"Different Perspectives. Dutch and Flemish Painting from the ERGO Hestia Collection", The National Museum in Warsaw exhibition, photo by Bartosz Bajerski
review

Marvellous highlights from the Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century. Cultural return in Warsaw

Attention to every detail, precise mapping of the character’s psychology, consolidation of the customs and traditions of the epoch, and a precise representation of the surrounding world. The exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw shows that the Dutch painters of the 17th century saw beauty in many places, creating an artistic universe that’s unique in the art history.

The exhibition Different Perspectives: Dutch and Flemish Painting from the ERGO Hestia Collection is considered to be one of the most important returning cultural events in Poland after the third wave of the pandemic. You should not miss it! The show presents works by Flemish and Dutch masters of the 17th century, on a loan from the ERGO Hestia Insurance Company, which is complemented by collections of the National Museum in Warsaw. The uniqueness of this exhibition lies in the fact that it is the only corporate collection of Old Masters in Poland that has never been shown to the public. Moreover, it is an unprecedented set in this geographical area, and besides, it is not a “closed” series of paintings – it was and is constantly being supplemented. 

In the twentieth century, corporate art collecting has grown in popularity and has become central to many global companies’ identity and a way to connect with the public around the world. The originality of Ergo Hestia collection lies in fact, that all the existing pieces consist mainly of works not older than French impressionism. In that case, Warsaw’s exhibition can be perceived as an exclusive and unique event not only in Poland, but also on a global scale.

This show has gathered works that allow us to learn the history of the development of the local 17th-century painting in a historical, social, and economic context. It has been divided into seven sections which allow the viewer to have a look at various threads of presented  paintings. The exhibition consists of 52 works by artists such as Salomon van Ruysdael, David Teniers the Younger, Jan Porcellis, Gabriël Metsu, and Jan Brueghel the Younger. The paintings are also an excellent testimony of times and places, a fascinating lesson of local customs and traditions. 

Jan Porcellis (1584–1632), Sailing Vessels in Choppy Waters, ca. 1625–30, panel, ERGO Hestia Collection
Jan Porcellis (1584–1632), Sailing Vessels in Choppy Waters, ca. 1625–30, panel, ERGO Hestia Collection

The richness of meanings

Let’s have a look at the famous Allegory of Summer by a Flemish artist Sebastian Vrancx. The painting thoroughly depicts the everyday life of the Dutch, whose life rhythm was closely correlated with nature. The work is notable not only for its impressive handling of light, perfect rendering of details, and multi-threading, but also for rich symbolism. Ripe, juicy fruit, lush tree crowns or colourful flowers, all of which are connected by the warm rays of the summer sun. The painting is a story about summer, the role of nature that provides people with food, necessary livelihoods, and at the same time, the beauty of surrounding world and gaze. The accumulation of everyday objects is a kind of artistic puzzle hidden in the painterly composition, which prompts the viewer to reflect more deeply on the meaning of the painting. Mystery and ambiguity are another features of 17th-century Netherlandish art. Understanding the message contained in the accumulation of items such as half-peeled lemons or broken shells required from the recipient extensive humanistic skills, knowledge of the Bible, and cleverness. This artistic procedure was directly related to the moralizing spirit of the era and the popularity of emblems – representations of concepts and ideas in the form of juxtapositions of objects. Reading the meaning of these compositions depended not only on the artist’s intentions. The perceptiveness of the viewer was also of great importance. It was them who had to decide where they would turn their gaze and what content would they find. 

Sebastian Vrancx (1573–1647), Allegory of Summer, ca. 1618, panel, ERGO Hestia Collection
Sebastian Vrancx (1573–1647), Allegory of Summer, ca. 1618, panel, ERGO Hestia Collection

Domination of Calvinism

The subject of Dutch painting was adapted to the needs of recipients who were looking for not only aesthetic but also spiritual impressions in art. Which is why the adoption of Calvinism in the North Netherlands found its reflection in painting. Images disappeared from the interiors of churches and began to decorate private spaces and Bible texts. Churches became public utility buildings as well as testimonies to local tradition. This metamorphosis was portrayed by artists specializing in the genre of the so-called “church interiors” (kerkinterieurs). One of them was the Dutch painter Pieter Saenredam, whose work Interior of Saint Bavo’s Church in Haarlem can be seen in the next room of the exhibition. The attribution of the work is clear and well documented. The painting presents the austere, monochrome interior of a church in Haarlem, whose walls are modelled by delicate streaks of overhead light. Saenredam specialized in architectural art and was particularly interested in the interiors of churches. As can be seen in the above-mentioned painting, he was able to pedantically convey the smallest details, and at the same time focused on expressive values, often idealizing reality. The reason was to emphasize the ideal proportions and harmony of the composition, which was a frequent phenomenon among painters of this genre.

Joos de Momper the Younger (ca. 1564–1635) Mountain Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt Panel, ERGO Hestia Collection
Joos de Momper the Younger (ca. 1564–1635) Mountain Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt Panel, ERGO Hestia Collection

Sea routes

Moving on, watching the mannerist landscapes of Jan Porcellis or Jacob Adriaensz Bellevois, we are able to feel the sound of the sea and hear the crashing waves. The photographic rendering of the details is another feature that distinguishes Dutch 17th-century painting, by which the artists not only stimulated the imagination, but also evoked specific emotions of the viewers. Again – the topic of nature, which not only sets the rhythm of everyday life, but also influences emotions and feelings, ensures safety, but can also be dangerous. 

Experimenting with the theme of landscapes found another reflection in the Dutch painting. From the 16th century onwards, Rome was the undisputed capital of European art. Luminous, spreading landscapes or the interest in the play of lights among northern artists can be treated as a confirmation of the fascination with Italian and ancient art. Such paintings often appeared in the creations of Joos de Momper the Younger, one of the most important Flemish landscape painters. As all of the artists of the North, he was not able to create such a paintings by nature in lowland Flanders, perhaps it was a hypothetical trip to Italy that inspired him to paint Mountain Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. The first element that catches the eye of the viewer are bold and expressive brush strokes. Just like the Italian painters (Tintoretto, Titian), he used the phenomenon of light scattering, using a deep gradation of tones. Warm colours dominate in the foreground with a predominance of browns, which in the background quite rapidly pass through greens to shades of blue. Thanks to this, the image gains depth and spaciousness. At the exhibition, Momper’s inspirations can be seen in the works of younger Dutch artists such as David Teniers. 

Pieter van de Venne (1615/24–1657) Flowers in a Vase with Seashells and a Watch canvas ERGO Hestia Collection
Pieter van de Venne (1615/24–1657) Flowers in a Vase with Seashells and a Watch canvas ERGO Hestia Collection

Flowers in a vase. Picture as a symbolic puzzle

Still lifes are another important subject of the exhibition. As mentioned before, the main purpose of the then Dutch painting was decorating private interiors. Therefore, colourful compositions correlated with often non-accidental objects and flowers play an important role in the context of local art. Moreover, inspired by Caravaggionism, the mysteries of tenebrism in the paintings of artists such as Barent Fabritius or Pieter van de Venne were realized in the context of still lifes. The most intriguing thing about this topic is wandering in the footsteps of symbols and allegories. Sometimes it is not easy, because individual objects, fruits, plants or insects carry a hidden message that cannot be deciphered without proper knowledge. It’s a bit of a detective game, but it’s worth the effort! And the exhibition at the museum in Warsaw creates perfect conditions for this.

Let’s have a look at Flowers in a Vase with Seashells and a Watch by Pieter van de Venne. The painting shows a bouquet of lush flowers in a vase accompanied by a shell and a clock. The game between artist and viewers seems fascinating and moralistic at the same time. Our eyesight is attracted by colourful flowers, including tulips symbolizing luxury and desire. It is similar in the case of an exotic shell, the shape of which evokes sexual associations. These motifs are meant to tempt viewers with their beauty and dignity. The controversial element that changes whole overtone of the painting is the vase, which reflect the church. Van de Venne thus reminds us of the fleeting nature of earthly pleasures, and thus the superiority of spiritual values. The character of the painting is therefore ambiguous. The author uses the beauty of the objects that caught the viewer’s eyes in order to teach him a lesson and thus encourage reflection on the transience of the world and the constancy of spiritual values. The picture is a kind of an artistic puzzle, no interpretation of which is 100% confirmed.

The exhibition of the National Museum in Warsaw Different Perspectives: Dutch and Flemish Painting from the ERGO Hestia Collection is an intimate story about the 17th-century Netherlands, a land of deep spirituality, a country with a complex political history, where nature directly influences the daily life of its inhabitants.

Intimate museum rooms create ideal conditions to admire Dutch art – dim lights and navy blue walls give a sense of intimacy, staying one-on-one with individual works. As viewers, we are able to feel the sea breeze, the warmth of summer gusts of winds or understand the essence of the austere interiors of Protestant churches. The culmination of the exhibition are mysterious still lifes – the individual symbols of which are elements of fascinating stories, and decoding them is not only a kind of aesthetic experience, but also a game, an artistic challenge thrown by the authors. The exhibition shows that Dutch artists saw beauty in many places, objects and cultures, and they created in this way a unique artistic universe. It is a kind of aesthetic experience in which the viewer not only gets to know the daily life of a given community, but also its mentality, social and spiritual reflections. Worth to be seen!

Abraham Willaerts (ca. 1603–1669), Shipping in a Heavy Storm along a Rocky Coast, 1644, canvas, ERGO Hestia Collection
Abraham Willaerts (ca. 1603–1669), Shipping in a Heavy Storm along a Rocky Coast, 1644, canvas, ERGO Hestia Collection

Different Perspectives: Dutch and Flemish Painting from the ERGO Hestia Collection

7 May – 25 July 2021, National Museum in Warsaw

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About The Author

Julia
Gorlewska

Art historian with a bachelor's degree at the University of Warsaw and currently she is finishing her studies of art history at Humboldt University in Berlin. Curator’s assistant of the exhibition in Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw. Intern at the Pomada Festival. Member of the team — Desa Modern Gallery.

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