The Brukenthal Collection & The Dutch Golden Age

November 3, 2009By Heidi EllisonArchive
The Brukenthal Collection & The Dutch Golden Age, Jacquemart-André and Pinacothèque, Paris

Detail of “The Holy Family” (1625-30) by Jacob Jordaens. Serge Wytz © Brukenthal National Museum, Sibiu/ Hermannstadt, Romania

It’s true, as a friend pointed out, that the name of the current exhibition at Paris’s Musée Jacquemart-André, “Brueghel, Memling, Van Eyck…: La Collection …

The Brukenthal Collection & The Dutch Golden Age, Jacquemart-André and Pinacothèque, Paris

Detail of “The Holy Family” (1625-30) by Jacob Jordaens. Serge Wytz © Brukenthal National Museum, Sibiu/ Hermannstadt, Romania

It’s true, as a friend pointed out, that the name of the current exhibition at Paris’s Musée Jacquemart-André, “Brueghel, Memling, Van Eyck…: La Collection Brukenthal,” is rather misleading, since the show includes only one example of the work of each of these three big names (although various members of the Brueghel clan are represented; more on this later).

Never mind, though, since so many of the other works by the mostly Flemish (with a couple of Italians thrown in for good measure) Old Masters represented in this small show of 50 paintings (through January 11) are gems that most of us will probably never get around to seeing in their permanent home in the Transylvania mansion, now a museum, of Baron Samuel von Brukenthal (1721-1803), the collector who brought them together.

The standout of the show may be Jan Van Eyck’s small portrait “Man in a Blue Turban” (c. 1430), long attributed to Albrecht Dürer, stunningly simple in spite of the wealth of realistic details: the stubble on his cheeks, the folds of his ears, his eyelashes, the details of his strange turban. In the same room, a vanity portrait of a man holding a skull (c. 1500), by the Master of the Legend of Saint Augustine, is just as impressively detailed, with a fur collar that looks positively strokable and each individual hair on his head picked out.

Two very different but equally striking depictions of the holy family deserve special attention. In “Mary, Jesus and Saint Anne” (1630-40) by Justus Sustermans, Jesus is shown as a happy little boy with long curly reddish locks, squirming in the arms of his proud, contented mother, who looks straight out at the spectator, while his concerned grandmother watches from the shadows behind them. This picture exudes pure charm and humanity, with no indication of the special sanctity of this family scene. Neither does the lovely “The Holy Family” (1625-30) by Jacob Jordaens, with its Caravagesque chiaroscuro, other than the adoring looks of the figures surrounding the mother (who holds the candle that lights the scene) and child, who stare intently at the spectator as if they were posing for a photo.

The show groups the works together by genre – still lifes, portraits, landscapes, mythology, etc. – and we learn a few interesting facts about the painting of the time: that Van Eyck originated the three-quarter pose for portraits; that Hans Memling was the first to use distant landscapes as the background for portraits; that Flemish painters created the illusion of perspective by using brownish tones in the bottom third of the canvas, greenish ones in the middle and bluish ones in the top third; and that just about every object in these paintings had a meaning (though it would have been interesting to learn more about what they were). The great joy of this show, however, is just appreciating the chance to look at so many individual masterpieces.

One quibble: the wall text often refers to “Brueghel” without specifying which of the many descendants of the family’s first famous painter, Pieter the Elder (who is not represented here; only around 40 of his works survive and most are in museums), it is referring to. This kind of fudging to make this fine collection of paintings sound important is unnecessary – we can still enjoy the works of Pieter the Younger and Jan I and II, even though Pieter I may be considered a more important painter – as is the exhibition’s deceptive title.

The main problem, however, is the great popularity of this show. The small exhibition rooms are crowded, making it difficult to study the paintings closely, and on a recent Friday afternoon, a long line of people was still waiting to get in at 5pm, even though the museum closes at 6pm. I recommend that you buy the booklet about the show in the museum bookstore for €1.50 before going in; it will enrich your appreciation of the paintings.

The Dutch Golden Age, Pinacothèque, Paris

Detail of Jan Steen’s “Woman at Her Toilet” (c. 1659-60) © Image Department Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2009

Over at the Pinacothèque de Paris, another excellent show of Old Master paintings has a slightly less misleading name, “The Dutch Golden Age: From Rembrandt to Vermeer” (through January 18), since the exhibition actually contains several Rembrandts and even one Vermeer, a coup considering that only around 35 are known to exist. This exquisite, surprisingly small painting, “The Love Letter” (1669-70), shows a maid wearing a rather condescending smile handing a letter to her seated, worried-looking mistress, all decked out in ermine, silk and pearls. Posed in a light-filled room with fireplace, marble floor, paintings and draperies, they are seen through the doorway of a darkened room. Like all of Vermeer’s work, this piece requires long study to take in the wealth of details: the slippers and broom negligently left in the doorway, the laundry hamper on the floor next to the maid, the map and sheet music in the dark room in the foreground, to mention just a few (visit the wonderful Web site Essential Vermeer to find out everything you ever wanted to know about the painter and his work).

This show brings together around 100 works from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which is currently undergoing extensive renovation. According to the organizers, this is the last time these works will be allowed to leave Amsterdam.

The Pinacothèque has also borrowed a number of objects (silver, porcelain, glassware, textiles), which make a nice counterpoint to the paintings; many of them depict similar luxurious objects. An elaborate silver spice service, for example, was made to contain the exotic spices being brought back from the East Indies in this prosperous era, during which the rise of a rich middle class contributed to an explosion in the arts.

Among the many masterpieces here, the Rembrandts practically pop off the wall with their dramatic lighting and three-dimensionality, announcing themselves from a distance as soon as you enter the room. My favorite picture in this exhibition was his “An Oriental” (1635), a portrait of a dignified man in a gleaming white turban ornamented with a rich gold and pearl chain. His face tells a different, very human story, with the bags under his eyes, mottled skin and cottony beard. Reproductions do not do it justice – it must be seen to be appreciated.

Many other portraits stand out, including Frans Hals “Portrait of a Man” (c. 1635), Aelbert Cuyp’s “Portrait of a Young Man” (c. 1651), Ferdinand Bol’s “Portrait of a Man” (1663) and Rembrandt’s lovely portrait of his son Titus dressed as a monk (1660). Jan de Bray’s portrait of the printer Abraham Casteleyn and his smiling wife Margarieta van Bancken Jan de Bray (1663), who leans toward him while holding his hand, is touching in its homeliness, as are many of the scenes of daily life in the genre paintings, notably Pieter de Hooch’s scene of a mother picking nits from her child’s head (1658-60), in which the figures are seated in a dark room in the foreground with the light coming from a bright room in the back, and Jan Steen’s rather risqué “Woman at Her Toilet” (1659-60), in which a woman seated on a bed (on which a little dog lies curled up sleeping on the pillow) pulls off a stocking, her raised leg offering a peek up her skirt at her naked thighs. We know she is taking off, rather than putting on, the stocking because we can see the dents left in the flesh below the knee by the stocking.

Unfortunately, like the show at the Jacquemart-André, this one is always packed with visitors, so try to budget as much time as possible when you go – both exhibitions are must-sees.

Heidi Ellison

Musée Jacquemart-André: 158, boulevard Haussmann, 75008 Paris. Métro: Saint-Augustin, Miromesnil or Saint-Philippe du Roule. RER: Charles de Gaulle-Étoile. Tel.: 01 45 62 11 59. Open daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission: €10. Through January 11.

Pinacothèque de Paris:
28, place de la Madeleine, 75008 Paris. Métro: Madeleine. Tel.: 01 42 68 02 01. Open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Wednesday, Friday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Admission: €9. Through January 18.

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