The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This review from December 2007 is our TOPICAL PICK FROM THE ARCHIVES in tribute to the exhibition’s curator, Walter Liedtke, who was tragically killed in the Metro North train crash on Tuesday.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York City
September 18, 2007-January 6, 2008
In conjunction with his newly released two-volume catalogue on the subject, Met curator Walter Liedtke has literally unshuffled the Met’s Dutch collection. The Age of Rembrandt chronicles the trail of paintings and money given to the Met by several key benefactors. The rooms are organized by collector in sequence, and as the narrative of the groundbreaking purchase of 1871 and subsequent major donations unfolds, the varied strata of seventeenth century Dutch painting are revealed. The Dutch golden age was a cacophony of genres and styles, and the inspired installation by Liedtke and the deep holdings of the Met give each room the feel of an authentic picture collection.
The first room highlights a painting from each major donor. We are faced by three stylistically different Rembrandt portraits from 1632-33 and three grand landscapes by Ruysdael, Hobbema and Cuyp. Remarkably, the young Rembrandt could paint Bellona, a mythological portrait that weaves Rubens’ international style with mannered intonations, and then turn on a dime and conjure up Man in an Oriental Costume with an alchemically dazzling display of romantic light and color – a masterpiece of historical portraiture. In the third portrait, the 26- year-old Rembrandt assumes his place alongside Velazquez, Titian and Van Dyck in Portrait of a Young Woman with a Fan. We are simply floored.
Adjacent to the portraits, Hobbema’s enchanting landscape is insular and distant, while Ruisdale reaches out and pulls the viewer into the countryside via his signature path. Four rooms into the show, another landscape grouping by Ruisdale, Hobbema and Cuyp appear, and our memory is delightfully jogged back to the first grouping. Such repetitions continue throughout the exhibition, a refreshing change from the usual, often staid groupings that tend to isolate artists and leave the viewer without a perspective of the larger painting culture.
Relationships abound. Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer reinforce the picture plane by building their modernist compositions like so many overlaid computer windows, while Gerard ter Borch accentuates the picture window with a diagonally placed mantelpiece, bed, or table in his interiors. Not to be outdone, Gerrit Dou uses the “window niche,” a framing device that he pioneered, to mediate our voyeuristic gaze into the private realm of the sitter. And Gabriel Metsu seems to have taken a page from everyone. There is, as well, something wonderful about the riotous scenes of debauchery by Jan Steen and Franz Hals elbowing their way into our consciousness when the favored Vermeer a few feet away so perfectly mirrors our current obsession with the serenity of house and home. Luckily for us and the Met, Benjamin Altman purchased three first-rate Hals around 1906 against the orthodoxy of prevailing taste. Sometimes the art of cool, optical enhancement must yield to the dystopic places of delight – as in the bristly-brushed tavern scene.
It seems we can always pivot in this show and make comparisons. Margareta Haverman’s Vase of Flowers (1716), an ode to observational perfection, ultimately wilts once we’re reminded of Rembrandt’s transformative power to paint far beyond depiction. In Rembrandt’s Flora (1654) the subject’s sleeve is also a flower, her bodice a canvas, and her face the antecedent to Picasso’s proto post- modern, neo-classical figures.
A nexus in the exhibition is the chapel-like room built to house Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Crucifixion(1625). One immediately thinks of Grunwald’s famously grotesque rendition of the subject, but on closer inspection the two flanking figures and their delicately flowing pastel-colored drapery and beatific dispositions seem reminiscent of Pontormo’s Deposition of 1528. It seems northern Gothic painting continued to inspire for a hundred years. Exiting the little room one is struck by the contrast between this devotional Crucifixion and two excellent interiors of a stark white-walled protestant church by Emanuel Witte (165?) and by Hendrick van Vliet (1660).
At this point two large, licentious Steens loom from the periphery, and an orgiastic blast of Mannerist form and color explode from Abraham Bloemaert’s Moses Striking the Rock (1596), acquired in 1972. Suddenly we are reminded that the Dutch artists expanded Italian Mannerism with great flourish. Also present is Joachim Wtewael’s diminutive The Golden Age (1605), an exquisite Mannerist version of an Arcadian figural grouping, acquired under Liedtke in 1993. It is a sad fact that paintings from this potent, late 16th century/early 17th century school were largely ignored until recently, and the Met holdings in this area suffered as a result. Fortunately Liedtke is filling in this gap. Ironically, the drawing department already has many quality works by Hendrick Goltzius and Cornelis van Haarlem, but did not include any in the separate but thematically related exhibition in the drawing and print hall. Perhaps the inclusion of a mythological subject by one of these artists might have given viewers a less staid impression of the period.
Still, Liedtke’s show does not disappoint. Toward the end of the main section we are treated to the inaugural viewing of the Markus Bequest of 2005. Willem Claesz Heda’s meticulously descriptive detail in Still Life with Oysters, a Silver Tazza and Glassware (1635) abuts the expressionistic brushstrokes and golden tonality of Jan van Goyen’s A Beach with Fishing Boats (1653). The tension between the optical and the painterly is again at play.
In addition, several paintings, such as Philip Koninck’s Landscape (1649), are revelations in their new locations. With its breathtakingly Rothkoesque scale, divided field and pressurized atmosphere, Koninck’s landscape innovation is a significant leap within the northern Romantic tradition. But more specifically, Koninck seems a kindred spirit to the Hudson River landscape artists, some of whom also played an important role in the Met’s inception. Perhaps now that the moneyed class has been given their due, the painters’ role in the making of the Met may one day be featured in the American wing.