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    Galleries 30-50: Vermeer, Rembrandt, Van Dyck

Spend a few minutes in Gallery 31, which has a couple of Italian landscapes by Canaletto, from around 1740, that show how much more detail artists were including in their works. In particular, we like Canaletto’s The Square of St. Mark’s, Venice, with how Canaletto shows different interactions among the people of the square.

The National Gallery’s collection of Dutch, Flemish, and Netherlandish art is one of its strengths, and the displays begin around Gallery 39, which shows Netherlandish sculpture and painting beginning around 1400. The galleries are arranged roughly chronologically, so you can see the evolution of subject matter, detail, and perspective of these artists as with those of the Italian Renaissance.

Our tour of the highlights includes Gallery 42, which features early 17th century Flemish portraits by Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Paul Reubens. (Van Dyck served an apprenticeship in Reubens’ studio.)

Although he wasn’t British, Van Dyck was part of King Charles I’s royal court, and did many portraits of royalty and nobility during this time. Several of Van Dyck’s portrait conventions are on display here: showing his subject’s entire body while standing (or three-quarters, if sitting), as in Maddalena Cattaneo and Henri II de Lorraine; and draping his status-conscious clients in expensive clothing against dramatic backdrops, such as Marchesa Balbi and A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son. Also notice how most of the portraits are designed so that the subjects are looking down at the viewer, e.g., Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo.

The one Peter Paul Reubens work in Gallery 42 is an early one, Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria, from 1606, but it’s amazing for detail and technique. Notice Reubens’ ability to capture light shimmering in the fabric of the marchesa’s silver gown, and the detail in the gown’s lace collar. It looks like Reubens went out of his way to showing as much expensive clothing as possible – although it’s a big canvas, the only parts of the marchesa’s skin you can see are her hands and face.

Unofficial Tip: More Van Dyck and Reubens portraits can be found in Gallery 43. Reubens’ allegorical paintings are in Gallery 45.

Next, head to Gallery 48 for 17th century works by Rembrandt and his students. Considered the best of the Dutch painters, and among Europe’s finest, Rembrandt van Rijn was known for his unembellished portraits (including many self-portraits – see his 1659 Self-Portrait here), and narrative scenes from the bible and mythology.

Like his peers, Rembrandt used light and darkness to govern the mood of a painting. In Gallery 48, notice how his portrait subjects’ noses are used as the dividing line between lighter and darker areas of the canvas. Even in the landscape The Mill here, the “nose” of the windmill is the demarcation between sunlight on the right and storm clouds on the left.

Works from the last 15 years of Rembrandt’s life are in Gallery 51, plus those of his workshop. These are both portraits and biblical scenes, and they tend to use darker colors than his earlier paintings.

No trip through the Dutch artistic scene would be complete without a visit to Vermeer, in Gallery 50A. Vermeer is known for capturing incredible details in his work, and very realistic depictions of the interplay of light and dark. That he did this without any formal training has led some to suggest that Vermeer had mechanical help. The most common theory is that he used a camera obscura – a series of lenses and mirrors – to project images from life onto a canvas, which were then painted over. The evidence is circumstantial; the edges of some objects in Vermeer’s paintings are curved where they should be straight, suggesting they were viewed through a rounded lens. However, there’s no record of any such device listed in Vermeer’s estate after his death, which details everything from finished art to the paint supplies he had on hand.

With or without mechanical aid, a couple of the Vermeers in this room are fantastic. Woman Holding a Balance shows a young woman standing at a table, holding a small scale. The sun streams into the room from a window above and to the left, and the light falls unevenly on the textured gray wall behind her, as well as the blue robe she’s wearing. The sunlight also falls on the pearls and gold she’s weighing, while in the background is a painting of The Last Supper.

What’s Vermeer trying to say? The Netherlands was prospering when Vermeer painted this scene. Their ports were used to import good from across the seas, which they then distributed through canals and rivers to the rest of Europe. Merchants and traders were becoming rich. Vermeer’s message to the viewer may be that the pursuit of treasure needs to be weighed against its eternal consequences.

A couple of other things to note with Vermeer: most of his paintings are of domestic scenes (in fact, the same rooms may be shown in multiple paintings), and many feature women. Two examples in this room are both from around 1665: A Lady Writing and The Girl with a Red Hat.

Other Lands at National Gallery of Art