The National Gallery of Art’s recently opened exhibition of Dutch Golden Age Art, “Clouds, Ice, and Bounty: The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings,” is small yet comprehensive. Consisting of 27 paintings from the NGA’s permanent collection plus one from a private collection, this concise show includes examples from several major traditions of Dutch Golden Age art, including seascapes, genre scenes, and still life pictures.
The paintings in “Clouds, Ice, and Bounty” are displayed in the NGA’s Dutch and Flemish Cabinet Galleries, a suite of intimate wood-paneled rooms built to resemble the interior architecture of the Low Countries during the period. This provides a unique opportunity to see these paintings in a contemporary setting. In the first room, viewers are confronted by seascapes like this one by Jacob van Ruisdael, which exemplifies the minute detail of the works on display. Look closely and you’ll see each individual leaf applied with a tiny brushstroke.
Winter in the Netherlands
In addition to seascapes, the exhibition also includes several winter scenes, which were another common subject for Dutch artists. In this painting, Jan van Goyen uses only a handful of colors, mostly grey and brown, yet he utterly captivates the viewer. The muted palette perfectly evokes the chills of winter. You can practically feel the wind whistling through the ramshackle wooden tower silhouetted against the sky as the clouds rush in and the day turns colder.
Themes That Still Resonate
The curators of “Clouds, Ice, and Bounty” take care to showcase themes with significance today, such as changes to the climate in Northern Europe, which were responsible for the harsh winters as depicted by van Goyen. Another of the show’s recurring themes is social inequality. Jacob Ochtervelt’s painting shows a child, accompanied by his nurse, giving alms to the poor. The vibrancy of the nurse’s red shirt anchors the composition, which is balanced by two opposing doorways: one framing the poor beggars, the other the child’s wealthy family.
Time for a Banquet
“Clouds, Ice, and Bounty” seeks to give viewers a new perspective on the classic Dutch still life. This work by Pieter Claesz is typical of his style, with thoughtful detail (look at the reflections in the silver and glass) and rich textures (admire the greasy sheen of the poultry). Yet it also reflects the geopolitical context of the period. As stated in a wall label, the Chinese porcelain bowls suggest the breadth of the Dutch trade routes, while the candies, manufactured with sugar harvested by enslaved labor in the Americas, testify to the Dutch empire’s participation in the slave trade. As art museums like the NGA seek to engage more actively in combating racism and promoting diversity, this exhibition represents a step forward.
The Dutch Tradition Lives On
One of the most interesting paintings in the exhibition isn’t Dutch at all. A seascape by the 19th-century British artist John Ward of Hull takes inspiration from the Dutch tradition in its exquisite detail. Every brushstroke, from the rigging of the ships to the reflections of the icebergs, serves to painstakingly reproduce the real world. Especially remarkable are the animals, including polar bears, walruses, seals, and narwhals. Ward’s painting is displayed next to Dutch seascapes, so viewers can make a direct comparison between them.
Weeks after the pandemic forced the NGA to cancel an international traveling exhibition on Baroque art from Genoa, “Clouds, Ice, and Bounty” proves that major loans aren’t a prerequisite for a worthwhile show. By highlighting and recontextualizing lesser-known paintings from its permanent collection, the NGA has given visitors a great deal to learn and appreciate.