In May 1928, Joan Miró was thirty-five and at the start of what would be a long and distinguished career (born in Barcelona in 1893, Miró died in Palma de Mallorca in 1983). For the past several years, he had been living in Paris and painting spare, poetic canvases in which widely spaced calligraphic symbols, fragmented images, slender lines, and, occasionally, words, all rendered with heart-wrenching delicacy and sensitivity, floated against subtly inflected grounds that suggested infinite space. On the first of May 1928, an exhibition of these fragile, mysterious paintings opened at Georges Bernheim’s Paris gallery. It was Miró’s third show in the city and a stunning success in terms of both critical response and of sales. Soon after the opening of the exhibit, the Catalan artist made his first trip to the Netherlands, a two-week visit that he had been planning since the previous year.

He spent his time chiefly at the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, studying these wonderful museums’ collections of Dutch paintings from the Golden Age. Miró’s sojourn was relatively brief, but the works he saw fascinated him and impressed him deeply. Before then, in Spain and even in France, he had had few opportunities to study seventeenth-century Dutch paintings. In the 1920s, the Louvre owned only one work by Jan Vermeer and two Jan Steens, and, although the Prado had good examples of Dutch Golden Age pictures, Miró didn’t make his initial visit to Madrid until July 1928, several months after his return from Holland. In the Netherlands, like most tourists, the young painter bought postcards of the pictures he liked best, sending a stream of them to the woman who would become his wife, Pilar Juncosa i Iglesias, the daughter of family friends from Mallorca. He also kept a few postcards for himself.

The trip to the Netherlands proved memorable.

The trip to the Netherlands proved memorable. For decades afterwards, Miró spoke with excitement about what he had seen. In an early interview published the summer after his trip, he told the reporter about how struck he had been by the meticulousness of the Dutch painters and their ability to evoke specific materials, qualities that he admired very much. Half a century after his initial encounter with the treasures of the Mauritshuis and the Rijksmuseum, Miró recalled that he had been “tremendously interested in Vermeer and the seventeenth-century Dutch masters.”

The visible, tangible results of this trip can be seen in the well-known series of paintings that Miró began soon after he returned from the Netherlands. Made during the summer of 1928, which the painter spent in Spain, they are the three Dutch Interiors, subtitled I, II, and III, now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively. In marked contrast to the dreamy, pared-down “field” paintings that preceded them—liquid expanses punctuated with notes of fragile, tense drawing, like those shown at Galerie Georges Bernheim in early May—the Dutch Interiors are robust, full of incident, and playful. They are constructed with a new intricacy in relation to their immediate predecessors, as well as with a crispness, solidity, and an intensity of color that recall Miró’s pictures of the early 1920s, although the imagery of the later paintings is far less literal and more multivalent than that of the earlier works.

The complex, allusive Dutch Interiors are deservedly celebrated and have been frequently exhibited and discussed, sometimes along with the many preparatory drawings that generated them, sometimes even in connection with the postcards that Miró referred to when he worked on the paintings. Now, a delightful exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, “Miró: The Dutch Interiors,” unites all three of these pivotal paintings not only with their preparatory drawings, from rapid sketches to highly developed studies, and not only with the postcards, but also with some closely related canvases of the same period.1 Remarkably, hanging opposite Miró’s canvases are, for the first time, the actual Dutch paintings that the young painter found so provocative and that he used as sources, translated into postcard images, on his return to his Spanish studio.

The exhibition begins with a brief preamble of stripped-down, eloquent Mirós of the type included in his critically and commercially successful Paris exhibition of May 1928; some of them, in fact, are securely documented as having been part of the Bernheim show, while others are generally believed to have been so. The selection, which mostly dates from 1927 and is all from the Metropolitan’s own holdings, ranges from the austere Painting (1927), with its coiled spring of drawing against a swipe of white, to the sensuous Circus Horse (1927), with its luminous expanse of radiant ultramarine blue, exquisitely modulated allusive shapes, and taut lines. The more densely painted, more incident-filled Animated Landscape (1927), by contrast, seems to point backwards to Miró’s earlier crowded, stylized landscapes—paintings such as the Guggenheim Museum’s The Tilled Field (1923–4), or the National Gallery, Washington’s The Farm (1921–2), which Ernest Hemingway so admired, with the anecdotal quality of their fairly explicit animals, trees, and farm accoutrements tempered by the artist’s increasingly intense interest in both economy and the expressive properties of materials, manifest in his great “field” paintings of the late 1920s. Yet the relative complexity, the warm palette, and the density of Animated Landscape also point ahead and prepare us for what is to come in the three Dutch Interiors. The presence of this enigmatic picture, in which, among other inexplicable elements, the sky and a crescent moon seem to have been brought to earth—or is that a reflection in a pool of water?—helps to explain why Miró was so responsive to the wealth of small, carefully rendered events in the paintings he was to see in the Netherlands.

How he responded is made explicit by “Miró: The Dutch Interiors,” if we pay attention to the inclusions in this eye-testing exhibition. The presence of Jan Steen’s Children Teaching a Cat to Dance, known as “The Dancing Lesson” (c. 1665–68) and of Hendrick Sorgh’s The Lute Player (1661), both from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, allows us to savor the details the young artist enjoyed, for their own sake, and we can try to imagine just what it was that caught Miró’s eye.

For those who are unwilling to trust their own experience, the exhibition includes paired reproductions of the Dutch paintings with their cognate Mirós, each with a numbered key explaining what is what. (I’m told that these are immensely popular.) For those willing to do some independent work, the exhibition’s wealth of drawings lays bare the artist’s process, allowing us to track Miró’s realization of his declared wish to translate the Dutch paintings into his own distinctive language, beginning with rapid sketches that seem to be his way of assimilating the key shapes in the original composition and turning them into distinctively “Miró” configurations—biomorphic and ambiguous. A series of more finished drawings, some squared-up so that the image could be accurately reconstituted on canvas, completes the story, especially when we notice that there are significant differences between the most highly developed drawings and the paintings. We can even compare the postcards that Miró had on his easel when he worked on the Dutch Interiors with the original paintings, and ponder how the distortions of reproduction affected his memories of what he had seen in Amsterdam when he made his own versions.

The exhibition makes clear that, whether triggered by postcards or recollections of direct observation, the connections between Sorgh’s The Lute Player and moma’s Dutch Interior (I) are the most explicit of the series. Miró faithfully recapitulated, among other things: the view out the window where the musician and his bemused female companion sit; the dog and cat beneath the table; and even, albeit quite transformed, the bowl of fruit on the table. The dominant white and ochre “protagonists” of Dutch Interior (I)—a large white oval, a golden lute shape, and a jagged white shape reminiscent of the “glyph” for horse in Miró’s earlier paintings—prove to be closely connected to the oval face of the musician, his instrument, and the young woman he serenades, conflated with the white drapery that cascades down the right side of the picture.

In both the Sorgh and the Miró, the lute anchors the painting and establishes its dominant directions.

In both the Sorgh and the Miró, the lute anchors the painting and establishes its dominant directions, although Miró’s lute shape is much enlarged, compared to Sorgh’s, just as the tuning peg of the original has been turned into a major event, and the lute strings shattered and made into rhythmic accents. These shifts make sense pictorially; they even seem spatially justified, given the sharpened focus on the center of The Lute Player in Dutch Interior (I). Yet once we notice the conflation of the young woman and the drapery, we become acutely aware of how willfully and dramatically Miró has altered the size relationships of the elements that he has chosen to emphasize. In fact, they provide his point of departure, magnifying the musician’s head, shrinking the cat, enlarging the dog, and generally expanding the space that the characters inhabit. It’s as if he had blown open the small room in which Sorgh’s characters are confined, creating a paradoxically defined but infinite zone that somehow combines the endlessly suggestive, but explicitly painted, expanses of the “field” pictures with the clearly bounded, illusionistic settings of Golden Age genre paintings.

This kind of spatial transformation is even more acute in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s Dutch Interior (II), which is based on Steen’s raucous image of children treating a cat badly. (Animal lovers should note that the cat appears to grin rather evilly through the entire proceeding and that some of the children look more bestial than the cat.) Miró is more economical in Dutch Interior (II) than in Dutch Interior (I). He appears to have been at once more selective in his choice of elements to “translate” and more audacious in the ways he reinvented them, reducing, for example, the hapless cat to a small squiggle and turning a chubby, laughing child to a grotesquely inflated floating profile head. The blue skirt of the girl playing a recorder for the dancing lesson provides an excuse for a deep ultramarine shape, related to the original only tenuously, through its position in the composition. The contour of her back and hip, somehow combined with the rucked folds of her skirt, generates the swooping bands that embrace the detached, dominant elements of the picture.

The more time we spend with the Mirós and the Dutch paintings, the more we realize how fearlessly and inventively he transformed his sources, radically changing the scales of individual elements in relation both to the original paintings and to each other, in order to create new kinds of visual expression and new kinds of unstable spaces that turn the domestic intimacies of his sources into eerie dramas. I’m quite aware that the Dutch paintings had moral subtexts readily understood by seventeenth-century viewers, but I suspect that Miró was not only oblivious to these overtones but probably would have been uninterested had they been pointed out to him. It’s clear from the way he used the Sorgh and the Steen as springboards for his own inventions that his attention was engaged far less by their narratives than by their formal qualities. In the same way, he appears to have been equally unconcerned with remaining faithful to the subtle, dim tonalities of the Dutch originals, reconstituting them in clear, saturated hues: only the brown floor planes of Dutch Interior (I) and Dutch Interior (II) have any obvious connection with the colors of the original paintings and their relative positions, although it’s possible to find a connection between the tonal contrasts of white linen and darker surroundings in The Lute Player and Miró’s disposing of white shapes against a dark green plane in Dutch Interior (I).

Miró maintained that there was no one-to-one relationship between this painting and a Dutch prototype.

The Met’s painting, Dutch Interior (III), the leanest and most generously scaled of the three paintings, is paired with Steen’s Woman at her Toilette (c. 1661–65, Rijksmuseum). The resemblances between the two are uncanny. It’s easy to find correspondences in Miró’s painting for many elements in the Steen: the discarded shoes, the stocking, the chair back, even the profile pose, while the complicated white “swirl” in the center of Dutch Interior (III) could plausibly derive from the fur edge of Steen’s woman’s jacket. Miró maintained that there was no one-to-one relationship between this painting and a Dutch prototype, as there was with the first two works in the series, but that it was based on a combination of sources. It’s true that he could not have seen Steen’s Woman at her Toilette on his trip to Holland, since it was still in a private collection at the time and did not enter the Rijksmuseum’s collection until much later. Nonetheless, the picture was reproduced in the most important book on Steen of the period, so it is quite possible that Miró could have known it. Given his use of postcards as the basis for Dutch Interiors (I) and (II), it would not have been out of character for him to have referred to another sort of reproduction.

The three Dutch Interiors are supplemented by related paintings that enlarge the argument, such as the Met’s The Potato (1928), a female figure done at the same time as the paintings based on Sorgh and Steen that shares a similar palette, similar density, similar frontality, and similar shifts of scale. The difference in the size of the two “hands” of the figure in The Potato, for example, suggests movement in space against the uninflected ground. The well-known Portrait of Mistress Mills in 1750 (1929, Museum of Modern Art), based on an eighteenth-century mezzotint of an English actress in an extravagant hat, provides evidence of Miró’s continuing interest in working from sources, whether they were old masters or popular prints or, as other exhibitions have revealed, images from commercial catalogues. It provides evidence, too, of his bold, individual approach to those sources, his ability to interpret the most diverse material in his own unmistakable dialect. An elegant, subdued collage from the summer of 1929 ends the show at the Met, a prefiguration of things to come, as Miró, typically, moved ahead by changing directions abruptly.

There are a lot of splendid works in “Miró: The Dutch Interiors,” paintings and drawings that reward extended attention for their own merits. But ultimately, if we look carefully at the works on view in relation to each other, we discover that the exhibition is really about how artists think—or at least, how one fascinating modernist thought. It’s exciting to be made privy to that process through the evidence of the work. Another pleasure of “Miró: The Dutch Interiors” is that it is a small exhibition with a limited number of works, one of those increasingly frequent alternatives to the blockbuster whose small size may reflect the diminished resources of today’s museums. But it’s an extraordinarily rich little show, nonetheless. It’s clear focus and modesty allow visitors an intimate, concentrated, specially informative experience of the works on view. In addition, if you’re still curious about Miró’s trip to the Netherlands, the show is accompanied by an issue of The Rijksmuseum Bulletin (in English) with an article by two Dutch scholars titled “Miró in Holland.” It’s a fascinating account of what he could have seen in the museums he visited in the spring of 1928 and how those works echo in his own efforts. Like the exhibition, it’s highly recommended.

  1.   “Miró: The Dutch Interiors” opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 5, 2010 and remains on view through January 17, 2011.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 3, on page 41
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