Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House

Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London was a touring exhibit that showed at the Seattle Art Museum.  

While the Kenwood House museum in London was closed for renovations their wonderful collection is traveling around the United States.1  There was a mix of 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting including work by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Anthony Van Dyck, Ferdinand Bol and  Aelbert Cuyp and 18th century painters such as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds, Francesco Guardi and George Romney.
Let's look at the 17th century Dutch and Flemish painting first. The highlight of the exhibit is this Rembrandt self-portrait from 1665 when the artist was 59 years old.  Rembrandt painted his portrait more than 60 times throughout his life.  Of all of his self-portraits this is the largest, measuring 45 3/4" x 38 1/4".  It is a life sized image and breathtaking to see in person.  Rembrandt portrayed himself in a variety of ways, with different angles, moods and costumes. In this he shows himself as a painter holding the tools of his trade.  It is as if we, the viewer, have interrupted him at work in his studio. It was his trademark to focus on the face and leave other areas of the painting unfinished. It is a trick that works well, your eye will fill in the rest including textures (the fur of his collar) and missing details (such as the hand holding the brushes and palate).

Portrait of the Artist, ca. 1665, Rembrandt van Rijn, Kenwood House, London
English Heritage; Iveagh Bequest, 1927

No artist made as much of an impact on the Golden Age of Dutch painting as Rembrandt, in his early twenties he had already opened his own studio in Leiden and started taking students (such as Gerritt Dou). Soon after Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and began a very successful career. His studio saw a steady stream of commissions and he took dozens of private students. However he had his share of true tragedies: Rembrandt and his wife Saskia had three children who did not live past infancy, only their son Titus who was born in 1641 lived to adulthood. Sadly Saskia died several months after the birth of Titus in 1642. Due to the difficulty in his personal life Rembrandt struggled professionally and artistically as well in the 1640's. His style of painting which was once considered revolutionary was now seen as old-fashioned.

However in the 1650's Rembrandt's career had a resurgence and he continued his painting with a renewed vigor.  He now lived with Hendrikje Stoffels with whom he had another child. He was once again a well respected artist and getting many commissions.

By the time he painted the Kenwood self-portrait in 1665 Rembrandt's successful decades long career was winding down.  The artist looks both confident and world weary in this painting.  Much has been made over the two half circles, especially as most of his portraits had a darkened background.  Are they part of a painting he is currently working on? Does he include them to balance the composition? Is there a specific meaning in these shapes?  The gallery text suggests they tie to the famous "O" that Giotto could make without measuring that art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote about. I think the mystery of the shapes adds to both the composition and impact of the work.

After seeing this painting I plan to devote a future blog post to comparing and constrasting many of the different self-portraits that Rembrandt painted over the course of his life.  I have many to choose from, in fact SAM has printed small free booklets which highlight seven of them. Make sure to pick one up in the gallery.

View of Dordrecht, ca. 1655, Aelbert Cuyp, Kenwood House, London
English Heritage; Iveagh Bequest, 1927

When this was painted in the mid-17th century, landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes were painted commonly for the middle class to purchase and seen as a source of Dutch pride. The harbor scenes highlighted the shipping industry that was the source of trade and commerce. Aelbert Cuyp was a well known landscape painter, I always associate him with his landscapes which include cows. This painting greets you as you enter the exhibit and it was one of my favorites, I think it is an interesting hybrid of cityscape and seascape.  Cuyp created this with a strong sense of atmospheric perspective.

Portrait of Pieter van den Broecke, 1663, Frans Hals, Kenwood House, London
English Heritage; Iveagh Bequest, 1927

Frans Hals (1580-1666) lived and worked in Haarlem and was a masters in the “Golden Age” of Dutch painting, and is best known for his lively portraiture. His style was revolutionary in that his subjects are often shown smiling and laughing.  Portraiture nearly always showed a serious subject, even when the subject was smiling, such as in Leonardo's Mona Lisa, the smile was very slight.  Smiling had connotations of idiocy or lunacy however Hals managed to convey an atmosphere of merriment and liveliness.  His loose brushwork and painterly style added to the feeling of his sitter's vibrancy. 

The Seattle Art Museum has put together a lot of information on the works in this exhibit including facts on many of the  in the portraits.  The following text is taken from their website and helps us to better understand the individual portrayed in this painting, Pieter van den Broecke: 

"The Dutch seaman Pieter van den Broecke began his career trading fabrics in West Africa. He eventually took over a company that dominated the Dutch trade in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In this portrait by Frans Hals, he’s 48 years old and wearing a gold chain that marks his 17 years of service with the Dutch East India Company. He and the artist were close friends."2

Portrait of Mary, Countess of Howe, 1764, Thomas Gainsborough, Kenwood House, London
English Heritage; Iveagh Bequest, 1927

Lord Iveagh collected all of the work at Kenwood in three years, he never actually lived at the manor but wanted to fit in with English aristocracy and amass a number of paintings that fit in with traditional taste.  The collection is nearly half art from the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century (with a few Flemish and Italian paintings included) and half 18th century British portraiture.  I will admit I am more drawn to the Dutch art and I don't always find 18th century British portraiture as interesting. However Kenwood has an extensive collection, there are many nice examples from Joshua Reynolds who was the head of the Royal Academy and also from the talented George Romney. 

I think my favorite painter from this era was Thomas Gainsborough who uses a relaxed approach and painterly style to capture the spirit of his subjects.  His work could be compared to Frans Hals in that sense. I really liked this one, the Countess of Howe.  I love the vibrant colors he used, the rich pink tones in her dress seem to be echoed in the sunset behind her.  I have always enjoyed the trees and the skies that Gainsborough paints in the background for each of his portraits.  With the Countess of Howe, I think he captures the spirit on an intelligent woman.  However her feet seem to be oddly floating beneath her and the ground slopes towards us, the bottom part of the painting is a bit distracting.

Again the following text is taken from their website and helps us to better understand Portrait of Mary, Countess of Howe:

"Countess Howe was actually an aristocrat by marriage and not by birth. So technically the painting should be called “Lady Howe.” But Mary Hartopp became a countess after her military husband became an earl. The couple was vacationing in Bath when they asked Gainsborough to paint each of them. 

Gainsborough went all out painting her in pink silk and ruffles standing outdoors on some estate. She was, of course, posed inside Gainsborough’s studio but that landscape suggests the countess as both aristocrat and a landowner."3

European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle is an exhibit which is running concurrently at the Seattle Art Museum and is comprised of 34 privately owned paintings.  This assortment of Old Master works is really impressive and fills several galleries.

The Seattle Art Museum website says of this exhibit:

"The paired exhibitions will give visitors the opportunity to observe different approaches to collecting, the history of taste, and how the market has changed since Lord Iveagh began to form his collection in 1887. Most importantly, our visitors will have the chance to see exceptional works of art from right here in Seattle, which, until this moment, has largely overlooked the art of Europe. Featured artists include Vittore Carpaccio, Francisco de Zurbarán, J.A.D. Ingres, Eugène Delacroix, and Frans Hals."

 Still Life with a Tankard, plate of Oysters and Glasses on a Table, Willem Claesz Heda, 1636
Privately owned collection (image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The work in these galleries is from the early 16th through 18th century, I was suprised to see a small Pontormo alongside a beautiful Carpaccio Madonna and Child with an exquisite carved wooden tabernacle frame.  Seeing famous 16th century Italian paintings from private collections made me curious about the provenance of the works. Who owns these now? A few owners were listed but most weren't.  Who purchased them? How did each owner come to acquire them? 

I liked this exhibit as much if not more than the Kenwood House collection. I was able to find an image online of one of my favorite works, a beautiful early Dutch still-life by Willem Claesz Heda (above).  He painted many variations on this type of "breakfast still-life" and this is a really wonderful example, the textures, composition and palate he used all add to the overall visual effect.  I wrote about this type of art in an earlier post- History as Seen through the Dutch Still-Life. 

I was also pleased to see a still-life by another favorite of mine, a female painter from the late Italian Renaissance named Fede Galizia.  Galizia was from Milan and known for her exquisite still-lives and this was no exception.  

In addition to artists previously mentioned there was interesting work by: 

Ambrosius Bosschaert- an early Dutch floral still-life
Pillippe de Champaigne- a large scale Visitation scene with vivid colors
Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun- a "tête d'expression" of a young woman done in pastel

There was a room dedicated to an artist unknown to me; 18th century French painter Martin Drölling (1752-1817) which contains five works from the same collector.  They included a lovely portrait of a young woman and a small copy of Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun's portrait of Marie Antoinette painted in 1789, the year of the French Revolution.

All in all these two exhibits pair nicely together and give the viewer a wide range of painting to see from late Renaissance, through the Baroque and Rococo and even had some examples of Neoclassical art.  I have visited twice now, spending a quick visit on the night of the SAM Members Preview and nearly three hours on my second visit as I looked at, conversed about and took notes about the art.  Seeing as I really enjoy this art and won't get another chance to see these (especially the work from the private collections) I definitely plan to go back a few more times before it ends.

The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts and English Heritage. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities, with additional funding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. In-kind support is provided by Barbara and Richard S. Lane.

1. Exhibition Itinerary: 
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (June 3–September 3, 2012)
Milwaukee Art Museum (October 12, 2012–January 13, 2013)
Seattle Art Museum (February 14–May 19, 2013)
Arkansas Arts Center (June 7–September 8, 2013).

2, 3.  Seattle Art Museum Website, "The Characters of Kenwood"

Exhibit Guide
Bryant, Julius, Susan Jenkins and Walter Liedtke.Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London. American Federation of Arts (2012).

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