The National Catholic Review
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We thought we knew him, with that searching unsettling gaze of his, the man with a peasant face who became the master of light and shadow, saturated color and probing psychology. The guises in which he presented himself varied greatly: here as a soldier, there as a prince, now as a beggar or as a king before the Christ-Child. At times he stared, scowled, glared or held us in his gaze, but he never smiled. And he let his age show, scrutinizing himself as no other artist has before or since, studying not simply his own soul but the human condition. In one self-portrait we come before his deep-set dark eyes, bulging nose, full lips and double chin painted at the nadir of his career shortly after his insolvency; yet he chooses neither dejection nor self-assertion in response. The left side of his face is shadowed, the furrowed brow and fleshy right cheek marvels of suggestion. A black velvet beret symbolizing his craft gives the only touch of élan. It is Rembrandt von Rijn, the miller’s son from Leiden, bankrupt in Amsterdam—the painter as Everyman.

This Rembrandt self-portrait hangs in the fifth gallery of the sumptuous exhibition “The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” now showing in New York City. The exhibition is both a feast of fine painting and a history of a great institution, the unfolding of a partly planned and partly fortuitous story about Dutch art that fairly demands repeated visits.

Organized by Walter Liedtke, the exhibition presents all of the museum’s 228 Dutch paintings from 1600 to 1800, celebrating both the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth in 1606 and the publication of Liedtke’s two-volume exhibition catalogue. In presenting the development of the collection, the show reflects American philanthropy from the Gilded Age (1870-1900) onward, recognizing donors whose gifts added to the collection. Some will bridle at the attention paid to benefactors and the prices they paid for pictures. But the story of the Met would not be possible without such generosity, impelled not only by a love of art but also by admiration for the American values of democracy, family life, the “Protestant work ethic” and appreciation for nature, which the donors thought middle-class Dutch society had anticipated during those centuries.

The Rembrandt self-portrait is part of the Benjamin Altman bequest (1913), which includes four other Rembrandts, three genre scenes by Frans Hals, the museum’s second Vermeer, landscapes by Aelbert Cuyp, Meyndert Hobbema and Jacob van Ruisdael, and fine genre scenes by Gerard ter Borch, Gerrit Dou and Nicolaes Maes. Among the Rembrandts, “The Toilet of Bathsheba” (1643) is an example of the finely painted cabinet pictures that Rembrandt produced for private collectors in the 1640s in his “smooth” style. In the later, “rough” style, “Man With a Magnifying Glass” and “Woman With a Pink” (both early 1660s) stand out. Van Ruisdael’s “Wheat Fields” (c. 1670), its centered road “leading like a nave into the cathedral of nature,” as the exhibit notes, is one of the grandest works of the great landscapist’s later years. But smaller works hold their own. Johannes Vermeer’s “A Maid Asleep” (c. 1656-57), with its dozing girl just left by a male visitor, is the artist’s first known effort to capture an intimate moment in a rapture of pearl light and balanced forms. And Nicolaes Maes’s “Young Girl Peeling Apples” (c. 1655), whose soft chiaroscuro and warm blended colors honor Rembrandt, is a still smaller wonder, in which light and color rather than line and modeling create the form of a plain but unforgettable girl.

The Met’s Dutch Debut

The Met’s first collection centered on Dutch paintings. Known as the “Purchase of 1871,” it was approved by the board of trustees after the museum’s vice president William Blodgett had assembled it the year before in Paris. First presented to the public in 1872, the 174 Old Masters received a favorable review in The Atlantic Monthly from Henry James, who found in Bartholomeus van der Helst’s oval “Portrait of a Man” (1647) “the perfect prose of portraiture” and imagined that Mother Nature “would lay a kindly hand on the sturdy shoulders of van der Helst, and say, ‘One must choose for the long run: this man I can trust!’” Thus Americans became familiar with the broad white collars, the austere black coats and the full, direct faces of their Dutch forerunners.

While some paintings in the purchase were too ambitiously attributed, the collection included marvels like Jan van Goyen’s “View of Haarlem and the Haarlemmer Meer” (1646), a small-scale triumph of delicacy and acute observation. Sketched first in the bell tower of Saint Bavo’s Church, it shows the city and the church against a low horizon, with two small figures in a field bathed in golden light, and most of the landscape detailed in a watery green, with iridescent gray clouds overhead. Nearby is “Drawing the Eel” (1650s) by Salomon van Ruysdael (uncle of Jacob), a boisterous winter scene full of cartoonish horses and jolly burghers who entertain themselves by tormenting a poor fish under sweeping ivory clouds in an immense and pale blue sky. Margareta Haverman’s “A Vase of Flowers” (1716) is a feat of brilliant color and delicate balance, with a daringly open lower right corner anchored only by a few grapes. One of two canvasses by the only woman in the exhibition, it was pronounced “elegant” by James.

When the railroad financier Henry G. Marquand became the Met’s second president in 1889, he gave the museum 42 paintings, a third of them Dutch, including the museum’s first authentic Rembrandt, “Portrait of a Man” (c. 1632), three works by Frans Hals, including the jaunty “Portrait of a Man” (early 1650s) and Vermeer’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” (c. 1662). The finest of the museum’s five Vermeers, this last work, a modestly sized canvas, takes viewers out of time into the presence of an idealized woman in a perfect home, glowing with light, jewel-like color and intricate detail, yet hushed and still. No matter that there is a slight problem with the girl’s right hand.

J. P. Morgan, elected the museum’s fourth president in 1904, attracted new curators, oversaw enlargements of the collections and contributed 10 Dutch paintings, including Gerard ter Borch’s vanity-piece “A Young Woman at Her Toilet With a Maid” (c. 1650-51) and Gabriël Metsu’s tender, revealing “Visit to the Nursery” (1661). Another grand gift was the early Rembrandt “Man in Oriental Costume” (1632) from railroad heir William K. Vanderbilt in 1920.

Bequests of the Huntington family figure prominently in two galleries devoted to “Major Donors, 1900-1950” and “Acquisitions, 1950-2005.” Collis P. Huntington, one of the Central Pacific Railroad’s “Big Four,” considered Vermeer’s “Woman With a Lute” (c. 1662-63) his best painting, a symbol-laden image of a girl at a window tuning her lute as she awaits a male companion. His son Archer gave the museum Frans Hals’s “Paulus Verschuur” (1643) and two Rembrandts: a portrait of Rembrandt’s common-law wife, “Hendrickje Stoffels” (1660); and an elegant presentation of “Flora” (c. 1654), which is a tribute to Venetian art but with a goddess of spring familiar with mortality.

Other offerings include paintings donated by Henry O. and Louisine Havemeyer. Champions of Impressionist art, the Havemeyers left nearly 2,000 works to the museum in 1929, among them 10 Dutch paintings, including Pieter de Hooch’s “The Visit” (c. 1657), which depicts two young women at a window entertaining two men and likely considering mischief. It was so admired in the 19th century that Théophile Thoré, a French critic, thought it painted by Vermeer. The Havemeyers also gave Rembrandt’s so-called Van Beresteyn portraits (of a man and a woman, both 1632) and his “Herman Doomer” (1640), a remarkably well-preserved portrait of an Amsterdam ebony worker, seemingly still ready after 350 years to tell viewers how much he loved his craft.

A large bequest from Michael Friedsam included an early, atypical Rembrandt (“Bellona,” 1633) and a late, atypical Vermeer (“Allegory of the Catholic Faith,” c. 1670). Jules Bache, a New York stockbroker, donated Rembrandt’s “Standard Bearer (Floris Soop)” (1654) and a mid-career “Portrait of a Man,” by Frans Hals. Bache also gave the museum its finest Gerard ter Borch, “Curiosity” (c. 1660-62), a delightful genre scene in which a seated young woman writes a letter for an elegant, slightly haughty friend while a curious young woman and a dog look on.

A Nod to Dutch Catholics

In 1956, the Met purchased Hendrick ter Brugghen’s “The Crucifixion With the Virgin and Saint John” (c. 1625), a canvas that has grown in reputation and usually hangs with the museum’s Caravaggios. Painted from a low vantage point against a stark, star-studded sky, it shows the twisted and agonized body of Christ, blood pouring from his wounds, as the stricken Mary and John stare up toward him (they display the plain features of the Dutch models). Thoughtfully installed to suggest the “house chapel” of a Catholic family in Utrecht for which it was painted, the piece is a triumph of religious anguish, perhaps the closest thing America has to Grünewald’s “Isenheim Altarpiece” at the Unterlinden Museum in Colmar, Alsace.

Other great works on display include Vermeer’s “Study of a Young Woman” (c. 1665-67), a lesser variant of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” but equally mysterious, and Rembrandt’s candid but compassionate portrait of the syphilitic Gerard de Lairesse (c. 1665-67). The grandest addition is Rembrandt’s “Aristotle With a Bust of Homer” (1653). One of the museum’s most prized holdings, the painting serves as the show’s finale. Under a broad-brimmed hat, a man from the late Middle Ages, wearing a black sleeveless vest over a billowing white and gold gown, stands with his right hand on a bust of the blind poet. His left hand plays over a magnificent gold chain holding a medal with an image of Alexander the Great. Dense impasto lifts the chain sometimes a quarter-inch from the canvas. Golden light falls across the subject’s cheeks as his somewhat melancholy eyes look beyond the statue into the puzzle of human fame and fortune. The art historian Simon Schama has speculated that the standing figure may in fact be Alexander’s favorite painter, Apelles, but the present title remains broadly accepted.

Visitors with the stamina to continue will find 75 more paintings in the Met’s galleries where the Dutch collection is normally hung. There one can admire Jan van Goyen’s “Castle by a River” (1647), an invented Romanesque fort in a lambent gold light, and Willem Drost’s handsome “Portrait of a Man” (perhaps a self-portrait), which shows what feeling and finesse the younger artist learned while studying with Rembrandt. There are cautionary works, too, such as “A Young Woman Reading,” supposedly by Vermeer and purchased by Jules Bache for a very large sum only two or three years after it had been counterfeited in the Netherlands. Benjamin Altman acquired “Rembrandt’s Son Titus,” purportedly by the father, but it was a superficially executed work now dated to the late 17th or early 18th century.

As a whole, the exhibition would have delighted Wilhelm Bode, a European art historian and curator, who admired the “noble ambition” of American philanthropists. “The public feeling for art,” he told The New York Times in 1911, “the architecture, the fortunes spent in public and private collections, the general interest in doing things that are magnificent, are the characteristics of which I constantly think.” Only in the Netherlands itself could the story of Dutch art be better told than at the Met.

“The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art” is on view through Jan. 6, 2008.

Leo J. ODonovan, S.J., is emeritus president of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

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