MAM exhibit puts you face to face with Rembrandt
While the giant photograph showing the exterior of London's Kenwood House may not be enough to transport you to merry old England, the 48 paintings in the show behind it just might do the trick.
"Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London," opens at Milwaukee Art Museum on Friday, Oct. 12 and the show – with a few blockbuster works and a number of other great ones – runs through Jan. 13, 2013.
Kenwood House, a 17th century neoclassical villa bought and remodeled by Scottish architect Robert Adam in the 18th century, was purchased by Guinness heir Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, in 1925 to show off his art collection.
But Lord Iveagh died in 1927 before he could ever install the works. Afterward, the home was donated to the British people and a number of the works he purchased have been on view in the villa ever since.
Kenwood House is currently closed to the public for renovations and the exhibition of 48 of its paintings are on a four-city tour that includes the stop here in Milwaukee. They return home in time for the reopening of Kenwood next October.
"One of the things that's so nice for me, ironically, is to see the paintings outside of where they've been hanging for such a long time," says curator Susan Jenkins, who visits Milwaukee to launch the show this week.
"Here you can actually really see them in a purpose-built art gallery. So they really, really sing. They are very, very high quality works of art."
That's because Lord Iveagh had money and was not afraid to spend it on art. He cultivated a relationship with dealers who would set great works aside for him. Many of his works were amassed in a very short period of time.
"Lord Iveagh was the great-grandson of the founder of the Guinness brewing company," says Jenkins. "In 1868, he bought out his brothers and he took over the company and he sold out in 1886 and at that point he decided to come to England. From 1887 to 1891 he went on a spending spree because he bought himself a London mansion near Piccadilly. He bought over 200 paintings. We were given 63 paintings by him to put in Kenwood House."
The exhibition is a stunner, with a few paintings in each gallery space, allowing you time to focus on these works. Some will demand you spend a good deal of time of looking. Among the best are Van Dyck's portrait of Pieter van den Broecke and Thomas Gainsborough's surprisingly modernist "Hounds Hunting a Fox."
The political minded will note a few works by George Romney, an ancestor of the presidential hopeful.
"For clarity we have an introductory space that gives you a range of types of things that appealed to Lord Iveagh as well as background information and then we really move into national schools," says William Rudolph, curator of American Art and Decorative Arts at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
"So we'll be moving into Old Masters, specifically Dutch and Flemish, and then moving forward from into British art and this allows you to have an art historical progression and immersion in a period that also really reveals some of the major components of the collection at Kenwood as well as some of the trends in collecting that were really intense in the late 19th century."
But barely into the show is where you will, in Jenkins' words, have your "aha moment."
That's where you'll find the undisputed star of this show: Rembrandt van Rijn's 1665 self-portrait.
While at Kenwood House the powerful self-portrait is hung high, here, you can practically stand face to face and gaze into the eyes of one of the greatest painters ever produced by Western Civilization.
Looking at van Rijn's life-sized face, one really does experience an aha moment. Painted just a few years before his death in 1669, the portrait shows the artist laid bare. It is the honesty of the portrait that is so affecting, agrees Jenkins.
"He painted over 60 self-portraits," she says, "I suspect when he couldn't find a model he'd look in a mirror and paint himself. But this one, I think, is his legacy portrait. In this portrait, he shows himself as an artist. Rembrandt is bankrupt at this time, his mistress has recently died, he's not in a good place, he's obviously an old man and he's saying, 'I'm a painter, I'm speaking to you, this is who I am and this is how I want you to see me.'"
Be sure to visit the exhibition and take him up on it.
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