Dutch Light

Holland is flatter than a pancake, reclaimed from the sea, and always cloudy: that’s the recipe for Dutch Light. A friend of mine says the sky is always grey here in the Netherlands. She has lived under the blue American sky that was always blue and bright. She is wrong of course. Looking at the clouds the sky is different each day, the clouds are never ever the same and even simple grey weather filters the light.

Dutch light is most recognizable in the paintings of 17th-century artists such Vermeer, Koninck and van Goyen, who mastered and promulgated a technique of contrast and shading that makes their work some of the most valuable paintings on the planet. In the 19th century, critics began writing about Dutch light, creating a mythos that resulted in Holland becoming a destination landscape for artist-pilgrims.

Crossing of the Rhine in Rhenen by Jan van Goyen (1642)

Around 1979, the artist Joseph Beuys said Dutch light was disappearing. The Zuiderzee, the inland sea at the liquid heart of the Netherlands, was blocked off from the North Sea, leaving behind a freshwater lake named for the river that drains into it, Ijsselmeer. Beuys argued that the diminished surface area in the heart of Holland was causing it to lose its famed light. Although he might be right (even as the film’s excellent cinematography gives lie to the notion), there is simply no way to prove it.
Dutch artist Jan Andriesse eloquently sums up Dutch light:

“What distinguishes Dutch light is that it’s constantly changing. It has to do with geographical and meteorological conditions. There’s so much water in the air, which diffuses the light. There’s so much surface water which reflects the light.. The only thing the eye perceives is a difference. Change stimulates consciousness. Even more important is that painters have conveyed their awareness of the light.”

What can’t be put in words is the beauty of place. The Netherlands’ distant, flat horizon throws the world open to the movement of clouds and water dappled in sun. 


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