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‘An Old Man and a Girl at a Vegetable and Fish Stall’ 1732 by Willem van Mieris, in the Masters of the Everyday exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in Edinburgh

A new column written by Huon Mallalieu

The title proclaims the ‘everyday’ nature of 16th- and 17th-century Dutch genre painting, but in fact it represents one of the most important revolutions in all European art. Pre-Reformation painters generally presented sacred subjects as on a proscenium stage, separating audience and actors. With religious subjects no longer in demand, artists concentrated on the lives of real people, inviting the audience to participate in, and imaginatively extend, the action.

There are moral messages, but above all humanity and humour, in these wonderful, meticulously painted jewels. An eavesdropping maid, for instance, looks directly at us, finger to her lips. 

Emphatically, this is not a blockbuster, and all the better for that. There are just 27 works, all but one from the Royal Collection. Among them are Vermeer’s ‘The Music Lesson’, de Hooch’s ‘Courtyard in Delft’, Jan Steen’s ‘A Woman at her Toilet’, and a flirtatious woman chopping onions by Gerard Dou, but every one deserves the close study that we can give it in such a fittingly intimate show. 

It is to be hoped that the Bonington scholar Patrick Noon’s involvement as co-curator with the NG’s Christopher Riopelle will ensure that the Anglo-French School gets due acknowledge-ment. Eugène Delacroix and Richard Parkes Bonington were the focus of the young Romantic painters who reacted against Napoleonic Classicism under the Restoration and Louis Philippe. Valois history, Shakespeare, Scott and Byron provided subjects, and they revelled in landscape and colour. After Bonington’s early death in 1828, Delacroix turned to North African Orientalist themes, becoming the most revered modernist in France, and their influence ran on through Manet and Cézanne to the Impressionists, Van Gogh and Matisse.

A third of the show will survey Delacroix’s career, and more be by later generations, among them Bazille’s rarely seen ‘La Toilette’, Van Gogh’s ‘Pietà (after Delacroix)’, Cézanne’s ‘The Battle of Love’ and ‘Apotheosis of Delacroix’ and Matisse’s study for ‘Luxe, Calme et Volupté’. It will end with Kandinsky’s 1910 ‘Study for Improvisation V’, arguing for a direct descent from Delacroix to the beginnings of abstraction.

The Fitzwilliam, Cambridge, begins its bicentenary programme with Death on the Nile: Uncovering the Afterlife of Ancient Egypt, 23rd Feb–22nd May.

This story was from March 2016 issue. Subscribe Now