Ten must-see Dutch masterpieces

  • 13 October 2014

From a striking portrait of a Glaswegian art dealer to a marine scene that inspired Turner – as Rembrandt: The Late Works opens at the National Gallery, here are ten unmissable paintings from the Netherlands on display across Britain.

1. Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Alexander Reid, 1887
Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

A close friend of Van Gogh and Whistler, Alex Reid was a Glasgow art dealer who helped build Sir William Burrell's collection of French painting. Van Gogh's painting of his friend and associate takes the contrast between the emerald green of Reid's eyes and the orange of his hair and transforms it into a colour scheme that leaps off the canvas. The fiery orange background seems to spin around his head – a result of Van Gogh's technique, building up the painting from a series of short, strongly coloured brushstrokes in a manner reminiscent of pointillism.

2. Jacob van Ruisdael, Storm off Dutch Coast, 1660–70
Manchester Art Gallery

Widely considered to be the greatest and most versatile of the Dutch Golden Age's landscape painters, Ruisdael was born to a little known Haarlem painter and details of his training are uncertain. Regardless of his inauspicious origins, Ruisdael quickly became one of the Netherlands' most famous and prolific artists, working primarily in simple woodland scenes. This marine scene shows Ruisdael's range: showing a windswept ocean by a wooden jetty, the scene employs spectacular lighting effects in the contrast between the distant, brooding crowds and the sharp white of the waves crashing against rocks.

3. Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Procession to Calvary, 1602
Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire

Brueghel created five versions of his greatest work, and the painting at Nostell Priory – saved in 2010 following an Art Fund campaign – is considered the greatest of all. George Marlier, author of Brueghel's definitive biography, remarked that this painting alone 'justified the inclusion of Pieter Brueghel the Younger among the masters of Flemish painting.' A stunningly detailed work, it depicts Christ carrying the cross to the site of his crucifixion. In the foreground, the women who followed Christ weep as he walks to his death beneath a dark sky over Calvary.

4. Hieronymus Bosch, Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns), c1490–1500
National Gallery, London

Best known for his nightmarish visions of hell, populated by fantastical monsters and surreal visions, Hieronymus Bosch also created more traditional religious scenes. This painting at the National Gallery, depicting Christ having a crown of thorns forced upon him by torturers, is steeped in symbolism. The sneering figure in the top right wears a dog collar, a reference to the traditional description of the torturers as savage beasts, while Christ's gaze – staring out towards the viewer – invites us to share in his suffering.

5. Johannes Vermeer, Guitar Player, 1672
Kenwood House, London

While he was only modestly successful within his lifetime, and left his wife and 11 children in debt at his death, Vermeer's reputation has continued to grow since his rediscovery in the 19th century, and is now considered one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. He is best known for his intimate paintings of domestic interiors, and his distinctive use of colour – a result of his heavy use of lapis lazuli and Indian yellow. The Guitar Player is a typically sensitive depiction of a lit interior, the light leaking into the room around the edges of a curtained window. The painting is also known for a bizarre episode in 1974, in which it was stolen from Kenwood House and a ransom of $1,000,000 was demanded to distribute food to the Caribbean island of Grenada. It was eventually recovered from the churchyard of St Bartholomew's church in Smithfield.

6. Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1632
Burrell Collection, Glasgow

Perhaps the greatest Dutch artist of all, Rembrandt is best known for the hundreds of self-portraits he created of himself throughout his life. Housed in the Glasgow's Burrell Collection – the same Burrell who, centuries later, would employ Van Gogh's friend Alex Reid to help him fine acquisitions – this self-portrait shows a boyish-looking Rembrandt. Painted in an oval head-and-shoulders format, it shows the artist in a black coat with gold buttons, lace collar and black hat: the costume of a fashionable and wealthy Dutch burgher, suggesting it was created to enhance the young painter's reputation.

7. Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624
The Wallace Collection, London

Described by art historian Seymour Slive as 'one of the most brilliant of all Baroque portraits', Frans Hals's charming paintings from the Dutch Golden Age is one of Britain's most enduringly popular works of art. Its popular title, 'The Laughing Cavalier', was a Victorian invention following the painting's arrival in Britain for the inaugural display at the Bethnal Green Museum (later the V&A Museum of Childhood). On closer inspection, the sitter isn't laughing at all, but rather smiling enigmatically, his eyes narrowed in joy or, perhaps, suspicion.

8. Jan Steen, A School for Boys and Girls, c1670
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Distinguished by his humour and abundant use of colour, Jan Steen was born into a family of Catholic brewers before learning his art under Nicolaes Knupfer in Utrecht. Loosely inspired by Raphael's School for Athens fresco in the Vatican, this anarchic scene is mostly devoid of the powerful colours that typify Steen's work, with the exception of one child stood left of centre, dressed in a yellow shirt and blue shawl – colours more associated Steen's contemporary, Vermeer.

9. Hendrick Avercamp, Winter Landscape with a Frozen River and Figures, c1620
Guildhall Art Gallery, London

Known within his life time as 'de Stomme van Kampen' – the mute of Kampen – on account of his inability to talk, Hendrick Avercamp spent almost his entire career painting winter group scenes, often depicting people skating on frozen lakes – one of his favourite childhood hobbies. Avercamp was born in the last quarter of the 16th century, one of the coldest periods of the so-called Little Ice Age that spanned from approximately 1350 to 1850, and the freezing climate had a profound impact on his work.

10. Aelbert Cuyp, Landing Party on the Maas at Dordrecht, 1655–1660
Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire

One of the greatest Dutch landscape painters, Aelbert Cuyp developed an Italianate style that would make him a personal favourite of JMW Turner, who paid explicit homage to Cuyp in his 1818 work Dort. Landing Party on the Maas is thought to show the anchoring of 30,000 soldiers at Dordrecht in the summer of 1646 – one of the climactic events of the Eighty Years' War that led to the establishment of the Dutch Republic.

Rembrandt: The Late Works is at the National Gallery from 15 October 2014 to 18 January 2015. Get 50% off entry with a National Art Pass.

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