Jan Steen (1625/26–1679), Villagers Merrymaking Outside an Inn, 1652, Oil on canvas © The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.
BISHOP AUCKLAND.- Auckland Castle reopened its doors on Saturday 3 July with a new exhibition dedicated to scenes of everyday life. Beauty in the Everyday: Dutch and Flemish Masters at Auckland Castle, on display in the Bishop Trevor Gallery until 3 October, features paintings which capture scenes of daily life produced in the Low Countries during the seventeenth century.
Although created 400 years ago, they offer a glimpse into a world which is recognisably continuous with our own, similarly concerned with food, leisure, and gathering together with friends and family. Visitors are invited to consider both the contemporary meanings behind the paintings, and how they resonate with our own experiences of ‘normal life’ in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The seventeenth century saw an unprecedented surge in the production of art in the region, coinciding with the emergence of a new Dutch Republic following decades of war and revolt. As the newly adopted state religion - Protestant Calvinism - prohibited the use of images in places of worship, the demand for secular paintings increased. Artists eagerly met this demand with beautifully rendered still lifes, landscapes and everyday scenes for their merchant clients, made rich by trade.
Beauty in the Everyday uncovers some of the hidden moral meanings intended for the paintings’ seventeenth century audience, reflecting the climate of political and religious upheaval. Alongside this, it features interpretation by volunteers at The Auckland Project, who were asked to share their response to the artworks through the lens of their pandemic experiences, providing a refreshed take on these historic paintings.
A key feature of the exhibition are paintings into which meanings were often coded, such as Adriaen van Utrecht’s Still Life with Lovers, which uses poultry piled onto the table and a monkey in the window to signal a man’s lustful intentions. Other still lifes convey what was materially important to citizens of the Dutch Republic. Gillis Gillisz de Berch’s A Basket of Flowers with Seashells depicts rarities like tulips imported by successful trading firms such as the Dutch East India Company, but look closer and they have begun to wilt suggesting the brevity of life and the emptiness of worldly possessions.
Adriaen van Utrecht (1599-1653), Still Life with Lovers, 1631. Oil on canvas © The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.
Gillis Gillisz de Berch (1600 – 1669), A Basket of Flowers with Seashells, 1642, Oil on panel © The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.
Another highlight of the exhibition are three loans from the Woburn Abbey Collection, depicting scenes of entertainment and revelry. In Twelfth Night by Jan Steen, family and friends reunite for an evening of raucous celebration, with a guest chosen as ‘king’ for the occasion. Despite this a moralising narrative is still at play, with the three candles in the foreground and three-stemmed King’s Candles illuminating the background depicting the Magi following the star to Bethlehem. They are being displayed alongside Villagers Merrymaking Outside, on loan from the nearby Bowes Museum. Steen’s lively depiction of men, women, children, and animals gathered outside a tavern, creates a vivid picture of everyday life in a rural Dutch village, and as one volunteer highlights, a reminder of the community missed whilst British pubs were closed.
Jan Steen (1625/26–1679), Twelfth Night Feast, 1671s. Oil on panel, Woburn Abbey Collection.
Visitors also are presented with the unique opportunity to see works by one of the most influential artists of the 17th Century, as two portraits by Rembrandt - Man with Hawk and Lady with a Fan - is on display in Bishop Auckland for the first time. Generously loaned by the Grosvenor Estate, the paintings by the leading portraitist in Amsterdam at the time offer an insight into the lives of the wealthy citizens of the Dutch Republic. Accompanying the pair of portraits are two works by renowned artist David Teniers the Younger. Also on loan from the Grosvenor Estate, these paintings depict modest rural wealth and are filled with layers of meaning and moral instruction which would have been easily understood to contemporary viewers.
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606 - 1669), Portrait of a man with a hawk, 1643. Oil on canvas, Grosvenor Museum, Chester.
Beauty in the Everyday also features a series of seventeenth century landscape paintings, reflecting the fashion for idyllic views of nature captured for their own sake, rather than to provide a setting for biblical or narrative scenes. Often inspired by Italian landscapes, these paintings were brought to project an air of worldliness. Idealised views of the countryside also responded to the urbanisation of Dutch society and may resonate with many people’s recent desire to retreat to the countryside and find solace in the outdoors.
Clare Baron, Head of Exhibitions, said: “Dutch and Flemish painters offer us a glimpse of domestic life 400 years ago, capturing everyday moments which many of us took for granted before Covid-19 – being able to sit outside with each other, meet together to celebrate birthdays and festivals, or just enjoy the company of a friend on a walk through the park. We hope the exhibition will strike a chord with visitors, inviting them to reflect on the value of everyday things which make such a difference to our lives.”