Wait a minute! I haven't finished boring everyone with my slides from Europe this past summer.
And after this post, I still won't be finished.
We ended our long trip with 4 days in the great mother city of New York, Amsterdam. No other city in Europe shaped the Big Apple (known as New Amsterdam until the British took it over) more decisively; certainly not that cathedral town in northern England, or anything having to do with any Duke of York. New York inherited its mercenary nature and the remarkable tolerance that has characterized the city from its beginnings to now from that great mercenary and tolerant city in the Low Countries, Amsterdam.
Unless where noted otherwise, these are all my pictures and are freely available, especially to educators.
The Dam in Amsterdam, the heart of the city. On the right is the Nieuwe Kerk and on the left is what is now known as the Royal Palace, but was originally known as the New Town Hall, the old city hall of Amsterdam.
The New Town Hall designed by Jacob Van Campen to showcase the amazing success of the still new Dutch Republic in the 17th century. This small flood prone state won its independence from Spain and very quickly became rich from the new global economy with colonies and trading outposts around the world, including that little trading colony at the mouth of the Hudson river in North America. The Dutch Republic soon eclipsed both Britain and France as the wealthiest state in Europe. The Dutch fleet had the temerity to challenge British supremacy on the high seas.
By the middle of the 17th century, Amsterdam's old medieval town hall was clearly too small for the newly great city. So, the city decided to build this splendid building to proclaim its greatness to the world; a building that influenced a lot of civic architecture in the United States including Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Today, the New Town Hall is the Royal Palace in Amsterdam. It is the official residence of King Willem Alexander when he is in town. When the king is not in residence (which is most of the time), the building is wide open to the public (more so than New York's City Hall, another building whose design was inspired by Amsterdam's New Town Hall).
The New Town Hall is filled with splendid allegorical sculpture, and I'm having only limited success finding information online about it. The pediment sculpture appears to be about Dutch supremacy on the sea. The bronze statue on the summit appears to hold attributes of peace, health, and prosperity.
A figure who appears a lot in the sculptural programs in the New Town Hall, Atlas holding up the world.
I don't know exactly who the sculptor is. It appears to me that several very fine sculptors worked on this building. The name that appears most is that of the Antwerp sculptor Artus Quellinus the Elder. I assume he was the principal sculptor of the building and perhaps the sculptor of this prominent allegory in the Citizens' Hall.
I was very impressed with high quality of all the 17th century sculpture in the New Town Hall/Royal Palace. I know next to nothing about Baroque sculpture from the Low Countries and now I'm curious to find out more.
*Gerrit informs us that indeed Quellinus (with his shop) was the sculptor of this Justice group. Artus Quellinus and Rombout Verhulst were the chief sculptors of the Dam Palace/New Town Hall.
The Rainbow Flag on the Westerkerk. Amsterdam must be the most gay-friendly city we visited on this trip. We arrived by train in the middle of Amsterdam's gay pride day. The train station was packed with people, and I was terrified that Bill Paulsen would get knocked over
Amsterdam was until recently the unchallenged stoner capital of the world with decades of legalized weed. The city's title of Queen of the Stoners is now being challenged by Colorado. New York has relaxed a lot of its weed laws, and you can find shops like this in Brooklyn these days.
It was fun to see this, but after living for 13 years in the East Village back in the days when tranny waitresses used to entertain families from Cedar Rapids having brunch at Lucky Cheng's or Stingy Lulu's, and the Punks and the Skinheads would fight it out in the Odessa diner every morning over breakfast, or where I would see musicians having a beer with breakfast at 4AM at the Streetside Cafe or at the Veselka, I was not that impressed.
I didn't get to the red light district. I might have been more impressed there.
A gay pride window display near the Dam.
By our standards of liberal egalitarianism, the 16th and 17th century Dutch Republic comes up very short. The authorities of Amsterdam were careful to preserve the supremacy of the Dutch Reform Church in law and in formality. Religious minorities were tolerated provided that they practiced their rites discreetly. They may have been included, but they certainly were not accepted.
By the standards of the 17th century with its continuing religious warfare and violence, Amsterdam was a beacon of refuge for religious minorities from all over Europe, especially Jews. Amsterdam was the only city in Europe that did not confine its Jewish population in a ghetto, and one of the few that allowed Jews to buy and to own property. The wealthy Protestant merchants of the city highly valued Jewish trade connections and professional abilities, especially those of Sephardic Jews from Spain and North Africa. Ashkenazim from Eastern Europe crowded into Amsterdam, but were mostly poor craftsmen and laborers.
The Portuguese Synagogue is testimony to the success of Amsterdam's Sephardic community.
Mercifully, the Synagogue provided free kippot. All I had to cover my head was a very tattered and not very reverent straw hat.
Although the Synagogue now and in this painting has a women's gallery, Men and women appear to mingle freely during divine service in this painting. I get the impression that today's congregation at the Synagogue is much more orthodox.
We stayed in Knight and Ramonda's house in Badhoevedorp near Schipol Airport. Ramonda grew up in that house. I got to know the Amsterdam bus system well.
The newly renovated Rijksmuseum where I spent a day worshipping at the altar of Rembrandt and admiring the Dutch masters. If you don't like Rembrandt, then this is the end of the tour because there's a lot of his work in the rest of this post.
I'm not a photography expert, but I'm guessing that the reason so much of Rembrandt's work is so hard to reproduce is not only the subtlety of the colors, but I think because he painted on an umber or red ochre ground like a lot of 17th century painters. Film and light sensitive digital programs both tend to pick up warmer colors easier than cooler colors, and I've always wondered if some of Rembrandt's underpainting comes through in photos and drowns out other cooler and more subtle colors.
The Night Watch is an old popular nickname for this painting. It never had an official title, but it is a group portrait of an Amsterdam volunteer militia company, the Company of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch. Like many Dutch group portrait commissions of the time, the 18 members of the Company each paid Rembrandt to be included. Only the Company drummer on the right was portrayed for free. Their names are all listed on a plaque on the arch top center right in the painting.
There is an old tale that I think began in the 19th century that this painting started the decline of Rembrandt's career, that the members of the Company did not like it and some complained about how they were portrayed.
The evidence seems to indicate that the contrary was true, that the painting was a tremendous success with the Company and with the public. Captain Bannick Cocq had the painting copied twice; Gerrit Lundens' copy and another watercolor copy. The painting enjoyed great public esteem for generations. It was probably that same public esteem that caused the painting to be cut down. The painting was cut down when it was moved from its original location in the Kloveniersdoelen to a council chamber of the New Town Hall where it hung very prominently between two doors.
Though the painting has been popularly known as The Night Watch since the 18th century because of its darkness, this scene in fact takes place in the day.
Rembrandt turned the usually very prosaic Dutch group portrait into a dramatic event. The Captain gives the order to his Lieutenant to muster the men to parade formation. The drummer to the right sounds the call to muster. Pike staffs rattle, sergeants shout orders, a dog barks, people scurry out of the way, a gun goes off, this is a noisy painting. The men form up to march forward into the light and out toward us.
Below are some of my pictures from the original. They're a little washed out, but I hope still convey something of the color of this picture, and what a tour-de-force of painterly virtuosity it is.
The magnificent painting of the musketeer's sleeve with rich glowing reds
One of the many extras in the painting peering out at us
What a splendid passage of colors this is! From deep reds to blue-greens, to cerulean, to gold, to violet across this detail.
While the Night Watch was almost universally praised by Dutch critics at the time of its unveiling, it did not enjoy unanimous esteem among later generations of critics. NeoClassicists and French academic critics were horrified by this picture and considered it a disorganized vulgar mess. This opinion is shared by some modern critics who consider this to be the most over-rated of Baroque paintings. Many other critics and historians feel otherwise. For me, this painting's only equal is Velazquez's Las Meninas. In contrast to Velazquez's palatial silence, Rembrandt gives us a noisy democratic tribute to his adopted city of Amsterdam.
I can't possibly do better than Simon Schama's writing about The Night Watch:
This promiscuous mingling of modes --symbolic, naturalistic, emblematic, and social -- was yet another instance of Rembrandt pushing a perfectly acceptable manner beyond its expected limit. For the "historiated portraits" in which sitters got themselves up in the guise of figures from mythology or history were a standard part of the conventions of the day. Rembrandt, however, does something much more daring, sensing the ways in which men dressed up expressly (and by 1642, often from their own wardrobe) for the public gaze felt themselves, as they strutted by the lines of ogling burghers, to be the contemporary incarnations of something bigger than themselves: the spirit of the citizen soldier past and present; the pride of Amsterdam, which from nothing, from reeds and fishes, from storms and floods, God had raised to be the new Carthage, the new Tyre.
The Nightwatch was cut down on all sides, but especially on the left, in 1715 to fit a wall between two doors in a council room of the New Town Hall (there is a full size photo-copy of the Night Watch hanging on that very wall today). This small copy by Gerrit Lundens reminds us how much and how drastically that cropping changed the painting we have today. The composition was originally much more spacious and not quite so crowded. We saw more of the gateway arch in the background and it was more centered. The parade was originally supposed to be seen forming on a small bridge over a canal. Two figures and the bridge railing were cut out on the left.
This is a much quieter and less spectacular group portrait than the Night Watch from about 20 years earlier. Rembrandt is less interested in theater here than he is in monumentality. Gary Schwartz in his book on Rembrandt points out that the Guild was over 250 years old at the time of this painting with group portraits of sampling officials hanging in the guild hall from as early as 1559. The paintings always showed 5 men and a steward seated and looking at the viewer. Rembrandt may have been instructed to stick to precedent.
Apparently, Rembrandt originally showed the figure second from the left as standing fully erect. Four of the 5 sitters complained and Rembrandt altered the pose to suggest a kind of half-seated position; perhaps standing or sitting.
I will hazard to guess that they are an actual couple posing for their portrait in costume. They are role-playing. Schama speculates that this is a Jewish couple. Indeed, Rembrandt's Jewish clients were among his most loyal and supportive, even in his last years when he was out of fashion and the critics dismissed his work when they noticed it at all.
All the implied passion, emotional and sexual, between these two people finds its expression in this amazing field of red.
The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, Rembrandt's last public commission, painted for the New Town Hall in 1661 - 1662. Rembrandt was one of many leading Amsterdam artists hired to paint scenes from ancient Dutch history for the new building. This painting was originally much larger, an arch shaped canvas. This painting hung for about a month in the New Town Hall, but after the very hostile reception from critics and the public, the city returned the painting to Rembrandt without payment, and replaced his painting with another of the same subject by Govaert Flinck. Rembrandt himself cut the painting down to a more sellable size.
Critics of the time ridiculed the painting as looking like dung. The public saw the painting as both crude and very old fashioned, nothing like the polished classicism fashionable at the time.
Today, we regard this painting as one of the most daring and adventurous of the 17th century.
What luck! The painting was on loan from the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm.
I'm not sure, but I think this is the original location in the New Town Hall where Rembrandt's Claudius Civilis hung. A painting of the same subject by Govaert Flinck hangs there now.
Young Rembrandt usually role plays in his self portraits; sometimes those roles can be comic. Here he portrays himself as the tousle haired unrefined miller's son from Leiden that he was (never mind that he was the only major artist of the 17th century with a university education, and that includes Rubens).
Rembrandt's work remains very popular. The crowds looking at his work in the Rijksmuseum and in other museums around the world are testimony to that. People love the drama and emotion in his work. His tragic life story (like the tragic biography of another later Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh) only enhances his popular appeal. And yet, Rembrandt is a very awkward fit in our culture. Western culture these days worships youth and success. Rembrandt's best dramas are about failure. The flesh in all of his paintings is not the alluring youthful flesh that is commonplace now in commercial imagery, but vulnerable flesh battered by time and experience. That is true even in Rembrandt's pictures of the young.
This painting from near the end of his life may seem like presumption on Rembrandt's part, but it too is a drama about failure. The Paul that Rembrandt plays here is not the Apostle to the Gentiles, but the Paul who wrote such candid confessions of his own failures and of the inner conflicts within his self that cause him to do what he does not want to do. Paul the hypocrite, Paul the failure, is the role Rembrandt plays here. Rembrandt was bankrupt and living in poverty when he painted this picture. Worse, his son and mistress shared that poverty and worked hard to protect Rembrandt from creditors. This is a painting about remorse among many other things.
The Woman Pouring Milk is one of my favorite Vermeers with its pools of brilliant unmixed color and its amazing feel for light and atmosphere. No one painted diffuse light falling on a plaster wall as splendidly as Vermeer.
Vermeer experimented with all kinds of gadgets to help him with his painting; with lenses, mirrors, and especially with the camera obscura. He was close friends and neighbors with the inventor of the microscope, Anton van Leeuwenhoek.
I regret that I didn't take pictures of his magnificent group portrait of the Archers of Saint Hadrian which hung in the same gallery as the Night Watch.
Artists from Rembrandt to Manet would admire and emulate Hals' painterly eloquence.
This painting inspired one of the few acts of popular resistance to the iconoclasm that swept through the Low Countries after the Reformation. The locals always loved these paintings; even after the town went Protestant, they remained in the church. In 1582, two Protestant fanatics threw a bucket of black paint across these paintings. The townspeople were outraged and arrested and tried the two men. They restored the paintings and returned them to the church.
"I was hungry and you fed me." That these panels make no effort to be historically accurate, but instead locate the story in an early 16th century Dutch town (perhaps in the streets of Alkmaar itself) is precisely the point.
I also visited the Vincent Van Gogh Museum which is right next door to the Rijksmuseum. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed, but I'm going to put together some Wikipedia pictures like this one and talk about some of the things I saw there in an EXTRA.