Exhibit of the week
Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes of the Golden Age
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Through May 3

The Dutch had a lot to be proud of during the 17th century, said Deborah K. Dietsch in The Washington Times. During this period, those “tulip-crazed folks led Europe in banking, trading, cartography, and book printing.” Their paintings weren’t bad, either, and a “tightly focused” exhibition at the National Gallery sheds light on one of their most notable innovations: the cityscape. Previously, painters had relegated urban scenes to the background of landscapes. But cities such as Amsterdam, Delft, Utrecht, and The Hague were at the center of the Dutch Republic, and so “vied with one another to have their urban portraits painted” by artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan van der Heyden, and Hendrick Vroom. “Painstakingly painted”—and startlingly realistic—the 48 works on display here are far more than mere civic “boosterism.”

“The city, as envisioned by these artists, is one of the great collective endeavors of humankind,” said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. Hardly visible are the evils of city life—crime, poverty, pollution—that later artists would bemoan. Often there are hardly any humans at all. Van der Heyden’s paintings, for instance, render Amsterdam’s canals, bridges, and architecture with a near-photographic detail that creates an air of “Edenic serenity.” His enormous depiction of the city’s town hall—“a great white Italianate building that the Dutch considered the eighth wonder of the world”—is as much a masterpiece as the building it depicts. He and his contemporaries didn’t think of themselves as social critics, the way painters today do. Rather, they were true “believers in the real possibility of creating a world of peace, order, beauty, and well-being.”

They were also technical innovators, said Blake Gopnik in The Washington Post. This “groundbreaking” exhibition shows how some artists used “fish-eye” lenses and other apparatuses to create views impossible in real life. This can make some paintings look odd, since they’re designed to be viewed not straight-on but from a steep angle. Often, only when you “sidle crab-wise up to” the left corner of a painting will the skies seem to properly arch above and the architecture to recede majestically into the distance. “Satin-clad burghers” and motley minstrels dressed in rich materials of every variety seem to spill out of some of the canvases. The viewer looks not at but through these scenes, which the artists often stuff with as many details of Dutch life as possible.