The Dutch masters were known for their skilled landscapes and portraits, their execution of light and shadow, and their portrayal of boisterous joy-filled scenes with just a hint of religious undertone.
Well-known artists from the 17th-century include Frans Hals, Jan Steen, and Johannes Vermeer. Their paintings are all iconic, experimental masterpieces. A large number of these Dutch works are house in the Mauritshuis (pronounced MORE-ITS-HOUSE) in the Netherlands. Rarely, if ever, do these national treasures leave their home – unless said home happens to be undergoing renovations.
In the meantime, a handful of works has made their way across the ocean and are now at the Frick Collection in an exhibition entitled “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis.” Organized by assistant curator Margaret Iacono, the fifteen paintings on view “represent the remarkable achievements of northern artists in the seventeenth century and complement the Frick’s strengths in Dutch portraits, landscapes, and genre paintings.”
An extremely popular and brightly-organized exhibition, “Masterpieces” is set up in the Oval Room and East Gallery in the museum. The star of the show is Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, who has the entire Oval Room to herself. She is so intriguing (that stare, that coy half-smile) and now famous that it is near-impossible to find a brief moment along with her. You’ve read descriptions of her before, outlining her pale perfect face, her brilliant blue turban, and yes, that enormous solitary pearl earring. You’ve got a picture of her in your mind- and from the computer of course – but you haven’t seen her if you haven’t seen her in person. She is one of Vermeer’s masterpieces, and when you stand before her, you’ll understand why.
Other equally compelling yet somehow less famous works include Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch (now a recognized picture because of the novel of the same name by Donna Tartt), the pair of portraits by Frans Hals featuring the newly-wedded and finely-dressed Jacob Olycan and Aletta Hanemans, and the oversized “As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young” by Jan Steen. A few Rembrandts also grace the walls, including the Biblical Susanna and Portrait of an Elderly Man.
Nicolaes Maes’s 1655 painting of The Old Lacemaker is easy to miss among the major works beside her, but the perfectly calm, idyllic scene is worth more than your normal 2-second glance. The wrinkles on the old woman’s face portray her age and intelligence and are evidence of the artist’s abilities. Daylight streams in from an unseen source, bathing the woman’s able hands in light. This simple image portrays a hard-working woman clothed in the brilliant white garb of the innocents, her work revealing her to be a virtuous woman dedicated to her domestic work and – by inference – her husband as well.
The Dutch masters knew how to paint – and paint well. They took inspiration for their works from the world around them. The Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth-century was a time of great prosperity, a time of “advancements in the sciences and the arts,” international trade, and a boom in the production of art. Lush landscapes, lively scenes of excess, portraits of wealthy individuals, and simple images of the everyday can all be found in artist repertoires of the period – and on the walls of the Frick.
If seeing the exhibition left you wanting more, continue through the Frick along the Garden Court where you’ll first find a modern-day video installation (also from the collection of the Mauritshuis) based off of a Dutch still-life, then discover actual floral arrangements (or dis-arrangements, as the case may be) in the hallway, made to look just like the video.
Continue through the fully-carpeted, lavishly decorated mansion, past the romantic Fragonards and Bouchers, past the chiming clocks and the Ingres, and you’ll end up in the West Gallery across from the exhibit. There the curators have arranged Henry Clay Frick’s collection of Dutch works so you can have an extra dose of masterpieces!
Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner and Hals grace the walls, adding to the exhibition in a way that no other museum on the tour could. Marvel at Vermeer’s painting of a mistress clad in her yellow, fur-lined coat, and her maid who hands her a hand-written note (from a suitor, perhaps?). Or turn around and stare into the eyes of the master artist himself, Rembrandt van Rijn, in his self-portrait.
It is easy to get lost in each of the works, stopping to admire each and every one, the brush strokes, the scene, the play of light. To get the full effect of the exhibition, a visitor truly should spend time with each canvas on view. Take more than just a few moments to enjoy the works. Note that short chain tying the goldfinch to his perch. Or the intricate bodice of Aletta Haneman’s dress that seems to bulge near her stomach (is she pregnant?, ask visitors).
This is certainly one of the best museum shows of this year – if you haven’t seen it yet, put it on the top of your list! You only have one week left before the show travels to Bologna in February. Keep in mind because of high demand, tickets are timed and, although are no longer available for purchase in advance online, you should visit at times that may be less crowded – although Friday is free and open late, long lines are to be expected.