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Old Masters, Who Never Met, in Conversation

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AMSTERDAM — Two warring nations: one Catholic, one Protestant; one a monarchy, the other a republic; one profoundly religious, the other ambitiously mercantile. How is it possible, then, that 17th-century Spain and the Netherlands, divided in so many ways, managed to produce artists whose works were so similar?

That is the central question posed by “Rembrandt-Velázquez,” a breathtakingly lush exhibition of 17-century Dutch and Spanish masterworks at the Rijksmuseum, running through Jan. 19.

“For me, it’s a poetic dialogue between two great masters,” Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, said in an interview. “It’s also just a celebration of painting, with the two greatest portrait painters of all time.”

Rembrandt van Rijn and Diego Velázquez lived at almost exactly the same time. Velázquez, born in 1599, seven years before Rembrandt, who was born in 1606. Velázquez died in 1660 at the age of 61; Rembrandt in 1669 at 63. For both Spain and the Netherlands, this was an era of economic boom and flourishing culture: Merchants from both countries dominated international trade, and great wealth was accrued by their upper classes. Art was in high demand.

Yet, throughout most of the artists’ lives, until 1648 — when both men were in their late 40s — the two countries were engaged in the Eighty Years’ War, the Netherlands’ struggle for independence from Spain. The northern provinces of the former Hapsburg Monarchy revolted against Roman Catholic rule, seeking to establish an independent Protestant state that eventually became the Dutch Republic.

War made travel difficult, so Spanish and Dutch artists rarely met, even if their artworks were circulated, most often in the form of portable prints. It’s almost certain that Rembrandt and Velázquez never encountered each other; Velázquez may have seen some of Rembrandt’s etchings, and Rembrandt may have heard that there was a master painter in Madrid, said Gregor Weber, the curator of the Rijksmuseum exhibition. But they are not known to have corresponded, he added.

Nevertheless, their work bears a surprising resemblance. Both specialized in portraiture, capturing the prominent figures in their respective countries; for Velázquez, this meant the Spanish royal family; for Rembrandt, wealthy Dutch burghers and merchants. They both painted in contrasting dark and light hues, favoring palettes of darker, earthy pigments: bone black, ocher, umber, siennas and lead white.

“They meet in their intentions: how to paint, why to paint and what to paint,” Mr. Weber said in an interview. “The intention of both was always to go deeper into the psychology of their sitters. To be closer to reality, to be closer to religion, and to be closer, in general to the human condition.”

But the most striking similarity might be the brushwork of the two artists, according to the Dutch art critic Hans den Hartog Jager. “Both show exemplary technical control, combined with the ability to let go of that control and transcend technique,” he writes in the exhibition catalog.

These similarities and contrasts can be seen in self-portraits of the two masters that hang side by side in Amsterdam. On the left is the only known painting that Velázquez completed of himself alone, a work dated 1640 and on loan from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of Valencia. On the right, a self-portrait of Rembrandt from 1654, one of more than 80 such paintings he made over his lifetime.

Velázquez, with an upturned mustache and bushy black hair, gazes dubiously toward the viewer, his expression somber and stern. Rembrandt, clean shaven and informally dressed, his trademark wide beret covering his curly hair, has a softer, more inviting gaze. Through the use of lighter pigments on their cheeks, both draw our attention to their eyes, which contain multitudes.

The exhibition was made possible by a collaboration between the Rijksmuseum and the Prado in Madrid, which lent 14 works for the Amsterdam exhibition.In addition to the two headline artists, the Rijksmuseum exhibition features works by other Dutch and Spanish artists — Johannes Vermeer and Bartholomé Murillo, Carel Fabritius and Francisco de Zurbarán, Frans Hals and Juan de Valdés Leal — presented in pairs or threes to highlight visual rhymes.

Pairs are made of floral bouquets by the Dutch artist Rachel Ruysch and the Spanish artist Juan de Arellano; still lifes by the Dutch painter Adriaen Coorte and de Zurbarán; and jesters in remarkably similar costumes, by Frans Hals and Velázquez.

“The dialogue makes you look more intensely; it makes you think, ‘What do I really see?’ Mr. Weber said. “Most people will see the inner essence of these paintings. It’s kind of a school of looking.”

Spanish and Dutch artists of the 17th century had similar artistic roots to draw on, Mr. Weber said. They could both lay claim to the legacy of the Flemish painters of the 15th and 16th centuries — such as Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jan van Eyck — as well as the Flemish Baroque generation that followed, especially the work of Peter Paul Rubens. They also shared sources in Italian art, such as the works of Titian, Carracci and Caravaggio, he said.

Where they diverged, it was often over religion. For example, Francisco Ribalta’s “Christ Embracing Saint Bernard” and Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride” are united by a physical gesture: the crossing of hands. In the Rembrandt, religion is played down, in keeping with the Protestant belief that faith is an individual matter. Ribalta’s “Christ” elevates the religious subject matter, creating a more baroque, lofty image of holy deification, in line with Catholic thought.

“‘The Jewish Bride’ is one of the most moving stories of the Old Testament, and it’s very human — it’s about us, about earthly love,” Mr. Dibbits said. “The Ribalta is about divine love, a love that’s above humans.

“One is about direct confrontation with yourself, and the other is about exaltation.”

As different as the religious basis of these works may be, the Spanish and Dutch masters of the 17th century surpassed their predecessors by using imagery that was neither moralistic nor supernatural. Instead, they reach for the highest, yet entirely attainable, human value: love.

Through Jan. 19, 2020, at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; rijksmuseum.nl.

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