Going Dutch

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

The show has been arranged episodically, and each gallery takes up its own topic or topics. In the first gallery, called "New Art for New Clients," the life of sea trade and merchandis-ing can be seen. There's a remarkable set of Delftware tiles, circa 1650-1700, made in Friesland. The blue-on-white tiles, each of which features a different Dutch sailing ship, convey not only the value of trade, but also its influence on art, since the blue-on-white approach to ceramics was borrowed from distant trading partners of the Dutch: the Chinese. Near the tiles is the wonderful "Terrestrial globe" made of walnut, paper and brass and done in 1627 by Jodocus Hondius the Elder.

There are also several noteworthy paintings here that visually describe the urban life of Holland at the time, almost like snapshots. In Jan Steen's "The Burgher of Delft and his Daughter," an oil on canvas from 1655, one of five Steens in the show, the comfortable city life of Delft is conjured up. The portrait is a narrative that features the proper burgher seated on his front porch beside his richly dressed daughter. A beggar woman and her child have approached -- a church steeple can be seen behind them -- but it looks as though their fate will be left to providence, because the burgher is impassive to the woman's pleas.

The show really gets cooking in the second gallery, "Marriage and Family," where we find the first of the Rembrandts, "Portrait of a Man in a Red Doublet," from 1633. This depiction of an unknown man was done shortly after Rembrandt moved from Leiden to Amsterdam, and it shows why Rembrandt became so hugely famous as a portrait painter. In it, the man stares contentedly at the viewer; his facial expression, his fine clothes -- including that red doublet -- and his imposing size all convey affluence and social position.

"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.

The next gallery, "Household Rules," includes portraits of people at their labors and their leisure. An interesting feature in this section is the showcase containing two ceramic pieces -- "Dish with Landscape," a blue-and-white, tin-glazed majolica charger, and "Colander," a red-glazed earthenware vessel -- that appear in the adjacent painting. In "Woman Plucking a Duck," by Nicolaes Maes, the two ceramic items are lying on the floor. The verisimilitude Maes achieved in his painting, as revealed by the display of similar objects, suggests the accuracy with which the artist must also have rendered everything else.

The next gallery is divided into two parts: "A Kid's World" and "The Virtues of Age," which features the other Rembrandt, "Portrait of a Lady, Age 62." The two sections convey Dutch attitudes toward children and the elderly. Both were in good positions, with old-timers being revered and youngsters being indulged in their whims -- at least in the artwork. Among the most charming things associated with "A Kid's World" is "Children's Games," a panel of 64 Delft tiles decorated, in blue on white, with children playing.

Stunning would be a better description of the silver "Layette basket," by Adriaen van Hoecke, from 1666-1667. It was commissioned to commemorate the birth of Cornelis van Nassau. Westermann believes the layette was probably used to hold baby Cornelis's clothes. The crowded and layered floral and vegetal decorations -- which look almost art nouveau in style -- are appropriate, because the piece celebrates fertility.

In the same case with the layette are two gorgeous brandy bowls, one made entirely of silver, the other a Chinese porcelain bowl with Dutch-made silver mounts.

At this point in the show, there's a reading room that provides a place for visitors to take a break, and two small informal galleries -- one devoted to prints, a Dutch specialty, and the other a period room, complete with furniture. This break is the perfect setup for the next gallery, "Objects of Desire," which, more than any of the other sections, comes closest to equating the decorative arts with painting. (Nevertheless, the show as a whole still feels like a painting show; the charisma of a couple of Rembrandts or a Vermeer overwhelms even the glitziest piece of silver or the most sumptuously ornamented cabinet.)

One of the best things here is "Cabinet on stretcher stand," from 1690. The parquetry work of flowers is so lyrical, and the legs and detailing so lightly figured, that the piece has an astoundingly formal simplicity -- in real contrast to the heavily detailed and downright clunky "Kussenkast (pillow chest)" seen in the period room.

There are so many remarkable things in "Objects of Desire" that it's impossible to list them all. But don't miss the green-glass "Roemer" and the Venetian-style striped-glass goblet -- both of which look like they were made in the twentieth century instead of the seventeenth.

The final gallery is called "Private Pursuits," and here's where the museum has placed that dreamy Vermeer oil from 1665, "A Lady Writing." Loaned by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the painting is a widely recognized masterpiece and one of only 36 known Vermeers (and probably the only one we're likely to see in Denver).

Standring and I have disagreed on many issues over the years, but there's one thing he said that I won't quibble with: "If people don't take the opportunity to see this, they really will be missing something."

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