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A Q&A with Expert Bill Kloss

By | April 5, 2014
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A: Actually, much of that is romantic myth. He was supported by a very few patrons who seem to have bought much of the little art he produced. He was a very deliberate painter with a very complex painting method and meticulous technique. Then the French wars against Holland ruined the economy and his livelihood, and soon he was dead at forty-three. In the next century he was not very well known outside of Holland but not entirely forgotten at home and by the early 19th-century some important works were recognized as his. His paintings were admired abroad but under other artists' names. Art scholarship, in the modern sense, begins in the second half of the 19th-century, and it was a French writer who brought international attention to the name and art of Vermeer in the 1860s. In sum it is a story of a great painter of few works who died young in a time of trouble and whose work became confused with that of others. His "rediscovery" came at a time when 17th-century Dutch painting was regaining and even surpassing its former fame. The rarity of his paintings contributed, then and now, to Vermeer's new glory.

Q: As an art historian, which of the Dutch artists of the Golden Age do you most admire?

A : Rembrandt leads my list, which should come as no surprise. In a country of specialists in subject matter, he was a painter of most subjects from still life to landscape to portraiture to genre to religious and mythological stories. He excelled in all of them, through superior imagination, superb technique, and a deep empathy with the human condition. He was also the first and surely the greatest artist to produce a very large body of etchings. "Admire" is too pale a verb: love passionately comes closer.

Vermeer must follow, though the comparison is meaningless because of the huge disparity in their total oeuvre. But he developed a mastery in emulating natural light with which he breathed life into a measured space of his own devising. He is mesmerizing.

Frans Hals is third. He painted portraits, almost nothing else, but he brought hundreds of his sitters to vivid life and he never repeated himself. And nobody has ever painted black with greater mastery.

The greatest landscape master was Jacob van Ruisdael who, although a specialist in that vast area, did not limit himself to any single type of landscape but tackled them all successfully.

Fortunately, there are dozens more Dutch artists who can take your breath away. And that leaves many dozens more to enjoy.

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Bill Kloss

Bill Kloss is an art historian who has led over 100 tours for Smithsonian Journeys and our travelers continually look to him for new insight into the world of American and European art. He has written and contributed to books on the fine art collections of the White House, the Department of State, the U.S. Senate, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Since 1990, he has served on the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, appointed by President George H. W. Bush and reappointed by President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush. Bill earned his B.A. in English and his M.A. in art history from Oberlin College, and was a Teaching Fellow at the University of Michigan. After two years in Rome as a Fulbright Scholar, Bill taught at the University of Virginia before settling in Washington, D.C.

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