Yesterday, I attended a private tour of the Met Museum’s Dutch Masterpieces where I met the Assistant Curator for the exhibit, Adam Eaker, PhD. There has been a lot of press and excitement about this two-year long special exhibition, which opened in October and will be on exhibit until October 2020—evidence of the perennial popularity of the Dutch masters.
Listening to Dr. Eaker’s breadth of knowledge about the Dutch masters and passion for the time period and work was inspiring and made me think of the artists in a new light. For example, I had never considered the rivalries that existed among the great painters. Professional and artistic rivalries were commonplace as artists competed with each other to supply art to newly-rich patrons—who flaunted their wealth by lining their walls with canvases on a wide variety of subjects. Painter and art theorist of the time, Gerard de Lairesse is said to have considered Rembrandt’s painterly style as throwing mud on canvas! (Thankfully, Rembrandt was unshaken by the criticism and continued to express himself, never knowing that one day how he, and his work, would become immortal. Or, as Dr. Eaker said of the incident, “we won’t know what will be valued 100 years from now!”)
The Met exhibit is special as it brings together pieces from across the museum, all of the same time period and place. Many of these paintings are normally exhibited in different galleries or are normally in storage and available only to researchers. But, hanging them together brings a new dimension to the works—and adds a new context to them.
History is in essence innumerable biographies. —Thomas Carlyle
But visiting the collection also provided me with new historical and visual context for the lives of some of my Dutch ancestors. The array of paintings depicted citizens with their fashion, their daily lives, and their desire to express and redefine themselves as a prosperous, powerful country finally free from Spanish rule.
Looking out at me from canvas after canvas were somber, austere men and women—newly-wealthy but piously dressed in black. (But these black garments were nonetheless made of embroidered silk embellished with fine lace collars, precious jewels, and furs—they may be pious but they still expressed themselves and their wealth!) Two paintings of the interior of Oude Kerk, Delft, showed two vastly different scenes—one of a hushed, quiet space and another filled with communal activity of all sorts (including children writing on the walls while a stray dog urinates on a pillar!). The still life paintings were anything but—as in one, parrot tulips and other exotic blooms took on a life of their own while in another, plump oysters and lemon peel twinkled in the light. (I also learned that still life paintings were a specialty of women artists who, by social tradition, were not allowed to paint nudes.) A whole genre of paintings depicted morality plays on canvas—some with raucous, drunken tavern and home scenes (avoid—but looks like fun!) while another depicted morally-correct classical tales (emulate—if I must). And, the final part of the exhibit is dedicated to scenes of life within the home—where you find hushed Vermeers depicting the mundane in masterful fashion.
So, what was my take-away from the exhibit? And how do these 350+ year-old paintings express me—and you?
Discovering your family history can tell you about where you came from. But what you find interesting in your discoveries can tell you a lot about who you are. It is about identity—and all its positive and negative narratives.
A friend recently mentioned that she pursued her own genealogical research to honor the heritage each of her four grandparents. I think that is a moving tribute. My paternal grandfather descended from some of the founders of New Netherland. I honor him and his legacy by my involvement with the Society of Daughters of Holland Dames and helping others celebrate their Dutch heritage.
Personal, communal, and societal expression can be found in a deep dive into art history. But you don’t need to read about it. You can stand in front of a work of art and wait. Let it speak to you. Let it express itself to you through silent reflection.
Thanks to exhibits such as the Dutch Masters, I can begin to visualize what life was like in 17th Century Dutch Republic at a time when my ancestors left Amsterdam for the “New” Amsterdam (later called New York)—and the glimpse into their world mirrors mine.
Just like me, they expressed themselves for others to see. Their occupations and experience contributed to the lines on their face, they adorned themselves with attire and adornments that was a reflection of their personality, and their homes were filled with the mementos of their travels and experiences.
And, I began to feel that if I could step into the canvases, I would be right at home.
I firmly believe that genealogy is just one of the ways you can express yourself. Have you found this to be true? Please share your comments.
How Can You Express Yourself through Your Family History?
If you’ve ever wondered about what your ancestors experienced, there are many ways to begin to explore the narratives of their lives. It’s more than just books and genealogy websites!
- Contact historical societies in areas where your ancestors once lived—many have excellent local histories and family artifacts which you will never find online.
- Identify online lineage societies that provide resources and programming to help provide a context for the time and place.
- If (and when) you get stuck, work with a certified genealogist—they can help you get through the difficult parts so you don’t get frustrated and stop your research.
- Read historical fiction—the “historical” part is enlightening while the “fiction” part is entertaining.
- Book a trip to the “old country” and while there, do research and visit the places your ancestors lived, walked, worshipped, and were laid to rest.
- Explore cuisine—whether you explore grandma’s recipes or dine out, food is a great way to connect to a culture. Eet Smakelijk! (Dutch for Mangia!)
In Praise of Painting: Rethinking Art of the Dutch Golden Age at The Met—Metropolitan Museum of Art, Exhibition Overview (includes a link to selected works in the exhibition).
Society of Daughters of Holland Dames—A lineage society for those descended from European immigrants who arrived to New Netherland before the British takeover in 1664.
Genealogy Ethnic Heritage Links, National Archives and Records Administration
Lineage Societies of America—Explore all the different ways you can connect and honor your heritage
Best Genealogy Sites 2019—Getting started or ready to move to the next level?
Vermeer, Beyond Time, American Public Television (available from Shop PBS, PBS Passport, or Netflix)—A documentary narrated by Steve Martin which depicts the life of Johannes Vermeer and the lives and culture of professional artists in 17c Netherlands.
2019: The Year of Rembrandt—Special exhibitions throughout the year in The Netherlands and around the world in commemoration of the 350th year of Rembrandt’s death.