The pleasure principle: Dutch Golden Age art at the Royal Collection

Published 2 December 2015

The Royal Collection’s show of Dutch Golden Age genre painting is not only visually compelling but also delightfully seductive in subject matter, despite moralising intent.

  • From the Spring 2016 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    At the Queen’s Gallery in London is an exhibition called Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer, an unenticing, not to say boringly art-historical title, mitigated only by the lollipop of Vermeer cynically tagged on the end. Do not, however, be put off. There is nothing remotely everyday about either this show or the paintings in it.

    This is a delightful, fascinating, intriguing, uplifting, enlightening, exhilarating, moving, instructive, erotic compilation, which reflects on the human condition in all its most crucial aspects – sex, love, death, food, drink, art, the transience of life and of its even more ephemeral pleasures, and the ultimate meaning of existence. What’s more, it conveys these eternal themes through paintings that are never less than masterly in execution and in some cases – notably but not exclusively in the single Vermeer that justifies that title – are among the most beautiful paintings that have ever been made.

    You may well be wondering how all this sexy stuff – some of it surprisingly candid, some subtly symbolic – got into the Royal Collection. The short answer is that it was mostly acquired by that naughtiest but also most cultured of post-Stuart royals, the Prince Regent, later George IV, and then survived the Victorian frost to resurface for our delectation today.

    The show gets off to an arresting start with a timeless seduction scene by Gerard ter Borch, A Gentleman Pressing a Lady to Drink (c.1658–59; pictured). The types of the heartlessly calculating seducer and the gullible young woman, clearly already slightly drunk, are brilliantly imagined, and the interaction between them is an acute psychological study. But, as we are told in the exhibition catalogue, subjects like this were understood at the time as a moral lesson – they were demonstrations of what you should not do.

  • Gerard ter Borch, A Gentleman Pressing a Lady to Drink

    Gerard ter Borch, A Gentleman Pressing a Lady to Drink, c.1658-59.

    Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015.

  • The catalogue, by the way, is an exemplary publication. Unusually for these days, it provides a detailed account of every painting, richly illustrated. In the case of the Ter Borch it shows how it touches on a general social unease then about alcohol, as well as its particular danger to young women. Sound familiar? We learn too that once Ter Borch had invented this subject it proved so compellingly relevant that even the normally restrained Vermeer painted a version. I should emphasise that the cultural references and the symbolism in these paintings are largely unfamiliar to us now, so the catalogue is an essential companion.

    Perhaps appropriately, one of the most explicit as well as one of the finest paintings in this show, the euphemistically titled A Woman at Her Toilet (1663; pictured) by the great Jan Steen, carries the sternest moral message. Indeed the unseen viewer, or voyeur, would literally trip over the moral were this a real scene and were they to rush forward to reach the temptation depicted: an attractive woman sitting on the edge of a dishevelled bed undressing. Placed on the threshold of the doorway to the bedroom is a trap in the form of an inverted lute with its stem sticking up. The lute already symbolises the vanity of earthly pleasures, but Steen has reinforced it with a skull – a blunt reminder both of mortality and of the Biblical warning (Romans 6:23) that “the wages of sin is death”.

    By contrast the famous Vermeer, Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman (1662–65; pictured), is calm, cool, chaste, understated, profoundly enigmatic and extremely beautiful to look at. I was intrigued to learn that in it Vermeer had not only used ultramarine blue, made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, but had put it in the underpainting to achieve certain effects, an unheard of extravagance. There is no agreement on what the true subject here might be, but among the puzzling features is a cello lying on the floor. We are told in the catalogue that in Dutch painting of this period “the cello was the musical symbol par excellence of harmony and unity, especially of the marital variety”. So the man here may not be the music teacher he has often been said to be, but a lover, fiancé or husband, and the picture’s purpose is to illustrate their love. Go and decide for yourself.

  • Jan Steen, A Woman at her Toilet

    Jan Steen, A Woman at her Toilet, 1663.

    Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015.

  • Simon Wilson is an art historian and columnist for RA Magazine.

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