Going Dutch

The Dutch masters show at the Denver Art Museum is quite a treat.

The era of the Dutch masters -- many of whom have made their way into modern culture on the lids of cigar boxes -- is one of those rare subjects in the art world that have generated interest not just from stodgy old art historians, but from everyone. And there's an obvious reason why this centuries-old artistic movement has garnered pop-cultural fame: good old Rembrandt, a painter everyone has heard of.

Rembrandt is one of the most famous European artists of all time, followed by another Dutch master, Vermeer. These two painters have been on the minds of many locals lately because of the marvelous Art & Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt, which is midway through its three-month run at the Denver Art Museum.

The show, installed in the museum's spacious Hamilton galleries, includes two Rembrandts and one Vermeer, plus 47 other Dutch-master paintings and seventy decorative objects. It's the inclusion of those objects that really sets this exhibit apart from ordinary shows about Dutch art, though. In the traditional approach, paintings are given the preeminent position, not just in Dutch art, but for shows in general. If the decorative arts are seen at all, it's usually in the form of a table or a pair of chairs pushed against the wall under a painting. Art & Home aims to change that by incorporating the decorative items into the main flow, and it succeeds, as everything comes together seamlessly.

"A Lady Writing," by Vermeer, oil on canvas.
"A Lady Writing," by Vermeer, oil on canvas.
"Cabinet on stretcher stand," cabinet with floral parquetry made of ivory, walnut, oak and other woods.
"Cabinet on stretcher stand," cabinet with floral parquetry made of ivory, walnut, oak and other woods.

But the inclusion of decorative arts is only one of this blockbuster show's distinctions. Even more significant, at least for hometown pride, is that Art & Home was organized in Denver, marking the first time that the DAM has ever put together a major old masters show; the organizers were the DAM's Timothy Standring and Mariët Westermann, a Dutch native and an art historian who specializes in seventeenth-century Dutch art.

Westermann, who served as a guest curator at the DAM and is now on the faculty of the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts, was associated with Rutgers University in New Jersey while she was working on the show. This association with Rutgers facilitated the participation of the Newark Museum, which served as a kind of junior sponsor for the exhibition; the show premiered there to the rave reviews of New York-area critics.

"Newark came on late, after I had already started to plan the show," Westermann recalled during an interview. I spoke with her and Stand-ring just before the show opened last month. "I got a call that they had a funding source for anything about Dutch products. I don't need to tell you I never get that kind of call."

For Standring, who was recently named chief curator after working at the DAM for twelve years, it was a relief that the show even got off the ground -- literally. "This was the exhibit that was destined not to happen," Standring said in the same interview. "Seventy-five percent of the loans were about to be shipped by air from all over Europe on September 11."

At first Standring thought the show would have to be canceled, because he feared that many of the more than sixty lenders would chicken out. Astoundingly, not a single institution backed out. "The Dutch museums were adamant about going forward," Westermann said. "They contacted us even before we contacted them and said they had complete confidence in America. They remember very well in Holland the role of America in World War II."

This anecdote provides a great segue into a discussion of the show itself, because, in addition to being about art, Art & Home is also about the character of the people who made and commissioned the paintings and other works.

The exhibit focuses roughly on works from the period of the Dutch Republic, which was established in 1648 after Holland -- previously known as the Spanish Netherlands -- ended its eighty-year war with Spain. Long wealthy from trade, the seafaring Dutch got even richer once the yoke of the Spanish was lifted. There were a lot of people with a glut of gilders, which is why there's so much art from seventeenth-century Holland. Though it offends some people's belief in the value of egalitarianism, wealthy cultures pay for and make art, and poor cultures mostly do not.

Holland's Protestant Reformation was also going on, so in a relatively short amount of time, the Dutch got rid of the nobility by throwing out Spain, and the clergy by throwing out the Roman Catholic Church. Freed from these forces, the Dutch were encouraged to forge a new way of life.

"We see in these paintings and decorative objects one of the earliest examples of modern middle-class life," said Westermann. "And because the paintings are so like photographs, there's a real way to connect to the people."

Even more connections can be made to the decorative objects in the show, as some of them are the ones that are actually depicted in the paintings. Westermann spent a lot of time tracking down similar objects, an accomplishment that took both scholarship and footwork. "The curator at the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] in New York let me go through the basements and cellars, and here were all these things that are never exhibited," she said. "Half of the decorative arts we've included in the show are never on exhibit in the museums that lent them."

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