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It's a year away, but the exhibition "Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London" coming to the Arkansas Arts Center is something to think about now. The exhibition will bring paintings to Arkansas unlike any before, including a self-portrait by Rembrandt that will first travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York before making its appearance here.
The next best thing to seeing the work is talking about it with Arts Center director Todd Herman, who becomes chatty and animated when he talks about art and art history. He gave me a primer last week on some of the work in the show, which will open next summer, just as the Arts Center is wrapping up its 50th anniversary observance. It should make a fine "bookend," Herman said, coming 50 years after the Arts Center opened with an exhibition of Old Masters from the Metropolitan.
The works, some of them larger-than-life, full-length portraits created for English country manors in the 17th and 18th centuries, will hang in the Townsend Wolfe and Jeannette Rockefeller galleries. There will be a small charge for the show — around $10 or so, Herman said — half the $22 charged for the "World of the Pharaohs" blockbuster that nearly busted the Arts Center in 2009 and 2010. The Arts Center's board made a largely ceremonial gesture in January when it voted to approve the expensive exhibit (though it pales in comparison to the million-dollars-plus cost of "Pharaohs").
Besides works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Gainsborough, paintings by Frans Hals, Sir Joshua Reynolds, J.M.W. Turner, Francois Boucher, George Romney and masterworks by artists less known to us will be part of the exhibit.
The exhibition of European art allows the Arts Center to prove its continuing importance now that Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has opened in Bentonville. "In some ways it puts an exclamation point on the fact that we have an international collection of stature," Herman said. (The Arts Center's collection includes a Rembrandt etching, a Boucher charcoal and a Romney oil lent by the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust.)
When Herman looked through the list of works in the American Federation for the Arts-organized show, he saw "one spectacular painting after another."
The Rembrandt, painted circa 1665, Herman said, is one of the rare self-portraits in which he depicts himself as an artist, "late in life, as someone who has lived a worldly existence." The artist's earlier self-portraits showed him laughing, or in historical costume; the late portrait is "very moving," Herman said, capturing a man who had seen changes in fortune.
Anthony Van Dyck, a student of Peter Paul Rubens, was "a beautiful painter and draftsman" with an easy technique, Herman said; the oil medium was "second nature" to him. His "Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, Attended by a Page (1634)," nearly 7 feet tall, shows a woman dressed in sumptuous silks and lace; a page dressed in red velvet and holding flowers looks up at her. Like "Princess Henrietta," Thomas Gainsborough's 95-by-61 inch portrait of Mary, Countess Howe, painted a century later, also has "wallpower," Herman said, "an interesting aspect of this show." The works were meant to convey the importance of the subject; Sir Joshua Reynolds' portrait of Louisa Manners (1779) places her next to a classical column as a way of imparting importance.
Frans Hals' "liquid light approach to paint application" and visible brush strokes were a precursor to the impressionists that would follow him two centuries later, Herman said; his painting of a smiling Dutch merchant dressed in lace, "Pieter van den Broecke," will be at the Arts Center.
Two of the "wonderful surprises" of the Kenwood House collection are large paintings by Francois Boucher, an 18th century painter of romantic scenes who "led the way in the rococo movement." There will also be what Herman called a "typical Turner landscape" of stormy seas.
"Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight," an 18th century painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, an artist perhaps not as well known to the American public, was described by Herman as "charming." It is a chiaroscuro work, and besides being charming it is also wryly sexual, thanks to the expression on the little girls' faces and the kitten's tail, which curls up between its legs. A man of his day, Wright was fascinated by "what was groundbreaking in the world of science," Herman said, and others of his candlelight paintings have to do with scientific themes.
The Arts Center almost missed its chance to exhibit "Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough" because by the time sponsors could be confirmed the Milwaukee Art Museum had snatched up the last spot. However, delays in work at Kenwood House meant the traveling show could be extended to a fourth venue, and the Arts Center was chosen. Herman has gotten two $100,000 pledges for the exhibit — one assumes from sponsors Bank of the Ozarks and the Windgate Charitable Foundation — which should cover about half the cost of bringing the show to Little Rock. It will open at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and travel to the Seattle Art Museum and Milwaukee before coming here on June 6, 2013. It will run until Sept. 8, 2013.