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"Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: Treasures of Kenwood House, London" opened to a full house last Thursday night at the Arkansas Arts Center, as 1,200 folks turned up for the members' opening to see the collection of 17th, 18th and 19th century masterpieces touring the United States. Another 675 visitors turned up to see the exhibition over the weekend.
The undisputed star of the show is a 1665 self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, one of his last self-portraits. Rembrandt sits at his easel, draped in black with a red vest. All is dark but Rembrandt's face, framed by a white cap and wispy hair, an expression of age and genius. The plain mustardy background has two arcs drawn on it. Arts Center Director Todd Herman said the latest wisdom about this strangely modern backdrop is that the arcs are Rembrandt's reference to 14th century Italian master Giotto, who was said to have won the pope's commission by simply painting a perfect circle. By painting his arcs, Rembrandt may have been suggesting that he is the Giotto of his time. The 48 paintings, on their last stop before returning to Kenwood House, which has been undergoing renovation, were collected by Lord Iveagh, who was simply Edward Cecil Guinness before he made a mint in the beer business and started climbing London's social ladder in the late 19th century, hauling masterpieces up with him. There are stunning full-length portraits — enormous paintings, seven feet tall and taller — of women in elegant finery or mythic costume by Thomas Gainsborough, Anthony Van Dyck, Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney; a rich, roiling seascape by J.M.W. Turner; a delicate panoramic 1630 painting of the London Bridge by Claude de Jongg and fabulous paintings of ships at harbor by Aelbert Cuyp; a large pair of sexy Francois Bouchers celebrating romantic love (see the two cherries dangle from the young lover's finger) and, in that vein, Joseph Wright of Derby's suggestive chiaroscuro portrait of two tarted up little girls playing with a kitten whose tail is curled up between its legs. There are quite beautiful paintings of children that Herman said denote what he called the "renaissance of the child," including Sir Thomas Lawrence's "Miss Murray." Reynolds' "Mrs. Musters as Hebe" is a gorgeous painting of Sophia Musters as the cup-bearer to the gods, a portrait painted for Mr. Musters after the painting he commissioned ended up with Mrs. Muster's lover, the Prince of Wales. Van Dyck's "Henrietta of Lorraine" is a stunning portrait of a royal woman attended by a young page in red velvet.
The paintings remind us that there was once a time when great art was made on a grand scale. Like "slo-food," this is slo-art, sumptuous work depicting the heroic and the wonderful, meant to be lingered over, savored. Today, people are too busy with their mobile phones and iPads and television to need great art, or music. Not so when Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Gainsborough worked, though only the wealthy few could afford such beautiful distractions.
The exhibition is a paid show; tickets are $12, and may be the best $12 you ever spent. The show will run through Sept. 8; reserve tickets at the Arts Center's website, arkansasartscenter.org.