Everyday activities through the eyes of seventeenth-century Dutch artists including Johannes Vermeer
This is a show that serves up four Rembrandts. As a starter. Just to give a sense of the royal and artistic dialogues between Britain and the Netherlands at the time. So, we’re talking the sort of quality that only the oldest of old money can buy. The main meat of this show, however, isn’t all that refined, not in it subject matter at least. Three centuries after it was painted, Willem van Mieris’s ‘The Neglected Lute’ (c1710) is still pretty easy to decipher. A young woman has called on a gentleman to play him a turn. However, her audience of one clearly has other ideas. Plied with wine and oysters, she gazes a little woozily into her glass, while said instrument rests against her skirt, unplucked. In the background, a servant carries in another tray full of temptation. ‘However high you’re thinking, go lower – Benny Hill, it’s as obvious as that,’ said the surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, at the press launch for this deliciously unstuffy selection from Her Maj’s collection. And he’s spot on.
Trysts, tussles and piss-ups are staples of these seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century paintings. And, like characters in a play, or perhaps a panto, the people in them signpost the action with a startling lack of subtlety. Nicolaes Maes’s ‘The Listening Housewife’ (1655) hushes you conspiratorially as she descends the staircase to discover a maidservant canoodling with her beau. Down to his undershirt and unbuttoned britches, the guy at the centre of Godfried Schalcken’s ‘The Game of “Lady, Come Into the Garden”’ (1660s) shrugs in happy resignation at being the loser in this stripping game (the glint in his eye, meanwhile, lets you know that he hopes the ladies in the room will wind up surrendering their clothes as well). The stories, when they aren’t being spelled out centre-stage, are in the details. Jan Steen paints himself into pictures such as ‘Interior of a Tavern’ (1665) as a laughing onlooker, inviting you to laugh along with him. Recently cleaned, Isack van Ostade’s Brueghel-esque ‘A Village Fair with a Church Behind’ (1643) reveals a hitherto obscured peasant taking a sneaky dump.
This is art as comedy, and life reduced to its lowest common denominator. Not that lowly subject matter equals sloppy execution. Dutch genre painting of this type developed in tandem with ‘fine painting’, and the level of polished realism is astonishing. There are radical compositional developments, too. In the show’s centrepiece, Vermeer’s ‘Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman’ (early 1660s), not only are the principal figures at the back of the room, the ‘lady’ of the title turns her back to you.
We have old pisshead George IV to thank for this sumptuous show. It’s probably no surprise to find out that the man responsible Brighton’s Royal Pavilion couldn’t get enough of this stuff. But he was fussy not only about the quality of the work but also its condition, meaning this is the most ravishing room of beautifully preserved paintings you’ll see anywhere this year (or next). Vermeer isn’t even the highlight. That accolade goes to his Delft buddy Pieter de Hooch, whose experiments with light and space in ‘Card Players in a Sunlit Room’ (1658) and ‘A Courtyard in Delft at Evening’ (1657) outshine everything in their presence.
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