As I was planning last month’s trip back to the UK, I had planned to visit Kenwood House. But I had to change my plans because, of course, Kenwood is closed. But all was not lost. Until last Sunday, The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, (The Iveagh Bequest) were at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), and so last week a friend and I made the pilgrimage across the border.
The advertised highlight of the exhibition was the Rembrandt self-portrait, and the SAM used a black and white photo of the picture on its “Map and Guide” for Spring 2013. Face to face, so to speak, with the picture, I was particularly struck by two details. Or perhaps in one case I should say lack of detail. Rembrandt has chosen not to paint his own hands. One hand appears to be in the pocket of his gown. The other—the one holding all the tools of his trade—is not painted. His various brushes, mahl stick and so forth are shown but not the hand holding them. And yet in his treatment of his own whitening hair, the detail is such that one can sense its wiry texture. Given that a couple of days before leaving for Seattle I had quite by chance watched a rerun of Simon Schama’s The Power of Art episode on Rembrandt’s The Conspiracy of the Batavians (Knowledge Network Monday 13 May 2013), I was particularly interested in the sometimes loose style of Rembrant’s brushwork in this picture and wondered what, if anything, I should draw from it. I’m not sure that I’ve reached any conclusion yet.
Certainly, Rembrandt’s loose style of painting contrasted greatly with that of the eighteenth century portraits in the next room. In comparison with the Rembrandt and the Frans Hals, the works by Romney, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Lawrence seemed static. As my friend remarked, the paintings were not about presenting any insight into their subjects; rather, they recorded their subject’s status. Or, as in the cases of works such as Reynolds’ Mrs. Musters as Hebe or Romney’s Emma Hart as “The Spinstress,” they show their subjects not as themselves but in particular roles. What I found technically interesting about them was the elongation of the figures so that when the pictures were hung quite high up, the bodily proportions would actually look appropriate.
I found myself thinking of the difference between seventeenth century Dutch society—protestant, bourgeois, mercantile, lively and self confident—and eighteenth century aristocratic England—status conscious but anxious. Would the Republicanism of the American revolution or the Jacobinism of France take root in England? Perhaps the English paintings look so posed and unnatural in comparison with the Dutch because the sitters are actually rather insecure.
In many ways, the picture from Kenwood that I found most fascinating was De Jongh’s Old London Bridge 1630. The detailed work was simply amazing. The other works that really pleased me were in the accompanying exhibition European Masters curated by the SAM from its own holdings. There was another Frans Hals portrait, and I really enjoyed some lovely still life paintings with which I spent quite a bit of my time. I also appreciated discovering that the French painter François Boucher when criticised for the colours he used had asserted that nature was “trop verte et mal éclairée” (too green and badly lit). However, I did find his paintings just a little reminiscent of the chocolate box tops of my childhood.
I then spent a little time looking at the works from the Vogel Collection http://vogel5050.org. Rather a sudden change in focus but interesting. I didn’t have much time to “do” all of the gallery, but one other exhibit really struck me. From its own collection, the gallery was displaying a classical Greek Vase side by side with Josiah Wedgewood’s attempt to recreate it. I found myself wishing that the Vancouver Art Gallery were able to mount such a display.
The Kenwood House Pictures have been shown in Houston, Milwaukee, and Seattle and are will be at the Arkansas Art Center from June until September. After that, I believe they are returning to Kenwood House. I’m glad I had the opportunity to see them, and I had forgotten how much I enjoy the Seattle Art Museum. I must try to visit more often.