For much of the world, Dutch art is their first exposure to the culture and history of the Netherlands. Vincent van Gogh’s vibrant, swirling paintings made him a household name after his death, albeit it with an often butchered pronunciation (you really have to master the Dutch glottal “G” to get it right). Rembrandt van Rijn’s perfection of chiaroscuro light still amazes museum goers hundreds of years on, and Piet Mondrian’s primary colour blocks and bold black stripes are iconic the world over.
Although the lion’s share of the best known Dutch painters hailed from the populous provinces of North and South Holland, another world famous Dutch artist was a Frisian. M.C. Escher, the master of the tessellation, was born in the Frisian capital city of Leeuwarden. Escher’s works featured the mathematical symmetry of nature, and the graphic artist was inspired by the intricate tile work featured in Italian and Spanish architecture. Legend has it that an arched staircase inside Het Kasteel, a 19th century building in Groningen primarily used for conferences, was Escher’s inspiration for one of his most famous lithographs, “Relativity”, depicting stairs seemingly going nowhere and everywhere. An exhibition of Escher’s works will be on display at the Fries Museum starting on April 28, 2018.
Friesland was also the birthplace of Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Although Tadema primarily worked in Britain thanks to his status as a denizen of the United Kingdom, Tadema was born in the village of Dronrijp. His impeccable and vivid neo-classical paintings depicting the Roman empire ensured him a successful career throughout the 19th century. Although his work fell out of fashion for a period following his death, the Fries Museum paid 1.8 million dollars for Alma-Tadema’s “Entrance to a Roman Theatre” in 2015.
One of the most famous artists in the world, Vincent van Gogh’s paintings made while living in France are beloved internationally. But his fascination with farmland took root in the 40 paintings and sketches he made while living in the province of Drenthe for several months in 1883. He depicted what he saw in the provincial towns of Hollandscheveld, Nieuw-Amsterdam, Aalden and Hoogeveen: men and women doing back-breaking work in peat bogs, fields and canals. According to letters sent to his dear brother Theo, Vincent decided once and for all to become a painter during his time in Drenthe.
Groningen made a special mark on Dutch art history the early 20th century: an artist collective called De Ploeg (The Group) was founded in the city in 1918. The group, whose members include Jan Wiegers, Johan Dijkstra, Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman, George Martens, Jan Jordens, Jan van der Zee and Job Hansen, was characterized by expressionist, constructivist and impressionist styles. De Ploeg had an exhibition in the Groninger Museum 100 years ago (the museum has existed since 1874) and its members were united in their goal to reach a wider audience and raise the profile of modern art in the province. An exhibit honouring the 100th anniversary of De Ploeg’s founding is running at the same museum in 2018.
Another well-known artist from Groningen Jozef Israëls, who was a member of the Hague School. This art movement pushed back against the romanticism of art in the 1800s and chose instead to focus on realism. Israëls was born into a Jewish family in the city in 1824 and convinced his family to let him attend art school at the Minerva Academy when he was 11. He continued his studies in Amsterdam and Paris, and in 1870 moved to The Hague, where he went on to become the most prominent member of the art movement. Israëls’ son, Isaac, also became a painter, and painted another famous Jewish figure from Groningen, Aletta Jacobs (the first female student to attend university in the Netherlands and a women’s rights activist), multiple times throughout his career.
Although they are not exactly household names, the northern provinces were also home to extraordinarily talented female painters over the years. Elisabeth Geertruida Wassenbergh, who was born and died in Groningen in the 18th century, was the daughter of Golden Age painter Jan Abel Wassenbergh, and an accomplished “fijnschilder” in her own right. Her portraits and genre pieces were full of delicate details and textures. The Groninger Museum put on an exhibit featuring work by Elisabeth and Jan Abel in 2006. Clara Bruins was born in the capital of Drenthe, Assen, in 1859, and also lived in the Groningen village of Slocheteren. Bruins also focused on portraits and genre paintings, and her work was subsidized by King Willem III and Queen Emma. Another Groningen-born artist, Anna van Prooijen, was a painter, illustrator and art teacher, and is perhaps best known for her involvement in the founding of ODIS, an association for female painters in the Netherlands.
So while North and South Holland were undeniably the center of the Dutch art world for centuries, the northern provinces have played significant roles as the birthplaces and inspirations for artists throughout history.