Exhibition: Lively towns, captured by Dutch Impressionists

As mentioned in an earlier post, visitors to The Hague are treated to two exhibitions shedding some light on poverty and town-life. At the The Hague Historical Museum, near the Mauritshuis, an exhibition compares the lives of the rich and poor of the town. The exhibition at the The Hague Gemeentemuseum focuses on Dutch Impressionists.

This exhibition can be found on the museum’s first floor, opposite its Mondriaan exhibition. The latter captured media attention, but the “Tumult in the city” one is far more interesting. It shows Dutch art from roughly 1880 to 1900.

Breitner, Dam Square, Amsterdam

The so-called “movement of 1880” started in Dutch literature. Exhibition visitors are treated to poems and poetry on exhibition walls. These quotes are linked to exhibited works.

The literary movement had its counterpart in the arts. Artists aimed at naturalism, impressions, while criticizing romanticism. Of course they were influenced by the art scenes of other countries. The artists are sometimes called Dutch Impressionists.

These Impressionists were more interested in capturing lively scenes in towns and streets, than depicting landscapes, seascapes. The exhibition title hints at this. Here are street-scenes, cafélife, nightlife. Here is vibrant dynamism: never a quiet, nor dull moment. Paintings, sketches, drawings are from artists including George Hendrik Breitner, Isaac Israëls, Willem Witsen.

Israels, Amsterdam hat shop

It is not just that the previous generation of painters like Joseph Israëls or Willem Mesdag preferred seascapes. Rotterdam, The Hague, and Amsterdam boomed and sharply increased in size. Railways connected these and other towns: travel became easier. The Hague lost its importance; artists moved to the even livelier Amsterdam and are also known as Amsterdam Impressionists. 

Drawings and paintings show luxurious department stores, restaurants, theater-life. Artists capture rowdy parties, male and female labourers, waiting coaches, prostitutes, horrid slums. Selected poems hint at diseases, poverty, hardship.

As in the exhibition at the The Hague Historical Museum, it is clear that the industrial age and colonial wealth made a few rich. Mass production ensured luxurious goods became affordable for the middle classes. But the majority of people were forced to live in extreme poverty. Artists show factory workers who made long hours; seven days a week – discarded when injured, sick, too old. Here are paintings which mirror scenes from novels such as “Au Bonheur des Dames“, “McTeague“, “The House of Mirth“.

Vincent van Gogh draws the The Hague HS train station, still used today. When he drew it, it lay at the edge of town. Now other buildings dwarf it and no waiting horse-drawn cabs remain. Other artists show building sites in the middle of towns, streets and shops illuminated by electric lights. Cars will soon replace horses drawing coaches or trams.

Van Looy’s garden

There are over a hundred paintings, drawings, sketchbooks and photos on show. Many are on loan from other museums. The last rooms show how people spent their spare time. Children visit a Zoo and two stunning paintings show a garden. Van Looy’s small patch was his antidote to the noisy and overcrowded city-life.

Apart from works by Breitner on loan from the Antwerp KMSA, there are works from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Teylers Museum, Museum Gouda, Dordrechts Museum, as well as from private collections. It makes for an impressive exhibition; far more interesting than the Mondriaan one on the same floor.

The Hague Gemeentemuseum: “Tumult in the City” can be visited till early November 2017.
Exhibition catalogue by WBOOKS, available in Dutch at the museum shop for €27,95.

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