An annoying treat

    Bright stars shine out from the National’s dark Dutch show – but where’s the common thread?

    The National Gallery has decided that this year’s summer treat should annoy us more than it delights us. At least, that is what it achieved with me. Someone presumably had a good reason for mounting Dutch Portraits: The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. They must have been hoping to convey some resonant truths about Dutch portraiture. But I’m blowed if I can discern what those ambitions might be. Despite its fine handful of Rembrandts, and feisty helping of Frans Hals, this shapeless parade strikes you as the handiwork of a blindfolded curator who has been spun around three times before being told to plunge his hand into the lucky dip that is the whole of Dutch portraiture.

    Sixty paintings of different types of Dutch sitter – men, women, children; big pictures and tiny ones; group portraits and singles; indoor scenes and outdoor ones; informal in mood, or formal – spanning the best decades of Dutch portraiture, have been arranged into clumps, then fitted into whichever room came next. Can anyone see any dots here that might actually be joined up?

    The first room makes a half-hearted effort at being chronological, but as soon as we get out of there, the chronology crumbles and the show seeks instead to adopt the selection procedures preferred by Mr Buggins. In the absence of any guiding ambition to comment on, or any overall exhibition scheme to investigate, I regret that your reviewer has no option but to follow the show’s lead and to sample whatever he fancies. For no good reason – and with no ulterior motive in sight – the following paintings caught my eye.

    The first was a round portrait of Hugo Grotius, painted in the Hague in 1599 by Jan van Ravesteyn. Round paintings are rare in Dutch portraiture; so are profile views in which the sitter’s face is shown from the side. Yet that is how van Ravesteyn portrays the thoughtful Grotius, as if he were a newly elected Roman emperor posing for his first coin. I do not know the work of van Ravesteyn. That is not because I am a know-nothing, but because van Ravesteyn is an obscure portraitist from the most obscure years of Dutch portraiture: the early ones.

    One of the main joys of Dutch painting is the seemingly bottomless supply of obscure artists doing unusual things. Van Ravesteyn is one of those. But neither the roundness of his portrait of Grotius nor the rare profile is this picture’s most surprising feature. To my shame, I circled the strangely circular image for many revolutions before I eventually realised what was most revolutionary about it: the sitter is a teenager.

    My original guess was that Hugo Grotius was 15 when van Ravesteyn painted him. There’s bum fluff on his upper lip, a postrugby redness to his cheeks and a teenage springiness to his tight brown hair. But he turns out to have been 16. In Italian or Spanish art of this period, you see 16-year-olds portrayed often enough in dynastic portraits of noble families. But in the Calvinist meritocracy of 17th-century Holland, where people didn’t generally get their portraits done until they had achieved something worth portraying, the teenage lad is a rare sight. Grotius, it turns out, had recently qualified as a lawyer in the Hague. A year earlier, he had received his doctorate from the University of Orleans. So we have here an exceptionally clever and pushy underage achiever, attaining his first position. Van Ravesteyn has shown him from the side to disguise the lack of character in his bright, boyish face; the emperor’s pose covers up his callowness. This is clever portraiture.

    The display wanders amiably but aimlessly from here on. See that mildly familiar young chap in a striped doublet, reading a letter? He’s Charles I as you’ve never seen him before, caught in a moment of modest humanity by Gerrit van Honthorst. If everyone had painted Charles as modestly as this – if Van Dyck had not done to the royal image what Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen does to sitting rooms – would parliament have been goaded into beheading this humble king? I think not.

    It’s a nice insight, but leads nowhere. Quite what a British king is doing here, surrounded by lawyers, merchants, burghers and surgeons, is anyone’s guess.

    Another painting that stands out, because it contains the show’s happiest smiling face, is Frans Hals’s charming double portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen, a pair of newlyweds sitting on a park bench, glowing with postmarital excitement. At least, she is. The groom is too Dutch to manage more than a half-smile. But his wife, for whom the painter seems to have struck up a secret affection, beams at us with the delightful exuberance of someone who has just emerged from one hell of a wedding night.

    Hals is this exhibition’s most welcome figure. You don’t, of course, get the profundity with him that you get with Rembrandt – that big feeling that you are peering into the secrets of human existence – but, instead, you get kung fu-quick paintwork, achieving dazzling likenesses of an unusually lively cast, observed with a cheeky independence of vision. Everything Hals does, he does differently from the rest.

    I loved the portly cavalier Willem van Heythuysen, flexing his riding crop as he tips back showily in his chair in that nonchalantly destructive manoeuvre that I keep telling my youngest daughter to stop because it breaks the chair legs. To a man and a woman, Hals’s sitters strike you as the type who never take sensible advice. Judging by the tilt of Willem Coymans’s hat, he has just returned from a fun night’s whoring, while the last time I saw an expression of disdain quite as tangible as Jaspar Schade’s was on Kate Moss’s face as she paused at the end of the catwalk on her postscandal return to modelling. What indestructible arrogance. The show’s most exciting moment comes when you step through the door of the central gallery and are met by 16 life-size officers of the 11th District of Amsterdam, all showing off their best silks simultaneously, as the entire squadron attempts to elbow its way to the front of Hals’s stupendous group portrait.

    Thus, the only widely held opinion that this show may be challenging is the view that Dutch portraiture is sombre and repetitive. It’s an impression created as much, I fancy, by the impact of Dutch Calvinist clothing as it is by any holding-in of ambition on the part of the artist. Most people in most of these paintings wear black from head to toe, except for a flash of white around their neck from a collar or a ruff. It’s as true of the women as it is of the men. And, while not the full burka, it is a religious look that makes the painter’s task much more difficult.

    Rembrandt overcomes these sartorial restrictions by making them work for him in fascinating ways. His touching double portrait of the elderly ship’s architect Jan Rijcksen turning to take a note being passed to him by his equally ancient wife is notable for the poignancy it records in their relationship. Two old birds, as worn and warm as the ship’s furniture they live among, have no need for fripperies in their room, their demeanour or their costume.

    Yet in the ambitiously dramatic Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp, probably this show’s most exciting loan, painted just a year earlier, in 1632, the sombre

    costumes of the students gathered around the corpse that Tulp is dissecting blur with the surrounding darkness to create an expanse of spooky gloom, punctured only by the ring of eager, staring faces and the eerie white glow of the central corpse. What a show in the West End would achieve with spotlights, Rembrandt does with costumes. It’s a brilliant manipulation of nocturnal moods, and a clever exposition of the dramatic possibilities of black and white.