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Book review | Much more to know than Van Gogh: finally a book in English that surveys 19th-century Dutch art

Book review | Much more to know than Van Gogh: finally a book in English that surveys 19th-century Dutch art


Book review | Much more to know than Van Gogh: finally a book in English that surveys 19th-century Dutch art

Thérèse Schwartze, Portrait of a Young Woman with ‘Puck’ the Dog (around 1884-85)
Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

At last, there is a book in English that provides a new and thorough overview of 19th-century Dutch art. Written by Jenny Reynaerts, the senior curator of 18th- and 19th-century paintings at the Rijksmuseum, it is filled with a wealth of information and analysis. Due to the author’s engaging writing style, it is also eminently ­readable. The lavishly illustrated publication is organised chronologically while discussing the art in its political and social context. A very detailed table of contents, which may look daunting at first glance, allows for focused choices for the study of specific artists or periods. The book provides new insights for specialists and will become a standard work for the study of Dutch 19th-century art. For those who do not read Dutch, it is invaluable. In addition to discussing internationally known artists such as Jozef Israëls, Ary Scheffer and Vincent van Gogh, the book provides relevant and fascinating analysis of important figures that are hardly known outside of the Netherlands, often undeservedly, because the literature exists only in Dutch, if at all.Throughout, the reader becomes acutely aware of the truly international nature of Dutch art. The curiosity and ambition of the artists, the creation of an international market for their art, the exchanges with other artists in Europe and beyond are impressive. Dutch painters participated in international trends; for example, responding to the lure of Italy in the early part of the century, they travelled there like so many others. The widespread call for Romantic landscape painting incited someone like Barend Cornelis Koekkoek, to settle across the border in Germany for access to the picturesque views of the Rhine valley and to set up a highly lucrative business catering to an international market of buyers. Recognised stars in their time—Scheffer or Johan Barthold Jongkind in Paris, Lawrence Alma-Tadema in London, or Jozef Israëls and the group of the Hague School—became hugely successful, far beyond their home country. Fascinatingly, Raden Saleh from Java in the Dutch East Indies also became widely admired in Europe.Reynaerts analyses how the many European political upheavals created opportunities for artists’ training and exchanges. It is vital to remember that the size and political structure of the Netherlands underwent numerous mutations during the late 18th and early 19th century, which also spurred the need for the creation of a national history and landscape.Another important topic is the permeating influence of Dutch 17th-century glory during the 19th century. Although taking on specific forms in the Netherlands, it was not exclusively a Dutch phenomenon. The admiration for the so-called Golden Age was on the rise throughout Europe and beyond. By the middle of the century, French writers and artists in particular became smitten with Holland’s art and landscape, a trend that Van Gogh, for example, recognised and turned to his advantage when in France.The publication’s fourth section addresses the multiple directions of the fin de siècle, which Reynaerts examines within their social contexts. Numerous artists participated in international circles, such as Jan Toorop, who, conscious of his half-Javanese background, was very active in the European avant-garde. His large and impressive oeuvre receives deserved attention. Van Gogh’s stature enticed the author to dedicate a somewhat excessive number of pages to his life and work, considering the vast amount of information easily available elsewhere. It makes this last section a little unbalanced but was probably difficult to avoid. Fortunately, Reynaerts also highlights the role and originality of women artists such as Thérèse Schwartze and Suze Robertson. Her discussion of, among others, the powerful canvases of George Hendrik Breitner, the evocative compositions of Matthijs Maris and Willem Witsen, or, little known outside of the Netherlands, the exquisite works of Floris Verster or the sober paintings of artist-critic Jan Veth, make fascinating reading.Graced with an evocative cover of waves from Toorop’s The Sea (1887), the book is in the uniform design of all recent Rijksmuseum catalogues. A slightly more distinctive appearance could have underlined the different nature and extraordinary importance of this publication.Jenny Reynaerts, Mirror of Reality: 19th-Century Painting in the Netherlands, Mercatorfonds, 384pp, €49.95 (hb)• Cornelia Homburg is an independent art historian and curator who focuses on European art of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is a specialist of the oeuvre of Vincent van Gogh. She co-curated the Gauguin Portraits exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada (2019) and the National Gallery in London (2019-20)

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