SLEEPING DOG The Van Otterloo collection gives the MFA a run for its money — especially in this exquisitely sensitive painting by Gerrit Dou.
Some years back, Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo began collecting horse carriages, until they completely filled their New Hampshire barn. So they switched to horse and sporting prints, until about two decades ago, when Peter Sutton, then curator of European painting at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, encouraged them to get into Dutch and Flemish art. It seemed a natural fit for the Marblehead couple -- she a native of Belgium, he a Dutch-born investor and developer who had co-founded the Boston investment firm Grantham, Mayo & Van Otterloo in 1977.
The result is "Golden," a splendid exhibit presenting the couple's entire collection of 67 Dutch and Flemish paintings from the 17th century, plus wooden chairs, tables, and cupboards decorated with carvings of lions, Biblical scenes, symbolic figures, and saints. It's a knock-your-socks-off display of craftsmanship. Frederik Duparc, former director of the Mauritshuis museum in Holland, who put the show together with some help in Salem from the Peabody Essex's Karina Corrigan, calls it, with good reason, "the most important and most beautiful collections of Dutch and Flemish art in the world brought together after World War II."
>> PHOTO SLIDESHOW: Golden: Dutch and Flemish masterworks <<
The Dutch emerged at the dawn of the 17th century as a pre-eminent military and commercial power on the sea. The tiny, fledgling republic was in the midst of gaining independence from Catholic Spain, with its heavy taxes and oppression of Protestantism. (Is it a coincidence that our Pilgrims sojourned in Rembrandt's native Leiden before setting sail in 1620 for what became Plymouth, and that our republic is still obsessed with political independence, taxation, and religious freedom?) The Dutch developed a shipping empire that would reach from the Americas to South Africa and Asia and bring wealth back home to finance a "Golden Age" of art, science, and commerce, the era of Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Jan Vermeer (who doesn't make an appearance here).
For the first time, wealthy merchants were the principal collectors, not royalty or the church. So Dutch-art subjects shifted from classical myth, Biblical scenes, and portraits of royalty to still lifes, pictures of everyday life called genre scenes, landscapes, and cityscapes rendered with a fresh realism. Not that Dutch artists were averse to improving a bit on reality, such as depicting tulips and roses together in bouquets even though they bloom in different seasons.
In a 1633 Willem Claesz. Heda still life, the peeled skin of a lemon shines like gold. Elsewhere are winter scenes in which a whole town seems to be out ice-skating, churches standing next to languid canals in the crisp, northern sunlight, and those classic Dutch marshy flatlands, low horizons, and big skies. Aert van der Neer's Estuary at Twilight (circa 1655-'60) depicts fishing boats on a broad, flat river edged by a church, a windmill, and waiting cows. But it's the moody atmospheric effects that grab you: blue sky and the last light of day breaking through great, calm, evening clouds.