There is something about those “Old Dutch Painters”. What made and makes Dutch Painters, especially Old Dutch Painters, so famous? An intriguing part of the answer to this question is found if one slightly alters the question: how many Dutch Painters were really great? The simple answer is: a lot.
It is not easy to find exact, reliable information about that number of great Old Dutch Painters, but anecdotal evidence for this is widely available. Focus a little extra on the seventeenth century, that Golden Age, which was so successful for the Netherlands, or perhaps more precisely here -for Holland-, then the ‘evidence’ is really overwhelming.
For example, painting was also done in Japan in the 17th century, but in comparison to the ‘Low Countries’ really exceptionally little. Or look at Anatolia or the Ottoman Empire. (Not to Turkey of course: After all, Turkey has only existed for one century). I have not searched extensively for it, but a superficial search hardly yields a handful of results for that 17th century.
The same goes for all of China at that time! For example, this “wiki” talks about just 21 interesting painters in 17th century China. And mind you, even then the size of the Chinese population was in the order of 100 times that of the Netherlands.
There were more Spanish painters of importance in the 17th century. But what a bizarre coincidence: I take a closer look at one of them and it turns out that Juan de Las Roelas was not a Spaniard but a Fleming!
When you read about the confusion about the man’s background, you are also strongly reminded of how moderately reliable information about events from four centuries ago is. Even when it comes to people who achieved some fame.
And someone from Flanders is not someone from the Netherlands and certainly not someone from Holland: the Holland of the Dutch Republic. And quite a few people known as ‘Old Dutch Painters’ came from those more ‘Southern Netherlands’: Brabant and Limburg. Today, both the Netherlands and Belgium have a province called Limburg and one called Brabant.
In present-day Flanders, the very great Jan van Eyck painted in the 15th century. The man from Belgian Limburg who gave a very big impulse to the use of linseed oil and is therefore even referred to as the ‘inventor’ of oil painting. So this Van Eyk (there where more than one) preceded people like Rembrandt van Rijn, Jan Lievens or Johannes Vermeer big time. During my first attentive visit to the Rijksmuseum in 2019, Lievens’ ‘Pilates washing his hands‘ caught my eye the most. Rembrandt and Lievens learned and worked quite a lot in the same places and according to some sources Rembrandt learned more from Lievens than the other way around. In fact, he had even better contact with the nobility and upper class in general than Rembrandt, including through Constantijn Huygens, father of the great scientist Christiaan Huygens.
The English wiki entry on Vermeer is surprisingly extensive. He was a productive man. He fathered 15 children and made beautiful paintings in addition to his work as manager of a catering establishment and as an art dealer in Delft. He probably painted only a few dozen works of significance, but he was appreciated among painting contemporaries. Vermeer was certainly a genius, but he had little connection with rich or powerful people.
Like Jan van Eyk, Jeroen Bosch, alias Hieronymus, also painted well before Rembrandt: Van Rijn was 10 years old when Bosch died. Bosch came from Brabant. As a child I spent a lot of time in Catholic churches, Catholic schools and Catholic clubs. It was therefore quite special to discover that masterpieces by Hieronymus Bosch were so-called ‘altar pieces’.
After including a reference to Rembrandt’s peacocks in my most experimental/expressionist painting ‘Hell’, I also added the Bosch reference shown below.
Perhaps the second most famous Dutch painter is the pitiful Vincent van Gogh who lived about two centuries after Rembrandt. And yes, Theo van Gogh was the great-grandson of Vincent’s brother.
I am not very enthusiastic about Vincent van Gogh’s work. Sometimes I think he owes an important part of his fame to his sad, affected life story.
Abstract, more abstract, most abstract
I am less positive still about the very famous more 20th century Piet Mondriaan, who preferred to be called Mondrian in view of international fame. Snobbery. He is best known among contemporary Dutch people for having his ‘Victory Boogie Woogie‘ purchased with tax money: 40 million dollars for a silly piece of what in Andy Warhol’s definition is art: “what you can get away with”. On the other hand, I do appreciate his ‘Rietveld Schröder House‘ in the east of the city Utrecht. I find it somewhat embarrassing to read how some Dutch brag, as it were, about the fact that that house is on the World Heritage List “along with the Eiffel Tower and London’s Big Ben”.
Anyone who says Mondriaan also says ‘De Stijl’, Van Doesburg and Van der Leck. In short, -perhaps a pinch too ruthless?-, their approach can be summarized as: no interest in beauty, no link with reality. To me this ‘The Stijl’ expresses extreme narcissism. More than that narcissism itself, I loathe its admiration by (wanna be) aristocrats. Read this text about two of those three men and weep:
Yet the two men were far from always seeing eye to eye. Over the course of 1918, their ideas increasingly diverged. Van der Leck took issue with the direction Mondrian was moving in; he believed Mondrian’s dark lines confined his colour fields and favoured a greater openness of form. For Mondrian, meanwhile, Van der Leck’s diagonal lines had no place in neo-plasticism, which permitted only horizontal and vertical lines.
I found the above quote on the website of some Dutch organisation that flourishes thanks to other Dutch organisations each in turn funded through tax-money.
A painter in my top 10 but not in most other top 10’s of Old Dutch Painters was called Carel Willink. Both because of the special appearance of many of his works and because of his special painting technique.
Much better known was his contemporary Willem de Kooning. Absurd amounts are paid for this so-called ‘abstract expressionism’. The academy where he was previously a student is now named after de Kooning.
The ‘about’ of this academy contains cringe-inducing claptrap: “The focus within Social Practices is on art and design that aim to impact complex social issues by (re)designing processes and relationships. What can – and can’t – artists and designers do for the social change?”
Read that again: THE social change …
An education for nihilist activism.
This posturing can also be found in that ‘about-text’: “Ah, the creative process is the same secret in science as it is in art. They are all the same absolutely”.
One of Karel Appel’s (of Cobra) most famous statements ties in with this in a special way: “I just mess around”. Appel died at the beginning of the 21st century. Armando, pseudonym of Herman Dirk van Doodeweerd, less well known outside the Netherlands, lasted longer. I dislike his paintings but I have sympathy for that man. Not in the least because, like me, he was much involved in WWII and Nazism in his teenage years. A very big difference is that he really experienced the misery up close while I just read about it. Unfortunately, he got stuck in it. In a documentary in which he, already in his 80s, is shown smearing paint on a canvas with a gloved hand, he says “I’m in a hurry, I don’t have long to go.” That makes him more likeable in my opinion.
In a text by an opponent of monarchy, aristocracy -in fact of all forms of snobbery- something about Dutch master forgers also fits. Highly skilled master forgers. The most famous of them was Han van Meegeren. He was a creditable painter in the style of the old Dutch masters. His critics found him skillful but unoriginal. As if it were his answer to that, he went on to make counterfeits with great success. The reason he was made into a feature film was the way he revealed himself shortly after WWII what a master of forgery he was. He was accused of contributing to the large-scale art theft by the Nazis. He had actually sold Herman Göring -about as disgusting as Adolf Hitler and Jozef Mengele- a ‘Vermeer’ for the fabulous sum of 1.6 million guilders. (Converts to more than 10 million contemporary euros). He was charged and then made the disclosure that he made that painting himself. At first he was not even believed and had to make another fake under supervision to prove his phenomenal skills!
It became world news. American newspapers wrote about ‘The man who swindled Göring‘. Despite his enormous popularity, the wealthy Van Meegeren was severely punished. He did not suffer for long: he died a few weeks after the conviction. The story about Jacques, the son of Han van Meegeren, is almost as remarkable, but all things considered it ended even sadder. He was encouraged by his father to take up painting as well. Not only did he turn out to be quite talented, he also became a connoisseur of his father’s work. After his parents’ divorce, he did not see his father at all for many years, and then only occasionally. Without any difficulty he still recognized his father’s hand in one of his most famous forgeries as well.
As a painter he himself was not very successful. After his death, prices for his father’s paintings rose sharply. So much so that son Jacques – who had inherited nothing from his father’s wealth – could not resist the temptation to forge Han’s works in turn.
Counterfeiter of abstracts
Another counterfeiter I think is also worth mentioning here. Not because of his great quality or because of spectacular turns in his life, but because his persecution puts a special light on those abstracts and the snobbery of them and – even more – of their fans.
The police tracked down the forger Geert Jan Jansen thanks to a ‘forgery’ of a work by the aforementioned Bart van der Leck, whom I had never heard of until recently. No mistake: just because I don’t have such a high regard for the men I referred to above as “most abstract” doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate originality. That motto “what you can get away with” also testifies to a certain, even original, daring. That inverted pissoir from Duchamp! Or that performance art by Banski or those wrapped buildings by Christo!
But originality cannot be falsified while those most abstract works of the abstractists beg, as it were, for falsification.
And for funds from (wanna be) aristocrats.
The famous Dutch Kröller-Müller museum is named after its menecas Helene Kröller-Müller filthy rich thanks to descent and marriage. This rather revealing hymn to Bart van der Leck can be found on the website of that museum. The text refers to a film on DVD that is for sale …
The film tells Van der Leck’s entire life story as a versatile artist and also discusses his intriguing relationship with Helene Kröller-Müller and the influential ‘art pope’ H.P. Bremmer. To what extent did their preference for not entirely abstract work influence Van der Leck’s choices? It is an open question, which Eva Rovers, author of the biography of Helene Kröller-Müller, once again puts to the various experts.
So here we have someone producing a biography of someone who has become famous by using not self-earned wealth to fund ‘avant garde’ artists…
And so the police came after Mr. Jansen because of an informer who reported that he had forged a Van der Leck. But then it comes: “Short of evidence, the attorney general cut a deal with Jansen: He would not be charged if he would not make forgeries for three years.”
Seven years later it was (again) about works by Karel Appel. This time someone was severely punished:
When they were found to be forgeries, gallery owners blamed each other. In June 1988, police confiscated hundreds of Appel forgeries from the MAT gallery in Amsterdam. The owner of the gallery said that he had bought 100 Appel forgeries from the Tripple Tree Gallery, who had bought them from a dealer Henk Ernste in Paris. Ernste was later arrested but the case was settled with a 5.5 million guilder fine. During the furor, Jansen moved from the Netherlands to France with his mistress.
The use of words in that last sentence!
By the way, one can still stumble upon offers of Jansen’s work with captions such as ‘After Gustav Klimt‘, ‘After Karel Appel” …
Museum directors and curators
Art, especially traditional art, especially in the West, struggles with the problem that so many in that world of non-artists who are involved in art are more interested in fame, budgets and buildings than in artistic expressions.
I am thinking mainly, but not exclusively, of museum directors and curators. With amazement I watched this video with Charlotte van Lingen from De Kunsthal in Rotterdam. You don’t have to understand a word of Dutch to understand what’s wrong.
I only translate one sentence from it: “With Andy Warhol (!) it became clear (!) that art is simply part of our money economy and those kinetic artists started looking for art that you cannot sell.” Well, well.
The same lady now works for a museum in Nijmegen that is now working on an important name change: instead of ‘Museum het Valkhof’ it will now be called ‘Valkhof Museum’.It was about time: yhe last name change was already 14 years ago. And yes, ‘het’ is Dutch for ‘the’…. And the museum is undergoing extensive renovation.
Until last week, this museum organized an exhibition about drag queens, etc. in its temporary location. “It shows perspectives and experiences that people from the trans and queer community find important and want to share.” …
But also directors and curators of museums that mainly exhibit traditional art often have a snobbish streak. My last painting course so far I followed with master painter Cornelis Le Mair. He is internationally renowned, but Dutch museums are not interested in his work. His paintings are qualitatively comparable to those of 17th century masters, but could threaten the air of sanctity surrounding Rembrandt, Van Hals, etc., which many non-artists like to see reflected on themselves.
No court painter
An as obvious as it is regrettable aspect of the work of almost all old masters, not only from the Netherlands but worldwide, is that so many of them were officially or unofficially court painters: they had to be connected to the very rich and very powerful. My position is the opposite of those painters. In the 21st century, this is possible in a country like the Netherlands. I am retired and can choose who I want to pay tribute to by painting her or him!
I realize I haven’t really answered that question from the beginning of this text. At most, some indirect clues shine through. Of all the European nations that sailed the world’s seas many centuries ago and traded far away and founded colonies, the stubborn, least monarchistic Holland was the smallest. Together with Portugal. Portugal, however, had only one large neighbour. Holland was and still is between three great ones: Germany, France and Great Britain. Remember: our Golden Age was also the age with our ‘disaster year’ 1672, when all of those three attacked us. Obstinacy, fearlessness and agility were indispensable. Perhaps that has had some effect on our national character.
The Netherlands is not that big. I came up with almost half of this article during a train journey from Leiden (Lievens & Rembrandt), past Amsterdam (lots) and the Gooi (home of many of those abstracts and their financiers) to the east of the country. When I was 17 I went to live in Vermeer’s place of residence and study at the University of Delft, which was then still called Technische Hogeschool, just like when magical realist Carel Willink did. In high school, I almost exclusively read magical realist authors for my reading list. The city where I lived the longest was Utrecht: I often cycled past the Rietveld-Schröder house. Later I worked -among other places- in the Gooi-part of the Netherlands too.
About thís ODP and the website
What you have to know about the initiator of this website is on the home page.
In case you want to know more: in Dutch I published quite a long autobiographical text in a book titled “Bezorgde Vaders” [Concerned Fathers; I was one of six there]. It was one of the very few books I published when I was a publisher. It can be found at my Academia account.
Quite a telling anecdotal story about the younger me I published there too. I reproduce it here.
The self-portrait is one of only two drawings from before 1982 I made and kept. The funny thing about it is that I drew myself with glasses when I didn’t start wearing them until five years later.
The Parable of Foolish Freddy and the Real Islamophobes
This parable is based on something that really happened in my younger years. I was ten years old.
Islam did not exist yet, let alone the teachings of Mohammed!
Actually this phenomenon of course did exist elsewhere in the world but not for us Dutch children, all of whom were born in the Netherlands, like our parents and most of our grand-grandparents.
It wasn’t until a year or two after this experience, I guess, that I first heard that lyric about the size of Allah’s genitals. Maybe you know it too. Or a variant on it. “He’s big, he’s mighty, his d**k is six feet long” (it rhymes in Dutch if you use European measures of length). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in later variants that thing got even longer.
My family moved to this Van Haarenlaan in Schiedam one or two years before the incident.The brand new flat had a real bathroom, running hot water and the kitchen in the winter had this built-in “refrigerator”: a cupboard with an intentionally not insulated backside. That side bordered on the balcony and on that side the hardboard plate with holes was provided with a surface that reflected sunlight. Superior find. It was also very handy that the coal storage was on the ground floor instead of in the attic, as in the upstairs apartment where we came from.
Every now and then a seriously retarded young man walked down our street: the neighborhood children called him Foolish Freddy*.
He often had a real transistor radio with him, which he carried on his shoulder. He listened to music like that. Ghetto blasters were introduced much later. This was actually a kind of civilized precursor of those. Freddy did not cause any inconvenience and Freddy did not hurt a fly in any other way, but we were a bit afraid of him.
Of course we were.
He was very different. Not mentally, but physically certainly a man, although of course we did not think or talk about it in those terms. I myself was, also for my age, small and slender.
One Sunday afternoon my younger sister played outside. She threw a balloon back and forth with some other children. And then Foolish Freddy caught the thing. And he made no move to return it.
My older brother was not outside and from the corner of my eye I could see my parents and one or two older sisters watching what was going to happen from behind the window on the first floor.
They had high hopes for me. Now I had to perform.
I told Freddy that it was fun to play with a balloon, but that the little girl would be sad if he took the thing with him. In a little more and in slightly different words, but that was the purport.
I remember this incident so well thanks to the praise I received afterwards.
I had done absolutely right. I had shown (a semblance of) spine and had combined it with a slimy approach.
And more importantly: I had not provoked the mentally handicapped Freddy.
The fact that I have been thinking about that incident more often lately has everything to do with the ‘do-not-provoke-them‘ card being drawn every time the mohammedan religion is criticised or mocked. A card drawn instinctively by the true islamophobes: those who are not accused of being afraid of islam, but those who really are afraid, afraid to show any form of resolve.
It is suggested that the approach that I successfully used as a ten-year-old towards Foolish Freddy, should also be used towards the followers of Muhammed.
Sure, you could call the average member of the ulema foolish or crazy too, but not mentally handicapped!
Their craziness is of a completely different nature than that of Freddy.
Unlike Freddy, these people are malicious and crafty and their madness has been acquired.
Freddy most certainly was not a fan of particular religious and/or political teachings. I don’t know if Freddy has ever done anything violent in his life. However, this is true for some of the most dedicated followers of Muhammed. A very different story is the real existence of his teachings.
One of the most embarrassing aspects of western politicians and media dealing with the teachings and followers of Muhammed is that they suggest that those teachings are new. As if this religion with strong political ambitions and growing influence does not have a long history and overwhelming impact on huge parts of the world.
As if islam is something between every individual muslim and this deity Allah. Talk about foolishness.
* I renamed him. Not so much out of privacy considerations, more because it is really hard to correctly translate the adjective ‘gekke’ when used by children.