Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Solid Gold at Peabody Essex

Detail of Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburg, painted in 1632, when Rembrandt was 26.

Sometimes, yes, the Hub Review makes mistakes (we're partial, however, to self-admitted ones - don't look so shocked). One of those recent errors was putting off until the last minute a visit to Golden, the exhibit of works from the Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Art at the Peabody Essex Museum - it closes this weekend, which means I won't be able to visit it again, much as I'd like to (and if you do go, expect crowds - don't worry, it's still worth it). 

Portrait of a Preacher, by Frans Hals
Golden is essentially a showcase for the collection of Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo, who have been quietly amassing over the past two decades what many consider to be one of the best selections of Dutch and Flemish art (and furniture) in private hands.  And it's hard to disagree with that assessment as you wander through the exhibit, which includes one world-class masterpiece (the Rembrandt pictured above) that the Rijksmuseum or Hermitage would kill for, as well as a late, heart-breaking Hals (at left), and two major Ruisdael landscapes.  No, there is no Rubens (and of course no Vermeer), but as if to compensate, there's a galaxy of minor masterpieces by names that are only "lesser" when you set them next to Rembrandt (Cuyp, Dou, Steen, Maes), as well as stunning works by people you've (or at least I've) never heard of (Koedijck? Coorte?).

Much of the show is devoted to the investigation of the many genres - the sea-, land-, and town-scape, the private portrait, the several varieties of still life (flowers, silver, seashells), etc. - that flourished in the rapidly-expanding bourgeois markets of the seventeenth-century "low countries." What's startling about the van Otterloo's collecting, however, is their ability to discern that moment when craft transcends itself, when genre tips over into art - Maes's Sleeping Man Having His Pocket Picked, for instance, all but glows with the spontaneity of a split-second that occurred three hundred years ago, while Dou's simple Sleeping Dog feels mysteriously (yet unostentatiously) timeless.

These two collectors also seem to have been fired by a delightful curiosity in the physical reality of their chosen period, and you leave the exhibit feeling you know life in the Golden Age almost as well as you know your own. In these paintings we see the Dutch at church and at play, at the market and at the doctor's, flirting, skating, dancing - even pooping (Hendrick Avercamp includes an open-air latrine in his wonderful Winter Landscape Near a Village).  Indeed, the earthy truths of human life are in evidence in these paintings in a way they had never been before; clearly for the Dutch of the seventeenth century (who in political terms were shaking off the torments of Spanish Catholicism), the spirit can calmly co-exist with the body, and the erotic, religious, and social ego is subject to a constant, if sympathetic, empirical critique.

View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam
Thus Rembrandt's Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh beams with a soulful radiance (at top), but the artist also carefully accounts for every single one of his kindly sitter's wrinkles.  And when Jan van der Heyden paints the splendid new church in town, the Westerkerk (above), he reverently records every brick in its majestic facade - but if you look closely, you'll also notice a tiny gentleman (at center!) surreptitiously relieving himself against its august walls.  In Dutch painting, there are flies on the flowers, and a pretty girl can be a pickpocket - and while the glory of God is a wonderful thing, still, when you gotta go, you gotta go.  There's an intelligent humility here that casts an instructive charm across the centuries - as you gaze at these images, you wonder whether, even with our zillion new modes of image-making, we are accounting for our own times with anything like this level of gently perceptive accuracy.

And trust me, gaze at these paintings you will -the unbelievable level of detail in these images is incredibly seductive to the eye; I found myself glued to A Barber-Surgeon Tending a Peasant's Foot (at left), for instance, and there are similar small miracles to be savored throughout the show.  Be sure not to miss, for instance, Coorte's haunting Still Life with Seashells, or Willem van Aelst’s fearful mouse tentatively sniffing at a walnut.  (If you're lucky, the museum may even have a few magnifying glasses left to give out - or better yet, bring your own.)  And I just don't have the space to do justice to the glorious landscapes - with their clouds shining like virtual mountain ranges above the horizon - or the glorious explosions of flowers.

There is one question that looms over the show - where is this collection going?  The van Otterloos have announced they intend to eventually donate it to the public; but who's going to get it?  This exhibit is so striking in part because the collection has been so carefully curated that it already feels like a small museum department (it's worth noting the van Otterloos received advice over the years from mucky-mucks at the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis).  Yet despite its kaleidoscopic balance, the collection also has its own personality, and even quirks, if you will; you'd hate to see it broken up, and ideally it should go to a facility with the resources to display most (if not all!) of it coherently.  The MFA - which already has a strong, and largely complementary, Northern European department - feels like a natural landing place for it, but could the museum commit the additional gallery space to do the collection justice, and ensure its own identity?  (You'd hate to see the Rembrandt on the walls, but the Avercamp in storage.)   Clearly the van Otterloos' dazzling success has only set them an even more intriguing aesthetic challenge; I'm hoping they have a few million dollars left over to assist in the construction of a permanent home for the artistic legacy they have created.


  1. I love the Hals picture and the masthead - these people get into your soul.

  2. They're amazing paintings, and so different in technique. The Rembrandt is built up through a series of nearly-transparent layers, which is how the artist achieves the extraordinary effect of the painting seeming to glow from within. The Hals, by way of contrast, is technically all on the surface - the legend about Hals is that there's often no drawing at all under the strokes of paint, that he spontaneously "drew" in oils. That's certainly not always the case, but I think it might be true this time. And yet what devastating depth the picture has! It's almost the antithesis of Hals's famous "Laughing Cavalier." Oddly, the spiritual uncertainty, the awareness of defeat, and yet somewhere still a spark of haunted faith, reminds me a bit of - well, late Rembrandt.