Small and unassuming, Dirck Hals’ pair of “Merry Company” images embodies a morally potent message about the fragility of life. Both works depict a boisterous gathering of individuals, who through their interaction provide a glorious snapshot of 17th-century Holland. As a master’s student in art history, I studied such depictions and quickly learned that these works were constructed as cultural critiques, meant to augment societal values through psychological interaction with their target audience.
Despite their seemingly artificial subject matter, “merry company” paintings were staples of Dutch visual culture during the 17th century. Distinct from the continually academic focus of post-Renaissance Italian art, Dutch artists during this time were interested in using painting as an instructive tool, a vehicle by which social manners and virtues could be communicated. One need only look at the narratives of these two paintings for evidence of this idea. In each painting, figures congregate around tables to eat, drink and relish in each other’s company.
As onlookers, we visually pore over each figure, careful to take note of their posturing in relation to the larger narrative. While this all takes place within the picture plane, there is one figure in each painting whose gaze penetrates the fourth wall and gazes directly at us. This forges an unexpectedly psychological connection between subject and audience.
Historical analysis of this era provides keen insight into why Dutch artists had a penchant for such theatrical gestures. Due to Holland’s largely Calvinist society, the forceful visual tradition of Catholicism detectable in Italy was not a factor. Instead, artists chose as their subjects the citizens whose distinction laid claim to their economic prosperity and way of life. Without the emphasis of religion, artists turned their attention to the attainment of social manners and class etiquette. The fact that “merry company” paintings often include a figure that penetrates the fourth wall and gazes directly at the audience is the artist’s way of both inviting viewers into the narrative and allowing them to contemplate it.
As one of the more unique narrative choices in the history of art, Dutch genre painting’s psychological interaction with viewers works as a welcomed addition to the museumgoer’s visual journey. This, among other reasons, is why I pause and observe even more acutely, when viewing artwork of this era.
On January 18th, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts will be closing its galleries to upgrade the vapor barrier system in the Marcia and John Price Museum Building on the University of Utah campus. The project is expected to take a year, with the galleries expected to be reopened, with a new installation of the museum’s permanent galleries, in Spring of 2017 .In anticipation of the museum’s closing, we’ve asked some local artists, art lovers and art professionals to tell us which piece from the museum’s permanent collection they will miss most over this next year. You can see the posts at http://artistsofutah.org/15Bytes/index.php/tag/long-live-umfa/
The UMFA will kick off its remodeling and reinstallation project with a celebratory weekend of free admission to the galleries and the Museum’s most popular art experiences. The Long Live Art! Kickoff Party on Saturday, January 16, and Sunday, January 17, is the public’s last opportunity to visit the UMFA before the Museum pauses its exhibition program (for more information visit http://www.umfa.utah.edu).
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