The 17th and 18th centuries were both a time of vital urban development in some European cities and a period of many changes for the arts. The paintings of the Netherlands and the architecture of London represent two different scenarios and contexts of this development. Through the analysis of two works from each context, I will highlight contrast and draw similarities between them. First, I will discuss the style of the works of the art and they influences. Second, I will contrast the works by addressing how they represented the country and the city. Finally, I will talk about how changes in both societies influenced the art market and the choices of the artists. Ultimately, I will demonstrate how, despite the similarities, they visual representations of the countryside and the city are vastly different in British and Dutch culture.
While both societies had similar influences, each developed a different art. Two paintings The Milkmaid, by Johannes Vermeer(Plate 2.2) and View of Haarlem) by Jacob Van Ruisdael(Plate 2.5) are representative of the so-called Dutch realism. In The Milkmaid, a milk woman pours milk into a bowl while standing next to a window. The light radiates through the scene. Much has been said about the alleged symbolism of Dutch painting and its moral significance. Svetlana Alpers, an art history understands Vermeer’s paintings and, in general, Dutch paintings as an “art of describing” that is linked to scientific interest in visuality. The visual acquires a relevance that goes beyond the representation of scenes of customs; it is a way of approaching the world knowing it and recognizing it. This type of interior domestic scene was very popular at the time. The reason itself indicates that “some Dutch painters registered the house as their place of work” (A Reader, 2012, p.161). Conversely, View of Haarlem belongs to the landscape genre. In the framework of the development of Dutch painting, landscape occupies an important place. As the number of landscape paintings increases the number of historical and religious paintings decreased. Like London, Holland was very far from Catholicism, in fact, they followed different religious. Dutch society was one the most urbanised place in Europe .The causes of this could be the economic development of the United Provinces that, in spite of the wars, enjoyed a strong commercial sector and great financial wealth-phenomena in whose refuge prospered a consistent bourgeoisie interested in art and specifically in paintings. View of Harlem shows a realistic scene of fabric whitening in the fields, with Haarlem surrounding it. The horizon line seems very low, which allowed Ruisdael to recreate the representation of a dramatic contrasting sky with clear areas. The light is focused on the fields, the most illuminated aspect of the image. Thus, both works provide an image of Baker’s assertion of, “a new kind of art, distinguished by its vividly detailed and seemingly faithful realism” (Baker, 2012,p, 24).
In contrast, for Grosvenor Square, by Sutton Nichols (1730-35)(Plate 3.27), has a classic design. The geometrical and symmetrical design of the square is surprising, perhaps inspired by the style of Ancient Rome and its popular piazzas. The neighbourhood was Spitalfields (Plate 3.23), whose rows of almost identical terraced houses, provided uniformity to the English streets and determined the Georgian character. The four floors, though not completely symmetrical, give the structure a sense of balance and regularity, as observed by Mckeller” through its stratification and repetition” (Mckeller, 2012,p, 122). Also of classic style, but without adornments or excesses, the so-called Palladianism was an “antidote for elaborated designs of Barroco” (Mckeller, 2012 ,p.122). Interestingly, this style of house is also found in Amsterdam, and as noted by Mckeller, “the similarities in urban form and style between these two places is surprising” (Mckeller, 2012, p.107). Thus, the tastes of the different societies were not homogeneous , despite some similarities, showing that the artists were influenced by the context of their respective countries.
In both British and Dutch society, art displayed the gap between social classes. In View of Haarlem, the landscape is idyllic, perhaps suspiciously so. The concept of landscape, a concept that, beyond its meaning as an aesthetic representation of the environment, can serve as a starting point to analyse the different degrees of segregation between the countryside and the city. As Hayden Lorimer (2011) states, in this review of Professor Denis Cosgrove’s book The Iconography of Landscape “The aesthetics of the landscape was used to hide a dramatic inequality and to hide the work of the peasant or the usurpation of the communal property of the land, among other things.” At The Milkmaid of Vermeer, however, perhaps the differentiation between the countryside is not so obvious, but it does exist. The obsession to represent the domestic space is perhaps the way to distinguish oneself from the rural world. As Baker observes, “The field provided a point of reference against which to define its urban existence” (Baker, 2012,p.24). The Dutch society represented in the painting of that period prefers to distinguish itself from the countryside, and in fact, it distinguishes this by placing more importance on family life- to life at home, not to life outside of it. Like many other types of paintings that emerged during this period, these genres sought to make differences with countryside people, sometimes though caricature of them (Plate 2.12). As Gaiger (2012) observes, “to reinforce the self-perception of city dwellers as more cultivated and sophisticated” (Gainer, 2012,p, 75).
Like with the works in Dutch society, the new buildings in London also displayed social differences. Grosvenor Square was designed for the exclusive use of the well-to-do classes, who strolled and relaxed alongside their private garden. But the rich classes fascination with the countryside is also reflected in the topography of the plaza, but especially outside it. Sutton’s point of view shows, in addition to a central park, the green fields with hills at the bottom of the illustration. This relationship with nature was characteristic of the new squares and what Raymond Williams defined in his book The Country and the City (1973) as “intermediate spaces” that “combine the urban and the rural in a modern idiom” cited in Mckeller (2012, p.137). The earth enclosure joined the whole as if it were a large garden, perhaps to hide the boundaries and thus giving the appearance of freedom. The terraced houses of the Spitalfields neighbourhood were also used as a form of class differentiation. Their simple brick structures is relatively cheap and it could be used as a base for more expensive houses, and as Mckeller (2012) observes “only small shifts in decoration or proportioning to signify social differentiation” (Mckeller, 2012,p, 128). Although both cities had social differences, London tried to integrate the countryside into the city.
The artists of both contexts knew how to adapt to the market. Both Ruisdael and Vermeer knew how to adapt their paintings to the growing market and thus secure their commissions. Notably, many of the inhabitants of Holland had never had direct contact with the countryside. The landscape then became a stylized and idealized representation of the field, as is see in View of Haarlem. This way of observing the field at a distance may have increased the differences between the urban life and the countryside. There is, therefore, no suffering or social problems reflected in this art, but elements of placidity, joy or beauty-themes that, together with self-representation, reflect the taste of the Protestant bourgeoisie of the time. This also happened in London, where artists and architects were influenced by social trends. For example, in London, a new concept of urban life was born, one more in tune with the countryside. Philosopher Jurgen Habermas called it the “bourgeois social sphere” (A reader, 2012, p, 107). This changing current transformed cultural relations and this completely altered the planned renewal of the city, making it more socially aware. Sutton, for example, produced an engraving where the country and the city have the same importance, perhaps reflecting the changes that took place in the society of the moment.
In conclusion, the works discussed here represent two completely different contexts. The art market changed, and the artists of both media adapted to the changes in the society that surrounded them. Although commercial, economic and urban development had similarities in both countries, a different art was produced, not only by the chosen medium but also by the representation of the contrast between the urban life and the countryside. Although social differences are represented in both contexts, London was undergoing social changes that were reflected in its architecture, which tried to integrate the country into urban life while the Dutch kept more distance with it.