Dutch Treat

By Grassi, Marco | New Criterion, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Dutch Treat


Grassi, Marco, New Criterion


In his recent vademecum to the Metropolitan Museum's current Rembrandt exhibition, The New York Times critic Holland Cotter opened with this statement: "'The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art' is a straightforward title for a complicated show." (1) It could be argued that precisely the opposite is true. Whereas the title of the show would require several further qualifying sentences to be reasonably accurate, the show is simplicity itself: essentially a hanging of the near-total inventory of the museum's holdings in this important area of European painting. A curator could ask for nothing easier. As to the title, identifying an entire school, spanning over a century, with the name of its most important and renowned exponent says almost nothing about the temporal, geographic, intellectual, and stylistic ingredients that, together, constitute the art of the so-called "Golden Age." And yet, because we are in the realm of Dutch seventeenth-century painting, and because the museum's inventory in this field is so rich, a straightforward "let it all hang out" approach has its own, surprising, rewards. By contrast, imagine an exhibit billed as "The Age of Caravaggio: Italian Baroque Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art" or, even more to the point, "The Age of Titian: Venetian Painting ... ," etc.; impossible and meaningless exercises without the participation of abundant loans from European museums, churches, and palaces.

There is a reason, therefore, why this in-house "Rembrandt show" makes sense. With its 228 items on display, it gives the visitor an opportunity to grasp the remarkable variety of genres, subjects, and formats that Dutch painters explored and developed during the seventeenth century, a relatively brief but furiously vigorous period of economic expansion and artistic ferment. Paintings were churned out in huge quantities by generations of enterprising, self-employed, self-promoting, entrepreneurial specialist craftsmen. They produced what was, in effect, a luxury commodity subdivided in the quite specific categories of portraiture, land/seascape, still life, etc., and manufactured, mostly on speculation, for a large, prosperous constituency of merchants and financiers intent on embellishing their surroundings and glorifying their wealth. Add only the commercial galleries and you would have an art world not so dissimilar from that which thrives today in many of the world's capitals (the reason for which the Dutch school has been identified as the first of the "modern" schools of painting). Nothing of the kind had yet developed in seventeenth-century Catholic Europe. In Flanders, Spain, Italy, and France, artists still very much depended on specific commissions and the patronage of princely courts or the ecclesiastical elite. Although large and important public projects, of which Rembrandt's Night Watch is the most famous, were undertaken in Holland, they remained the exception. No doubt, therefore, that in mounting the Metropolitan exhibit, its talented and scholarly curator Walter Liedtke, would present a fair--and remarkably complete--account of the Dutch school. Moreover, the exhibition serves as the perfect complement to the publication of Liedtke's exemplary and definitive two-volume catalogue raisonn, of the collection, more than twenty years in the making. It will surely remain an obligatory resident on the bookshelf of every serious student of European art for decades to come.

The fact that the Metropolitan is fortunate in possessing a handful of outstanding pictures by Rembrandt has given the organizers a perfect title to create a buzz and draw in the crowds--if they continue at the current rate, the show may become the most successful in the museum's history. This is an endeavor, however, that yearns to be much more than a mere crowd-pleasing anthology: its real ambition is to trace a history of how Dutch art has been collected in America and of those individuals who figured most prominently in this pursuit. …

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