A Golden Age, Gobbled Up by the Gilded Age
With his opulent paint, acute ambition, stumblebum’s mug and pilgrim’s soul, Rembrandt van Rijn was a god of 17th-century European art. Some 20 paintings by him — the largest number outside Amsterdam — pulse through “The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” a show with an elusive heart.
The Met has long advertised itself as a grand art multiplex, a cluster of separate world-class museums under a single roof. This isn’t just hype; it’s true. And periodically we get a demonstration. In 1998 the museum pooled all of its 15th-century Netherlandish paintings for a special exhibition. Even people who knew the material well were swept away.
“The Age of Rembrandt” is a similar show of strength, this time of the Met’s entire 17th-century Dutch painting collection: 228 pictures, of which about a third are usually on view at any time, and some never. A rough checklist tells the story.
In addition to the Rembrandts, there are 11 Frans Hals, 7 Salomon van Ruysdaels, 5 Vermeers, 5 Jacob van Ruisdaels and 8 paintings by Gerard ter Borch. Add to these a sensational Hendrick ter Brugghen altarpiece; major paintings by Jan van de Cappelle, Pieter Claesz and Aelbert Cuyp; and backup reserves of dozens of worthy if less familiar figures, and you have an inventory of breathtaking scope and depth.
How to package it? For the earlier show the Met stuck to linear chronology: early to late. For “The Age of Rembrandt” it has come up with a theme, and a perfect one for our time: money.
The work has been sorted not by artists or dates, but by the names and dates of the collectors who bought and gave the paintings to the museum. In this arrangement the history of Dutch “Golden Age” art begins in the American Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when the Met first opened its doors. The exhibition’s stars are not Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals, but J. P. Morgan, Collis P. Huntington, William K. Vanderbilt and Louisine and H. O. Havemeyer.
That these stars were rarely in working alignment — indeed were often in rivalrous conflict — creates a problem. Because they bought what they could get, or what was in fashion, or what suited their fancy, their collections were a jumble of genres and styles, which is what we get here.
Apart from a wall of Rembrandt portraits owned by Benjamin Altman, there is no concentration of work by any one artist. The five Vermeers are spread over as many rooms. Fake Rembrandts turn up before real ones do. Trying to piece together an artist’s career, or track a motif, or compare styles becomes a frustrating hunt-and-peck process.
The arrangement has some advantages. It gives a good sense of the overall “look” of Dutch painting: an art that can glow like gold syrup but is mostly the color of sauces and gravies. We get a realistic sense of the crazy-quilt mix of portraiture, landscape, still life and history painting that simmered together in the 17th-century pot. We also gain quick perspective on relative talent. To see Rembrandt next to Bartholomeus Breenbergh or Jacob Duck is to know in a flash who was ahead of the curve, and why.
But the show’s primary theme — Dutch art seen through American money and taste, and coincidentally the wonderfulness of the Met — is a limiting gambit. That story begins in the first gallery, labeled “The 1871 Purchase,” which revisits, in highly edited form, the museum’s inaugural exhibition. After the Civil War, as the country was fast becoming an international power, Americans decided they needed a major art museum, and the Met was founded in 1870.
At that point, though, it was an art institution with no art, apart from a single Roman sarcophagus. So it bought some. Working in Paris the museum’s vice president, William T. Blodgett, assembled a bulk purchase of 174 paintings and shipped them — an instant permanent collection — to Manhattan, where it went on public view in 1872.
A significant part was Dutch painting, which had long enjoyed a vogue in the United States, where it was taken to embody ideals that the nation could identify with: unembarrassed prosperity, a Calvinist work ethic, family values, nouveau luxe. All this was suggested in the 1871 acquisitions: in Jan van Goyen’s view of the merchant city of Haarlem done in paint strokes as fine as embroidery stitches; in the overstuffed nursery scene of Matthys Naiveu’s “Newborn Babe;” in a floral still life by Margareta Haverman that was at once riotous and permanent-press neat.
An economic panic in 1873 temporarily put buying on hold. But by the 1880s business was flush and a collecting craze ensued. When the railroad magnate Henry G. Marquand became the Met’s president in 1889, he brought Dutch pictures with him, including what may have been the country’s first bona fide Rembrandt, the dusky 1650s “Portrait of a Man,” and its first Vermeer, “Young Woman With a Water Pitcher.” (This background is all outlined in an excellent bulletin-style essay by Esmée Quodbach that accompanies the show.)
Other new millionaires were also eager to hitch their names to art, and some of the high rollers are honored in a gallery labeled “Financial Friends.” From the railroad mogul Huntington came a second Vermeer, “Woman With a Lute;” from the robber baron Morgan another, better nursery scene, this one by Gabriel Metsu.
And then there were donors who skipped the art and just gave cash. Jacob S. Rogers, a locomotive manufacturer from Paterson, N.J., for years scrupulously hand-delivered his annual Met membership fee. When he died in 1901, he left the museum $200,000 for art and books.
The 1913 Altman bequest, with more tangible gifts, provides the show’s only coherent installation, mainly because it holds so many Golden Age essentials. Jacob van Ruisdael’s “Wheat Fields” is here, its blocks of platinum grain set out under cloud-bruised skies. So is “Merrymakers at Shrovetide,” the rudest and crudest of rude, crude Hals. Delectably appalling, it would have been locked up if it had got past the door in 1871.
Under the tutelage of the dealer Joseph Duveen, Altman also picked up “A Maid Asleep,” an early Vermeer with a curious soft-focus sheen. Most memorable, though, are his Rembrandts stretching down the gallery, among them “Woman With a Pink,” her face like a trembling teardrop, and a 1660 self-portrait with the tired-eyed artist in a hat as big as a halo. It’s a potent ensemble, though in the pride-of-possession context it still feels like just so many power-paintings in a row
Not all the collection’s gems are in expected settings. In a set-aside reading area that doubles as a gallery you can peruse the splendid new two-volume catalog of the Dutch collection, written by the show’s curator, Walter Liedtke of the Met’s European painting department. And you can simultaneously study some of the paintings that are reproduced in it.
Hals’s portraits of Pieter Schrijver and his wife, Anna van der Aar, pocket size and totally magnetic, are highlights. So is Joachim Wtewael’s oil-on-copper painting “The Golden Age,” depicting twisty Michelangelesque nudes; it looks like nothing special in photographs but practically jumps off the wall when seen live.
This 1993 Met purchase is a reminder that the Dutch Golden Age was part of the larger European Baroque, less a style than a state of aesthetic consciousness that embraced neo-classical thought, Counter-Reformation spirituality and colonialist exoticism. Each is represented, if only glancingly, in the show.
Neo-classicism, with Italian roots, is the essence of Gerard de Lairesse’s “Apollo and Aurora,” a mythological caprice that triples as a political allegory and a family portrait whipped up in saffron and gold. As for religious painting, if the collection has only one monumental example, it certainly has the right one in ter Brugghen’s “Crucifixion With the Virgin and St. John.”
Its emotionalism is about as distant from Calvinist Amsterdam — or Gilded Age New York — as one can get in a Dutch collection. One glance at its ardent, gawky figures and star-pricked sky and you are in a world where devotional rapture survives, the art of Dürer and Grünewald are remembered, and the Italian Baroque has made its mark. Mr. Liedtke has appropriately given it a chapel-like alcove of its own.
References to colonialist travels turn up casually in domestic scenes and still lifes: Turkish carpets, Ming porcelains, African monkeys, Southeast Asian birds, even an American turkey. And the one depiction of a non-European locale, in Frans Post’s “Brazilian Landscape,” looks very ordinary, very Dutch despite its cactuses and spears.
You’ll find the Post picture just before the exhibition gift shop, though the show doesn’t end there. It spills over into the three galleries where the Dutch collection usually hangs, and which at present serve as a kind of annex for pictures of unknown authorship, dubious authenticity or secondary importance.
I found several of them of much interest: a Vermeer that was not a Vermeer; a landscape that looked exactly like an Edward Hicks “Peaceable Kingdom”; a full-length portrait of a grave young woman by an unknown artist, set against a bosky background painted by a different unknown hand. And of course there are several not-Rembrandts that, if they had been placed near Rembrandts, might have had something to tell us about devotion to a master that goes beyond mere copying.
Rarely in these galleries did it occur to me to ask who once owned these pictures, or when the Met acquired them, or their dollar value. Instead I wanted information about what they depicted, about the paint they were made of and about the hands that brushed the paint on. I wanted to know what the artists — Rembrandt, say — might have been thinking. And I wanted to know what 17th-century viewers saw when they looked at these pictures, what these pictures said in their time. I wanted, in short, a different show, one with exactly the same art but with less institutional ego and more art-historical light.