Roelof de Vries, Landscape with Stream and Windmill

The Vancouver Art Gallery is about to open an exhibition of 17th century Dutch and Flemish art – many of the pieces rarely seen outside Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Persuasive Visions: 17th Century Dutch and Flemish Masterworks and Contemporary Reflections combines traditional works of both Dutch and Flemish painters with a modern twist: Thomas Ruff’s larger-than-life chromogenic prints and Jeff Wall’s light box Vancouver imagery.

Thomas Ruff portrait, Isabelle Graw
[Thomas Ruff, Portrait (Isabelle Graw), 1988, chromogenic print, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition Fund]

Senior Curator Ian Thom has taken a creative approach with this three month exhibit. The Gallery’s collection of the Dutch and Flemish works isn’t a large one, but an extraordinary display of classic subject matter and painting styles of that era. 29 of the works are owned by the VAG, and five are on loan from the Rijksmuseum (the newly-remodeled world-class museum can take an entire day to visit).

In the 17th century, The Netherlands was considered the most important art centre in the world. As the small nation morphed into a rich mercantile power, wealth was earned through maritime trade and imperialist expansion. Most of the artists of that time specialized in either portraits, landscapes, or sea themes.

Almost all the work was done on spec, relying on the burgeoning middle class to buy the artists’ works upon completion. Further fueling the movement was the shift away from religious-themed works. The Protestant (Calvinist) Dutch church denounced images containing the divine, so with a dwindling ‘market’, the natural shift moved to more personal objects on the canvas.

An estimated 750,000 to 1 million portraits were painted in The Netherlands during this time, preserving the powerful elite for generations to come.

One of the portraiture rooms features an amusing combination of an old school painting flanked by three enormous Thomas Ruff portraits, something the Dutch would feel right at home with.

17th century Dutch landscape artists were great contributors to the cloudy, grey skies otherwise known as Holland. Light played a big role in Dutch paintings. Bridging the classic to the present, Jeff Wall’s images also represent a strong sense of light.

Roelandt Savery, Untitled
[Roelandt Savery, Untitled, 1615, oil on copper and panel, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John S. Davidson. Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery]

Tulips were so highly prized that those who could afford them paid extravagant amounts to own even a single bulb at 4,000 guilders, compared to a skilled Dutch laborer’s modest 400 guilder per year salary.

Ironically enough, these paintings cost many more times today what the portrait subjects paid for a tulip bulb, obviously not the case back in the day.

Speaking of tulips, another interesting feature to note are the colours in the flowers. There was no refrigeration in the 17th century, thus the blooms would never occur at the same time. Viewing Roelandt Savery’s 1615 Untitled still life, it becomes obvious that the flowers were made to look a lot brighter and healthier than they likelier were at the time.

Balthasar van der Ast, Untitled
[Balthasar van der Ast, Untitled (Still Life with Peaches and Shells), unknown, oil on panel, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John S. Davidson.
Photo: Jim Gorman, Vancouver Art Gallery]

The passing of time can be seen in many of the works, represented by bugs, lizards, falling leaves and flower petals.

When you get to the back room, don’t miss two charming winter scene oils by Isaak Ouwater.

Persuasive Visions: 17th Century Dutch & Flemish Masterworks & Contemporary Reflections
Dates: June 15 to September 15
Venue: Vancouver Art Gallery, 750 Hornby Street, Vancouver
Tickets: Available online or at the museum. Visit the website for ticket prices and opening hours.

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