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With the Big Dogs 

Dazzling exhibit five years in the making mounted by DAM

Let's compare our uppity little regional art museum -- yes, the Denver Art Museum -- to the biggest dog of all, the august Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Back in Manhattan, the Metropolitan just opened an exhibition of paintings by the father/daughter duo, Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, a couple of decidedly minor players in the universe of Italian baroque artists. Artemisia, noted for her joyously bloody depictions of biblical stories (Judith with the severed head of Holofernes, for example), is interesting to modern audiences chiefly because of her sex. After all, she's a dead white woman, virtually alone among hundreds of her dead white male peers. I'm sure that it's a fun exhibition, eminently P.C., and easily worth a lunch hour's visit.

So what are they doing in the dusty cowtown an hour's drive north on the I? Dusting off a few score baskets from storage, or rehanging some cowboy pictures?

Well, yeah there are, as always lots of wonderful baskets, not to mention a cowboy or two, and a lovely 19th-century buffalo herd. But there's something else -- a spectacular, brilliantly mounted exhibition titled Art & Home: Dutch Interiors in the Age of Rembrandt. This is a show five years in the making, created jointly by the Denver Art Museum and the Newark Museum, which brings together an extraordinary assemblage of the fine and decorative arts from 17th-century Holland.

The 17th century was Holland's golden age; artisans wrought marvels in silver, porcelain and glass, while artists such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, and Pieter de Hooch created work that is literally without equal. Everything on display was created either to adorn the houses of wealthy Dutch merchants, or to celebrate/ comment upon the joys of Dutch domesticity.

The exhibition's curators note that the idea of "home" as a private, secure dwelling divided into intimate spaces that served discrete functions is very much a creation of 17th-century Holland. And indeed, Dutch interior scenes of that era seem comfortingly familiar -- clean, ordered spaces, illuminated by sunlight pouring through the panes of leaded glass windows. Never mind that many of these interiors are as idealized as those depicted in Better Homes and Gardens; we seem to recognize ourselves, and our lives, in these scenes from a vanished world.

And thanks to the works of art on display, we enter that world effortlessly, magically. This is an exhibition worthy of any museum in the world, and one that sets an unimaginably high standard for future shows. Over 64 museums lent to the show, including the Hermitage, the Rijksmuseum, the National Gallery of London, and yes, the Metropolitan. Only a handful of museums in the world would be capable of mounting such an exhibition; it's amazing that our own regional art museum is among them.

So what is there to see? Such beauty, and so much of it, that, like the person who first gazed upon Tutankhamun's tomb, you can only murmur, "Wonderful things -- so many wonderful things." Look, for example, at Willem Claesz Heda's "Still Life with a Lobster," a lively, carelessly abundant table laden with fine silver and gorgeous glassware. And then look at the vitrine next to the painting, which displays objects identical to those in the painting: a silver saltcellar, a silver ewer, a green glass "Roemer" (used for decanted wine), and a delft platter.

And spend time before the two great Rembrandt portaits, "Portrait of a Man in a Red Doublet" and "Portrait of a Lady, Aged 62." These are transcendent works of art -- deep, complex and extraordinarily moving. Rembrandt seems to combine an unsurpassed technical virtuosity with an intuitive love and sympathy for his subjects. The portraits themselves, like any great art, have to be seen; you can no more describe them than you can describe the last movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

The National Gallery loaned its wonderful Vermeer "A Lady Writing," which is worth seeing, if only because so few of the artist's works remain, and because they're all wonderful. That said, the value and condition of this painting dictates that it be displayed under glass, in very subdued light, so that what you see is little better than a good reproduction.

Anyway, visitors will cluster around the Vermeer; you'll have better luck in a small gallery where a couple of dozen works on paper have been hung, including a Rembrandt self-portrait and his portrait of Jan Six. Given that Rembrandt's etchings are unsurpassed, and that the latter is often thought to be his best, it's well worth seeking out.

Prepare to be dazzled by the wide array of 17th-century Dutch silver on display. An elaborately repouss layette would make a kingly gift for any expectant mom (that is, if you can find one for sale, and have an extra $2 million to buy it). Or how about a "Johnny in the Cellar," a cup specially designed to toast expectant mothers? When the cup was filled with brandewijn, the silver figure of a child pops up from the bottom of the cup. Uncle Wilber, anyone?

And then there are the interior scenes, often combined with family portraits. Jan Steen's "Fantasy Interior with the Family of Jan van Goyen," a richly imagined set-piece featuring a shrewd merchant surrounded by his servants, his richly dressed daughters, and the artist himself, is a delight. More delightful still are Steen's portraits of less-than-ideal families, such as "Easy Come, Easy Go" (an exact translation, by the way, of the Dutch title "Soo Gewonne, Soo Verteert"). A witty self-portrait, the artist depicts himself taking his ease with a glass of wine, a plate of oysters, and a comely young woman. The opulent, yet disordered, interior hints at the strains created by the wealth that simultaneously created and threatened this placid world.

And in conclusion? If you miss this show, you're an idiot. And if you can, try to ditch work on a weekday morning, and avoid the crowds. Many of the works are small, quiet, intimate; they deserve your unhurried, thoughtful attention. And while you're there, mentally thank the folks who put it all together: DAM curator Tim Standring, and the Clark Art Institute's Mariet Westermann. Without their knowledge, credibility, scholarship, and -- dare we say it --connections, this never would have happened.

And, as my old pal Bob the plumber from Waco might have said, it's truly wonderful to have the Denver Art Museum out there in the tall grass pissin' with the big dogs.

  • Dazzling exhibit five years in the making mounted by DAM

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