Dutch masters of illusion explore 'An Inner World'

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WILLIAMSTOWN — A young kitchen maid leans out a window with a silver flagon in one hand, gazing into the distance at a scene off panel. What has caught her attention is unknown.

Nor does the artist care to elaborate. His focus is not on the action at hand or what is to come, but on this single moment of time. A very ordinary moment.

It's the type of moment that Gerritt Dou delighted in.

With precise yet delicate brush strokes and meticulous attention to detail, he elevated ordinary scenes of everyday life with innovative uses of light and space

"There's this illusion of an inner space, of depth," said Lara Yeager-Crasselt, curator of the "An Inner World: 17th-Century Dutch Genre Painting" at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute. "It draws us in. It wants us to look into, to become part of that space."

Dou and his contemporaries, the Leiden fijnschilders (fine painters) were masters of illusion, crafting jewel-like paintings that were meant to be viewed up close.

In "Girl at a Window," Dou, one of the most successful fijnschilders in Holland, focuses the viewer's attention on the girl, as opposed to the unseen action, by illuminating certain details — her tightly-laced red bodice, wisps of her golden hair, and the body of the silver flagon she holds.

Her illuminated figure leans out of the darkness, beckoning the viewer to inspect the room behind her.

"During this period, Dou was one of, if not, the most expensive painters," Yeager-Crasselt said. "A painting of his could have cost as much as of house at the height of his popularity."

The genre would fall out of favor after a century and Dou and his contemporaries would fade into obscurity for a time.

"This show marks the first time the Clark's painting by Dou is shown in the context of works by his pupils and contemporaries," she said.

In 1922, the Clarks purchased the small oil painting on panel and set it aside for the museum they would open. It would be exhibited only twice over the next seven decades — in 1958 and 1992.

"We don't know why the Clarks bought it at the time, as this genre was not in favor," Yeager-Crasselt said of the newly restored painting. "But we're glad that they did."

Dou's "Girl at a Window" had seen better days when it was unearthed for an exhibition in 2016.

Time had taken its toll on the Dutch genre painting — layers of grime, discolored varnish and an old "touch up" had obscured the work. But a trip to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center uncovered the delicate brushstrokes characteristic of the fijnschilder master and inspired the recently opened exhibition.

Included in the exhibit are six additional paintings on loan from The Leiden Collection, including work by Dou's nephew and pupil, Domenicus van Tol, and contemporaries Willem van Mieris, and Jacob van Toorenvliet, who painted in the same style.

Also featured are three paintings by Gabriel Metsu, a contemporary who responded to Dou in creative and innovative ways. His large-scale painting, "Woman Reading a Book by a Window," demonstrates his willingness to break with the fijnschilders' tradition of creating small scale work.

And while he painted within the genre, depicting scenes from everyday life, he wasn't afraid to push its boundaries.

"[`Woman Reading a Book by a Window'] features a female scholar, which is very a unusual subject for the time," she said. "There's a lot of light given to a woman when there is no back story. It makes you pay attention to her. She is dressed in antique clothing but is in a contemporary setting. By doing this, she becomes part of this larger idea. Metsu has used her to speak about learning and knowledge in this abstract and allegorical way."

While many will not be familiar with the artists or the genre, Yeager-Crasselt believes the public can connect with the artwork on several levels.

"I'm hoping at one level they'll be amazed by the beauty, the skill and craftsmanship of these paintings," she said. "At the same time, I think people can relate to these paintings, these moments of sitting at a window; of quiet contemplation."

Reach staff writer Jennifer Huberdeau at 413-496-6229 or @BE_DigitalJen.


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