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Venturing out to worlds inside

June 30, 2021

The Broad Street Review
June 28, 2021

Pamela J.  Forsythe

A soap bubble floats upward. A candle glows. A keg is tapped. A page is turned. These quiet occupations are the stuff of An Inner World: Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting, now on view at Arthur Ross Gallery.  

‘Children at a Window Blowing Bubbles’ (c. 1660), Dominicus van Tol, The Leiden Collection. (Image courtesy of Arthur Ross Gallery.)

Though conceived before the pandemic, the exhibition speaks eloquently to a public emerging from months of solitude. Four hundred years ago, Dutch fijnschilders—fine painters working in the vicinity of Leiden—considered their surroundings, painting people engaged in commonplace tasks, often sheathed in darkness. Called genre paintings, the examples here are generally small, laden with symbolism, and invite close, unhurried consideration.

We seem to have interrupted a captivating story in Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt’s Portrait of a man reading a book(1668). The reader looks up, finger curled under a page to hold his place. Willem van Mieris takes us into a cave to observe a Hermit Praying in the Wilderness (1707). The ragged man kneels before a crucifix with clasped hands. A skull at his elbow mirrors his own balding pate, a sign of life’s transience. Beyond the entrance, a bright landscape promises release.

Art in the everyday

Genre works depict people indoors, alone and in pairs, conversing, lost in thought, fetching wine, checking mousetraps, while the subset known as niche paintings portray individuals at their windows, watching, playing, and remembering. Whatever the occupation, the surroundings provide clues for the viewer. All of this is rendered in brushwork so exquisite that the very atmosphere in the room, in the cellar, or on the street is palpable.

Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) and his students are central to genre painting. The exhibition includes remarkable examples on loan from The Leiden Collection and The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. Exceptional volumes from the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts provide helpful context for the intellectual life of the period. (Arthur Ross Gallery is part of Penn.)

The charming Children at a Window Blowing Bubbles (1660) by Dou student and nephew Dominicus van Tol (c. 1635-1676) illustrates techniques used by both artists in niche paintings to pierce the threshold of the canvas, giving the illusion of a third dimension that extends the scene toward viewers. In Children at a Window, the subjects are framed by a stone arch. A striped drape is pulled to one side and gathered outside the window. The wall beneath the opening is decorated with a sculpted relief, and a potted plant stands to one side. The boy’s arm extends out to catch a breeze, in his hand a small wand laden with soapy liquid.

Arranged in a row with van Tol’s work are Dou’s Girl at a Window (1655), depicting a kitchen maid dangling a pewter flagon, and Public Notary (c. 1653) in which Dou student Gabriel Metsu (1629-67) portrays a man holding folded papers and seals toward the viewer, as if offering his services.

Two ways to visit

So similar are van Tol’s and Dou’s styles and settings, the bubble blowers, maid, and notary could occupy rooms in the same building. This grouping and another by the same trio, of candlelit scenes, beautifully illustrate technique and themes in genre paintings. It’s easy to see how the works of Dou and van Tol were often confused, as Caroline Van Cauwenberge, Leiden Collection curatorial associate, explained in an edition of 12@12, a monthly gallery talk.

‘Boy with a Mousetrap by Candlelight’ (c. 1664-5), Dominicus van Tol, The Leiden Collection. (Image courtesy of Arthur Ross Gallery.)
‘Boy with a Mousetrap by Candlelight’ (c. 1664-5), Dominicus van Tol, The Leiden Collection. (Image courtesy of Arthur Ross Gallery.)

An Inner World is based on an earlier exhibition by Lara Yeager-Crasselt, curator of The Leiden Collection, who cocurated this exhibition with Heather Gibson Moqtaderi, Arthur Ross assistant director and curator.

Since the project was first proposed in 2018, An Inner World evolved in accordance with pandemic-necessitated conditions. For viewers sequestered in their own inner worlds, curators and gallery staff developed virtual programming that remains available on the gallery website; an additional virtual program will take place on July 7. Now that the gallery has reopened, virtual and in-person visitors can take a mobile tour.

The artists’ minds  

Printed materials establish the intellectual and cultural environment of the Netherlands in the 17th century. Leiden was the country’s second largest city, a center of learning, science, medicine, and art. It is where Dou was born, and became the first student of another Leiden native, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669).

The University of Leiden dates to 1575, and the intellectual atmosphere is visible in representations of alchemists and alchemy, a pseudoscience then viewed with a mixture of awe and skepticism. Depictions in An Inner Worldare respectful of those attempting to transform base metals into gold and silver. In Jacob Toorenvliet’s Alchemist (1684), an experimenter and his assistant work amid reference papers and laboratory tools.

Goessen van Wreeswyk’s book Silver River or King’s Fountain (1684), delineates the medicinal properties of extracts made from salts and metals. Volumes of Cesare Ripa’s 1593 work Incologia (1764-7) combine text and images documenting morality, knowledge, and other abstract concepts. Ripa’s work was a reference for artists in search of allegorical symbols.  

Serene and engrossing, An Inner World is just the thing for those ready to emerge from their own interior spaces and view art in a calm, controlled atmosphere.

Image description: The painting Children at a Window Blowing Bubbles, painted around 1660 by Dominicus van Tol. It shows two children, one older and one younger, blowing bubbles with a soapy solution and narrow straws.

Image description: The painting Boy with a Mousetrap by Candlelight, painted around 1664 by Dominicus van Tol. It shows a smiling boy perhaps 10 years old holding a candle and a wooden mousetrap in what might be a dark cellar.