Old masters in a new light

The Met’s gorgeous show of Dutch treasures turns an overwhelming cache of riches into a jewel box of wonders

  • Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait” 1660 (left) and his painting “Hendrickje Stoffels” mid-1650s (right) from “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met.” Photos: Adel Gorgy

  • “Bearded Man with a Velvet Cap” by Govert Flinck, 1645. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • “A Maid Asleep,” Johannes Vermeer, ca. 1656–57. Photo: Adel Gorgy

  • Pieter de Hooch, “Leisure Time in an Elegant Setting,” ca. 1663–65. Photo: Adel Gorgy

if you go

WHAT: “In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met”

WHERE: The Met Fifth Avenue

WHEN: Through October 4, 2020

Thanks to a revamping of the skylights and spaces in the Met’s European Paintings galleries, we can now see Old Master treasures in a new light. The makeover’s not done yet, so, ironically, it’s the quieter light in the smaller, more intimate downstairs of the Lehman wing that offers up-close reconsiderations of beloved masterworks alongside seldom seen works by less known artists.

“In Praise of Painting: Dutch Masterpieces at The Met” is presented in sections: “Faces of a New Nation,” “Questions of Faith,” “Staking a Claim,” “Masters, Pupils, Rivals,” “Comic Painting,” “Contested Bodies,” “Eloquent Things,” “Lives of Women,” and “Behind Closed Doors.” Each section groups works and concepts into interesting visual conversations.

Culling the hundreds of Hals, Vermeers, Rembrandts, de Hooches, Ruisdaels, Heems, Hedas and Kalfs to a scant 67 allows a focused but relaxed tour of one of art’s greatest periods. Holland’s Golden Age — roughly the 17th century — was a period of domesticity, prosperity and peace. The Dutch had just emerged from a long, costly war with Spain. Scientists, artists, writers and philosophers whose thoughts didn’t sit well with the Inquisition, found a warm welcome in Holland.

Trade routes were opening globally. Thanks to natural ports, lots of canals, and busy shipbuilders, Holland became a prime supplier to both the Old and the New Worlds. The Dutch East Indies Company was the richest, most successful corporation the world had ever seen. Holland’s Golden Age was the first time that working class Europeans, rather than just the aristocracy and churches, could afford luxuries and finery. They lived close together in elegant houses in bustling cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, and Leiden. Land wasn’t their investment of choice. For many, it was art. Wealthy burghers, ship captains, merchants and their families all wanted their portraits painted, along with pictures of fancy dinners, beautiful tulips (another passion) and views of their beloved towns, roads, rivers and windmills. Lots of painters showed up to fill the demand.

Some of the most successful of them needed extra hands to complete orders. They took on students and opened studio workshops. One was Rembrandt. A tour of the galleries will bring you to works by Nicolaes Maes, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Gerrit Dou, and Govert Flinck. All of them studied with Rembrandt. Flinck’s 1645 “Bearded Man with a Velvet Cap” is a marvel of verisimilitude. As Rembrandt had done, Flinck dressed his sitter in exotic clothes and rendered him brilliantly. The realism of the rumpled red cap, the soft, brown fur collar, the shine on the nose, and the cottony, white curls of a well-tended beard are testament to Flinck’s extraordinary skill. Rembrandt’s own 1640 “Herman Doomer” portrait focuses on other aspects. The sitter’s translucent skin, plump lips, and the sparkling wetness of his eyes bring him to life. Meanwhile, his brown suit recedes into the background, as the white collar frames his face, in service of the soul of the man whose crow’s feet enliven a direct, confident gaze.

By that time in his career, Rembrandt was leaving behind perfection of form for the search for spirit, manifested in art and humanity. His 1654 “Self-Portrait,” one of the treasures of the Met, is included in the section featuring masters and pupils. Too bad it couldn’t be hung next to his “Hendrickje Stoffels” portrait done around the same time (she shows up in “Lives of Women”). Stoffels was Rembrandt’s common-law wife, his second great love, and the mother of his only child to survive him.

Some historians believe these two paintings were made as pendant portraits, typically made in pairs, often of husbands and wives, meant to be hung side-by-side, completing each other. The paintings’ similar dates, sizes, backgrounds, and poses that face one another support the idea. The tenderness of Hendrickje radiates from one canvas. The weariness of the artist who’d just been bankrupted, lost his home and possessions, but still retained his spirit and drive, comes through in the other.

That’s just one of the stories behind the pictures. Frans Hals, in my mind the original Impressionist, laid flat broad strokes of color on his canvases that somehow translate into pudgy bodies wearing shiny fabrics that reflect multitudes of flickering candles. How? Gerard ter Borch had a way with velvet. Rich red gowns and plump cushions show up often in his paintings, to show how good he was in capturing velvet’s uniquely shimmery shift from plushness to shine. Vermeer’s frozen moments, still and perfect, transcend time. They became increasingly popular when, at the beginning of the 20th century, audiences got used to photography’s ability to arrest action. Did Pieter de Hooch plan to reveal interior lives when he painted complex, interior scenes with layers of depth? Or do we just infer them? The show offers starting points for many explorations.

The smaller, dimmer galleries in the Lehman wing almost mimic the household rooms for which these great paintings were intended. They’re hung close together, mostly at eye-level, and invite near, slow viewing. Their grandeur will be back, once they return upstairs. Through October 4, 2020, this gorgeous show of treasures turns an overwhelming cache of riches into a jewel box of wonders.

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