"A Lady Writing," by Vermeer, oil on canvas.
"A Lady Writing," by Vermeer, oil on canvas.

Going Dutch

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.

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."

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.

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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