The iPod Shuffle is a miracle of commerce, but it can also be an aesthetic tool. Remove a piece of music from its original context and surround it by songs with which it shares little or nothing, and it becomes alien, funny or brand new. Reconsideration, consternation and, with any luck, pleasure are achieved by thwarting routine.
The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been organized in shuffle mode. Walter Liedtke, a curator in the Met’s department of European paintings, has shaken things up by removing the majority of the museum’s holdings from their usual galleries. The literal distance isn’t great, but it’s not insignificant: This shift in placement and emphasis compels us to rethink paintings we thought we knew all too well and, perhaps, have taken for granted.
The Met deserves to strut its stuff, and it’s done so before with spectacular results. But The Age of Rembrandt is more than an exercise in institutional self-aggrandizement. It’s a homage to the museum’s benefactors—Henry O. and Louise Havemeyer, Archer M. Huntington and J. Pierpont Morgan, among many others. Their gifts helped the Met become the treasure it is today. Even those dubious of capitalism’s excesses have to admit that the rich have their uses.
The Met’s collection would be poorer without Benjamin Altman, founder of the late and lamented department store that bore his name. Half a dozen Rembrandts, including Self-Portrait (1660) and, even better, Woman With a Pink (early 1660’s); Pieter de Hooch’s Interior With a Young Couple (early 1660’s); Nicolaes Maes’ Young Girl Peeling Apples (ca. 1655); and Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep (1656-57)—well, you get the point. Altman did well by the museum and, in effect, the rest of us.
On a normal day, the Met exhibits around a hundred of its Dutch paintings; for the first time all 228 canvases are on view. Having trotted them out, the Met, in its completist aims, divulges a fair share of bum steers. Many of them are rarely on public view and, not surprisingly, are placed distinctly apart from the show’s main body. Seventeenth-century Holland wasn’t devoid of lousy painters—mediocrity forever outnumbers genius.
All the same, there are curiosities squirreled away among the hacks and the ham-handed. Vermeer-mania in early 20th-century America resulted in the production and sale of forgeries, including the Met’s Young Woman Reading, painted sometime between 1925 and 1927. Our inner connoisseur can’t help but pick away at it. Similarly, the diminutive Lieven W. van Coppenol (ca. 1600) has largely been consigned to storage because of attribution problems: Is it a genuine Rembrandt? The question has been muddled by later conservation efforts. Whatever—it’s a fine painting and the Met has, rightly, I think, erred on the side of positive attribution.
Attribution isn’t an issue with Portrait of a Woman (ca. 1650) by Frans Hals. Actually, it’s mostly by Hals: The picture’s architectural surroundings and faraway cityscape are additions by a later hand, a painter perturbed, perhaps, by the “empty” spaces typical of Hals’ portraits. The Met is wise to keep this semi-Hals under lock and key.
Then there’s the primary impetus for The Age of Rembrandt: The astonishingly fecund epoch that was 17th-century Holland. Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer are a glorious enough inheritance for any nation, but throw in smaller masters like Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, Pieter Claesz, Aelbert Cuyp, Meindert Hobbema, Jan Steen, Ferdinand Bol and (not included at the Met) Pieter Saenredam and Carel Fabritius, and you have one of those historic flowerings that beggar the imagination. Sociologists can busy themselves determining why Holland and why then; the rest of us can enjoy the paintings unfettered by time and circumstance.
The exhibition allows us to see painters in new and sometimes revelatory ways. Rembrandt’s soulfulness, for example, is well known, as is the sludgy magic of his brush, but Hals was equally perceptive, if less charitable. He took pleasure in the foibles of his sitters even as he set them down with pitiless conviction. Paulus Verschuur (1643) is powered by acidic insight, but Hals was also deeply appreciative of Verschuur’s all but insufferable arrogance. Is it heresy to think that he might—might—be the greatest among the holy trinity of Dutch painters?
Vermeer’s enigmatic Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-67) should be the last painting we see before laying down to die—it is, after all, irrefutable proof that humankind is touched by grace. Jan Jansz. de Heem’s Still Life: A Banqueting Scene (1670’s), in contrast, provides evidence that we’re creatures of base desires. In its overabundance of objects, colors and textures, de Heem’s cornucopia is an orgy of pictorial incident, an incredibly lascivious painting. As an artist, he was a model of sensual abandon.
Elsewhere, we’re given a stern lesson on mortality (as in Pieter Claesz’ Still Life With a Skull and a Writing Quill (1628)); the opportunity to discern why de Hooch isn’t up to Vermeer’s snuff (he favored anecdote to mood); and we learn that Hals thought “indecent love making” was better for the body than smoking.
Tell us something we don’t know, Frans. And that’s the point: Earthy, unpretentious, sometimes sentimental and proudly materialistic, Dutch painting may well be the most humane art in history. The homeliest truths are often that hardest to reconnect with. The Met illuminates this humble fact with kindred showmanship.
© 2007 Mario Naves
Originally published in the September 18, 2007 edition of The New York Observer.