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About the exhibition From Vermeer to Van Gogh

Exhibition Curated Themes

© Culturespaces / Vincent Pinson ,

Dutch society

Behind the brick facade of Vermeer’s Little Street, the city awakens and comes to life, revealing the residents captured in their everyday activities. Framed within the windows, the inhabitants share their intimacy. Busy ladies, servants, dealers, scholars, and doctors painted from direct observation are revealed, just like a photography of a familiar scene. Johannes Vermeer, Gabriel Metsu, Frans van Mieris, and Pieter de Hooch, the specialists in genre painting, mirrored a prosperous and serene society, inviting you to immerse yourself in a moral and austere way of life.

The Northern artists produced many works on similar themes and travelled to observe the ones of their colleagues. They compared their canvases forming a great network of artists, which took the theme of intimate domestic scenes even further, attaining a form of perfection in the seventeenth century.

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Vermeer and the genre scene

Genre painting was a pictorial theme perfected by Johannes Vermeer, who observed everyday life and presented a precious and refined interpretation of his subjects, within a cinematic vision. The presence of the windows lets the outside world enter these confined scenes where his female figures, such as The Milkmaid and The Lacemaker, are thoroughly engaged in their painstaking tasks. Freed from superficial details, in a hazy atmosphere, Vermeer represents the invisible through domestic activity, inviting you to imagine the narrative that will unlock the mystery. Through his brilliant use of colour, the artist paints the drapery and reflections: the light skims the faces and highlights the subjects with dramatic tension, using an unprecedented technique. Girl With a Pearl Earring exerts a fascinating power of attraction with its yellow paired with ultramarine blue, the artist’s signature colours that Van Gogh would later admire in his writings.

© Culturespaces / Vincent Pinson ,

The art of music

The fourth art was a recurrent theme in genre painting. The refined atmosphere in Vermeer’s works and the hedonistic one in Gerrit van Honthorst’s paintings allow you to interact in a music lesson, attend a concert or join a duo. Typical of seventeenth-century bourgeois upbringings, the studious atmosphere of the female players of virginals, lutes, and violas da gamba is highlighted by Vermeer’s enhanced representation.

After this cosy atmosphere, the mood becomes lighter amongst the twirling feathers and the conniving cupids, in the concert scenes by Gerrit van Honthorst. The painting conveys the pleasure of joining the colourful festivities, in which the music resonates with great exultation. Influenced by Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, he then invites you to night-time candlelit scenes, with the festive musicians painted by Frans Hals and Hendrick ter Brugghen.

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The faith

Freed from religious repression in the seventeenth century, the United Provinces was a land in which there was freedom of worship, with all faiths represented. Vermeer, who converted to Catholicism, painted what is considered to be his last work: Allegory of Faith. The Faith is embodied by a female figure who rules the world, in an interior with a black and white checkerboard floor on which are scattered Christian symbols such as the apple and the snake. Very different from the Baroque style that prevailed in Catholic Europe, the Calvinist church promoted sobriety and architectural simplicity. Emmanuel de Witte and Hendrick Cornelisz Vilet painted whitewashed church interiors, devoid of any decoration, that show the quest for austerity with an absence of decorative elements. The natural light creates a sensation of realism and highlights the volumes by accentuating the contrasts of full and empty spaces. Night gradually falls over the church’s interior, and Rembrandt - the absolute master of chiaroscuro - highlights the biblical episodes in divine apparitions.

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The portrait

The portrait was a pictorial genre that prevailed during the Dutch Golden Age. In an earthy and warm palette, Rembrandt explored the light and dark contrasts, textures and tones. In a solemn atmosphere dominated by brown tones, Rembrandt focused on capturing facial expressions and emotions highlighted by light. Precursor of the ‘selfie’, he observed himself in the mirror, studied his facial expressions, and closely examined the details of ageing skin, an expression wrinkle, or the tenuous lightness of a strand of hair. Inspired by his engraving work, in contrast with characteristically smooth seventeenth-century painting, he ‘carved’ his face in the paint, painting himself without embellishment and without artifice, imbuing his extensive pictorial autobiography with truth. The Night Watch, this group portrait of Amsterdam’s militia, is distinguished by a convincing asymmetrical composition, which creates a sense of movement towards you as you observe the civic guards in a great state of bustle and confusion amongst the lances and rifles. In this work, the faint light introduced by Rembrandt to enhance the narrative makes it a masterpiece of chiaroscuro.

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The Feast of the gods

Abraham Bloemaert, the founder of the Utrecht School, invites you to a banquet of the gods, from which emerge huge voluptuous and brightly coloured figures from mythological scenes.

The atmosphere then becomes more feminine with Rembrandt’s works: he painted the goddesses Flora, Danae, Athena and Artemis with human faces. They are represented in a highly intimate manner and with sincerity, enveloped in a soft and warm light.

The Feast of the Gods by Cornelis van Poelenburgh, whose master was none other than Abraham Bloemaert, invites you to ‘climb into the heavens’ and sit at a large divine table in the clouds, suspended in the sky.

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A popular saga

Natural settings appeared and became a genre of its own in seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. Jan van Goyen and Jacob van Ruisdael set the scene for a bucolic stroll through calm and peaceful landscapes with windmills and lowlands, in which the cloud-filled skies dominate the compositions and imbue the works with a unique northern atmosphere. In this pastoral setting in the Dutch hinterlands, the animal painters Paulus Potter and Melchior d’Hondecoeter produced works of real interest with their detailed and realistic depictions of farm and farmyard scenes.

While the Dutch countryside in the Golden Age appears on the walls, Jan Steen invites you to view village festivals, family gatherings, lively tavern scenes, and the joyful peasants and bourgeois characters sitting around tables with an abundance of food made by the protagonists of the works of Gerrit Dou. The masters depicted a festive society, which invites you to join in the festivities.

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Winter scenes

An icy wind whips up the snowflakes that are swirling in the air and covers in white the roofs of the cottages and churches, the rotors of the windmills, and the ships’ masts. Winter sets in on the polders, the lakes, and frozen canals, which now provide the inhabitants with a veritable rink. Amongst the Dutch, ice skating was the main festive winter activity. The whole population put on their skates and had fun in the open air playing kolf (the forerunner to ice hockey) or riding sledges on the ice. Jacob van Ruisdael’s paintings of deserted landscapes and Hendrick Avercamp’s paintings of crowded ones contributed to the popularity surge of this theme of winter scenes in the seventeenth century. Indeed, during this time, the fascination with nature and depicting weather conditions was brought to the forefront and reached a peak.

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The conquest of the seas

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch fleet dominated global maritime trade and the world map developed thanks to some of Europe’s most remarkable mathematicians and astronomists and their mastery of cartography. The Astronomer and The Geographer, two scientists depicted by Vermeer, open up the horizon and invite you to set sail for the high seas. In a nation of sea-hardened sailors, the Dutch sailed against wind and tide on a choppy sea, plunged into the tumult of the storms, showing the wild and untamed nature in the paintings by Ludolf Backhuysen and Willem van de Velde the Younger.

The country also waged sea battles, painted by Hendrick Cornelisz Vroom, in particular against the Spanish, and its English rivals who wanted to halt the country’s maritime expansion into the Atlantic. The powerful Dutch empire that extended from Brazil to the islands of Indonesia (including the port of Amsterdam, which became the world’s most urban and affluent city) gave its inhabitants a sense of prosperity and abundance, as attested by the objects of curiosity and exotic fruits of the Stilleven (still lifes).

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In a world of slow contemplation, there is an abundance of luxury collectibles in the Stilleven, sorts of still lifes that celebrated the existing social order and its values under the calming effect of movement that was quietly arrested under the brush of the Dutch masters. The dining room decor is illuminated by a ray of light that brings to life the gleaming engraved silverware and the exotic fruits. They were painted in a manner that enhances their palatability, making you dream about a potential feast. In a veritable quest for realism, Willem Claesz Heda experimented the effects of light on the volumes, the harmonies and contrasts of colours, and the relief and texture of objects of varying materials, visible in his works that are anchored in the present. To celebrate the vibrant nature found in Dutch painting, Rachel Ruysch’s exotic flowers invade the interior of the home with their colourful blooms, like a final bouquet that brought the golden century to an end.

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Van Gogh, a journey into colour

As a worthy heir of the landscapes, still lifes, and portraiture of the Dutch masters of the Golden Age, Vincent van Gogh invites you to leave Holland and follow him on a journey from Paris to Provence. The Parisian scene encouraged Van Gogh to continue with his study of colour and give up the dark and muted tones he had used.

The journey continues in the footsteps of the painter, whose work was then scarred with the heat of the Midi, revealing the powerful rays of sunlight that further brightened his color range. Orange, ochre, red, olive green, and lavender... nature is depicted with the colours that inspired the artist’s masterpieces. In the wheat fields, the last sunrays take you into a Mediterranean siesta that leads to a dreamlike starry night. Immersed in an oneiric whirlwind by disorientating swirls of colour, end your journey with your heads in the stars.

Three centuries of Dutch painting

Circa 1608

Avercamp is certainly the most famous of the painters of little winters, the name given to these kinds of works. He produced almost fifty pictures that illustrated this ‘ice fever’, which took hold of the inhabitants as soon as the frost arrived. To achieve this, he made studies outdoors, then finished them in the studio.


Thousands of images were produced in the Netherlands: it is believed that between five and ten million works were created in the seventeenth century. At the time, painters were most often seen as craftsmen, and, like them, they had their specialisations: Hals chose to specialise in portraiture. He painted in 1623 Buffoon Playing a Lute, a popular figure with red cheeks and sparkling eyes.


The School of Utrecht was an artistic movement that was strongly influenced by the chiaroscuro and realism of the Italian painter Caravaggio, whose work was discovered by Dutch painters during their stays in Italy. Among them, Gerrit van Honthorst who spent 10 years in Rome. Coming back to the Netherlands, he painted the main themes of dutch art as venal love with The Procuress.


According to the original title, The Nightwatch was a portrait of ‘The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch’: hence, this was yet another picture featuring one of the famous bourgeois militias that defended the city of Amsterdam circa 1642. Except, this was a work by Rembrandt, and instead of a rigid and respectable posture, the painter arranged the arquebusiers in a deliberately chaotic way, littered with quirky details, applying his particular form of chiaroscuro.


As a teenager, Rembrandt began the particular exercise of self-portraitur. There are sixty paintings, twenty-eight engravings, and sixteen drawings in this category. It is as though Rembrandt wished to immortalise passing time, and capture each stage of his life. He also used his self-portraits to work with light and materials, as in this painting from 1655, with his fur beret and heavy coat.

Circa 1658

The Little Street is a small painting that celebrates domestic life. It is a typical view of the old city of Delft: a simple old house under a stormy sky. Seventeenth-century Holland was a new society that forbade images in its Protestant churches. Painters were no longer given commissions by the clergy, but received them instead from private citizens who wished to decorate the interiors of the homes and wanted subjects corresponding to their reality.


During this time, Vermeer paints some of his major pieces such as The Milkmaid in 1660 and Girl With a Pearl Earring in 1665. These calm and serene scenes represent well the identity of his work, characterized by the painting process he invented : luminous pointillism. On a still fresh layer of paint, he would apply a lighter stroke of paint, wherever the light was reflected on a surface. The light areas seem to be intensified in the shadows.

Circa 1690-1720

Rachel Ruysch is one of the few women painters in the history of painting. She lived for almost 86 years and had a prolific work, but of course, much more is known about her father and about her portraitist husband. Her Still Life With Flowers is a model of its kind to which she devoted her whole life. The bouquet-of-flowers motif, with its complex and fascinating compositions, reached its apogee at the end of the century.


With his Sunflowers, painted in 1888, Van Gogh renewed the very notion of a ‘still’ life. The colours are unbelievably powerful: to add more dynamism, Vincent applied different strokes on the vase and the background on one side, and the flowers on the other, which therefore seem to be more mobile. Sunflowers were one of the artist’s favourite and well-known themes.


Van Gogh, who had only just arrived in Arles, was struck by the ‘truly beautiful Provençal nights’. The sky seemed to be lighter than in the north, and the stars shone brighter. He immediately decided to paint this motif and he reflected on the project throughout the summer of 1889. The artist walked at night, observed the diversity of the colours in the sky and the clouds.

20th century

Heir to all those Dutch painters, Mondrian infuses his art by the upheavals at the beginning of the twentieth century: the change from candlelight to fluorescent lighting; from Calvinist austerity to the emergence of a modern rhythmic jazz, and from the linear Dutch landscapes to the dizzyingly high skyscrapers in Manhattan…

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Key works

Click on a work to find out more.

<i>Girl with a Pearl Earring</i>

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Johannes Vermeer , 1665 , oil on canvas , 44,5 x 39 cm , Mauritshuis, The Hague , © Mauritshuis, The Hague

<i>View of Delft</i>

View of Delft

Johannes Vermeer , c.1660-1661 , oil on canvas , 96,5 x 115,7 cm , Mauritshuis, The Hague , © Mauritshuis, The Hague

<i>Self-portrait with straw hat</i>

Self-portrait with straw hat

Vincent van Gogh , 1887 , oil on canvas , 40,6 x 31,8 cm , Gift of Adélaïde Milton de Groot (1876-1967), 1967, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York , © CC0 1.0 Universal/

<i>The Art of Painting</i>

The Art of Painting

Johannes Vermeer , 1666-1668 , oil on canvas , 120 x 100 cm , Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienne , © akg-images

<i>The Meridian</i>

The Meridian

Vincent van Gogh , 1889-1890 , oil on canvas , 73 x 91 cm , musée d’Orsay, Paris , Frank Buffetrille. All rights reserved 2023 , © Bridgeman Images

<i>The Night Watch</i>

The Night Watch

Rembrandt van Rijn , 1642 , oil on canvas , 379,5 x 453,5 cm , Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam , © Rijksmuseum - CC0 1.0

<i>Winter Landscape with Skaters</i>

Winter Landscape with Skaters

Hendrick Avercamp , c. 1608 , oil on panel , 77,3 x 131,9 cm , Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam , © Rijksmuseum - CC0 1.0

<i>The Starry Night</i>

The Starry Night

Vincent van Gogh , 1889 , oil on canvas , 73,7 x 92,1 cm , Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (by exchange), Museum of Modern Art, New York , © Bridgeman Images



Vincent van Gogh , 1889 , oil on canvas , 65 x 54,2 cm , Gift of Paul and Marguerite Gachet, Dr. Gachet's children, 1949, musée d'Orsay, Paris , © Bridgeman Images

<i>Still Life with Flowers on a Marble Tabletop</i>

Still Life with Flowers on a Marble Tabletop

Rachel Ruysch , 1716 , oil on canvas , 48,5 x 39,5 cm , Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam , © Rijksmuseum - CC0 1.0

<i>View of Houses in Delft, </i>Known as <i>‘The Little Street’</i>

View of Houses in Delft, Known as ‘The Little Street’

Johannes Vermeer , c. 1658 , oil on canvas , 54,3 x 44 cm , Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam , © Rijksmuseum - CC0 1.0

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Discover also the exhibitions "Egyptian Pharaohs" in Atelier des Lumières (Paris) and Carrières des Lumières (Baux-de-Provence) and "From Vermeer to Van Gogh, the Dutch Masters" in Bassins des Lumières (Bordeaux).

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