The Hermitage Amsterdam Features Flemish Masterpieces From the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg

artwork: Peter Paul Rubens (and workshop) - "Venus and Adonis", circa 1614 - Oil on panel. 83 x 90.5 cm. - Collection of and © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. On view at the Hermitage Amsterdam in "Rubens, Van Dyck & Jordaens: Flemish paintings from the Hermitage" through March 16th 2012.

Amsterdam.- On view through to March 16th 2012, the Hermitage Amsterdam will present a stunning selection from the Flemish art collection of the St. Petersburg Hermitage. With 75 paintings and about 20 drawings, “Rubens, Van Dyck & Jordaens: Flemish paintings from the Hermitage” offers a definitive survey that includes many masterpieces by the three giants of the Antwerp School, Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Jacob Jordaens, supplemented by the work of well-known contemporaries. One of the highlights will be Rubens’s famous ‘Descent from the Cross’. This will be the first exhibition of this superb collection in the Netherlands. Many of the paintings to be shown were acquired by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century; Catherine purchased first-rate collections, such as those of Crozat and Brühl, in their entirety. Originally, many of the paintings were on display in churches, convents, and monasteries in Antwerp and other European cities. The exhibition will offer a close look at Flemish art and the history and the history of the Flemish art collection at the St. Petersburg Hermitage.

Antwerp, strategically located at the mouth of the Scheldt estuary, prospered and flourished as never before in the early sixteenth century, becoming a powerful commercial metropolis and the most important centre of the arts north of the Alps. It was the leading place in the Netherlands for ambitious young artists to keep abreast of the latest trends in art. Quinten Massijs was the city’s first famous artist and together with Joos van Cleve he forged a bridge between the late mediaeval tradition and the sixteenth-century Renaissance. Besides Massijs and Van Cleve, two other history painters determined the appearance of Antwerp’s art in the first half of the sixteenth century: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Jan van Hemessen. Joachim Patinir and Herri met de Bles, both from Dinant, were the first painters in Antwerp to specialise in depicting landscapes. The Amsterdam artist Pieter Aertsen secured a section of the market in Antwerp with his peasant scenes, which preceded those of Pieter Bruegel. After he left Antwerp, his younger cousin and pupil Joachim Beuckelaer continued along the path he had mapped out. Hans Vredeman de Vries experimented with different perspectival constructions and was the first to specialise in ‘perspectives’, as paintings of architecture were known at the time. In the mid-sixteenth century, Frans Floris was the most successful history painter in Antwerp. He was the first to introduce mythological themes into Antwerp painting. Willem Key and Anthonis Mor were among the first artists in Antwerp to specialise exclusively in portraiture.

artwork: Cornelis de Vos - "Self-portrait with his Wife, Susanna Cock, and Children", 1634 - Oil on canvas 185.5 x 221 cm. -  Collection of and © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

When Antwerp fell to the Spanish armies in 1585, the mass exodus from Antwerp included countless entrepreneurs, highly educated professionals and skilled craftsmen, and many young painters also went north to escape religious persecution. However, the city’s painting retained its vibrancy and high quality, thanks to brilliant painters such as Rubens and Van Dyck who remained. Peter Paul Rubens return to Antwerp in 1608, signalled a clear turning point for Antwerp’s artistic life. Under his forceful influence, many artists started painting in a majestic, monumental and highly dynamic style. Rubens excelled in every category: besides biblical, mythological, and historical scenes, his repertoire also included portraits, landscapes, animal pieces, and still lifes. To execute the numerous commissions entrusted to him, Rubens ran a large and busy studio, the organisational structure of which was based on similar ventures in Italy, where the large-scale commissions were produced with the aid of numerous assistants. That Rubens also inspired many painters in Holland is clear from the large number of migrants from the Northern Netherlands who worked in his studio for varying periods of time: Pieter Soutman from Haarlem, Justus van Egmont from Leiden, and Abraham van Diepenbeeck and Theodoor van Thulden. Attracted by the impressive work of fellow painters such as Frans Snijders, who maintained close contact with Rubens and who made paintings unlike those produced in Holland, the Leiden-born Jan Davidsz de Heem also went to Antwerp. On his return to Holland, he became one of the founders of the ‘sumptuous’ still life.

Rubens’s studio was supreme in Antwerp, and his artistic and social dominance in the Southern Netherlands greatly surpassed that of his peer, Rembrandt, in Holland and the mark of his influence was everywhere. The work of the gifted still life and animal painter Frans Snijders clearly reflects this primacy. Snijders was greatly influenced by Rubens, with whom he frequently collaborated from 1609 onwards, and his reputation was such that he could rely on the assistance of other influential Antwerp history painters, although he executed some of the figures in his paintings himself. Like Snijders, Adriaen van Utrecht also depicted monumental still lifes, game larders, and market pieces, but his work is less accomplished. Rubens’s most famous – and undoubtedly the most talented – of his pupils was Anthonie van Dyck, a child prodigy who produced his first self-portrait around fifteen years of age. In Antwerp he became Rubens’s first serious rival, although for some time he continued to operate in the latter’s sphere of influence. Later, once he was working independently in Genoa, and from 1632 onwards as the court painter to King Charles I in London, Van Dyck revealed himself to be a masterful portraitist with unerring empathic powers, whose brilliant technique was on a par with that of Frans Hals. Portrait painters who drew inspiration from Van Dyck include Peter Franchoys and Michiel Sweerts. In the mid-seventeenth century, Gonzales Coques became the portrait painter of the Antwerp élite.In spite of the dominance of the giants Rubens and Van Dyck, seventeenth-century painting in Antwerp nonetheless displays a surprisingly varied picture. A great many history painters unmistakably took their lead from the two great masters.

artwork: Jacob Jordaens - "Cleopatra's Feast", 1653 - Oil on canvas - 156.4 x 149.3 cm. Collection of and © State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

This applies in particular to Jacob Jordaens, Antwerp’s most popular painter after the deaths of Rubens and Van Dyck, but also to Abraham Janssens, Gerard Seghers, Cornelis Schut, and Erasmus II Quellinus. But the work produced in Antwerp was not limited to grand history paintings. Other masters – most notably, perhaps, Hendrick van Balen – painted Italianate scenes in far smaller formats. Jan I Brueghel, the youngest son of Pieter Bruegel, focused primarily on small landscapes and also pioneered the flower still life, a genre that he greatly refined at an early stage. In the tradition of Flemish painting, Brueghel worked with minute brushstrokes in opaque paint, in which he depicted highly detailed images of his favourite subjects. A greater contrast with the work of his friend Rubens is hard to imagine. Still lifes with floral wreaths around a stone relief painted in trompe l’oeil technique were the trademark of Daniël Seghers, a Jesuit painter who learned his craft from Jan I Brueghel. Brueghel’s contemporary Clara Peeters introduced the pure fish still life into Antwerp. Antwerp’s most productive fish painter was Alexander Adriaenssen, although most of his still lifes depict fish amid other objects, such as a hunting catch. Joannes (Jan) Fijt focused primarily on still lifes with a hunting catch in varying size and format, with a masterful feeling for the rendering of textures. Another still life specialist was Cornelis Mahu, whose preference was for soberly arranged ontbijtjes (breakfast pieces) and banketjes (banquet pieces) in the style of Haarlem artists such as Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz Heda.

Adriaen Brouwer originally painted his smoky pub scenes with uncivilized, drinking and fighting peasants in Haarlem, but took his Holland-bred genre style to Antwerp, where he settled in 1631. David II Teniers initially followed his example, but his view of peasant life later changed, and his scenes became less grim and sometimes even took on a tender ambience. From that moment onwards, Teniers also allocated more space to the landscape. In Antwerp, Theodoor Rombouts, Adam de Coster and Gerard Seghers were the primary exponents of the Caravaggist genre scene that enjoyed a brief wave of popularity throughout Europe, and especially in Utrecht. The earliest work of Jan Cossiers, given its themes, combined with its remarkable illumination and strong chiaroscuro effects, was also related to that of the Caravaggists. Jacob Jordaens also produced genre paintings. Particularly popular were his scenes of the Feast of the Epiphany (‘The king drinks’) and of ‘As the old sing, so pipe the young’, a proverb he took from the work of Jacob Cats, and which Jan Steen would interpret in his own way over two decades. In some genres, like marine and architectural painting, Antwerp never attained the heights achieved in the Northern Netherlands. The oblique ‘momentary’ glimpses of church interiors that Gerard Houckgeest and Emanuel de Witte had introduced to Delft around 1650, with immense feeling for light and space, appear to have escaped the attention of Antwerp’s architecture painters.

Frans Snyders -"Concert of Birds", 1630–50 - Oil on canvas - 136.5 x 240 cm. - Collection of © State Hermitage Museum

Other genres did not develop in Antwerp at all. For instance, local painting had nothing equivalent to the simple interiors with one or more figures, such as those painted in Delft by Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer. But there was also a genre that was exclusive to Antwerp: art cabinet or kunstkamer scenes. In one of the most beautiful examples, the owner displays the pièce de resistance of his collection – Quinten Massijs’s Madonna and Child – to prominent guests, while Rubens explains the work of his illustrious predecessor. Among those present we recognize Anthonie van Dyck and Frans Snijders: Antwerp knew its star painters. At the same time, this work gives a superb picture of the wealth and extraordinary versatility of the Antwerp school of painting in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Hermitage Amsterdam is a satelitte of the Hermitage Museum of Saint Petersburg located on the Amstel river in Amsterdam. The museum has been displaying small exhibitions in a side building next to the Amstelhof since 24 February 2004. The full museum was opened on 19 June 2009. It is currently the largest satellite of the Hermitage Museum, with the total area of the building numbering 12,846 square metres (138,270 sq ft), and the exhibition area 2,172 square metres (23,380 sq ft) (two big exhibition halls and exhibition rooms). The building was used as a retirement home. Due to modernizations in healthcare, the building was no longer sufficient and was transformed into the museum when the last inhabitants left in 2007. On 20 June 2009, the whole museum was opened by Dutch Queen Beatrix and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The museum was opened to the public the following day. Visit the museum’s website at …