Rembrandt and Vermeer are hard acts to follow.
That's been clear-as-a-Vermeer to generations of Dutch painters, some of them--to this day--still overpowered by the vision of their 17th-century predecessors.
The persistence of these 17th-century prototypes--even in Dutch art of the past century--is the most intriguing aspect of two offbeat shows now on view at the Federal Reserve Bank and Meridian House, part of the ongoing Netherlands-America cultural love fest. Though vastly more modest in quality and scope than the old Dutch masters now at the National Gallery of Art, both shows have their pleasures and revelations.
"The Hague School and Its American Legacy," at the Federal Reserve Gallery, is the more ambitious, scholarly effort. It seeks to beam new light into a dark little corner of art history called "The Hague School," which flourished in the Dutch capital between 1870 and 1900 under the leadership of Jozef Israels. Like the Washington Color School, it was not really a "school" or formal academy, but a close-knit group of painters who sought to abandon the sentimental, academic history and genre painting of the 18th century and return to the 17th-century Dutch ideals of directly observed landscape and real people.
Some achieved this goal, some did not. But all of these 43 dark, brooding paintings and watercolors--of windswept beaches, tulip fields, windmills, canals and young girls in traditional wooden shoes and winged caps--leave us hard put to see why Israels and others called this the most "modern" art of Holland. Israels, in fact, was the most out-of-date: He is represented here by a dramatically lit bedroom scene of a sick old woman being read to by her grandchild. The title: "Grandmother's Treasure." The source: unmistakably an oversentimentalized Rembrandt ripoff.
While the Hague School flourished, American painters were flocking to Europe--chiefly to Du sseldorf and Munich--but many stopped in The Hague to study the old masters and to paint the picturesque landscape. John Twachtman and William Merritt Chase spent time there in their formative, pre-Impressionist years, and other lesser-knowns, such as Gari Melchers, George Hitchcock and Marcia and Charles Woodbury (two of the most fascinating artists in the show) returned annually. Once there, they formed the sort of acquaintances and working relationships with local artists that one would expect, though the exhibition's thesis that they had a strong influence upon these visiting Americans seems overstated. In fact, if the works in the show speak the truth, the Americans--with their lighter touch, brighter colors and less traditional compositions--had more to teach their Dutch contemporaries about modernity than vice versa.
Among the unknown Americans, Walter MacEwen, represented by his strange "Judgement of Paris," deserves further study; so does Dutch watercolorist Anton Mauve, who has the added distinction of having been married to the cousin of Vincent Van Gogh, who lived with the family in The Hague in 1881. Van Gogh would have been part of this show, but no example from the period was available for loan, according to Federal Reserve curator and exhibition organizer Mary Ann Goley. Piet Mondrian, however--who also had his roots in The Hague School--is represented by a brooding, broadly brushed painting of a windmill that, again, is far closer in spirit to Rembrandt than to the work of the revolutionary modernist he became.
The exhibition, marred--as usual at the Federal Reserve--by a lack of candlepower (don't fall into the pots of ivy while trying to get a closer look at Marcia Woodbury's "Dutch Boy with Boat") is enhanced by a handsome little catalogue. After the show closes here on June 11, it will travel to the Norton Gallery in West Palm Beach, no doubt providing many a PhD candidate with a thesis topic along the way. Hours at the Federal Reserve Gallery, located on C Street between 20th and 21st streets NW, are short: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, or by appointment by calling 452-3686. More Dutch Art at Meridian -
"Reality Revisited" at Meridian House, 1630 Crescent Place NW, is a show of six contemporary Dutch painters who have two things in common: They are all realists of various sorts, and they all have the same enterprising agent, who arranged for them to represent all of contemporary Dutch art during this Netherlands-American Bicentennial.
Of course they do not, and cannot. They are merely six artists--rather arbitrarily chosen--who happen to live in Holland. Four of them could be painting anywhere on Earth, including Rockville. Two, however, hark majestically back to the 17th-century still-life painters and the light of Vermeer. These two alone make the show worth seeing.
Henk Helmantel, 38, deliberately conjures the art of the past though his meticulously painted realism: tall, white church interiors; a 17th-century goblet glistening with reflected light; a scattering of deliciously translucent currants--all causing a double-take on first encounter. Are these old paintings or new? Just as his "Dead Bird" vaguely recalls a goldfinch by Fabritius (there is one in the Mauritshuis show at the National Gallery), so do his other oils recall--though always unspecifically--the work of other Dutch masters from the past. Despite the "old" subject matter, however, these are ultimately 20th-century compositions that exude the same timeless quality found in the still-lifes of Yale's William Bailey.
Though he can also dazzle with a mere bowl of plums, Rein Pol, 33, is less leery of the present than Helmantel, and adds clues in his silky-surfaced oils that will save future generations the trouble of wondering which century he's from. A self-portrait in a mirror, for example, includes a jar of pickles; in a still life with violin, there lurks a book on Impressionism. Pol's wit gives his art an added dimension that suggests broad possibilities for future growth. This show is open Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 1 to 5 p.m., through May 20.