 17th century, and reveals him as one of the most talented painters of the generation that continued the World Landscape tradition instigated by Pieter Breugel the Elder.
It is not hard to see why the artist’s cabinet pictures, such as this present work, were so favoured by collectors at the Imperial courts in Brussels, Prague and beyond.
Jan Brueghel the Elder (Flemish)
A Village Street with carts, villagers and gentlefolk
Oil on copper
Jan Brueghel the Elder was an important painter in the famous Brueghel dynasty – son of the eminent Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder and nicknamed ‘Paradise Brueghel’ because of his invention of the genre of the paradise landscape. Alongside Rubens, with whom he was close friends, and as court painter to the governors of the Southern Netherlands, he was one of the leading Flemish painters of the early 17th century.
This beautiful copper is an exceptionally fine example of landscape painting in Flanders in the first quarter of the 17th century. Brueghel has placed groups of everyday villagers against the rich blues and greens of the landscape which is bathed in warm sunlight. By painting onto copper, the artist has given the scene a translucent ‘jewel’ like quality, which is enhanced by its intimate scale.
Jacob Ochtervelt (Dutch)
The Oyster Meal
Oil on canvas
A contemporary of Johannes Vermeer, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Gabriel Metsu, Ochtervelt (1634-1682) was one of the leading Dutch painters of high-life genre scenes of the 1650s and 1660s. Celebrated for his sensitive renderings of clothing, complexion and body language, he excelled in his ability to capture the effects of light and colour and the sheen of fabrics, as epitomised in this work.
Rich in symbolism, the painting depicts a lavish scene of seduction, in which a young suitor, clearly bent on love, proffers oysters (symbols of sexual pleasure) to an elegantly dressed young woman whose sumptuous attire suggests that she may charge handsomely for her favours.
The dog – traditionally a symbol of watchfulness – is here lapping up the wine that is spilling from his mistresses glass, an indication that he might not be in the best state to protect his mistress’s honour. The rumpled bedclothes and the empty birdcage hanging above the bed are further indications that the room the two figures are in is one intended as much for love as for sleep.