After having been without a curator of Dutch and Flemish art for several years, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston hired Ronni Baer in 2000. (Formally, she is the Mrs. Russell W. Baker Curator of European Paintings.) Baer started her tenure with some important new acquisitions, including The Adoration of the Shepherds by Theodoor van Loon and Susanna and the Elders by Hendrick Goltzius. Baer’s first exhi bition devoted to Dutch paintings from Boston collections opened at the MFA this past summer. The publication accompanying the show includes an essay detailing the history of collecting Dutch art in Boston. The text lucidly describes the activities of private as well as institutional collectors and gives a detailed account of the museum’s own collection and exhibition history. The paintings in the exhibition are reproduced in beautiful color plates, but regrettably no catalogue entries are included and only minimal information about each picture is given.
For the exhibition, Baer selected sixty excellent works by Dutch masters, which were displayed in three rooms, arranged by genre. Since the owners of the works remained anonymous, the focus was on the works themselves, rather than their provenance history, which formed the principal theme of the catalogue. The first room, devoted to figure paintings, highlighted various fijnschilder pictures, together with a number of history paintings and portraits. An attractive genre painting by Dirck Hals represents a merry company playing music in an outdoor setting. Rather than displaying the rowdiness and flirtations of some of the artist’s dissolute company scenes, this painting delights in the fanciful dress and a suggestive exchange of glances between a group of men and women. A more sexually explicit picture is the Pieter Quast painting of peasants which playfully juxtaposes a bare breasted woman holding a urinating child, an amorous couple frolicking in the hay, and a prominently placed goat that daringly looks out at the viewer. Such lowlife themes were few, however, as most of the paintings in this room represented refined genre scenes and portraits of the upper classes of Dutch society.
Of the portraits, the one by Jan Baptist Weenix of the De Kempenaer family is a particularly fine example. Set against a monumental architectural background, the female members of the family are rendered in beautifully pictured costumes. The rather loose painting style, coupled with the informality of glances and poses, and the inclusion of genre-like elements, such as the doll held by daughter Margrieta and the dog-drawn carriage holding the youngest, place the painting in a venerable tradition of portrait painting by such masters as Frans Hals. The highlight of this room was undoubtedly the Selfportrait by Gerrit Dou that shows the artist in a characteristic window frame, surrounded by pointed references to his craft. The drawn away carpet at the top of the niche is a clear reference to the story of the antique painter Zeuxis, who tried to pull off a painted curtain from a picture by his rival, while the violin, the opened books, and the statue point to the rivalry between painting, music, poetry and sculpture. Jan Steen’s Drawing Lesson, hanging next to the Dou, also constitutes a visual commentary on the pictorial arts. Steen shows an artist next to a pupil, as he draws a Virgin and child in black chalk on blue paper. The curled pages of the drawing book, the light engulfing the surface of a white statue, and the knife and ink pot extending over the edge of the table, reveal a Dou-like interest in illusionistic tricks and the tactile qualities of surface. While Dou’s visual statement is rather self-conscious, Steen manages to integrate references to the art of picture-making into a plausible rendering of everyday life.
No private collection of Dutch art is complete without a representative example of the country’s rich tradition of landscape painting. Not surprisingly the largest portion of the show was devoted to this genre. The early phase of landscape painting in the Netherlands was represented by small monochromatic paintings by Esaias van de Velde, Pieter van Santvoort, and Jan van Goyen. Landscape paintings from mid-century included a fine painting of a mountainous landscape by Herman Saftleven which does not represent a local scene, but an Alpine setting in the tradition of landscapes by Pieter Brueghel the Elder. No less than six superb paintings by Jacob van Ruisdael offered the possibility for a concentrated study of this artist’s mature work.
The final room brought together a wonderful survey of thirteen still life paintings and three architectural paintings. The ontbijtje by Pieter Claesz is a masterful example of a monochromatic still life. A silver jug, a roemer, an almanac, nuts, plates with lemon and a pie are arranged on a table with a white cloth. The opened almanac, the peeled lemon, the broken nuts and the half-eaten pie give the suggestion of a prior human presence, of things touched and consumed. In a witty gesture, Claesz painted the letters P and C next to the emblem on the title page of the almanac, clearly making a reference to his personal monogram. A second painting by Claesz is more reminiscent of the Flemish still life tradition. Far less subdued in tone, this work includes a brightly colored peacock pie, apricots in a china bowl, confections and a cooked goose. Delighting in illusionistic virtuosity, Claesz captures a reflection in the silver jug and includes his name with a date on the blade of a knife occupying the center of the composition.
Apart from these well-known names, this section also included lesser-known painters, such as Adriaen Coorte. Coorte subtly breaks with the conventions of earlier still life painting by having objects suspended from a cord or displayed on table corners that do not occupy the entire width of the picture. The wonderful Still Life with Shells delights in the odd shapes, openings, and curves of various shells and a skeleton and brings out these forms through bright light set off against a dark background. Amongst the architectural paintings in this room, Jan van der Heyden’s depiction of the Westerkerk is a real gem. The painting combines a refined view of the city’s architecture with small vignettes of urban professions and daily activities.
This beautifully designed exhibition of rarely seen works reveals a taste amongst Boston collectors for illusionistic refinement and pictorial artifice. With only four history paintings in the entire show, these collectors clearly displayed their appreciation for what might be called the descriptive aspects of Dutch art.
Anna C. Knaap
Institute of Fine Arts, New York University