Esaias van de Velde, Winter Landscape 1623, National Gallery, London. Esaias van de Velde (1587-1630) is surely one of the most significant figures in the whole of Western art, since it was he, more than any other, who pioneered a new realism in landscape painting. Esaias was born in Amsterdam in 1587, the son of Hans van de Velde, a painter who had immigrated to Holland from Flanders. Upon the death of Hans in 1610, Esaias and his mother moved to Haarlem, where Esaias joined the artists’ guild in 1612. In 1618 Esaias moved to The Hague, seat of the Stadtholder (the head of the Dutch Republic), presumably to increase his earnings potential, and died at The Hague from unknown causes in 1630, at the age of only 43 (Keyes, Esaias van de Velde 11-13). So little is known of his life, but he lives through his paintings. His art depicts a variety of subjects – landscapes, “merry company” scenes, cavalry skirmishes, travellers attacked by bandits – but all show figures in a landscape.
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Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) and Frans Hals (1582/3-1666) were both born in Antwerp, in Flanders. Both their fathers worked in the clothing industry, Van Dyck’s father as a rich silk merchant and Hals’s father as a humble cloth weaver. But Van Dyck and his parents remained in Antwerp, while Hals and his parents emigrated to Haarlem, in Holland, either to improve their economic prospects or as religious refugees. To compare the paintings of Van Dyck and Hals is also to illustrate the split between Flanders, where most patrons were aristocratic and Catholic, and Holland, where most patrons were middle-class and Protestant. Van Dyck in Flanders painted some religious and mythological pictures; but there was less demand for that kind of art in a Protestant country like Holland, where Hals worked as a specialist portrait painter. Van Dyck painted full-length portraits of his aristocratic clients, but Hals’s patrons were mostly middle-class people – brewers, cloth merchants, and professional
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Rembrandt, Titus at his Desk, Boijmans Museum, Rotterdam Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus is signed and dated “Rembrandt f[ecit] 1655”. The painting was first recorded in 1806, in an English private collection, and was eventually acquired by the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam in 1938. We see little Titus sitting alone behind a big wooden desk in a darkened room, with paper, pens and an inkwell. But a mere statement of the subject does not convey the magical quality of this painting, which celebrates the poetry to be found in simple things. The composition is in the form of a pyramid, with the desk as its base and Titus’s head as its apex. The painting is divided into two halves – Titus and the desk – which are linked by the penholder and portable inkwell that Titus dangles down in front of the desk. A sense of space is created, not by a use of perspective, but by placing Titus behind the desk, which is pushed against the picture plane, and by subt