The Saint Louis Art Museum has been on a bit of a roll lately, bringing art here that normally would require great expense and travel to view outside the confines of our humble city. On the heels of “Paul Gauguin: The Art of Invention,” the art museum now brings 70 exceptional works in “Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston” to St. Louis. Culled from the Museum of Fine Arts’ permanent holdings as well as the collections of two donor couples, Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo, and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie, St. Louis has the distinction for the next three months of having one of the best 17th-century Dutch Baroque paintings assemblages on display outside the Netherlands.
Most discussions of the Netherlands in the 17th century center on Dutch exceptionalism, where the industrious seven northern provinces of what had once been a much larger country—for lack of a better term—had wrested hard-fought independence from the reactionary and Roman Catholic Spanish Habsburgs in the Eighty Years War. But such discussions in countless graduate seminars I attended always seemed tinged with a bit of the old “Protestant work ethic” bias so common in many early 20th-century English and German art historians’ appraisals of the period. Indeed, an economic miracle did occur in the Netherlands after the Eighty Years War ended, and certainly a modicum of religious freedom allowed in the Seven Provinces encouraged immigration of industrious refugees fleeing persecution in Roman Catholic—and Protestant—regions of Europe. The Dutch were also beginning to enslave a half million Africans during the 17th century. This era of prosperity was not a benign paragon of the virtues of free market capitalism.
Yes, the thriving economy did produce the environment for much of the amazing art now on display in the Saint Louis Art Museum. But in fairness, political and economic malaise seems just as capable of producing great art, as well: Titian worked in a Venice whose fortunes were rapidly falling in the 16th century, and to the southwest of the Netherlands in the 17th century, Diego Velazquez revolutionized Spanish painting in the court of the very same Habsburg kings who finally had lost the Netherlands in 1648. There was also far less peace during the Golden age of Dutch Baroque art than appears at first glance. Only a couple of decades after the final defeat of the Spanish Habsburgs, the Dutch became embroiled in endless warfare with England and France in the 1670s. Those kingdoms emerged stronger politically in the 18th century; the Netherlands did not.
Likewise, despite being a unique country in many ways, the Netherlands continued to be economically and culturally linked with its despotic and Catholic neighbors throughout the 17th century. Through a group of young artists who had absorbed the tenebrism of Caravaggio in Rome and then returned to Utrecht, the Netherlands borrowed liberally from the latest Italian artistic trends. While churches were stripped down to bare walls, religious art still flourished on a more private scale, though removed of its Catholic armies of cherubs. The Netherlands were never really colonized by the ancient Romans, but classical subject matter was still artfully interpreted by Dutch artists. Landscape celebrated both the broad, flat reclaimed land of the Netherlands, while also evoking an imaginary rugged landscape more reminiscent of the Roman campagna.
But enough backstory; the paintings are the stars. Judith W. Mann, curator of European art to 1800; Elizabeth Wyckoff, curator of prints, drawings, and photographs; and Heather Hughes, senior research assistant in prints, drawings, and photographs have curated the exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum. The paintings drawn from the three sources, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the van Otterloos, and the Weatherbies, are arranged in the galleries thematically, and the accompanying wall text and audio tour provide excellent background for the art.
Rembrandt’s Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, 1632.
Perhaps an early standout is Rembrant’s Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh, from the young artist’s career in 1632. Rembrandt’s work from the 1650s and ’60s—after financial troubles, personal losses, life experiences, and artistic growth—has a more expressive and emotionally rich style, but the portrait on display here is one of the best from the 1630s. Get up as close as possible without making the Art Museum’s gallery attendants nervous, and really look at the way Rembrandt uses his paint to create the visual effects of Aeltje Uylenburgh’s facial features and clothing. Most importantly, the soul of the woman long dead is still present in her eyes, even all these centuries later. Two more full-length portraits of a husband and wife by Rembrandt follow in a later gallery.
There are plenty of landscapes as well, and perhaps they are often considered to be a stereotype of Dutch Baroque art. That is certainly unfair, as the representatives on display in the exhibition are of exceptional quality. We have wonderful examples of the “standard” Dutch landscape, of a broad green field, a church spire off in the distance suggesting a city, and huge boiling clouds dominating three-quarters of the composition on display. But I also would draw attention to the grand idealized panoramas of decidedly non-Dutch mountains and craggy cliffs inspired by Italian landscape, showing the worldliness of artists traveling throughout Europe for artistic inspiration. Dutch scientific advances during the 17th century are famous, but there was still time for creating fantastic scenes.
Representatives of subjects not normally associated with Dutch paintings also make a strong showing. A favorite: Carel Fabritius’s Mercury and Aglauros, where the furious messenger god thrusts his caduceus out toward the Athenian princess, who blocked his access to her sister Herse. A student of Rembrandt, Fabritius works in rich, painterly brushstrokes; the painting is no longer two-dimensional but moves into the third dimension as the impasto forms ridges on the canvas. It is a stunning painting. Hendrick Goltzius, a printmaker who turned to painting when his hands grew unsteady, is not a well-known artist to the general public, but is of critical importance. He shows up in the exhibition with his 1615 Susanna and the Elders; at this time the war with Spain had halted during the Twelve Years’ Truce.
Exposing these hidden gems of artists such as Goltzius to the greater public is what makes this exhibition so wonderful. One can see the joy in collecting these paintings; the van Otterloos and Weatherbies spoke on Friday evening at the art museum about how much enjoyment they get out of buying Dutch Baroque paintings, and now they are sharing them with a broader audience. Go see the exhibit and in some of their joy.