Rembrandt seems almost like a bit-part actor in “Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: Highlights from the Detroit Institute of Arts.” This terrific new exhibition of about 90 paintings and decorative objects – on display through May 19 at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts – includes just one bona-fide (signed and dated) painting by the famed Dutch master.
Surprisingly, though, he’s hardly missed. And that, no doubt, is due to this show’s uniformly strong supporting cast. Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jacob van Ruisdael and Gerhard Ter Borch are just some of the illustrious painters featured in this thoughtful, comprehensive exhibition. There’s even an exquisite still life from the studio of Rachel Ruysch, the most celebrated female artist of the Dutch Golden Age.
Gallery-goers, therefore, leave the Frist with a sure sense of what life was like during the 17th-century glory days of the Dutch Republic. We see Dutch sea power asserting its dominance on the global stage – New York City, one may recall, was once named New Amsterdam. We also glimpse the neat, tidy homes of the emerging Dutch middle class, the vice-filled taverns of the peasants and the unadorned interiors of Calvinist churches, all scrupulously stripped of their pre-Reformation stained-glass Catholicism.
Organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts and expertly curated by the Frist Center’s Trinita Kennedy, “Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age” is as meticulously arranged as a purse-proud burgher’s home. The displays are mostly grouped by subject matter – portraits, landscapes, seascapes and still lifes are mounted in separate rooms. Everything seems to be in its proper place, exactly where you’d expect to find it.
Naturally, the first piece we see upon entering the gallery is Rembrandt’s “The Visitation.” As a general rule, Dutch Golden Age painters shied away from religious subjects. They preferred scenes of everyday life. But some of the most notable works located at the entrance of the exhibition – an eclectic collection of paintings by Rembrandt and his closest associates – seem to revel in religiosity. That’s certainly true of “The Visitation.”
In this amazing painting, completed in 1640, Rembrandt depicts Mary, newly pregnant with Jesus, visiting her cousin Elizabeth. Rembrandt is justifiably celebrated as a painter of expressive light, and “The Visitation” is a prime example of his virtuoso technique. Mary glows with a supernatural light that seemingly originates from deep beneath the pores of her alabaster skin. Elizabeth is seen entering this dome of light to embrace her cousin. Zacharias and Joseph stand nearby but are nevertheless shrouded in shadows.
“Christ,” a portrait from about 1648 that’s been attributed to Rembrandt, is relatively small – an 11-by-9 inch oil on oak panel. But stylistically, it represents a huge change in Western art. Painters had traditionally portrayed Christ as a heroic West European figure – a muscular man with light-brown hair.
Rembrandt’s Jesus is clearly Semitic and appears vulnerable: his eyes have the expressive gaze of a poet. It’s widely believed, probably correctly, that Rembrandt modeled his Jesus on a young Jewish man, possibly a rabbinical student, who lived in his neighborhood. Some 365 years after it was created, Rembrandt’s ethnologically correct “Christ” is still a refreshing joy to see.
The figures in Pieter Lastman’s “King David Handing the Letter to Uriah,” on the other hand, have that inauthentic European look. That’s hardly unexpected, given that Lastman (who was Rembrandt’s teacher) created this painting in 1611. Uriah is seen kneeling before the king, who gives him a letter ordering him into a deliberately suicidal battle. Lastman’s subtle juxtaposition of light and shade – Uriah is positioned between the darkness of David’s thrown room and the light from outside – must have influenced Rembrandt.
Biblical subjects give way to more intimate images upon entering the portraits room. There, one’s eyes are almost immediately drawn to Frans Hals’ remarkable “Portrait of Hendrik Swalmius” (1639). The painting shows the old cleric stroking his long, full beard with his right hand. That gesture highlights the bold, aggressive and virtuosic brush strokes that Hals employed in painting the beard. It also underscores the different textures of the skin and clothing.
As we stroll through the portraits, it soon becomes clear that Dutch Golden Age painters depicted peasants and the middle class in vastly different ways. The latter were portrayed as neat, orderly, industrious and God fearing. They were attractive. Naturally, they were also the people buying the art. The peasants were their foils. The lower classes were sketched as lazy, hard-drinking, chain-smoking gamblers. They had thick hands and bulbous noses. Surely, they were the misbegotten socioeconomic ancestors of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent.
In that respect, Jan Steen’s delightfully chaotic “Gamblers Quarreling” (1665) left no peasant stereotype unexplored. Drunken gamblers come to blows over a card game, while an intoxicated fiddle player with a mischievous grin eggs them on. A broken pipe and tankard symbolize the moral turpitude of the place. Worse, an idle broom shows that this tavern’s messy.
What a difference one sees in Gerhard Ter Borch’s “Lady at Her Toilette (1660). This elegant young woman stands in a sumptuous domestic interior. Her home is immaculate. The only thing that’s amiss is the expression of uncertainty on her face. We see no doubts in Pieter de Hooch’s “Mother Nursing Her Child” (1674-76). In this painting, a middle-class mother breast-feeds her infant in a squeaky clean home. A morning light shines through the window, suffusing the family in a beatific calm. The rectangular tiles on the floor have been scrubbed to a polished perfection. Everything’s in order. All is good.
Landscapes and seascapes figure prominently in “Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age.” That’s probably because those kinds of paintings were so lucrative for the artists. By 1679, nearly 40 percent of Dutch households were reportedly decorated with landscape paintings.
The tranquil settings and softly diffused light seen in works such as Salomon van Ruysdael’s “River Landscape” (1643) obviously appealed to middle class tastes. Jacob van Ruisdael’s “The Jewish Cemetery” (ca. 1654-55), on the other hand, went on to appeal to such cosmopolitan connoisseurs as Goethe. Pride and patriotism were the main attraction in such seascapes as Ludolf Backhuysen’s “Coastal Scene with a Man-of-War and other Vessels” (1692), a celebration of Dutch naval power.
Dutch Golden Age artists apparently liked to paint with soupy colors – one sees lots of browns and olive greens in this show. That changes in the still-life room, where we experience a veritable explosion of primary colors. The blazing posies, roses and tulips in Rachel Ruysch’s “Flowers in a Glass Vase” (1704) are so detailed and realistic they could easily be used to illustrate a botany textbook.
Visual splendor is also the order of the day in Frans Snyders’ “Still Life with Fruit, Vegetables and Dead Game” (ca. 1635-37). This dazzlingly realistic painting shows a bright-red tropical bird surveying a table of abundance. Green grapes and other fruits and vegetables lie askew on the table and floor. A dead deer and boar’s head suggest the culinary excess of the Dutch aristocracy.
Snyders’ still life could serve as a metaphor for “Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age,” which is nothing less than a sumptuous feast for the eyes. It’s a fully satisfying repast, provided you remember that Rembrandt’s just the appetizer, and the Dutch Golden Age is the main course.
Rembrandt Harmensz.van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669). The Visitation, 1640. Oil on cedar panel, 22 1/4 x 18 7/8 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, City of Detroit Purchase, 27.200
Attributed to Rembrandt Harmensz.van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669). Christ, ca. 1648–50. Oil on oak panel, 11 x 9 1/8 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, 30.370
Frans Hals (Dutch, ca. 1582/1583–1666). Portrait of Hendrik Swalmius, 1639. Oil on oak panel, 11 x 8 1/4 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, City of Detroit and Founders Society Joint Purchase, 49.347
Gerard Ter Borch (Dutch, 1617–1681). Lady at Her Toilette, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 30 x 23 1/2 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Eleanor Clay Ford Fund, General Membership Fund, Endowment Income Fund and Special Activities Fund, 65.10
Jacob Isaacksz. van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1628–1682). The Jewish Cemetery, ca. 1654–55. Oil on canvas, 56 x 74 1/2 in. Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of Julius H. Haass in memory of his brother Dr. Ernest W. Haass, 26.3
IF YOU GO
“Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age: Highlights from the Detroit Institute of Arts” runs through May 19 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 919 Broadway, Nashville, TN 37203. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 1 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 adults, $7 college students and seniors and free for visitors 18 and younger. For more information go to www.fristcenter.org.