A FABULOUS exhibit of paintings by Dutch masters goes on view today at the National Gallery of Art. Mighty Rembrandt is its star, but the Rembrandt we confront here no longer stands alone.
In this exhibition, the man we regard as the most humane of masters is reunited with his Dutch colleagues who filled their art -- as he did -- with miracle and terror, lechery and blood.
This extraordinary loan show -- with its vast, dramatic pictures by Vermeer and 50 other painters, many long neglected -- radically revises the conventional textbook reading of Dutch l7th - century art.
The paintings shown are not the plain, domestic ones -- of well-fed burghers clad in black, of peasants at the fireside, of trading ships at anchor, of bowls of fruit and flowers -- for which Holland's Golden Age is most widely known.
These pictures were not taken whole from scenes of daily life. Instead, they were invented. Illustrious with saintly deeds and Latinate allusions, they are full of myth and magic, savagery and lust. Their drunken kings, luscious nymphs, bloody swords and cups of gold, elephants and tigers, would make a Cecil B. De Mille gnash his teeth with envy.
Of course, there is high theater in Rembrandt's grand self-portraits, but the drama in these paintings is more violent and excessive: Severed heads, drip gore, the dead return to life, gods seduce and rape. In "Belshazzar's Feast" by Rembrandt (lent by the National Gallery, London) we see the frightened king precisely at the moment that the ghostly God-sent finger prophecies his doom. Solomon de Braij (l597-l664) shows us stern-faced Jael holding in her hand the sharp and blood-soaked tent peg which she has just hammered through Sisera's head. In Dirck van Baburen's: "Prometheus Chained by Vulcan," from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, the hungry vulture waits while the screaming titan is fettered to his rock.
"Gods, Saints and Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt" is much more than sometimes tragic, sometimes sexy entertainment. It offers us a glimpse of what Rembrandt and his colleagues thought to be the highest realm of art.
The exhibit is installed in the rich oak-panelled galleries of the Gallery's West Building. To make room for these 85 pictures, many oversized, the Gallery's own holdings of Dutch art -- its single-figure portraits, its tavern scenes and still lifes -- have been temporarily placed in the East Building. The viewer is thus offered a pair of Dutch exhibits. It is best to see them both -- for though they draw from the same age, and from some of the same painters, they are vastly different shows.
The Gallery's own pictures -- those plain and lifelike portraits, those eye-delighting studies of butterflies and blossoms -- are the paintings by the Dutch that collectors and historians of late Victorian taste valued most of all. Those on view in this loan show are the works of art most prized by the Dutch masters themselves.
The founder of the Gallery, prudish Andrew Mellon, would not own a nude. The Kresses and the Wideners would also have rejected -- as have most historians since -- the somewhat overwrought pictures now displayed. The men who filled the walls of America's museums did not wish to see in "realistic" Dutch art misbehaving gods or the putting out of eyes.
Blindness is a theme much loved by these painters -- as it was by Rembrandt, who painted Tobit and blind Homer and the awful moment when the Philistines put out Sampson's eyes. Both Goltzius and Jan Both here show us Mercury removing the hundred eyes of Argus. "The Judgment of King Zaleucus" by Jan de Braij tells the story of a royal judge, who, to save his son from the total blinding he himself had ordered, gave up one of his own eyes. The artists of the age believed the painting of such powerful, moral laden images to be the pinnacle of art.
They thought anyone could draw from life , but to paint from the imagination was to join the poets. While admitting that a picture of "a bunch of grapes, a pickled herring, or something still less significant" might have "pretty qualities," Van Hoogstraten, the l7th -century Dutch esthetician, reminded still-life painters they "must realize that they are but common foot soldiers in the field army of art."
Landscapists and portraitists were higher on the ladder, but only those who painted such histories as these deserved the highest rung.
These paintings are not void of those delights -- the fine, eye-fooling still life, the peaceful rural landscape, the psychologically compelling portrait -- for which the Dutch masters are still most widely known. Many of the faces of these gods and heroes are portraits done from life. The skull beneath the cross of Hendrick Ter Brugghen's "Crucifixion" (1624-26), the partly eaten leg of lamb in Jan Victors' "Isaac Blessing Jacob," the old and slightly dented water jug of brass in Jan Steen's adoration, and the richly tasseled Oriental rug in Caesar van Everdingen's "Duke Wille, Ii Granting Privileges to the High Office of the Dike-reeve of Rijnland in 1255" are still lifes as compelling as any in Dutch art. But these entirely convincing glimpses of the real are there to speed the action; they propel a grander theme.
It is often thought that Rembrandt, who drew middle-aged dianas, was impatient with convention, but we see him here employing precisely the same tricks used by many other artists of his age. In many of his pictures, Rembrandt puts his most important figures on a kind of platform. His teacher, Pieter Lastman, as well as Joachim Uytewael, Abraham Bloemaert and many other artists here employ the same stage. Rembrandt, like his colleagues, borrowed tricks of lighting from the Italian Caravaggio. In Gerrit van Honthorst's "The Denial of St. Peter" (1620-25), the entire scene is lit by a single candle partially concealed by an upraised arm. Thirty-five years later, when Rembrandt made his own "Denial of St. Peter," he used the same device.
The Dutch painters of histories loved to fill their pictures with painted pearls and diamonds, gleaming gold and silver, and other rich materials. Rembrandt showed off, too. There are many pearls, and silver, gold and gems and feathers, in his "Belshazzar's Feast." The frightened king is wearing an embroidered, fur-trimmed cape. This amazing picture -- like so many others in the current exhibition -- is in many ways an exercise in bravura brushwork.
The skillful entertainers who made these show-biz pictures often let the audience know more than the actors. Look, for instance, at Paulus Moreelse's "Vertumnus and Pomona." Though the chaste Pomona had virtuously resisted the advances of Vertumnus, the god of the seasons, he cunningly disguised himself as a nice old woman and then sang his own praises until his prey succumbed. Pamona, in the picture, looks out as if asking, "Is there something I should know?" And we read the god's motive from the way he peers at her decolletage. In Caesar van Everdingen's "Jupiter and Callisto," another nymph is similarly fooled by another god in feminine disguise. Rembrandt often painted scenes quite as theatrical. Though Daniel has not yet explained the writing on the wall, we know that Belshazzar has been weighed and found wanting. In Rembrandt's "Jacob Wrestling with the Angel" (a picture that wil join the show when it goes to Holland) we know, though Jacob doesn't, that the "man" with whom he wrestles is an angel sent by God.
Though Rembrandt seems to loom above all other artists, this exhibit lets us see how much he borrowed from the conventions, competition and painters of his time. Rarely has that master been so well positioned in the context of his age.
The exhibition was organized by The Detroit Institute of Arts. Essays by the Gallery's Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and nine other scholars are included in the 307-page catalog. The show will travel to Detroit, and to the Rijksmuseum, after closing here Jan. 4.