Focus | Dutch Romanticism
Over the last hundred years, 19th century Dutch art has found popularity time and again amongst collectors. As a genre it displays a rare resilience to changing trends; the accessible scale, meticulously described detail and gently atmospheric subject matter exude a peaceful wholesomeness that is difficult to tire of. The excellent quality of handling also ensures that this body of artists continually survive fluctuations in fashion but, ultimately, it is the successful combination of elements from their artistic heritage that make the 19th century Dutch School so appealing to collectors.
Usually referred to as the Dutch Romantic School, the accuracy of this categorization has been the subject of debate and consideration among historians over the years. Romanticism can loosely be described as an intellectual movement which evolved in response to the political and scientific developments of the Enlightenment, manifesting in various forms across the Continent. French artists such as Eugene Delacroix provided an emotive and often politicised reaction to the Neo-Classicism that had dominated the arts for centuries while the Germans explored a fascination with nature and its elemental forces. At the same time, the Dutch turned to the 17th century for inspiration, returning to the snow, town and seascapes that defined the work of their predecessors during the Dutch Golden Age. Meindert Hobbeman, Henrick Avercamp and Jan van Goyen were particularly closely emulated. Considered reactionary at the time, Holland’s output has subsequently been largely omitted from critical explorations of the Romantic Movement.
However, by examining the social and political contexts in which the Dutch were working, the nostalgia for their past history is both perfectly logical and undeniably Romantic in essence. Theirs is a gentler take on the concept; perceived by some critics as indicative of a national character. The Dutch have historically been viewed as a practical and industrious people with a landscape which undoubtedly lends itself more readily to pastoral depictions than to the sublime. Their subjects are rose-tinted idylls which celebrate simple rustic pleasures, with emphasis placed on atmosphere over drama and consistency over upheaval. Holland had gained independence from the French in 1813 anda wave of nationalism would quite naturally have followed, manifesting here in reminiscences of the prosperous 1600s. However, though little remarked upon, the 19th century Romantic preoccupation with the fragility of human life subtly pervades the Dutch’s oeuvre. Beyond the initial quaint and cosy charm one can often observe a heavy sky, a tumbledown ruin, a skeletal tree or a brisk sea breeze; a reminder of the transitory nature of life in the face of the elements.
In addition to the self-consciously traditional aesthetic, there is a familial homoggeneity that characterises the work of this period. Several of the key artistic figures were closely related, with three generations of the talented Koekkoek family each dominating a sub-genre of landscape. Hermanus Koekkoek Snr (1815-1882) was famed for his beautifully atmospheric seascapes. His work is instantly recognisable by its typical compositional devices; the industrious workers, the wind picking up out at sea, the painstakingly observed rigging and sail arrangements, the majority of the compositional detail confined to a slim, right angled section of the painting. His son Willem (1839-1895) specialised in exquisite townscapes. There is an abundance of detail to be read within his works; every brick, paving slab and roof tile described with meticulous care. He also favoured representations of industrious activities and every character within his city microcosms tells his own narrative.
However, the quintessential motif of Romantic Dutch art is indisputably the snow scene. The Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel The Elder is largely credited with having inventing the genre. One of his most famous works, Hunters in the Snow, was painted during an unusually harsh winter in 1565. This was the start of a period which scientists now refer to as the ‘Little Ice Age’, which saw a plunge in temperatures in the Western hemisphere between the mid-16th century and 17th century. A time of massive adjustment and apprehension for the people of Medieval Europe, Bruegel recorded the changed landscape and its subsequent impact. Rather than painting a bleak picture, however, the images are generally uplifting and relay a positive message about the adaptability of the human race. By the 19th century the harshness of the ‘Little Ice Age’ was much diminished and, perhaps through nostalgia for the sense of community and revelry that pervades Bruegel’s work, artists in the 19th century chose to embellish their own winter scenes accordingly. In this work of Frederik Marinus Kruseman (1816-1882), for example, we see the same skating revellers, the children wrapped up warm to play, the rustic figures going about their daily business