There is a reason we call them masters.
Seventy paintings representing many of the finest artists of the Dutch Golden Age are featured in a new exhibition at the St. Louis Art Museum. “Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt,” from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opens Sunday and is on view through Jan. 12.
It’s a chance to see some of the finest works from one of the most important and influential periods of art, a showcase of time and place. The exhibit highlights paintings by Dutch painters in the 17th century and a little beyond. Included are some of the best-known names of the era: Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Jan Steen and more.
The exhibition, which also has been to the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, was put together because of two large promised donations of Dutch Old Master art to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The donations doubled that museum’s already extensive collection of the style to more than 200 works.
At the St. Louis Art Museum, the exhibition was curated by Judith Mann, Elizabeth Wyckoff and Heather Hughes of the museum’s staff. They divided the works from the Boston museum into six areas of interest.
The first room, “People of the Dutch Republic,” demonstrates how Dutch artists of the period expanded the traditional subjects of portraiture from royalty and members of the aristocracy to members of the newly emergent merchant class, Wyckoff says.
The undisputed masterpiece of this gallery — and the whole exhibition — is Rembrandt’s 1632 depiction of his soon-to-be wife’s cousin, “Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh.” The painting, which is so lifelike you can almost smell the sitter’s breath, expresses her personality despite the severe black clothes that were worn at the time.
Along with the flourishing of art in the Netherlands in the 17th century, the country’s influence in the world also began to pick up, Hughes says. The exhibition’s second gallery focuses on how their art was affected by the country’s advances in science, travel and trade.
At a time when the Dutch East India Company and the Dutch West India Company were trading essentially all around the world, and the country was busy colonizing — including a region from Maryland to Cape Cod — Dutch artists were incorporating international items into their paintings.
Franz Hals’ circa 1665 work “Portrait of a Man” depicts a man wearing a Japanese robe that was fashionable after trade routes to Japan were opened. Willem Kalf’s 1664 painting “Still Life With Fruit in a Wanli Bowl” is so filled with international types of fruit and vessels, Hughes says, that “it shows the world in a single painting.”
The freedom that allowed Dutch art to expand and grow came at a cost, Wyckoff says. What is now the Netherlands and nearby provinces had been ruled by Spain but fought back against an increasingly heavy-handed rule. The Dutch Revolt lasted 80 years and eventually ended with the establishment of the independent Dutch Republic.
Perhaps the biggest area of contention in the revolt was religion: Spain was strongly Catholic, and the regions that broke away from them were increasingly becoming Protestant. This Protestant influence is clearly apparent in the exhibition’s third gallery, which shows representations of Bible stories, religious figures and church buildings — including former Catholic churches that had been stripped of their religious imagery and were being used as social gathering places.
The room is dominated by two large-scale portraits by Rembrandt of a pastor and his wife. Hals is also represented by a much smaller portrait of a preacher, while Pieter Jansz Saenredam has three painstakingly rendered depictions of church interiors.
But the Dutch painters of the 1600s were not all solemnity and contemplation. The fourth gallery shows how some of the paintings tell stories, and not all the stories were moralistic. At first glance, Steen’s “An Elegant Company Playing Cards” seems to portray a small group of people including a soldier, involved in a friendly card game.
Only on closer inspection does the viewer realize that the setting is a bordello.
The final two galleries are devoted to landscapes, which the Dutch painters at the time took to new heights, says Mann, one of the curators. The first of these galleries shows people interacting with nature around them. Many of the pictures are winter scenes, Wyckoff says, because that part of Europe endured unusually long and harsh winters for most of the 17th century.
Perhaps the most notable of these paintings is Hendrick Avercamp’s “Winter Landscape Near a Village,” a large and crowded canvas from 1610 to 1615 showing villagers enjoying a day on a frozen river. Many are skating, and some are out for a stroll. One man is ice fishing, and another is occupying an outhouse.
The landscapes are still there in the final gallery, but the people, for the most part, are gone. The paintings here are more serene but not necessarily accurate, Mann says. It is the artist’s vision that mattered; these are landscapes that are painted the way the artist imagined, even if they were not as they actually existed.