The broad Dutch horizon, lacking the intricate drapery of hills, the dip of dales, or the drama of cliffs, might seem an unlikely source of inspiration. It isn’t sublime, or even really picturesque. Even brooding buildings are few. And yet, in the hands of a 17th-century draughtsman, that level skyline can beguile the eye with sweeping simplicity.

With Rembrandt’s World: Dutch Drawings from the Clement C. Moore Collection, the Morgan Library offers a seductive glimpse of Lowlands trampled by sheep, studded with windmills, and flecked with tulips. Dogs, oxen and even a roaring bear disport upon the walls. The show’s title is somewhat misleading: there are only a few Rembrandts here, and not one of them really sparkles. Rather, the show’s appeal lies in the ensemble, a merry company of small but winsome works.

Sunlight glints through the door of a humble barn by Abraham Bloemaert. With no people to distract us, our eyes fix on a dense thatch of shapes and textures – the rough splay of diagonal roof beams, the irregular lines of the trough, the complicated patterns of brick and wood grain. It’s an improbably abstract still life, disguised as a simple animal billet.

A couple of cows hang out in Cornelis Saftleven’s gentle riverscape. One stares soulfully into our eyes. The other scans the distance, taking in eddying clouds and a church steeple. Its tufted hide invites an affectionate ruffle. Sadly, so does the fleece of Rochus van Veen’s dead Eurasian otter, a beautiful grey creature with curling whiskers and delicate webbed feet. Van Veen gives his subject a monumental treatment, laying it out like a fallen knight while still honouring its quintessential otter-ness.

A drawing is hard evidence of inspiration. Where paintings tell a tale of labour expended, of days of effort poured on with layers of glaze, a drawing has the spontaneity of a fleeting idea. It is a fragile record of the creative process unfolding, a kind of road map to the artist’s imagination. Zacharias Blijhooft, for instance, tossed off a quick and vibrant scene of a market on a winter’s day that contrasts the stillness of the season with the burble of human activity. A horse tugs a heaping sleigh of goods across a frozen canal. Bundled peasants chat, haggle and assess the items for sale next to a duo of flirting hounds. Chimney smoke mingles with clouds in the pewter sky. Blijhooft conveys all of this with quick surges of brown over silvery grey wash.

These drawings satisfied more than just an artist’s whimsy: there was a lively trade in rural scenes among Amsterdam collectors who preferred their encounters with mud and peasants to take place through the medium of paper and ink. Philips Koninck fed this yearning with a rough but eloquent sketch of a broad-nosed peasant drawing cheer from a jug of beer and generously passing his good mood on to the envious viewer.

Continues to April 29,

Get alerts on Visual Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article