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ART REVIEW

Masterworks that amuse and amaze

Exhibit showcases private collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings

Philips Wouwerman’s “The Stag Hunt,’’ one of more than 100 paintings he created with the theme of the chase. Philips Wouwerman’s “The Stag Hunt,’’ one of more than 100 paintings he created with the theme of the chase. (Peabody Essex Museum)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / February 25, 2011

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SALEM — Deregulated free markets have rarely produced such likable results as they did in the Netherlands in the 17th century. There, for the first time en masse, artists made paintings to hang on the walls of individual citizens, rather than to grace the banquet halls and bedrooms of monarchs.

Ways of seeing and ways of painting proliferated to meet the spreading demand. Subject matter, too, ranged widely, as competitive painters sought to carve out a profitable niche for themselves.

Inevitably, a premium was placed on virtuosity. Painters became known for their ability to capture such optical effects as the sheen of satin, fleeting facial expressions, the matte, dimpled texture of lemon peel, or colored light pouring through clouds, water, and trees.

Dutch pictures in the 17th century were made, in other words, to please — to impress, to amuse, to find buyers. Three centuries later, they are still attracting buyers.

Two of the most avid — Rose-Marie van Otterloo and her husband, Eijk, who made his fortune trading stocks — have, over the past two decades, put together one of the world’s leading private collections of Dutch and Flemish paintings from the 17th century.

The van Otterloos regularly lend works from their collection to museums. But “Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks From the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection’’ at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem marks the first time the collection has been displayed to the public in its entirety. (A smaller version of the exhibition opened at the Mauritshuis in The Hague last fall.)

It’s a stunning show, with nearly 70 paintings. The range and quality of the works is incontestable. The display — largely by theme, with intelligent pairings of paintings with furniture and other objects — is sensitive. The whole exhibit is beautifully spaced.

Given all this, the best thing a reviewer can do is to pick out a handful of highlights. Indulge me, then, while I tell you about the six paintings that had the most noticeable effect on my pulse. (Art criticism: It’s nothing if not scientific.)

PHILIPS WOUWERMAN “The Stag Hunt’’ Nothing like a hunt to get the blood racing. This painting on copper by Philips Wouwerman hangs beside a similar hunting scene by Nicolaes Berchem.

Berchem was good, but he only dabbled in the genre, whereas the prolific Wouwerman, who died before turning 50, painted more than 100 pictures on the theme of the chase, and hundreds more on equestrian themes.

Here, the light invades the landscape from the left, echoing the directional thrust of the chase itself. The stag, we can see at far right, is on the point of being brought down by the dogs. The coup de grace is about to be delivered by a horseman holding a spear.

But all that is in the background. Wouwerman has lavished his attention instead on a horse and rider over on the left. The very picture of elegance, he wears a bright red jacket and a plumed hat. His horse, a magnificent creature with a rump like a marble dome and a tale like billowing black smoke, braces itself before leaping down the bank and fording the river.

Curiously, this physical hesitation becomes a psychological one. It arrests the whole rhythm of the picture. The painting may be premised on the vigor, the action, the fatal determinism of the hunt, but this deliberate crack in conception suddenly opens up the possibility of reflection, restraint, and the contemplation of a wider dispensation, a broader beauty.

HENDRICK AVERCAMP “Winter Landscape Near a Village’’ Avercamp was deaf and mute, but this winter scene is noisy with life. You won’t find Waldo, but try, if you can, to spot: a) two boots hung up to dry; b) a boat sailing along the ice; c) two public toilets (hint: look for the upturned boats); d) two men tying on their skates; and e) a bearded old man carrying a basket.

The same old man appears in at least two other winter landscapes by Avercamp, and may have been intended as a personification of winter.

Was he also a stand-in for Avercamp? With nothing but his dog for company, he does seem isolated in the context of this deliriously social scene. Avercamp’s mother, in a will she drew up shortly before dying, described him as her “mute and wretched son.’’ Unmarried and still living at home, he died less than six months after her.

WILLEM DUYSTER “Soldiers Dividing Booty in a Barn’’ A proud and splendidly attired officer oversees the sharing out of the spoils of war. The artist, Willem Duyster, died in the plague while still in his 30s, so we don’t know a great deal about him. But he specialized in these so-called “cortegaerdjes,’’ or guardroom scenes.

The contrast between the high degree of finish bestowed on the officer and the sketchiness of the onlookers lurking in the brown, soupy shadows behind is so pronounced that the painting has an anomalous, almost unfinished quality.

But it’s impossible not to be haunted by the contrast between the crude excitement of the soldier at left, holding up a string of pearls, and the fierce imperturbability of the officer. The rendering of the latter’s outfit — the yellow woolen coat, the silver satin sleeves, the voluminous ruff and the lavish white feather hanging from the large black hat — is nothing short of stupendous.

DAVID TENIERS THE YOUNGER “The Temptation of Saint Anthony’’ Saint Anthony, who was beset by demons and tormented by hallucinations, has always provided artists with a chance to indulge their wilder imaginings. This painting, by the Flemish artist David Teniers (who was married to the daughter of Jan Brueghel the Elder and had close ties to Peter Paul Rubens), is a particularly gripping example.

Kneeling piously before an altar, poor old Saint Anthony is up against it. The lady who demurely offers him wine has, on closer inspection, hideously clawed feet and two thin, reptilian tails. The cave behind her is filled with a bewildering array of misshapen creatures who leer, laugh, snarl, and chirp their various entreaties, while nameless creatures fly at each other with lances and open maws through the dismal air above. Great stuff.

JACOB BACKER “Young Woman Holding a Fan’’ Well, it’s just lovely, isn’t it?

Hard to decide between it and Jan Lievens’s ravishing “Young Girl in Profile,’’ but this large portrait study, or “tronie,’’ makes such a lively impression that it’s difficult to look away.

Tilting her head, the girl confidently meets our gaze, a hint of irony in her fleeting half smile. Her bulging cleavage is crisscrossed with blue veins — a terrific feat of painting in itself — while the hand holding the fan is a tour de force of shadows and highlights.

GERRIT DOU “Sleeping Dog’’ I know it: Dogs are cute. Especially when they’re small and white and curled up in sleep. But this picture, surely one of the finest pictures of a dog ever painted, transcends cuteness.

Dou, who was a student of Rembrandt, was a virtuoso — the founder of the so-called Leiden fijnschilders, or “fine painters.’’ And in this small picture, there’s no doubt he intended to impress us with his ability to render the exact texture and feel of dog fur, of firewood, of woven cane, and of glazed earthenware.

Dou’s style is a world away from Rembrandt’s broad, painterly touch, and yet scholars believe this picture was inspired by two depictions by Rembrandt of curled-up, sleeping dogs, one a drawing in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the other an etching.

Sometimes in Dutch painting, displays of virtuosity overpower our ability to feel, empathize, be moved. Here, Dou’s powers of observation, the intensity of his scrutiny, and the conviction of the rendering combine to disarm us.

There’s something deeply poignant about the dog’s jack-knifed front paw, its half-open eye, and its trusting yet wary intimacy with the imperfect human world (note the pot’s broken lid, the tattered cane, the single shoe) to which it instinctively snuggles up.

Six already? It would be perverse not to note that the show also includes a superb portrait of an old woman by Rembrandt — the greatest artist of his time — and a smaller picture of a preacher by Frans Hals, who wasn’t far behind. They’re wonderful, and the only reason they don’t make my list is that both have been on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in recent times, and so have a familiar air (the same is true of Dou’s “Sleeping Dog,’’ but the picture is too distinctive to omit).

Other favorite works included Frans van Mieris the Elder’s “The Old Violinist,’’ Willem van Aelst’s “Still Life With a Candle, Walnuts, and a Mouse,’’ Jan van de Cappelle’s “A Kaag and a Smak in a Calm,’’ and Nicolaes Maes’s “Sleeping Man Having His Pockets Picked.’’ But ask me tomorrow and I’d no doubt have a different list.

The range of works is so great, the quality so uniformly high that you can’t really go wrong. It’s a dazzling show — you’d be mad to miss it.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

GOLDEN: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks From the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection At: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem. Saturday through June 19. 978-745-9500. www.pem.org