Mesmerizing: Dutch and Spanish Masters of the Seventeenth Century (exhibition)

While most countries engaged at war with each other experience economic and cultural decline, Spain and the Dutch Republic during the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) witnessed their cultural zenith. The era produced two of the most innovating painters, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). One born in Sevilla, the other in Leiden, they never met each other or even knew of each other’s existence. However, they shared many of the same talents of bringing human emotion to the canvas and ultimately changed the art world.

For the first time, the Museo Nacional del Prado and the Rijksmuseum are collaborating on an exhibition bringing the two together. With more than 60 works from 42 museums in seven countries, Rembrandt and Velázquez are featured together with several of their contemporaries, including Murillo, Vermeer, Zurbarán, Hals and Ribalta. During the seventeenth century faith, wealth, power and love were prominent themes. The exhibition unveils how they were depicted in both countries. And the resemblances are uncanny.

One of the most striking are the paired self-portraits of Velázquez and Rembrandt. When the artists painted themselves, they were both in their forties, the Spanish master with his long black hair and curled mustache, the Dutchman wearing a brown-colored cap. Like Velázquez, Rembrandt’s clothing and background are dark, and the only part of the portraits touched by the light are the faces. Both self-portraits show a soft and pensive gaze and reveal that Rembrandt and Velázquez mastered the same techniques of dark and light.

Francisco Ribalta’s ‘Christ Embracing St. Bernard’ (ca. 1625-1627) paired with Rembrandt’s ‘Jewish Bride’ (ca. 1665) are even more hypnotizing. Ribalta’s depiction of the naked arms of Christ holding a kneeled St. Bernard dressed in white, and Rembrandt’s Isaac intimately protecting Rebecca’s bosom with his large masculine hand, convey love and affection. The highlight and most mesmerizing of the exhibition are paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, ‘The Mystic Lamb’ (1635-1640) and Pieter Jansz Saenredam, ‘St.-Odulphuskerk in Assendeft’ (1649). While the Dutchman Saenredam gives the viewer a glimpse into the Calvinist world where the minister and Bible are the only voices, de Spaniard’s lamb shows us the Catholic worldview. The innocent lamb, bound at the feet, is meek; it awaits the same fate as Christ. Despite the religious differences in both countries – and the reason for the war – the paintings show that faith transcends these differences and brings the same feeling of serenity everywhere.

Rembrandt-Velázquez. Dutch and Spanish Masters in the Rijksmuseum
Until 19 January 2020


by Benjamin B. Roberts