If you know the name of Rembrandt, and perhaps that of Vermeer, but almost nothing else about the 17th-century Dutch masters, the drawing exhibition opening today at the National Gallery of Art will be a delight.
You may not know these artists, but you will recognize within their work a sympathy of spirit that binds their country to our own.
Seventeenth-century Holland was a new nation, newly rich. As the middle classes prospered there, and capitalism flourished, so did a love of art. Pictures were seen everywhere. An Englishman who visited Amsterdam in 1640 was amazed by what he saw."Butchers and bakers," wrote Peter Mundy, "yea many tymes blacksmithes. Cobblers, etts., will have some picture or other by their forge and in their stalle."
The pictures he saw there, unlike those of Italy, were not made to glorify princes or the Church. Most of them were little, and almost all recorded the look of real life. The Dutch were fond of lenses and other scientific gadgets, and that shows up in their art. Like newly rich Americans who decorate their homes with nostalgia-laden pictures of the Wyeth-weathered-barn school, the Dutch bought countless pictures of farmyards and thatched cottages that recalled the verities of rustic, rual life.
And they had a sense of humor. Their strutting soldiers, squabbling peasants, tobacco-smoking layabouts and saucy milkmaids were made to evoke smiles.
And how the Dutch could draw.
"Seventeenth Century Dutch Drawings from American Collections," which was organized by Franklin W. Robinson for Annemarie H. Pope's International Exhibitions Foundation, will travel to Denver and Fort Worth, but viewers there will see but half of what is displayed here.
For Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., the Gallery's curator of Dutch and Flemish art, has supplemented the exhibition with 90 additional prints and drawings. In doing so he has helped us understand that flowering, that miracle, that was 17th-century Dutch art.
Most slide courses and survey shows equate Dutch art with Rembrandt. When he bursts forth in the lecture room without advance warning, no wonder students gasp. But that most humane of masters does not need such isolation. Because one cannot see the heights of art unless one knows the valleys, Rembrandt should be seen in context, as he is seen here.
Even so, he is the star. But there is much within his art - his lack of classical puffery, his affection for the landscape, the intimate-yet-open scale of his drawings - that he did not invent. Rembrandt learned from others, from the Italians, the Germans and from his Dutch peers, too.
"In 1630," writes Kenneth Clark, "Amsterdam was the center of the art trade of the world. Collections were sent there to be sold from all over Europe . . . Many Dutch painters were also art dealers - Vermeer, for example, seems to have had no other form of livelihood. Rembrandt was in the thick of the profession."
He had "an excavator's instinct." He was an insatiable collector who haunted the Dutch salesrooms, and he learned from what he saw. So did Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), the earlier Dutch master, with those prints and drawings this exhibition opens.
Goltzius had a Durer style (look, for instance, at his "Pieta") and an Italian mannerist style, and was a portraitist of excellence and a wonder of a printmaker. He also is witty. "The Captain of the Infantry Marching to the Left," a 1578 Goltzius engraving, is as rich in rhythms as it is in ruffles and pretensions. He does not march, he prances on tiptoe. One view of that captain would make any soldier laugh.
Before Rembrandt was at work, Goltzius did colored woodcut landscapes in a "Rambrandt scale." Rembrandt also is celebrated for the awesome freedom of his hands and brush. Even here, as works by Furnerius, Berent Fabritus, Philips Koninck and other men remind us, he was not entirely alone. Though Rembrandt had a greater heart, his colleagues and his students could reproduce his form-defining lines, his fluidities and flourishes with remarkable assurance.
With prints and drawings borrowed from the Gallery, and from the vast collection of Lessing J. Rosenwald, a Gallery trustee, Wheelock had displayed within this exhibition a group of smaller sub-shows - one of Goltzius, another of Rembrandt's prints, and a third given to the genre scenes of Adrien van Ostade (1610-1685).
Ostade's little etchings of traveling musicians, squabbling peasants and shoemakers at work were as popular in his day - and for similar reasons - as New Yorker cartoons, television situation comedies and Norman Rockwell illustrations are in ours.
The pictures of Ostade, like so many others here, were not made to satisfy the Divinity, the nobility or the demands of High Art. Awesome as they are, they still speak, as they did in Holland, to that part of the viewer involved with daily life.
The show closes March 13.