The brilliance of the greatest Dutch Old Masters is undeniable. Rembrandt van Rijn’s atmospheric The Night Watch draws incredible crowds to its Rijksmuseum gallery in Amsterdam and, like Johannes Vermeer’s enigmatic Girl with a Pearl Earring, it has proven so captivating that it became the basis for books and films.
The Dutch Old Masters, though, encompass a web of painters much wider than the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer. This article spotlights five artists whose compelling paintings should be on the radar of any admirer of these Dutch Golden Age painters.
Frans Hals (1582-1666)
Rivaling Dutch Old Masters like Rembrandt for his brilliance in portraiture was Frans Hals. Today, Hals is one of the best-known Baroque painters, although he was relatively unknown in his day. Born in Antwerp, yet based for most of his career in Haarlem, Hals was revolutionary in the field of group portraiture, a trend during the Dutch Golden Age in which confraternities and other social groups would be brought together in one composition. Hals threw out the practice of very formal, stiff arrangements which preceded him, and instead infused these multi-figure masterpieces with a refreshed casual air.
The Laughing Cavalier, easily Hals’ most famous painting, which can be seen at London’s Wallace Collection, is a perfect example of this. The subject of the portrait may not actually be laughing, but he wears a smirk on his face suggestive of an “in-joke”, and poses with his arm “rakishly akimbo”.
In another of Hals’ iconic paintings, The Officers of the Saint Adrian Militia (1633; Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem), Hals captures his military subjects in various states: some look at the viewer; others simply chat with one another. Regardless of the direction of their gaze, no one appears posed or rigidly placed. This more relaxed mode gave new life to the genre of group portraiture and even infused Hals’ portraits of individuals with a similarly lifelike vibrancy.
Frans Hals at auction
Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656)
While Hals reinvigorated the field of portraiture, his contemporary, Gerrit van Honthorst, was equally revolutionary for importing an Italian tradition to a Dutch audience. Van Honthorst was a pivotal member of a group of painters known as the Utrecht Caravaggisti, so named for their adoption of the rich tonal contrast used by the famed (yet ill-fated) Italian master, Caravaggio. Honthorst’s body of work exemplified the dynamic range of this painter style by often conjuring compositions that played with the power of light and shadow.
Paintings like The Concert (1623; National Gallery, Washington, D.C.) reveal how he could transform a typical genre scene from everyday life into a dramatic set-piece filled with intrigue. Throw in van Honthorst’s use of rich color and exceptional technique and it quickly becomes clear why he was able to attract patrons as illustrious as Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici of Tuscany.
Gerrit van Honthorst at auction
Pieter Claesz (1597-1660)
A hot commodity in the Dutch town of Haarlem, Pieter Claesz devoted his career to crafting meticulous still-life paintings. His vignettes typically overflowed with a wide array of props, from Classical sculptures as seen in Vanitas with the Spinario (1628; Rijksmuseum) to incredible culinary spreads, as showcased in Still Life with Turkey Pie (1627; Rijksmuseum).
Across these varied compositional contents, Claesz excelled at capturing almost photorealistic renderings of material and texture. From lustrous glassware and pewter pieces to the leathery pages of a sketchbook or the mottled skin of a lemon, Claesz created achieved such precision that his paintings almost seem like windows onto another world. Claesz often painted vanitas paintings, tasking his audience to look closely at the objects and references his paintings included. In such works, the artfully executed objects served as symbolic reminders of mortality to encourage the viewer to sidestep the perils of vanity and indulgence.
Pieter Claesz at auction
Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691)
Aelbert Jacobsz Cuyp was a Dutch Golden Age landscape painter who achieved international renown for his handling of light cascading across northern European vistas. At the time, landscape painting was only beginning to emerge as its own field of expertise, with some of the most successful early landscape painters tentatively couching their landscape views in paintings steeped in classical or biblical lore in the hope of finding favor among a still-dubious clientele.
Cuyp, however, ventured into the genre more boldly, loosening his brushstroke slightly and setting his perspective upon the beauty of Dutch environs. Devoting much of his canvases to depicting the sky, as he did in The Maas at Dordrecht (circa 1650; National Gallery, London), Cuyp succeeded in transforming everyday views into exceptional ones.
Aelbert Cuyp at auction
Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)
One of the few female artists to achieve acclaim as a Dutch Old Master was Rachel Ruysch. The daughter of a botanist, Ruysch capitalized on her father’s profession to study various plants in bloom. She parlayed this study into a thriving career as a still life painter whose main subject was floral arrangements. Bountiful blossoms burst across her paintings, like Still Life with Flowers (Hallwyl Museum, Stockholm) in dazzling displays made all the more electric through her use of dramatic highlight and shadow.
Similar to Claesz, she often also included symbolic references to the popular theme of vanitas: at times including wilted blossoms and moths, Ruysch left a small reminder for the viewer that even the most brilliant petals will fade in the end.
Rachel Ruysch at auction
And if you liked these 5 Dutch Old Masters…
Take a look at the following artists too.