The distinguished senior curator of European paintings at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Ronni Baer, has put together a compelling and instructive exhibition of 17th-century Dutch art (mostly oil painting) that focusses on complex layers of social class (Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, through January 18; which then reopens on February 20 for three months at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, MO). There isn’t a painting in the show without interest, including a heaping handful of out-and-out masterpieces: early Rembrandt, Hals (in both intimate and heroic—or mock heroic—mode), Ruysdael (those bleaching fields near Haarlem under an enormous cloud-filled sky), de Hooch (that radiant courtyard; that dim geometrical interior), Ter Borch (those glittering satins; that velvety cow suspiciously eyeing a nearby axe), a Van Dyck, and a crisp, penetrating Thomas de Keyser portrait of the Dutch statesman, poet, and musician Constantijn Huygens, father of the scientist Christiaan Huygens, who discovered the rings of Saturn—a big discovery for me.
One of the great country houses and emblematic of Palladian architecture, Houghton Hall will figure in any survey of the history of English taste. It was built between 1722-1735 and represents an inflection point in the evolution of stately homes, away from the aggravated grandeur of the Baroque towards a more restrained, Neo-classical style. More palatial than the typical country “seat”, Houghton’s fame is linked to that of its first owner, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), who was also the first prime minister of England in the modern sense of the term, as well as the former home of a fabled picture collection. Sir Robert intended that his collection be an inalienable part of Houghton, but the extravagance of the Walpole family meant that it was sold to the Russian Empress Catherine the Great in 1779. The sale caused an outcry in England, but the paintings became the cornerstone of the great Russian institution known as the State Hermitage Museum. Now, almost miraculously, some sixty paintings from this historic collection have returned to Houghton for six months, enabling visitors to see the interiors as Sir Robert Walpole intended.
Since fully reopening five years ago after a magnificent renovation and expansion project, the Detroit Institute of Arts has emerged as the premiere institution when it comes to displaying and labelling artworks for the twenty-first-century public. Pieces in the permanent collection are labeled with clear, concise descriptions that encourage visitors to look closely but to think for themselves. They provide essential information without insulting the viewer’s intelligence. It is not uncommon to see complete strangers, often with disparate backgrounds in art, standing in front of a picture and discussing it at length. You cannot help but come away from the DIA feeling you have engaged art rather than having absorbed a lot of information about art.
Fortune and men’s eyes. Rembrandt, like Beethoven, has had the good fortune of familiarity breeding deeper admiration. Contempt was never a possibility. The same can’t be said for Raphael and Rubens, who have suffered scorn — and still do — interspersed with worship. But there has never been a masterpiece by Beethoven that was later attributed to a much lesser composer like Czerny or Spohr, while this happens regularly to Rembrandt. London is one of the great storehouses of Rembrandt paintings, along with New York and Amsterdam, and one can find works here that were lauded in the past but now are relegated to Gerard Dou (who?) or Jan Lievens (never heard of him). Among art experts both are respectable craftsmen, perhaps far better than that, but footnotes to a footnote when it comes to a titan like Rembrandt.