Monday, June 25, 2012

Rembrandt was really good, and other things I learned from Kenwood House

Detail from Rembrandt's 1665 Portrait of the Artist.
I spent the weekend down in Houston, sweltering in 99-degree heat, doing (happy) family stuff, escaping only long enough to drop by Houston's Museum of Fine Arts to catch a touring show from London's Kenwood House, which has long been the home of an extraordinary collection of 17th and 18th century portraiture.  Above is a detail from one of the collection's treasures, a late (and great) Rembrandt self-portrait, but the show was full of other wonders; almost all its highlights are on tour, in fact, to pay for a major renovation of the house itself (only its Vermeer, The Guitar Player, and Holbein the Younger's (probably) Sir Thomas More, were considered too precious to leave the country).

In Boston, this show would have been a blockbuster - if it only it had come here!  (Instead of Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Hals, we're contemplating Alex Katz this summer - uh, no offense.)  Down in Houston, however, the galleries were empty, even on a Saturday afternoon (a wonderful argument against cultural literacy, if you ask me), so I was able to spend a good deal of quality time, practically undisturbed, with several of my favorite artists.

Pieter van den Broecke, by Franz Hals
It was a little dizzying at times.  Rembrandt's dawning dismay was heartbreaking enough, but it literally rubbed shoulders with Hals' valiant portrait of Pieter van den Broecke (at left), a merchant-adventurer who was reportedly "the first Dutchman to taste coffee," and who drew from Hals one of his most poignant portraits of jauntiness undercut by experience.

But wait, there was more (much more) - two major van Dycks, one of Gainsborough's best (Mary, Countess Howe), and a slew of masterworks by Reynolds, Romney and Raeburn.  (The Reynolds group included a particularly wonderful self-portrait that seemed to channel Chardin from across the Channel.)  What was most striking about the installation was how elegantly it made what amounted to a worthy, if familiar, curatorial argument: the connections between the portrait traditions of Britain and the Low Countries - with the Flemish van Dyck as the explicit bridge between the two - were quite clear, and quite fascinating.

Sigh.  Most of these paintings have never been seen in America before, but they'll only be visiting Houston, Little Rock, Milwaukee, and Seattle, for reasons unknown (only the Rembrandt touched down briefly in New York).  My advice, however, is that if you're visiting any of those distant burgs, you should set aside an afternoon to tour Kenwood House.

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