Treasures from Old Holland in New Amsterdam
By Kandice Rawlings
The Frick Collection in New York recently closed its Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis exhibition of fifteen seventeenth-century Dutch paintings on loan from the Hague museum, which is currently closed for remodeling. The show (which has already been to San Francisco, Atlanta, and Tokyo, and opens next in Bologna) was a blockbuster, with visitors regularly forming lines wrapping around the building. I saw the exhibition near the end of its run, and can attest that the attention was well-deserved, and not just because this was likely the only chance many in the New York area would ever have to see these works. Among the paintings on view, more than one were drop-dead stunners. Much attention was naturally paid to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is incredibly more arresting in person than it is in reproduction. On the afternoon I came, visitors also flocked around the Rembrandts (of course) and The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, the subject of a new bestseller by Donna Tartt. The small panel is a curiosity because of its subject matter, but paintings like the tranquil View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds by Jacob van Ruisdael and the big, lively “As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young” by Jan Steen show the so-called Golden Age’s range of genius. The Frick’s own holdings complement the Mauritshuis paintings nicely. Henry Clay Frick, whose personal collection and mansion were used to establish the museum, bought works by Frans Hals, Rembrandt, and Johannes Vermeer.
The Old Masters of the Netherlands have long received a warm welcome in New York City, beginning with the first Dutch settlers in Manhattan in the 17th century. This founding history of the city is partly the reason why later collectors in New York were so drawn to Dutch paintings of the period:
“By the 1890s the taste of such tycoons as Andrew W. Mellon, J. Pierpont Morgan and Samuel H. Kress, on the other hand, had become synonymous with accredited Old Masters and 18th-century works. Typically these collections were large and historical, including works from the early Renaissance to the 18th century; some were almost encyclopedic, or even acquired in bulk.” (Grove Art Online, “USA, §XIII: Collecting and dealing”)
Wealthy New York merchants and bankers likely also felt a kinship with the bourgeois, Protestant Dutch society that fostered the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Although Americans also snapped up Italian Renaissance and contemporary French works on the international art market, the beautiful landscapes, lush still-lifes, and sensitive portraits of the Dutch masters, who rarely depicted nude figures or erudite, obscure subject matter, appealed to American attitudes and tastes.
Vermeer was the star of the Frick exhibition, his one painting in the show occupying its own room. The painter is especially well represented in New York: the master’s surviving works number only about 36, and Gotham boasts eight of them, five at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and three in the Frick’s permanent collection (five more are in other American cities). Manhattan movie theaters are now also screening the Oscar-nominated documentary “Tim’s Vermeer”, the story of software innovator Tim Jenison’s quest to recreate the Music Lesson using an optical apparatus he hypothesizes Vermeer used to compose his works. Although the resulting painting doesn’t even come close to the original, the story is a testament to the mystery of his technique and Americans’ ongoing fascination with the artist and his historical milieu.
Kandice Rawlings is Associate Editor of Oxford Art Online and the Benezit Dictionary of Artists. She holds a PhD in art history from Rutgers University.
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