Britain’s own King George IV’s delight in these absorbing, deeply human paintings, several of which he bought in 1814, means that the Royal Collection is able to show 27 of them, including Johannes Vermeer’s A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, produced in the 1660s and acquired by George’s father, King George III. These magical works really conjure up life at that time, and the cities of Amsterdam and Delft still have buildings and houses from the period in which such scenes took place.
Pieter de Hooch’s 1657 A Courtyard in Delft at Evening shows a sunny courtyard of packed yellow sand, behind a fine red-brick house. Two maids are at work — the elder, in a plain pine chair, spins in the shade cast by the garden wall of a neighbouring building. The younger woman crosses the swept yard, head bowed against the glare, a wooden pail in one hand, a glazed earthenware pitcher dangling from the other, perhaps heading to the well.
The house’s red pantiles, large glass windows and high chimneys show the stature of their employers, while beyond, the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) and the squat town hall of Delft are instantly recognisable. Cherry or plum blossom shows that it is spring. These neat women appear to be contented servants of a well-run household.
In just such a middle-class home, Card Players in a Sunlit Room, again by De Hooch, show the owners playing while a similar maid crosses the internal courtyard — this time with a flagon of beer.
This marvellous painting really shows what such interiors looked like, from their costly leaded windows with reed sunscreens, to the plank-and-brace outer door with its cast-iron ring-pull, to the good-quality grey-and-white ceramic floor, its tiles so beautifully painted that you can see where they are uneven. The walls are distempered, and there’s a nice oak peg coat-rack and a painting. Meanwhile, the closest player sits on a chair of turned oak.
The house may not be grand, but it is definitely comfortable and its well-dressed occupants can afford to while away the hours, enjoying beers and pipes.
Much less well known is Adriaen van Ostade’s The Interior of a Peasant’s Cottage, showing an unruly semi-hovel of rough timber construction. The floor is strewn with all manner of things, including a child’s sock and a “close stool” — a cabinet with a chamber pot inside which served as the lavatory — while a discarded plate on the window bench holds bones from a recent meal.
A boy eats pottage — a thick vegetable soup — while his dog looks on with beady eyes; his mother feeds the baby whose homemade bassinet is behind her chair, while father sprawls with pipe and beer after a copious meal of bread and round Dutch cheese, the remains strewn on a hexagonal table with a skewed white cloth.
The ad hoc curtain is made with a bit of blue fabric over a saggy string; a folding trestle table is clumsily stashed; a tipped-over reed basket and a little-used broom show both the disarray but also typical life in this peasant’s home. Messy, yes — but there’s every mark of contentment, too.
Dutch householders sent their servants to get provisions in local shops, a popular theme for paintings including Gerrit Dou’s The Grocer’s Shop from 1672. A maid with a stout, copper-bound wooden pail is having grapes weighed out from a woven flat basket.
The pretty female grocer is surrounded by supplies, from a broken cone of rock salt, to a blue-and-white platter of onions, to a hanging wire basket of eggs — just as we use today. Her finest offering resembles a tray, but is actually a glazed slab of gingerbread, a Dutch favourite, temptingly propped on the counter. Decorated with almonds, it’s a work of art. At the back of the bustling shop another assistant cuts bread.
In a beautiful, but also naughtier painting, A Woman at her Toilet, by Jan Steen, we glimpse a Dutch bedroom, and not a poor one. Its four-poster bed has sky-blue silk hangings, with visible folds showing they are newly hung.
On the rumpled bed a woman falling out of her bodice perches to pull her stockings back on after an activity one can only guess at. A garter mark on her calf shows that the stockings have not been off for long. Nearby, a lute with a broken string, and a grinning skull, comment silently. The woman may be a prostitute but, if so, she is successful, as shown by a jewellery box spilling pearls and her fur clothing.
Perhaps it is the forensic detail and the sense of glimpsing real lives, at least for a moment, that make these works from the Dutch Golden Age so wonderful.
- Masters of the Everyday: Dutch Artists in the Age of Vermeer is at the Queen’s Gallery, SW1, opening November 13. Visit www.royalcollection.org.uk for details.
All pictures: Royal Collection Trust/(C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015