Oud Holland

Review of: 'Mirror of reality: Nineteenth-century painting in the Netherlands' (2020)

August 2020

Review of: Jenny Reynaerts, Mirror of reality: Nineteenth-century painting in the Netherlands, New Haven/London [Yale University Press] 2020

Dominated by the genius of Van Gogh, nineteenth-century Dutch art has traditionally been upstaged in the history of art by the age of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Ruisdael. Outside the Netherlands, the exhibition-going public is largely unaware of the innovative work of the likes of Matthijs Maris or Floris Verster; they associate internationally renowned artists such as Ary Scheffer, Laurens Alma-Tadema or Johan Barthold Jongkind with the countries in which they made their reputation. In part, such global ignorance can be explained by the paucity of publications in English on this subject. Encapsulating an entire century of art in one book requires extensive knowledge, not only of the key artists of the period, but also of the political and social context. This scholarly, well-organised and thoroughly readable book is the result of many years of research – the culmination of a career devoted to the subject by Jenny Reynaerts, who is senior curator of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Dutch art at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Given the enormity of the task, it is perhaps unsurprising that this is only the third ever survey of nineteenth-century Dutch art, and the first to appear in English since 1908 – when Grada Hermina Marius’ 1903 publication De Hollandsche schilderkunst in de negentiende eeuw was translated from the Dutch.Reynaert’s book is, therefore, extremely welcome and hopefully signals a more general shift of interest by scholars towards this period in Dutch art. Indeed, it follows closely on the heels of the exhibition The Dutch in Paris 1789-1914, which enjoyed international acclaim after its showing at the Petit Palais in Paris in 2018.2 Just as Nordic art of the nineteenth century has enjoyed a revival in the past decade; the current book contributes towards, what will hopefully constitute a new international focus on nineteenth-century art of the Netherlands.

Left: Cover of Mirror of Reality: Nineteenth-century painting in the Netherlands. 
Midde: fig. 1 Pieter Christoffel Wonder, The staircase of the London residence of the painter, 1828, oil on canvas, 71.3 x 57.5 cm, Central Museum, Utrecht, inv. 19775.
Right: fig. 2 Jan Toorop, The new generation, 1892, oil on canvas, 96.5 x 110 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, inv. 2337MK.

The book succeeds on several levels, but above all in demonstrating that the long nineteenth century was an incredibly important period in the evolution of Dutch painting; an era when art emerged from the shadows of the Napoleonic republic and blossomed as part of a national cultural renaissance. Beginning with the establishment of Willem I as the first King of the Netherlands, and the secession of Belgium from the rest of the country, it was a time of artistic revival, during which art academies, artists’ societies and the first museums were established. Reynaerts discusses the aims and ideals of key artistic movements, situating the lives and careers of a wide spectrum of artists in the context of political, cultural and social change across the century. An important perspective throughout the book is the role of exhibitions and critics, as well as the opening up of an international art market. Woman artists, too, are given their place – wherever possible – introducing into the canon such groups as the Amsterdam Joffers, among them the extraordinary Suze Robertson.

The book is lavishly illustrated with 500 colour images, featuring works from public and private collections not only in the Netherlands, but also across the world, from Edinburgh to Angers and from Chicago to St. Petersburg. It is divided chronologically into four sections: Art as spectacle, The Dutch idyll, The national landscape, and Mirror of the soul. ‘Art as spectacle’ focusses on the period up to 1830-31, when Belgium declared its independence. The beginning of the century under Napoleon I saw the prevailing influence of French culture, but with the establishment of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands under Willem I, there arose an anti-French sentiment and a new consciousness of national identity. Art of this period was therefore used to convey a particular image of the nation, to express social status, or simply for outward show (‘spectacle’). In 1821 the Dutch critic Jeronimo de Vries set the benchmark for a national art, emphasising truth and simplicity, as well as the importance of recording the local landscape. Inspired by Netherlandish landscape art of the seventeenth century, artists such as Egbert van Drielst, Andreas Schelfhout and Albertus Brondgeest focused on subjects close to home, thus producing what might be termed the first truly Dutch art of the new century.

As Reynaerts demonstrates, artists at this time revisited themes such as the artist in his studio, but also excelled at genres such as the ‘Fensterbild’, the ‘panorama’ and the babbelstuk – also producing gems such as Pieter Wonder’s The staircase for the London residence of the artist (fig. 1), of 1828. Admittedly, however, this period also generated a great deal of art that was lacking in originality, as artists painted formulaic variations on Hobbema or Paulus Potter; or paintings that were consciously picturesque or sentimental. Reynaerts is careful to include in her canon of women artists such as Henriette Ronner-Knip, whose saccharine Cat with five kittens, unfortunately, falls into the latter category. She also introduces more gifted artists who worked in the Dutch colonies of Indonesia and Suriname: the botanical painter Gerrit Schouten, for example, who was based in Paramaribo; or colonial artists such as Antonie Sminck Pitloo and Antoine Payen. It is perhaps significant, therefore, that the most influential artist to emerge in the Netherlands during this period was in fact, Belgian. François-Joseph Navez forged his career in Brussels, where he was director of the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts from 1835-62. A pupil of David, he uniquely combined in his art, the rich colour and emotion of Romanticism, with the pure line of Ingres’s Classicism, influencing a whole generation of artists, among them another unsung woman artist, Adèle Kindt.

Part two of the book, ‘The Dutch idyll’, covers the period from 1830 to around 1865, which saw the beginnings of an art market and a predilection among collectors for the romantic landscape. National history books were published, reinforcing the perceived superiority of seventeenth-century Dutch art. However, this period also coincided with the invention of photography and the inauguration of the railway, allowing artists to travel further afield and even, like Scheffer, establish their reputation abroad. The ascendancy of Willem II in 1840 ushered in a period of austerity: the royal subsidiary for arts was withdrawn, prompting the establishment of new artists-run societies, as Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam, who provided jury-free alternatives to the government-organised ‘Exhibitions of living masters’. Willem II did, however, participate in the founding of the Netherlands Fine Arts Society, with the aim of promoting Dutch art at home and abroad. The society produced an influential periodical, Kunstkronijk, which benefited from the more sophisticated printing processes that were then being developed. This in turn boosted a growing market for reproductions of works of art.

The late 1830s saw the emergence of internationally renowned artists such as Johannes Bosboom, best known for his atmospheric church interiors. Like many French and English artists of this period, Bosboom travelled to Normandy, where the often rain-filled sky reminded him of the Netherlands. Instead of looking back to seventeenth-century Dutch prototypes, artists such as Johannes Christiaan Schotel or Wijnand Nuijen – working on the Normandy coast – were influenced by French marine painters such as Claude-Joseph Vernet or Eugène Isabey. The family of artists who really dominated this period, however, were the Koekkoeks, including Johannes Hermanus Koekkoek and his sons Barend Cornelis and Hermanus, who specialised in both marine painting and landscapes, executed in the academic style, with attention to detail and finish. 

Andreas Schelfout, meanwhile, developed a specialism for winter scenes, even giving his name to the genre – schelfhoutjes – due to their popularity. In time these became somewhat formulaic, featuring stock elements, such as a frozen canal or river running across the composition at a diagonal, skaters or a sleigh on the canal and a church spire or windmill in the distance – yet he also captured different effects of light and atmosphere. Such works were extremely popular, both at home and on the European market, which was eventually flooded by imitators. As Reynaerts admits, when considered on the international stage, ‘the label “Dutch School”’ at this date, “turns out to stand for solid but predictable, uninspired and anything but innovative” (p. 182).

It was only around 1865, with the emergence of key individuals such as Josef Israëls that Dutch artists really began to establish an international reputation as well as a distinct national school of painting in the Netherlands. The third section of the book, 'The national landscape' traces the emergence of the Hague School of painting, with its debt to French Realism, emphasis on painting en plein air, and fascination with light and atmosphere – as well as with recording the everyday lives of rural workers, and fisherfolk. With this flowering of nineteenth-century Dutch art, the book, too, really comes to life.

By the 1860s, with the revival of the Dutch economy, Amsterdam and The Hague were far outstripping major cities such as London as far as the market for art was concerned. A new art whose critical emphasis was on originality, breathed life into the contemporary art scene, signalling what the critic Jacob van Santen Kolff termed a new ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch painting. It was Kolff who first used the term the ‘Hague School’ to describe this innovative group of artists whose canvases reflected a new consciousness of a specific national culture linked to the land. As Reynaerts muses, such art was, even indirectly, underpinned by the socialist philosophy of thinkers such as Hippolyte Taine and Théophile Thoré, who influenced an entire generation of European landscape artists.

From the 1840s onwards the development of more portable painting equipment as well as the expansion of the railways led to an emphasis on painting out of doors at the various artists’ colonies that sprang up across the Netherlands. Painters such as Bilders and Gabriel worked on a regular basis at Oosterbeck in the east of the country, and it was here that the future Hague School artists Anton Mauve and the Maris brothers first congregated in the 1850s. Artists such as Israëls and his young followers, Bernardus Blommers and David Adoph Constant Artz, preferred to depict the fishing community at Zandvoort and Scheveningen, and the latter became a regular destination for Hague School artists. Willem Roelofs, on the other hand, preferred the flat monotony of the Dutch polder landscape, as did Mesdag, Gabriel and Mollinger, as well as Weissenbruch, who painted in the area around Noorden. It was Jacob Maris, however, who, more than any other member of this group, recorded the vast overcast skies that earned this group of artists the epithet ‘the grey school’. Mauve, too, working at Laren in the 1880s, produced similarly subdued landscapes, featuring sheep peacefully grazing in lush pastures.

As Reynaerts argues, the Hague School, with its distinctive tonal painting and emphasis on realism, was the first group of Dutch artists to enjoy international commercial success. This was largely determined by the expanding Dutch economy and the growing network of dealers that formed in the 1880s, operating between The Hague, Paris, London and New York. As Reynaerts reminds us, Vincent van Gogh trained as a dealer with Goupil in The Hague, London and Paris – where he was exposed to the work of French artists such as Daubigny and Millet, inspiring him to develop his art in the direction of what one might term ‘expressive realism’.

Van Gogh’s brief yet brilliant career is one of the high points of ‘Mirror of the soul’, the final part of the book, which examines the flowering of Dutch art at the end of the nineteenth century. This section begins with the penetrating portraits of Jan Veth and the impressionism of Isaac Israëls and especially Breitner, who excelled at introspective, japoniste paintings, such as The earring. In some ways Breitner’s work anticipated the symbolism of later artists such as Matthijs Maris, whose monochromatic ‘conceptions’ were a revelation to the public at Reynaerts’ recent exhibition of his work at the Rijksmuseum.3 Maris worked for the Scottish art dealer Daniel Cottier in London and, such was his popularity in Scotland, that around 50 of his works – acquired by the ship owner William Burrell – are today to be found at the Burrell Collection, in Glasgow.

Maris’ symbolism gave way to the dreamscapes of those young ‘Tachtigers’ who were inspired by the poetry of Verlaine and the esoteric theories of Sâr Péladan. Canvases such as Floris Verster’s Plucked cockerels of ca. 1891 or Jan Toro’s The new generation (fig. 2) of 1892, have no equivalent in art history. Toorop, whose work was illustrated in the avant-garde journal The studio, exercised an important influence, among others, on the young Scottish painter Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the group known as ‘the Spook School’, who assimilated the Dutch artist’s attenuated forms and obscure symbolism. Symbolism gave way to mysticism, producing the extraordinary canvases of Thorn Prikker and those of the Nabis ‘prophets’ Meijer de Haan and Jan Verkade. These symbolist painters all occupied a position, however peripheral, within the European avant garde, either by becoming members of Péladan’s mysterious Salon de la Rose + Croix in Paris, or through exhibiting with Les XX in Brussels, or by working alongside Paul Gauguin at Pont-Aven. As a result, the majority of these artists have inserted themselves into the narrative of modern art and are consequently more familiar to international audiences.

This book is not only a brilliant and useful introduction to a century of Dutch painting; it is also a record of the Dutch appreciation for its national art. As one would expect, the largest holdings of nineteenth-century Dutch art are to be found among the rich collections of the Rijksmuseum, but also at the Mesdag Museum in The Hague (with its awe-inspiring panorama), and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. However, this book is also testimony to the development of the market for Dutch art at the end of the nineteenth century, and to the establishment of a taste for these artists outside the Netherlands: not only for Scheffer, Alma-Tadema and Van Gogh, but also for the works of artists such as Bosboom, Israels, Mauve and the Maris brothers – whose quiet realism and overcast skies were so appreciated in the UK and the USA. This book is, therefore, a tribute to them and to so many more unsung heroes, whose work can now be appreciated on an international level.

Frances Fowle
University of Edinburgh and National Galleries of Scotland


1 G. Hermine Marius, Dutch painting in the nineteenth century, translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos, London 1908. The German translation was published in 1906.

2 M. Jonkman (ed.), The Dutch in Paris 1789-1914, Bussum 2017.

3 R. Bionda, Matthijs Maris, Amsterdam 2017. J. Reynaerts, Matthijs Maris at work, Amsterdam 2017.

Frances Fowle, 'Review of Mirror of reality: Nineteenth-century painting in the Netherlands', Oud Holland Reviews, August 2020.