‘An Inner World’ delves into history of Dutch genre painting

Last Sunday, the Clark Art Institute debuted An Inner World, an exhibition featuring 17th century Dutch genre paintings. An Inner World combines both the Clark’s own collection of Dutch genre paintings as well as pieces from the Leiden Collection, founded by Thomas Kaplan and Daphne Recanati Kaplan. Including a total of seven genre paintings made by artists living in or around Leiden, An Inner World explores themes of interiority, be it interior spaces or interior thought. The 17th century Dutch genre paintings capture the phenomena of fijnschilderijen – fine painting, distinguished by barely perceptible brushstrokes and naturalistic precision – featured artists Gabriel Metsu, Domenicus van Tol and Gerrit Dou and how their works influenced each other’s.

An Inner World occupies a small, symmetrical space within the Clark’s permanent gallery. At the center of the exhibition one finds Gabriel Metsu’s “Woman Reading a Book By a Window.” In the painting, Metsu depicts a life-sized young woman inside of a Dutch interior. While her body faces the viewer, her head is in profile, turned towards a book resting by the window. Metsu’s fine rendering of her red coat and the pages of the book give the painting a strong sense of tactility. On a piece of paper behind the woman’s head, Metsu signed the painting with his name, thus incorporating his signature within the painting rather than having it sit on top. Metsu’s painting follows in the tradition of using women as allegorical stand-ins for abstract concepts like knowledge or wisdom, further emphasized by her wardrobe, which would have been recognized by 17th century viewers as clothing from an earlier time.

On the two outer walls of the exhibit hang Gerrit Dou’s “Girl at a Window” and Gabriel Metsu’s “Public Notary.” Both paintings demonstrate an illusion of space, created through the interaction of the window frame in the painting and the picture frame of the painting. The picture frame, rather than delineating the boundaries of the painting, becomes a window itself into which viewers peer as if on the other side. In Dou’s painting, the source of light seems to come from some place in our world, further integrating the viewer. The young kitchen maid depicted in the arched window ledge wears clothing typical of a lower class worker — with cheeks flushed red and a low hanging shirt that reveals the top of her breasts, she flirtatiously leans out of the window, entering into the space of the viewer. “Public Notary” also depicts a figure peering out of a stone window ledge. Instead of a young woman, however, Metsu features an old, bearded man as his central subject. Unlike the kitchen maid, the public notary gazes directly at the viewer and gestures at his book, as if advertising his services. The dark, undefined space behind the notary pushes his figure to the front and creates a sense of depth, one further emphasized by the flattening effect of the stone wall expanding past the frame of the photo.

Hanging besides “Woman Reading a Book By a Window” are Metsu’s “Woman Drawing Wine from a Barrel” and Domenicus van Tol’s “Boy with a Mousetrap by Candlelight.” In the former, there are only three sources of light: two candles and a lantern. The dim lighting suggests a depth to the cellar, which contrasts with the two figures who have been brought forward in the space. Van Tol’s painting similarly depicts a wine cellar and uses a lighting technique to give a sense of depth to the space. The boy depicted in the frame smiles out at the viewer, one hand holding a candle and the other holding the mousetrap. Although boys with mousetraps were a common subject in Dutch painting, the wine barrel and foul — both of which carried sexual connotations — led viewers to see the mousetrap as symbolizing love’s trappings. Both paintings are small, encouraging a sense of intimacy as viewers are forced get closer to the image to make out the details: a milk jug, head of cabbage, a plate of fish and so on, various details that give not only a verisimilitude to the painting but also flesh out an idea of what 17th century Dutch life was like.

An Inner World offers not only an intimate look into 17th century Dutch genre paintings, but also into the world and culture in which they were created. Running until Sept. 17, the exhibition can be found in the Clark’s permanent collection.