Manchester's Dutch & Flemish Collection
Home, Land and Sea is now open!

Last Thursday Home, Land and Sea Art in the Netherlands 1600-1800 opened and I could not be more thrilled with it! It really does look fantastic and everything I hoped it would be so I thought it was about time I shared some pictures of it. It was so exciting to see the paintings go up at the beginning of last week and the colour really works with the Dutch paintings. Once the lighting was altered and paintings were individually lit the whole show came to life. 


The exhibition starts with a small section on portraiture with works by Abraham Liedts and Gerard ter Borch.


You may remember that I wrote a blog entry on Liedts earlier in the year which recognised the painting’s importance to Manchester’s collection as well as to the artist’s oeuvre. I think the Liedts portrait works really well here, and this originally came about through discussions with Betsy Wieseman, Curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings at the National Gallery. We thought it would be a good idea to have a striking painting in the main doorway which will draw visitors in and Liedts’ work certainly does that.


As you move around to the left you’ll see Abraham Bloemaert’s wonderful Raising of Lazarus at the end of the gallery one of the absolute masterpieces in the collection. It looks brilliant here and the wall was made especially and now dubbed the ‘chimney breast’!


Then around to the left are the wonderful paintings of everyday life which includes paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Philips Wouwerman (one of my favourites), Gerrit Dou, Brekelenkam, Jacob Ochtervelt and David Teniers – a lot to feast your eyes on.



Manchester Art Gallery is also lucky to have a fine selection of decorative arts from the period which includes a roemer (wine glass which often features in Dutch paintings), some Delftware, German beer jugs, but most special of all is a little Dutch tile. This has been displayed next to Jan Ekels’ painting of a man reading where tiles are just visible at the bottom of the wall like a skirting board.


The still life wall has to be one of my favourite sections of the exhibition.


Here the 17th and 18th century paintings have been mixed together with works from Mat Collishaw’s Last Meal on Death Row, Texas series. Part of my brief was to bring in contemporary art into the show and Collishaw’s work really stood out to me for its obvious links to Dutch and Flemish still life paintings. I’ve worked really closely with Blain|Southern, Collishaw’s dealers, to select these works. I drew inspiration from the still life display at the Ashmolean Museum where the works occupy a salon style multiply hang. I thought it would be great to mix old and new in this way and this is the result. The stunning Rysbrack painting of dead game in the centre of this display underwent major conservation work. It was covered in discoloured varnish and its frame was pretty scruffy. It simply would not have been displayed if it wasn’t for the amazing work of the Conservation team so a huge thank you to them!

You may notice that there aren’t any labels on the wall here. I really wanted to keep this wall just about the juxtaposition of works and the labels would have ruined the overall aesthetics. There is a separate layout key nearby which clearly identifies each work as well as a booklet with all the still life labels. There’s a comfy bench upon which to sit and read them!


Either side of this main section are other contemporary pieces: first of all in the little case on the left are 2 gnawed, shriveled apple cores by Gavin Turk.


These are incredibly realistic and are actually painted bronze sculptures. Modern still lifes, these everyday, chewed apples made of bronze have been turned from the discarded into the treasured. 


On the other side is Rob and Nick Carter’s homage to Ambrosius Bosschaert Transforming Still Life Painting. Working with the Moving Picture Company, the artistic duo replicated and animated Bosschaert’s flower painting in the Mauritshuis, The Hague with great precision and attention to detail. It has caused quite a stir amongst visitors already as little insects fly in and out, a snail works its way up the vase, the flowers move in the breeze and the light in the background gradually turns to dusk. It really is a work you need to see for yourself – as well as all the others in this exhibition!


The other adjoining gallery is divided into 3 sections. One part contains the landscapes by Jan van Goyen, Aelbert Cuyp, Philips Koninck, Esaias van de Velde and Salomon van Ruysdael: all major Dutch landscape painters.


It was a great opportunity to display the early Aelbert Cuyp (in the middle) next to the Jan van Goyens (to the right) as the former was very influenced by the latter in the 1640s.


The other 2 spaces in this gallery are dedicated to the seascapes. Jacob van Ruisdael’s wonderful choppy sea, one of the most important Dutch paintings in the collection, takes centre stage here and it is surrounded by other stormy seas by Hendrick Sorgh and Willem van de Velde as well as calm inland waterways by Jan van de Cappelle and Abraham Storck. Many of the seascapes in this section were especially conserved with lots of discoloured retouchings and varnish now removed (see an earlier blog entry).

Eager to bring these seascapes to life through a contemporary film which was about the sea I found Rosalind Nashashibi’s Bachelor Machines Part I. In 2007 Nashashibi spent 3 months filming the lives of an all-male crew on broad the Gran Bretagna,a modern day cargo ship.


The film is shown in an especially designed cinema room next to the seascapes and I really hope that it will help visitors think back to what life was like at sea in the 17th century especially as the hard life of sailors was never depicted by Dutch artists. Nashashibi’s film is rooted in the seascape tradition and it includes beautiful scenes of the sun setting over the sea framed through doorways and portholes. She also focuses on the deck or mast of the ship as it sways in choppy waters and stormy weather.

Above the seascapes are quotes from 17th century letters written by Dutch sailors to and from family at home. These came from letters currently being researched at the University of Leiden in the so-called Letters as Loot programme. The letters reside in the National Archives in Kew having being commandeered by the English during the Anglo-Dutch wars. They provide much insight into life at sea in the 1600s. A fascinating project.

I really hope you get the chance to visit the exhibition. It remains as it is now until 23 May 2014 after which the contemporary loans will be returned. The display will then be reshuffled but the Dutch and Flemish masters will always be on display in gallery 12.

Lastly, this exhibition would not have been possible without the generous support of so many people. I am most incredibly grateful for the invaluable expertise and help of Betsy Wieseman at the National Gallery. She helped me to select the best works for display, advised me on the layout, and approved all the exhibition text. Ruth Shrigley, Principal Manager: Collections Access at Manchester Art Gallery has likewise been incredibly encouraging and supportive. The Conservation team at Manchester has been truly amazing and achieved miraculous things so thank you Julia Jackson and Chris Russell. Mary Hersov, National Programmes Manager at the National Gallery, has lent much support as has Philippa Stephenson, my fellow Curatorial Trainee working with Tyne & Wear Museums and Archives. We have been in constant contact throughout the traineeship sharing ideas and seeking advice from one another. And of course a huge thank you to the Art Fund who have supported me and Pippa throughout our traineeships and have recognised the need for extra curatorial expertise and training within today’s museums and galleries. This project would not have been possible without them. Thank you to everyone!

Home, Land and Sea : exhibition installation week 1 

The past week at Manchester Art Gallery has been very busy as the old 17th century and the Empire Marketing Board displays were taken down from galleries 11 and 12 to make way for Home, Land and Sea Art in the Netherlands 1600-1800. It wasn’t long before the paintings were down and the technicians were starting the build.


The painters were in by midweek and the beige/creamy colour soon went in place of Farrow and Ball’s Down Pipe which looks really good and will work amazingly well with the Dutch paintings. The colour may seem dark, but imagine really good lighting and spotlit paintings.


In this main space will be paintings of everyday life and a still life section which includes contemporary work by Mat Collishaw, Gavin Turk and Rob and Nick Carter.


Notice how the wall with the case has been reduced in size - so pleased Adam our technician was able to make it smaller as we were unsure this was possible at one point. It was too large for the gallery before, but now it enables us to have a long view to the end wall were Abraham Bloemaert’s Raising of Lazarus will be.

Gallery 11 is divided into 3 spaces, one will be the landscapes, another will display the seascapes, and the main, middle section will show Rosalind Nashashibi’s Bachelor Machines Part I, a film which follows life on board a modern day cargo ship.

Keep tuned for more installation shots at the end of next week where some paintings will be in and looking fabulous!

May’s painting of the month: spot the difference Ochtervelt style

It is May which means it is the Home, Land and Sea installation month – exciting times! I thought it was only appropriate that the painting of the month is something celebratory and jolly so I have chosen Jacob Ochtervelt’s (1634-82) Merry Company which dates to the 1660s.


In this interior a violinist seduces two maids with his music, and may also be singing. Music was often associated with love, and was frequently depicted in Dutch genre painting. Ochtervelt also includes a decorative lute hanging prominently on the wall to the left. He brings his figures to life through expressive faces especially in the maid who seems to have won the violinist’s attention. The light accentuates the graceful curve of the other maid’s bare neck and shoulders, which leads the eye down her arm and shiny dress. By doing so he creates a slightly awkward pose, and Ochtervelt uses this in many of his other paintings.


Ochtervelt was skilled at depicting different surfaces and textures. Here he captures the shiny metal of the tankard, and the light as it reflects in the roemer (wine glass), but most impressive is his suggestion of fabrics. He has accurately rendered the slashes in the sleeves of the violinist’s costume, and the sheen of the standing maid’s skirt, as well as the softness of her bodice.

This painting and others show the influence of the Leiden fijnschilder (fine-painter) Frans van Mieris, especially his Brothel Scene in the Mauritshuis, The Hague dated to 1658-9.

While van Mieris’ painting is more sexually explicit than Ochtervelt’s Merry Company due to the figures’ knowing glances, the woman’s loose bodice, the bedding, the kissing couple in the doorway and the copulating dogs, the similarities are still clearly recognisable in the poses of the figures, the lute hanging on the wall covering a map, and the chair. There are also similarities with another Ochtervelt painting in Manchester’s collection Embracing Cavalier, but here the dogs have been exchanged for canoodling birds.


It seems that Ochtervelt enjoyed reusing similar models, formats and colours in his genre scenes, that we can almost play ‘spot the difference’. Compare the above 2 Ochtervelts with another in the collection: The Sleeping Cavalier.

He seems to use similar diagonal poses, smiling maids and bright colours, especially red. There is even another Ochtervelt in the collection: The Doctor’s Visit.

The similarities are largely down to the fact that these paintings were made for the open market, and they must have sold well. The Embracing Cavalier and Sleeping Cavalier have been described as pendant pieces, but perhaps they are just variations of a theme. His frequent use of red must have surely made his work stand out and attract buyers.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to include Ochtervelt’s Sleeping Cavalier in the exhibition, partly due to lack of space but also because it is so similar to the others. It was a difficult decision as these paintings are special and interesting in their own way but I’m sure it can be swapped in at a later date.

Installation countdown begins!

Image 1: Jacob Ochtervelt Merry Company about 1663-5, 1926.11, 52.2 x 42cm

Image 2: detail of the above

Image 3: Frans van Mieris Brothel Scene 1658-9 Mauritshuis, The Hague, 42.8 x 33.3cm

Image 4: Jacob Ochtervelt Embracing Cavalier 1660-3, 1979.482, 44.6 x 35.6cm

Image 5: Jacob Ochtervelt The Sleeping Cavalier 1660-3, 1979.483, 46 x 37.7cm

Image 6: Jacob Ochtervelt The Doctor’s Visit about 1665, 1979.536, 65 x 51.8cm

April’s painting of the month: a great but forgotten artist

In 2011 this ¾ length portrait of a lady holding gloves was reattributed to the Hoorn portrait painter Abraham Liedts (1604-68) by Carla van de Puttelaar from the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (RKD) at The Hague.

It was previously thought to be the work of Liedts’ contemporary Jan Albertsz Rotius (1624-66). This exciting new discovery significantly adds to the artist’s oeuvre as currently there are only 10 firmly identified portraits by his hand. Almost forgotten today, Abraham Liedts was one of the leading 17th century portrait painters in the Hoorn region of the Netherlands. Hoorn is located just north of Amsterdam and was a prosperous harbour town as well as the base of operations for the Dutch East India Company. Not much is known about Liedts’ artistic training, but he did spend some time in England from around 1628, although no trace of an English style is shown in his work. By 1646 Liedts was back in Hoorn, and may have been there for some time, and soon earning commissions from prestigious members of the Admiralty and elite.

While the woman in this portrait is unknown, it is possible to place this portrait in the province of North Holland due to details in the sitter’s costume and jewellery. The costume, particularly the large collar, was typically worn in the early 1650s and the lace edges and dainty bows are painted with great accuracy and skill. She also wears a lace-trimmed cap stretched over a metal frame called an oorijzer that is fixed in place with decorative pins visible at her temples. 


The high sums charged for portraits usually meant only the wealthy could afford them and they were often commissioned to mark a special occasion such as a marriage. It may well be that Portrait of a lady with gloves was painted to commemorate a wedding and could have formed part of a pendant. She is also young and of marriageable age and holds a pair of gloves, which were common wedding gifts.

Leidts’ use of orange and rose-tinted hues on her face give a convincing sense of character and life, enhanced further by her soft blue eyes, which engage directly with the viewer. The green background and curtain are typical of his work (other examples are in the Westfries Museum, Hoorn and Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia).

This great portrait has not been shown at Manchester Art Gallery for many years, and it is worthy of a prominent place in the new Dutch display. But before it can go out it is in need of some conservation work, especially to its structure. The painting has been taken out of its frame and placed on an easel in the conservation studio.

The painting is on canvas, but has previously been relined – whereby a newer canvas has been stuck onto the back of the original canvas, usually meaning the original tacking margins are cut away. Tacking margins are strips along the edge of the canvas where tacks hold it into the wood of the stretcher. These areas hold a lot of pressure and over time can weaken. Now, the tacking margins from the secondary canvas layer are weakening which could cause severe damage to the original painting if left untreated. As you can see in the picture, the Conservator has now added an additional strip line at the top edge, which gives extra support and takes away the pressure.

I can’t wait to see it up in the gallery, and if you think you have a portrait by Liedts then please do let us know! If you would like to read more about him then see Carla van de Puttelaar’s article ‘Het portret van Immetje Groot geschilderd door Abraham Liedts’ in Oud Holland, 2012, vol. 125-4, pp.226-32 (in Dutch).

Image 1: Abraham Liedts Portrait of a lady with gloves about 1650-55, 1947.143

Image 2: detail of above

Image 3: Painting unframed on an easel in conservation studio

Image 4 & 5: strip lining, and strengthened tacking margins.  

March’s painting of the month: time for a check up at the dentist?

Going to the dentist back in the 17th century was not a pleasant experience; there was no proper medicine or any trained dentists. Their simple rule was if it hurts, get someone to pull it out. In a print by Jan van der Brugghen after David Teniers, entitled The Drawn Tooth a smiling dentist offers up his latest patient’s tooth to the viewer, but underneath lies an inscription, which translates as: ‘I’ve done him good by hurting him. Don’t they say that good comes from bad’. Not the most reassuring of sayings!

David Teniers (1610-1690) was one of many artists who painted dentist scenes, and there is a great example in Manchester’s collection, and which is March’s painting of the month.


Teniers was born in Antwerp in the Southern Netherlands. He came from a long line of painters in the Teniers family, although he is the most prolific. He was most likely trained by his father David Teniers, the Elder (1582-1649). The south was a Catholic country, under the rule of Spain, with the likes of Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck receiving many prestigious commissions to create altarpieces, grand history paintings and portraits of the elite. There was still, however, a huge demand for scenes of everyday life and the peasant classes, with the art market being much the same as it was in the Northern Netherlands. Paintings sold on the open market were usually small, painted quickly and fairly affordable.

Teniers was inspired by his older, but short-lived contemporary, Adriaen Brouwer (1605-1638) who was instrumental in developing raucous peasant scenes. Brouwer’s work was more vulgar in its depiction of seemingly uncivilised peasants with ugly but humorous expressions. Teniers, on the other hand, was more sympathetic to his subjects, and much more delicate with their features. His works are finely and beautifully painted showing off his great skill as a draughtsman. This obvious show of skill made Teniers hugely popular, and earned him esteemed patrons such as the King of Spain, Prince William of Orange and the governor of the Netherlands, Archdule Leopold Williams.

This dentist scene is typical of Teniers work in that it is sensitively painted, with great amounts of detail. So many dentist scenes of this time look excruciatingly painful where you can almost hear the patients’ screams - see for example the much more dramatic works by Gerrit van Honthorst in Dresden or Jan Miense Molenaer in the North Carolina Museum of Art.  Dentist subjects were also used in works that were all about depicting the five senses; this was well suited to the sense of touch and feel.

Here the patient is, for the time being, more subdued, perhaps only making a groaning noise. Maybe the hard work hasn’t begun yet; money has been exchanged as indicated by the purse on the table, and the woman standing behind him is getting ready to hold him down – although she probably isn’t strong enough. All eyes are on the patient: the assistant carrying a bowl coyly glances over, and even the man in the drawing on the wall (maybe a reference to the artist) observes the tense moment below.

Dentists and doctors were not favoured characters in the 17th century, and were consider quacks or imposters. They were men of all trades, usually just wondering tooth-pullers ready to swindle a patient’s money, or barbers – as implied here with the shiny barber’s bowl on the floor to the right.

The detailed array of pots and dentist tools on the table are finely painted. See also the trinkets on the shelf high up on the wall as well as the hanging garlic, usually placed on doors to ward off evil spirits. I wonder if its purpose here is to reassure his customers that all will be well inside his surgery. The figure in the distance to the right may be concocting all kinds of potions and herbal remedies.


Manchester has two other works by Teniers in the collection, Peasants playing cards and skittles in a yard and Cottage in a Landscape.

They are also great examples of his work, brightly coloured, full of activity and amusing details. I wonder if, in Cottage in a Landscape, Teniers was likening the peeping man coming out of the door, to the peeping pig just sticking its head out of its enclosure.

What a comic!

Image 1: David Teniers II The Dentist 1652, 1979.506 (32.7 x 46.8cm unframed)

Image 2: detail of above

Image 3: detail of above

Image 4: David Teniers II Peasants playing cards and skittles in a yard 1979.507 (27.8 x 37.3 unframed)

Image 5: David Teniers II Cottage in a Landscape 1908.21 (24.3 x 35cm unframed)

Conserving Manchester’s seascapes

With many paintings coming out of the art store and going on display for the first time in a long time (in some cases up to 30 years), the works are in need of tlc, both to the painting itself and the frame. A lot of the paintings also need to be glazed with non-reflective, museum standard glass. All of this of course takes a lot of time and resources, and I have been working with Julia and Beth, two Paintings Conservators and Chris, the Frames Conservator to prioritise which paintings need essential work so that they look their best come the opening on 24 May 2013. Over the course of the next few months we’ll be sharing the latest conservation developments with you.

Manchester Art Gallery has some great Dutch seascapes and this will be an important section of the exhibition. A major seafaring nation, the Dutch took huge pride in their maritime skills, and artists invented the seascape as a way of recording and showing off this success. Seascapes come in a variety of forms from large scale, especially commissioned paintings of choppy seas with warships in combat or trade ships set against a view of a town, to smaller seascapes which captured the effects of light on the water. Two small seascapes in the collection by Hendrick Sorgh (1610-1670) and Simon de Vlieger (1600/01-1653) have recently undergone conservation work with considerable improvements.

Hendrick Sorgh was an artist more famous for his everyday life scenes than his seascapes so this is a rare painting. He spent his entire life in the harbour town of Rotterdam, one of the most important seafaring and trading towns of the Netherlands. The choppiness of the sea, Sorgh’s careful attention to detail with the little figure that you can just make out in the cabin, as well as the rarity of this sort of painting in his oeuvre all made me want to include it in the seascape section of the new display.


However it had a very discoloured varnish layer and it looked like an attempt had been made to remove the varnish in the past but unsuccessfully, therefore leaving a large, unsightly patch where the varnish had been disturbed but not completely removed. There were also a number of areas with mismatched retouching over the varnish layer. Retouching is paint that has been applied over the top of the original paint layer either to fill in areas of paint loss, or to conceal something underneath. Over time as the retouching ages, it discolours and so stands out from the artist’s original work. You can make these out in the ‘before conservation’ image above – see for example the light blue bits in the sky which don’t match the rest of the sky. The wood grain from the panel was also coming through meaning it was probably over-cleaned in the past and some of the retouching may have been there to conceal some of the wood grain.

Beth proceeded to remove the black surface dirt and then the discoloured varnish. This was removed with acetone after careful testing to ensure that the fine rigging would not be affected. Luckily, most of the old retouchings were removed with the varnish, which suggests that they were more recent. Over time as different varnishes and paints age they are more awkward to remove or can’t be removed, and become insoluble, so the older it is usually the trickier it is!


You can see the difference in the ‘after conservation’ image – no more odd blue patches and generally a brighter, more colourful painting.

The other beautiful painting by Simon de Vlieger shows a much calmer sea, but with dramatic contrasts of light and dark, although he has a limited colour palette of blues and browns. He was a really important seascape painter and would later go on to influence other great names such as Willem van de Velde the Younger (1633-1707) and Jan van de Cappelle (1626-1679).


The condition of this painting was much the same as the other and it too had the grain of the panel coming through. It also had some paint losses around the edges and in the sea and some noticeable retouchings in the sky - the odd dotty marks towards the top are just visible in the image included here. The painting also had a discoloured varnish layer.

Beth did a surface clean and found that there wasn’t any significant surface dirt. Tests were then carried out to ensure that the paint layers, including the fine rigging of the ships, could be safely cleaned without any of the original paint coming off. These sorts of tests are really important as you can imagine that if the rigging did come off a lot of research would then have to be done to ensure that the rigging was put back correctly, and even then who is to say that what the artist put in was correct?

Some of the retouchings were removed with the varnish but others were insoluble. You can see how yellow the old varnish was on the right compared to the left which has been cleaned. It’s always worth bearing the varnish in mind when looking at any painting – if you see a yellowy, browny tinge to something that looks like it should be white then its varnish has probably discoloured. Once the varnish had been removed, an isolation varnish was applied with a brush to the whole surface. An isolation varnish is a layer applied between the original paint and the new retouchings so that all future changes can be easily removed to bring it safely back to its original state -or what remains of its original state.


I hope you’ll all agree that the paintings look amazing post conservation. Stay tuned for other conservation stories!


Image 1: Hendrick Sorgh Fishing boats in a choppy sea 1666, 1979.502 (46.3 x 60.2cm framed), before treatment

Image 2: Hendrick Sorgh, as above, after treatment

Image 3: Simon de Vlieger River estuary with shipping on a windy day, 1979.514, (30 x 38.9cm unframed), before treatment

Image 4: Simon de Vlieger, as above, during treatment

Image 5: Simon de Vlieger, as above, after treatment

February’s painting of the month - innocent nostalgia or outright fraud?

This month’s painting is an extension of my previous post which looked at the fineness that can be found in Dutch paintings, particularly the fijnschilders, such as Willem van Mieris (1662-1747). We have 2 works by Willem van Mieris in the collection: Interior with a Cavalier and Lady and the Painting of the Month: Woman Pulling on a Dog’s Ear, which both came to the Gallery through the Assheton Bennett bequest. Woman Pulling on a Dog’s Ear is miniscule and only measures 16 x 12.5 cm (27 x 23.4cm framed) and is so intricately painted that you can’t make out a single brushstoke.


The painting is a portrait of the artist’s mother, Cunera van der Cock, but it is actually a copy of a painting by his father, Frans van Mieris (1635-1681). The original is in the collection of Worcester Art Museum, USA, along with its companion piece A Soldier Smoking a Pipe, or self-portrait of the artist. The Worcester pair dates to 1662 and both measure 14 x 11cm. You can see them here: Willem van Mieris also made a copy of the companion piece, now in a private collection.

Willem’s painting is an incredibly good copy, and whilst the initial reaction is to dismiss Manchester’s version as being just that, there is actually a lot more to it which touches on elements of fraud – to a certain extent - and brings into question the whole value of a fake. It is with great thanks to the recent research of the Art Historian and academic Junko Aono that this painting can be reassessed and valued in terms of the 18th Century revival of the Dutch Golden Age, and turns it from being an interesting copy to a fascinating bit of history. Much of what I have learnt about this painting has come from her article ‘Reproducing the Golden Age: Copies after Seventeenth-Century Dutch Genre Painting in the First Half of the Eighteenth Century’ in Oud Holland Vol. 121, 2008, no. 1, and I urge you to read it yourselves if you can get hold of a copy.

By the late 17th and early 18th centuries many of the Golden Age painters had died – Gabriel Metsu in 1667, Rembrandt in 1669, Gerard Dou and Vermeer in 1675, Gerard ter Borch and Frans van Mieris in 1681, Caspar Netscher in 1684, and so on, which created a great nostalgia for their art and art of the 17th Century generally. Many collectors felt the standards of contemporary artists did not quite meet the mark and instead commissioned them to make copies of, or create works in the style of artists from the previous century. Who better to commission to recreate works in the exact highly finished manner of the hugely popular Frans van Mieris than his son Willem, who afterall learnt all he knew from his father?

Willem was commissioned by the great collector Pieter de la Court van der Voort to create exact copies of his father’s paintings. Pieter and his son Allard de la Court kept a very detailed inventory of their collection, which they wrote in 1731 and 1749. Under Allard de la Court’s 1749 notes, he lists A Woman Pulling a Dog’s Ear after Frans van Mieris I with comments ‘mostly considered as the original’, ‘the original having been out of this country for at least 50 years’. The other companion piece A Soldier Smoking a Pipe was listed in much the same way, and suggests that the copies were painted sometime in 1690-1700 when the originals were still in the country. Further still, in the de la Court van der Voort-Backer sale in Leiden on 8 September 1766, Manchester’s painting was listed as lot 29, with its companion also in the sale, where they were described as the originals by Frans van Mieris, fetching 100 guilders each (the ‘copy’ companion piece is now in a private collection). But it’s worth taking note that this sale happened after the collector’s death so you can’t really blame him for the works being listed as originals. As Junko states in her article, however, the collectors’ descriptions implied that they were perfectly happy with owning very good copies of the originals, and appreciated them just as much. As the originals had been out of the country for a considerable amount of time (at least 50 years) and were probably not coming back, these were as close to the originals as anyone in the Netherlands was going to get.

So where does that leave us in valuing and appreciating this painting? Well the de la Courts did not commission these paintings maliciously, they weren’t reeling out fakes and selling them for high prices. The fact that this painting and its pair stayed in their collection for a good 50 years or so implies it was a prized work. But also Willem van Mieris was a brilliant, highly talented artist in his own right and not only created copies of 17th century works but also created his own highly desired compositions, such as the other van Mieris in Manchester’s collection. It still has great value in being a work by Willem.

It’s its treatment afterwards which has perhaps become more of an issue and how long it has been considered a copy since it left the de la Courts’ possession. How has this affected its sale value? Well this is a good question, and one that needs to be fully answered through careful tracing of the painting’s history- its provenance. When it came to the Gallery on long term loan in 1965 a great deal of work was carried out in tracing where it had been and this was published in Paintings from the Assheton Bennett Collection, compiled by Dr. F. G. Grossmann, the then Deputy Director of Manchester Art Gallery. This catalogue lists it as a work by Willem van Mieris but by the sounds of it this was only due to recent research.

In a list provided by Edgar Assheton Bennett when he first approached the Gallery to ask if they would consider taking his collection in the 1950s, he said he had, amongst many others, a painting by Frans van Mieris. With no other potential Frans van Mieris paintings in the collection, it leaves this as the only option, so Assheton Bennett considered it and bought it as an original even as recent as the 20th Century. However, it does appear that there was information compiled by Hofstede de Groot, the Dutch art collector and historian, in his Catalogue raisonne of the works of the most imminent Dutch painters of the Seventeenth Century in the early 20th Century that lists this as a copy. 

So after it was sold in the de la Court van der Voort-Backer it passed through a number of hands, one being, according to a seal on the back of the painting, to a French notary called Ricquier in Rouen who I believe was an 18th Century collector.

It has since been traced through other auction sales in Vienna in the 19th and early 20th century before passing onto the Assheton Bennetts. I’m going to be tightening up the provenance when I’m next in the National Gallery library, as there’s an extensive record of old auction catalogues.

In conclusion, therefore, whilst this is a copy, it has a fascinating history and represents an important area of Dutch art history which should not be ignored. My verdict is that it’s an example of innocent nostalgia for a past age, rather than a malicious act of fraud.

This post is greatly indebted to the research of Junko Aono for which I thank her very much.  

Image 1: Willem van Mieris Woman Pulling on a Dog’s Ear, c.1690-1700, 1979.475, 16 x 12.5cm

Image 2: Willem van Mieris Interior with a Cavalier and Lady, 1685, 1979.476, 38.5 x 34.5cm (framed)

Image 3: Back of Woman Pulling on a Dog’s Ear showing the Ricquier seal.

The finer things in Dutch life

The fine, exquisite details I continually come across when looking at Dutch paintings always amazes me, especially the accomplished painterly techniques of artists such as Jan van Huysum (1682-1749), Jan van Os (1744-1808), Gerrit Dou (1613-1675) and Willem van Mieris (1662-1747), as well as Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712) (there seem to be a lot of Jans). Their work, especially the flower paintings, have a photographic, almost hyper-realist quality to them, with brushstrokes which are so fine, so minute, and in many cases almost invisible that they do a great job in deceiving the eye. I’m going to talk about what may seem to be a random selection of paintings in Manchester’s collection but which actually have a great deal in common, mainly their painstaking attention to the finer details.

Gerrit Dou was the master of refined painting. He developed a distinct, highly detailed style in which textures, surfaces and fabrics are accurately rendered, with fine, smooth brushstrokes and minute attention to detail. His style was so impressive that he was one of the most highly sought after artists both in his hometown of Leiden and in the Dutch Republic generally. He even stood out from the imposing shadow of his tutor Rembrandt. Dou and his contemporaries such as Frans van Mieris, the Elder (1635-1681), his son Willem van Mieris, Godfried Schalcken (1643-1706) and Domincus van Tol (1635-1676) became known as the Leidse fijnschilder, or Leiden fine painters. Within the collection at Manchester there are some excellent examples of works by the fijnschilders, including a small oval work by Gerrit Dou.


The painting is an early work dated to the 1630s when Dou was just beginning to perfect his precise brushstrokes, something which he was to continue to develop well into the 1650s. This particular painting of a girl is thought to be a tronie. These were heads and studies of ordinary people, painted to capture facial expressions or serve as general studies which could later go on to form a larger figural group. Yet the highly finished state of this work means it was more likely to have been destined for sale on the open market, as an alternative to the more expensive, specially comissioned portrait. Rembrandt also painted many tronies. Within Manchester’s collection, there are also examples of the work of Willem van Mieris, but I shall save his exquisite paintings for another day. 

It was not just the fijnschilders that had a highly polished style, but also those artists who were famous for their elaborate flower paintings: Jan van Huysum and Jan van Os.

Van Huysum commanded huge sums for his paintings with people eager to own an ornate decorative piece which epitomised and showcased the expensive, exotic flowers of the day. A flower painting represented good value for money, and as a decorative piece would last indefinitely unlike the fleeting life of a real tulip or rose. Van Huysum rarely dated his works, but the shift in his style around 1730, in which he turned from painting dark backgrounds to light ones often with architectural elements, could indicate that this is an early work. He thought that painting against a dark background would give more definition to the flowers but was convinced otherwise by a contemporary critic. Van Huysum’s work is painted with great precision, and the flowers are so realistically painted that you could almost touch them, or at the very least get a sense of the velvety petals. He also includes other fine details such as buzzing insects, little butterflies and dewdrops on the leaves. It was essential that in order to create such detail the artist needed to use the finest, softest brush available. By doing so, he was able to create paintings which greatly appeal to the five senses.

 This is much the same for the slightly later painter Jan van Os who was greatly influenced by van Huysum, and would look to his predecessor’s work to copy some rare species of flowers. Some have even described van Os as surpassing the work of van Huysum, as he created a more polished and refined end result.


Ironically however, both van Huysum and van Os’s efforts to create as lifelike as possible a display of flowers, was in vein as many of these flowers would not have bloomed at the same time of year and would never have been seen together in this way. What we are seeing is a composite vase of flowers, painted either over a couple of years as the specimens became available or from a sketchbook of accumulated flower drawings. 

Finally, Jan van der Heyden was also as meticulous in his detail. A painter of mainly townscapes, van der Heyden’s work is distinct and whilst he may alter views or change certain aspects, his ability to master perspective was unsurpassed. As you can see in this view of Cologne in Manchester’s collection, the street convincingly recedes to the left. But what is more impressive is his ability to paint each individual brick and coble stone in the street. This particularly grabbed the attention of the artist biographer Arnold Houbraken who, in the early 18th century, wrote about the bricks ‘that one could clearly see the mortar between their grooves.’ You can definitely make out the mortar in the detail included here. It must have been a very long process.


Next time you’re in the Gallery, or looking at your next Dutch painting wherever it might be, have a good look at it and see what details you can find.

Image 1: Gerrit Dou Portait of a Girl, 1630-40, 1979.457, 21.2 x 17.6cm (ignore the blue bit around the image)

Image 2: Jan van Huysum Still Life: Flowers and Fruit, 1700-20, 1979.467, 104.1 x 82.2cm (framed)

Image 3: Jan van Os Still Life: Flowers and Fruit, 1979.484, 92.4 x 76cm (framed)

Image 4: detail of Image 3

Image 5: Jan van Os Still Life: Flowers and Fruit, 1979.485, 92.3 x 75.5cm (framed)

Image 6: Jan van der Heyden A street in Cologne, 1694, 1979.463, 46.8 x 55.3cm (framed)

Image 7: detail of Image 6


January’s Painting of the Month: life on the ice

Manchester has an excellent example of a winter scene by Arent Arentsz (1585/86-1631), or Cabel as he is also called. Not a great deal is known about Cabel other than he spent his whole life working in Amsterdam and was a painter of landscapes, particularly scenes of the chilly winters. He was greatly influenced by the better-known painter and his direct contemporary Hendrick Avercamp (1585-1634) who was also born in Amsterdam but spent his life in Kampen.


Cabel depicts the frozen River IJ in Amsterdam which was then much wider than it is today. The scene is full of activity and it is built up of many individual groups, which would have been sketched at different times, but brought together to give an overall impression of the hustle and bustle of life on the ice. In the foreground is a mixture of people: some are fishing, some are skating, one is tying the laces on his skates, another carries a basket of birds on his head, and to the right some transport barrels. Further afield, there is much of the same but with figures going about in all directions. Cabel was eager to capture the movement and speed of those on skates and sledges. 


There is a bigger version of this painting in the Amsterdams Historisch Museum where Cabel depicts many recognisable buildings across the frozen River IJ such as the Montelbaanstoren, tower of the Oude Kerk, the roof of the Nieuwe Kerk and the Haringpakkerstoren (demolished in the 19th century) on the horizon line. Manchester’s Cabel does not include these recognisable buildings, but this is because he painted it from the south looking north, whereas the bigger one is taken from the north looking south. Manchester’s version does include a cluster of buildings to the left, most likely the village Buiksloot.

Aside from the buildings, the horizon line does contain other interesting details such as the gruesome gallows to the right. This was a type of scaffold used for hanging and torturing criminals. Further to the right are large ships locked into the ice.


Tom van de Molen from CODART kindly took some pictures of the scene as it is today, and pinpointed his locations on a digital copy of an 18th century map. The red dot is where Cabel would have been back in the 1620s and the 2 yellow ones are where Tom took his pictures. The yellow dot east of the red dot is where the panoramic photo was taken.


As you can see much of the area has been redeveloped with lots of modern buildings, and the river has been narrowed, but the gallows were where the large tower now stands, with the village Buiksloot nearly a mile behind the modern buildings to the left of the central white building (Filmmuseum Eye).


The other yellow dot across the river is the location of the photo with a close up view of the eastern most part of Buikersloterdijk, the village just visible in Cabel’s painting to the left. As you can see parts of the original village still exist.

Paintings such as this are great for telling us about the costume and fashions of the early 17th century. Amsterdam, being the mercantile centre for international trade, had a wide range of goods on offer, including the latest fashions and fabrics. Many different regions, towns and villages had their own style of dress, which would have been identifiable to others at the time. Some outfits may look odd to us today – particularly the long, black, hooded cloaks, or huiken,worn by the women in the middleground – you’d think they would have been hard to skate in but also very warm! There are also other typical costume details such as the black jacket and the red-laced bodice of the women in the foreground. Her red sleeves are oversleeves, or morsmouwen, which were used to keep the underneath forearm section of the jacket clean.

Otherwise interesting winter warmers to take note of are the woollen mittens worn by most of the figures, the hats and the loose fitting leggings worn by the men. Notice also the baggier, bigger coats worn by the fishermen on the left.

The painting is currently on display in the gallery at the moment and I urge you to come and see it as you can’t see much of the details in the reproduction included here. Of course it will also have a prominent position within the new exhibition. I hope to include it within the everyday life area as this is much more about Dutch life on the ice rather than a landscape. Keep a look out for it!

Thank you very much to Tom van de Molen at CODART for all his help with this entry and in identifying the location of Manchester’s painting, as well as for sending me the photographs of the view today. I am very grateful for all his help.

Image 1: Arent Arentsz (or Cabel) Winter scene with figures on the ice, about 1620-23, 1979.440, 25.7 x 50.8cm

Image 2: Arent Arentsz (or Cabel) IJsvermaak op het IJ voor Amsterdam, about 1620-23, 52.5 x 99cm, © Amsterdam Historisch Museum 

Image 3: 18th century map of Amsterdam with location pinpoints, courtesy of Tom van de Molen 

Image 4: Panoramic photograph of the River IJ taken from the south looking north, courtesy of Tom van de Molen

Image 5: Modern day photograph of 17th century dike, Buikersloterdijk, courtesy of Tom van de Molen

No mistletoe but lots of wine!

Wine and beer were an important part of the 17th century diet and are frequently depicted in paintings of everyday life as well as still lifes. Beer particularly was consumed at all times of day even at breakfast. Easy to store and safer to drink than water, it was described as the drink of the people, and was also consumed on ships. Beer-brewing was a massive industry with many being named after the Dutch town which made it, such as ‘Delft beer’ and ‘Haarlem beer’ and each was believed to have a distinct flavour.


Not only was it a valued national drink, it served as a lucrative export commodity often exchanged for spices, sugar and tobacco from places such as North America. Much beer drinking can be seen in these tavern scenes by the Haarlem based painters Adriaen van Ostade and Cornelis Bega who had ample opportunities to capture the locals drinking in a city which was renowned for its high beer production. Artists such as the Flemish painter David Teniers also painted many tavern scenes.

Wine too was consumed on a daily basis, but was more expensive than beer. It was imported into the Netherlands from the wine growing regions of Italy, France and Spain among others, and formed a significant part of the Dutch economy. Not only did they import the wine, but the country’s strategic position and seafaring skills meant it was also able to distribute it to other countries.

Many artists depicted wine in their still lifes, and Manchester have some interesting examples. Wine was usually drunk from a roemer - a distinctive type of rounded glassware with raspberry prunts around the stem which enabled better grip. The luxurious still life by Willem Kalf shows a typical white wine roemer in the centre as well as a tall, thin flute glass containing red wine to the right. Kalf enjoyed contrasts of light and dark in his still life paintings, which he used to emphasise colour and capture reflections. Everything in this painting is luxurious and represents some of the best types of imported goods of the day which would have been instantly recognised as such by contemporary viewers.


In many of the interior scenes such as the Brekelenkam you can see a roemer on the table next to the housewife, an indicator that wine was an everyday drink. Elsewhere similar glasses can be spotted in a painting by Jacob Ochtervelt of flirting maids and a musician. One of the maids is poised to poor the wine out of a typical thin necked decanter.


By looking closely at these details, you can really appreciate the artists’ efforts to capture everyday life but it’s also important to keep in mind the international trading networks of such a powerful and wealthy nation.

Image 1: Adriaen van Ostade Two peasants smoking, about 1650-60, 1979.486

Image 2: Detail of Cornelis Bega Three peasants seated together, 1660-62, 1979.444

Image 3: David Teniers, the Younger peasants playing cards and skittles in a yard, about 1650-60, 1979.507

Image 4: Willem Kalf Still Life: Fruit, Goblet and Salver, 1660s, 1979.468

Image 5: Detail of Quiringh van Brekelenkam Interior with a lady choosing fish, 1664, 1979.449

Image 6: Detail of Jacob Ochtervelt Merry company, about 1663-65, 1926.11