|Cornelis Visscher’s “Head of an Old Man.’’ (Harvard Art Museum-Fogg Museum/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)|
Reflecting on Dutch Golden Age
‘Mirror’ focuses on 17th-century drawings at MFA
Amid all the hoopla attending the opening of the new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, it’s easy to forget about the scope and depth of the rest of the museum — not to mention its ability to mount captivating shows.
“Mirror of Holland: Drawings From the Maida and George Abrams Collection’’ is such a show. It is small, but you wouldn’t want it any larger. Its contents are so fine, so various, and so humanly interesting, that it consumes your attention.
The show’s 46 drawings and watercolors are drawn from the world’s leading private collection of Dutch drawings, a collection formed here in Boston over the past half century by George Abrams and his late wife, Maida.
In 1999, Maida and George, who went to Harvard Law School, donated 110 of their drawings to the Fogg Art Museum (now Harvard Art Museum). The museum also named one of its curatorial positions after the Abramses.
But George Abrams is involved with the MFA, too, as a trustee, and for this show, MFA curators Clifford Ackley and David Becker were able to choose freely from the Abrams collection. (Several of the drawings they have selected are on loan or promised to Harvard.) All the works will be taken down and replaced with others halfway through the show’s duration.
Sadly, Becker died in the leadup to the exhibition; Ackley told me that the show is now a memorial of sorts to his former colleague.
The point of the show, in both its current and second-half incarnations, is to get across the rich variety — of style, medium, and subject matter — in Dutch art in the 17th century.
What was the source of this variety?
The Dutch Republic, which wrestled off Spain’s imperial rule in 1581, was a federation of small states. It was democratic — more persuasively so than other republics, such as Venice — and intellectually free, to the extent that it became a haven for thinkers such as Descartes and Spinoza, and for many who were persecuted at the hands of Catholic Europe, such as the Jews.
In stark contrast to most of the rest of Europe, Dutch wealth was based on commerce rather than agriculture (in large part due to the phenomenal rise of the Dutch East India Company). This meant the advent of a wealthy new class of bankers, manufacturers, shippers, and merchants, and it was this class that created the demand for a secular art such as the world had never seen before.
The MFA works, which line the walls of a long corridor that leads toward the new wing from the Fenway entrance, are loosely grouped according to subject matter. The themes feel intuitive rather than academic. Thus we see a marvelous series of three drawings showing figures from behind; a pairing of evocative winter scenes; a series of interior scenes by relatives or students of Adriaen van Ostade; and, adding vivid color, a group of watercolors by botanical illustrators. (Among these is a study of flowers by the remarkable naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, a pioneer in the study of insects).
Many other things don’t really fit into any category, reinforcing the delightfully miscellaneous character of the show. But there are, as one would expect in any show of Dutch Golden Age art, several outstanding portraits.
Look out for Cornelis Visscher’s “Head of an Old Man,’’ which shows the subject up close. Visscher captures the texture of his fur-rimmed hat and bushy eyebrows with rhythmic, stylized marks that unexpectedly coalesce to achieve an intensified realism.
The neighboring “Standing Youth,’’ by Moses Terborch, is a rendering in black chalk of a young man in a riding outfit. It stands out because of the watchful look on the boy’s face — an expression that seems, the longer you look, to signal fleeting revulsion, like one of those involuntary micro-expressions that reveal our true feelings.
Moses was the younger brother of my favorite Dutch painter (after Rembrandt), Gerard ter Borch. He’s represented here with a single sheet of paper holding two very light, highly refined studies of heads. One head is larger than the other. It’s a frontal rendering of what appears to be a woman’s face with pensive, downcast eyes, a large, soft nose, and dimples at the corner of her mouth. Like the second head — a three-quarter profile view of a male head with long hair and heavy lids — it conveys an intimacy that seems to exist outside style or convention.
Ter Borch’s subjects were frequently his relatives. To look at them is to feel gently folded in to moments of muted tenderness and wordless rapport.
In a totally different vein, look out for Willem Pietersz Buytewech’s “A Standing Man, Hand on Hip.’’ With his tall, tilted hat, his voluminous cape, his pointy shoes, and his supercilious expression, this guy is a champion poseur — truly a dedicated follower of fashion.
My enthusiasm tends to falter in front of most Dutch landscapes. There are quite a few here. The only really great one, to my mind, is by Rembrandt’s early friend Jan Lievens, who has depicted an artist at work in the middle of a forest.
Seascapes are a different matter. Cornelis Claesz Wieringen’s, “Coastal View With Ships, Crag, Castle, and Bridge,’’ is a small work in brown ink, but it is packed with incident and an atmosphere of high-spirited adventure.
The Dutch have always enjoyed a bit of revelry. So it’s nice to see this more demonic side of the national character on show in Adriaen van de Venne’s “Farcical Peasant Brawl’’ — an allegory about the folly of war by this acclaimed illustrator — and in Arendt van Bolten’s “Masked Figures Dancing and Playing Music.’’ It’s hard to say whether this crowd of cavorting figures has actually donned masks, or if its members are simply ugly and lecherous. But they have an ecstatic, tumbling, Dionysian energy that captivates.
Nudes (Hendrick Goltzius’s “Seated Female Nude’’) and animals (Paul Potter’s “A Sow and Her Farrow’’) also appear, along with allegories and religious subjects.
But those three drawings of figures seen from behind are, for me, the show’s highlight. They’re like an alternative version, in three parts, of the rendering of “The Three Ages of Man’’ by Jan Philipsz van Bouckhorst that hangs elsewhere in the show — except that here it’s the three states of man, not the three ages.
One of them — call it the “state of confidence’’ — is by Nicolaes Claas Pietersz Berchem. It shows a suave man supporting the weight of his body with an elbow propped on a table. Another — call it the “state of disgrace’’ — by Cornelis Dusart, shows a drunken youth, tottering on his too-small seat, waving his hat buffonishly. His hands — brilliant touch! — have been accented with red chalk.
The third — “state of innocence?’’ — is Cornelis Saftleven’s “Boy on Footwarmer.’’ The small boy is folded into himself, his head in his hands, his hands resting on tucked-up knees. It’s hard to think of a more touching portrayal of the unknowable thoughts and abiding vulnerability of boyhood.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.