Sometimes, it's the fame and hype of a piece of art that excites, more than the work itself. So even though I've never been nuts about 17th-century interiors or "girl doing meaningless task" paintings, visiting the Phoenix Art Museum's "Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art" was exciting. Likewise, even though I think Tom Cruise is a bit of a putz, if I ran into him on the street, I'd probably gawk like an idiot and tell all my friends about it the next day.
I was pleased to find that there is much more to this show than mere celebrity status. The exhibition is a result of a five-year negotiation between PAM and the Rijksmuseum; the show will also visit the Dayton Art Institute and Portland Art Museum. As the largest collection of works from the Rijksmuseum to ever come to the U.S., the show features 90 pieces, with 14 by Rembrandt. It also includes other Dutch artists' paintings, sculptures, ceramics, glass, and silver showpieces. Those artists worked to satisfy Holland's high demand for art during the 17th century. With a raging economy fueled by global trade and a newly formed government that celebrated the idea of the citizen statesman, fine artists were able to find steady employment. Some, like Rembrandt, experienced wealth and fame during their lifetimes. Not only were paintings popular, but as the exhibition illustrates by including other mediums, the Dutch relished their ability to purchase pretty things.
But it's the paintings that dominate the show. The first piece that visitors see is Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661) by the man himself, Rembrandt van Rijn. Rembrandt painted 80-plus self-portraits, with this piece completed eight years before his death. The dark, musty background is broken by the bright flesh tones of the face, illuminated by a single light source bringing concentrated focus to the quizzical expression. The hilt of a sword pokes out from his clothing as he holds a bundle of letters; both items are the symbols of St. Paul.
This is a familiar image. But shoving the celebrity status aside, the work proves to be a beautiful piece of artistry. The crucial aspect you'll gain from seeing it in person, instead of in endless reproductions, is the thick applications of pigment and the loose, painterly brushstroke. When the image is shrunken and printed on the glossy pages of coffee-table books, the work is distorted and the strokes seem more meticulous. It's an exciting discovery to see the painting for what it really is like running into a celebrity and seeing how short he is in real life.
Rembrandt's work is not the only enjoyable aspect to this show. The paintings are grouped according to subject matter revealing the tastes and interests of the 17th-century Dutch. The categories include city scenes, landscapes, still life and genre. With at least 10 to 12 in each group, some works inevitably rise above the rest.
Take Jan van der Heyden's The Nieuwe Zijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Haarlemmsersluis, Amsterdam (circa 1667-72) as an example of a work that clearly outshines the other paintings of the city. The scene shows what one might believe to be a typical day along a city canal. Citizens are milling about the sidewalk, entering the surrounding buildings and loading boats. What is so mind-blowing about this piece is the detail. Unlike Rembrandt, Heyden uses meticulous precision to make the painting enthralling. The architecture is captured in every shadow of molding and each tiny brick. The rigging of the sailboats in the background is scrupulously expressed with a single, steady line for every rope. The painted figures of the people are small (maybe the size of a pinkie toe) but the artist includes all folds in the fabric of their contemporary garb. The detail is absolutely stunning and could easily fool you into thinking you're looking at a photograph.
Another favorite (and I'll admit, I'm a sucker for this subject matter) is Aelbert Jansz van der Schoor's Vanitas still-life (Skulls on a Table, circa 1660). A popular visual theme in Northern Europe, the vanitas is a still-life painting that includes particular symbols that act as stark reminders of the brevity of life and the fleeting value of worldly possessions. This work includes typical ingredients a table holding a low burning candle, an hourglass, and wilting flowers. All are reminders of our decaying time as living creatures. What is really great about this particular vanitas is the artist's decision to include more than just one human skull. The darkened atmosphere is gorgeous and creepy with six skulls piled on the table.
Not every piece offers a breathtaking experience. An interior genre scene by Pieter de Hooch, Man Handing a Letter to a Woman in the Front Hall of a House, doesn't match the skill level of other artists. The juvenile use of color and shadow makes the figures look rigid and unnatural. But that's an exception.
This show is well worth a visit. And aside from the established hype surrounding these masterpieces, many of the works are undeniably beautiful. It is a special treat to see art of such high caliber and you may find yourself a bit star-struck.