The Life of the Party

John Haber
in New York City

The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Met

Only the Met would celebrate Rembrandt's birthday by celebrating itself. Then again, in America only the Met can. But would the artist himself feel left out?

In a parade of the Met's century and a half of collecting, the star of the show gets sidelined, and the rest of "The Age of Rembrandt" comes off even worse. Yet the show of old favorites says something fascinating about American tastes—and how they came to shape a taste for Rembrandt.

Counting the presents

Actually, Rembrandt would have turned four hundred a year ago. So would the great age of Dutch painting. In 1606 the nation was only halfway through its eighty-year war of independence from Spain. Still, a republic was taking shape—and with it a new style. Rembrandt's Self-Portrait (Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1660)

Young artists like Hendrick Terbrugghen were returning to Utrecht, after encountering Caravaggio in Rome in 1604, and the Baroque was underway. Flemish innovators, especially Peter-Paul Rubens, were trying on big compositions and sweeping movement, centered around muscular bodies. Just across the border, however, the Dutch chose a clearer light and humbler subjects. It takes only a little imagination to leap ahead to Rembrandt's early years in Leiden. It takes only hindsight to look still further, to the calm, golden light, active intellect, and rich display of Dutch art around mid-century. Rembrandt's death in 1669 marks only the beginning of the end.

The Met opens its halls to many celebrations, public and private, so why not one for Rembrandt? With around twenty of his paintings, it has the largest holdings outside the Netherlands. I say around, because with those weasel words school of Rembrandt it can claim quite a few more. The museum started collecting from its birth, when Rembrandt stood as much for an aura as for an artist. Many years later, the Met was still sorting out just what it owns. Indeed, historians will be sorting things out for many years to come.

And that presents a problem: just who gets invited to the party, and who gets to count the presents? Since the museum's birth in 1871, its rooms for Western painting have represented Dutch art of the 1600s better than they can any other nation or time. One ascends to them up the central stairs, an immediate signal of what clearly ought to matter. Go to the left, and you are in the hall for temporary exhibits, like this very celebration. Go to the right, and you are in the Dutch rooms.

Besides, Rembrandt's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer has been the life of party since 1961. Even after more costly and heralded acquisitions, it remains the museum's most famous expenditure. Juan de Pareja, the portrait by Diego Velázquez bought in 1971 for $5.5 million, could never capture the public imagination in quite the same way. Neither could the Madonna and Child by Duccio, snapped up in 2005 for a reported $45 million.

Short of adding balloons and tinsel to the usual display, what then is a museum to do? More than ten years ago, the Met offered "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt," a revealing look at why attributions matter and its own institutional power. Last year the Met threw together its works on paper by Rembrandt in a busy corridor, like a clumsy surprise party. At the same time, the Morgan Library assembled an unparalleled collection of prints and landscape drawings, and the Frick will bring another Rembrandt from the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2010. Clearly the Met wants to make up for its last tepid affair with a belated birthday bash. This time it wants not self-questioning but certainty—and a blockbuster.

Piling it on

The museum could have singled out the best of the best from its holdings, in a room or two to knock one dead. It could instead have collaborated with others on something bigger. Together, American museums might have heralded Rembrandt in the New World. Alternatively, the Met and Amsterdam might have joined worlds. However, the Met wants something very much its own, and it wants to send a message: we are Rembrandt, and Rembrandt is us.

What happens when a museum pulls out all the stops? Every one of its Dutch paintings goes on display, including work often in storage. To rub in the point, the arrangement says little about Rembrandt and everything about the Met. It does not move in order through the age of Rembrandt, from the birth of a nation to the chill of the early eighteenth century. It does not proceed by artist, by genre, by city, or by style. Rather, it proceeds chronologically—but the only time line is the permanent collection's.

An opening room introduces the major donors, with one painting contributed by each, all by the big man himself. Next comes a room for 1871 and that "founding purchase." One sees not Rembrandt's youth, but that of the United States as a repository for the Western canon. Successive donations follow, many with photographs of the galleries as they once looked. A final room takes up purchases after 1950, when museums learned to rely more on managing history than managing estates. Maybe unbridled capitalism peaked with Herbert Hoover, but apparently it took longer for curators to matter as much as robber barons—and do not even ask how things stand in galleries today.

Exhausted? The gallery for temporary exhibitions holds just part one. Use the long walk over to the usual Dutch wing to recover, for it has over seventy-five more items. They include works of questionable attribution, of middling condition, or in the eyes of the Met just not up to its high standards. They have no particular arrangement, but they are at least as much fun as the main event. One can get up close, without having to penetrate quite the same aura or quite the same crowds.

The show has more than enough pleasures, with well over two hundred paintings—two hundred twenty-eight, to be exact. More people will come to see them, and the press duly serves up guides to the greatest hits. New Yorkers, in turn, can enjoy catching up with familiar faces. Most of the time, one can hardly mind if the birthday boy does not get a fresh look. So what if he does not get to play comfortably with his friends?

The theme is grating all the same. My family has a habit of leaving books and magazines stacked on the floor, more or less where they fall. Look closely, and they, too, supply a history of acquisitions. Few visitors will care, and most will just want to see some Rembrandts. Unfortunately, the show makes it hard to do just that—harder, in fact, than walking into the usual galleries on an ordinary day.

Finding Vermeer

The Met loves to indulge in self-congratulation. Again and again, past shows have used biased selections to put over its view of the past. Its exhibition of the Renaissance in Lombardy tried to convince everyone that it could get its hands on a decent Caravaggio. Its shows about Giotto always assign him a fresco cycle that he probably never touched. Its retrospective of Fra Angelico tried to hide that it had to omit the major works, and a trotting out of the Met's stock of the Northern Renaissance peddled one controversial attribution after another.

"The Age of Rembrandt" is far, far fairer. It is all about museum skepticism. One can imagine oneself among the collectors and art advisors, finding one's way through history. Yet that curious sequence remains, and so does its arrogance. It asks only what the Met thought about painting, what it owned, what it displayed, and when. Does any of this work, does any of it matter, and to whom?

The sequence gets in the way, because it scatters the evidence every which way. Pulling things out of storage still sounds like cleaning the closets, and it demands tidying up. Not many museums can boast of five paintings by Jan Vermeer, even without the loan of Vermeer's Milkmaid, but I bet few will leave able to name them. Fewer will trouble to remember what donor served up each one. Fewer still will have a sense for what makes them like other Dutch painting, and do not even ask what makes them special.

The wall labels do a good job of outlining obscure subjects and a painting's condition. They, too, however, do everything they can to make the only chronology the Met's own. They do not include the date of a work with its artist and title. They quote the signature and date on the canvas, if any, but the bulk of these are plain wrong. Most often, another hand added the inscription later, when a name like Rembrandt meant quality. One has to pull out the real story from the full text of the wall label, and one may not always find it even there.

The paintings are hard to see physically as well, even apart from the crowds. A few hang above each other, Salon style, and for some reason a couple lap over into the next century. While do not, they still hang a bit high and beneath a heavy light. I often had trouble locating the inscription or other detail mentioned by the Met itself. I started to think that the museum had not made things nearly hard enough. It should have hung everything upside-down as well.

Does it matter? If one wants to see Vermeer as a whole, after all, one can always walk over to the Frick—and perhaps one had better. The Frick has The Polish Rider and a great Rembrandt self-portrait. It allows one to compare landscapes by Jacob van Ruisdael and his most important follower, Meindert Hobbema. One can see how carefully the latter sorts out Ruisdael's wonderful optical and emotional turmoil. Paths within the painting connect, and they become visual pathways into a landscape as well.

Taking collectors seriously

Back at the Met, though, suppose one looks for another kind of pleasure. A postmodernist might be chomping at the bit, eager to take the Met's history seriously. New York's most popular art's institution is throwing around its weight. It is showing how the display of art has evolved, from an extension of a rich man's estate to the clinical eye of the present. It is also saying something about Europe and America, old money and new, like a Henry James novel. Fittingly, James wrote one of the first articles on the collection.

One might expect the show to reveal the evolution of that relationship. One might expect to see a modern image of Rembrandt slowly emerge, as historians start to make sense of him, Rembrandt's workshop, other followers and copyists, and the entirety of his influence. One might expect to see changes in taste with the arrival of Modernism, as former unknowns like Vermeer take center stage. One might also expect collectors to have very distinct personalities.

And all that holds, within limits. I had forgotten that J. P. Morgan contributed key works, all the while building up his own library. I work in the B. Altman building, and my mother went shopping at the department store there long ago, but I never knew that Benjamin Altman was Jewish. Altman's 1913 bequest stands out, with a self-portrait from 1660. It comes at the beginning of Rembrandt's last style and final decade. The painter may never again seem so assured and self-contained.

The self-portrait appears more modest at first than the regal Frick painting. It lacks the yellow-gold of the artist's robes or the pose of a king on his throne. Yet Rembrandt at the Met does not carry a brush, like a mere craftsman, and he does not wear rags, however gilded. Instead, he adopts the pose of a Renaissance prince—standing and at an angle to profile. He allows himself younger features, a leaner face, and a dour but confident gaze. He blends into the incredible shadows because he belongs.

Just as often, however, the procession of donors comes across as a sameness of vision. And that vision, it turns out, is the show's greatest revelation.

It does not care all much for genre scenes—that record of commerce, industry, and private drama. It does not care for complex Dutch interiors filled with equally complex love stories or encounters between servant quarters and public room. It does not care for history painting or for the Dutch identification of their republic with the land. The Met has a superb Wheat Fields by Ruisdael, from about 1670. Clouds reach toward the viewer, like the head and hands of a giant. Mostly, however, collectors preferred the more mannered outdoor settings and cool, even tones of Ruisdael's uncle, Salomon van Ruysdael.

How America stole the past

Above all, donors wanted portraits, especially solo portraits. They did not want confessional gestures, marital interplay, and signs of class. (One can see all that in a show of Dutch portraiture just on display in London and the Hague.) They liked mute, emblematic portraits, or tronies—the kind people associate with the Mona Lisa or Girl with a Pearl Earring. Viewers today still like those best.

At the Met, then, one is seeing the birth of not just a modern museum, but a modern taste. What accounts for it, and what makes it so very modern or American? Will it show, too, in the newly remodeled nineteenth-century galleries? These collectors demanded portraiture as a record of character—and a testimony to their own. And their vision matched a new ideal.

It describes the titan of industry, like the sitter, as a modern prince, but also as a modest, virtuous bourgeois. Such a person defines himself not by his connection to others, but by what he attained and by the immensity of a life within. Interestingly, early attributions often overrated a painting when the subject posed as Jesus or a saint. More showy religious themes get shorter shrift—from meditative, glowing Church interiors to a Crucifixion by Terbrugghen, here off in its own small chamber. Perhaps they felt less in keeping with private virtues in Protestant America.

"The Age of Rembrandt" locates a uniquely modern ideal, and Rembrandt came to embody it. He did so from the intensity of his eyes to the murky brown shadows of his followers. The Met's signature Rembrandt stands out in the main exhibition's last room. It shows Rembrandt even in his darkest years with a concern for modeling flesh, for creating the textures of real things, and for intermingling space and bright color. It shows him creating narratives that collectors of murky brown never knew. Yet it could also tell the show's story by itself.

Aristotle fingers the bust of Homer like a phrenologist and a man of action. Yet the gaze of a philosopher probes just as deeply. Even Aristotle's hand conveys at once a sense of touch, a sense of sight, and a look within, down to a glint of gold. The glowing surfaces and tactile paint serve as a meditation on the arts of painting and sculpture, sight and feeling, understanding and sensation.

They also serve as a mediation on past and present, character and deed. Critics of Abstract Expressionism have spoken of how America "stole" the idea of the avant-garde. Here, one can understand how America came to change the conception of European art.

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"The Age of Rembrandt" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 6, 2008. A related review looks at the Met's 2013 installation of its galleries for European paintings.


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