Really, we should be having a fortifying tankard of ale, but it’s nine in the morning on a snowy day and coffee is being served in the office of director Ian Wardropper, whose small show of Dutch masters at the Frick Collection is drawing hordes of visitors (over the age of 10.)
A thrillingly restrictive admissions policy is just one of the many appealing aspects of the sedately neo-classical mansion on Fifth Avenue and 70th Street in Manhattan built by Henry Clay Frick, a cut-throat industrialist with a soft touch for art.
Once his wife slumbered here on the second floor in the company of Fragonard’s “The Progress of Love,” though the decor has become more manly over the decades. Now the amorous Parisians keep company with Bellini’s more modestly attired St. Francis in the public rooms.
This loan show from an even grander residence, the Mauritshuis in The Hague, “Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Hals” is understandably eclipsing the attendance record set by Hans Memling, who painted devout Flemish sitters with bowl haircuts who never took their clothes off.
The Dutch spent a lot of time drinking themselves silly, making money, starting banks, having sex. Dutch ships sailed the world. Peace reigned for a long time. Their pictures reflected a Golden Age.
Wardropper takes me downstairs to admire two members of the ruling elite painted by a young Franz Hals with a fanatical devotion to detail and nuance.
Those blacks! The director sighs, looking at the black suit worn by Jacob Olycan, a master brewer and burgomaster of Haarlem. Those cuffs, I say, checking out the young wife, who is stoically encased in panier and heavy garments including a vlieger, a cape only allowed to married women. The two could have stepped out of Simon Schama’s fat, smart history, “The Embarrassment of Riches.”
And then they got old and died. Life is fleeting: memento mori. The Dutch loved symbols: guttering candles, over-ripe fruit, capsized water glasses and bleached skulls.
Wardropper is the perfect guide into the subtexts of storytelling. There’s Jan Steen’s young woman gazing straight at us, ready to slurp down an oyster.
“An aphrodisiac,” he explains, “especially when sprinkled with salt.” A bed in the back completes the invitation of this unvirtuous woman.
Steen also painted the show’s biggest, funniest picture: “As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young,” featuring three generations of substance abusers. Want your kids to turn out bad? Set an example! Steen paints himself teaching his son to smoke.
Wardropper alerts me to the foot warmer peeking out from beneath the skirt of a bosomy woman extending her glass for more wine. Yes, it’s a sexual reference. The little stove warms everything under your skirt (and then all you need is that oyster which lies opened on the table.)
It must be stated that the Dutch were often sober and serious. The show includes a favorite picture of mine that combines beauty and industry: Jacob van Ruisdael’s landscape of the bleaching fields outside Haarlem. With St. Bavo looming in the distance, tidy citizens perfected the complicated process, in which long strips of linen spent months drying on dewy meadows in sun. The abstract patterns are striking.
For others, the stars are Carel Fabritius’s “Goldfinch” and Jan Vermeer’s “Girl With the Pearl Earring.”
Fabritius died when the gun powder magazine blew up in Delft. His picture, pulled from the rubble, now plays a leading role in a bestseller by Donna Tartt, who relocates it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where a young boy steals it after a terrorist attack that leaves his mother dead.
Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” was published just when the show opened, in a coincidence that startled Wardropper who says he had no idea that anyone was writing a big novel featuring this tiny bird. Was it the painter’s pet? The Dutch loved these trainable little birds, but its existence remains a tiny mystery.
Vermeer’s turbaned girl exudes her own strange radiance. Did she sit for the painter? Or was he indulging in a type of fantasy portrait the Dutch called “tronies.” That head-topper seems a bit exotic for Delft and the pearl a little large for a girl who looks like she might spend most of her time serving rookworst at Vermeer’s tavern.
Busy with his inn and 10 children, Vermeer painted not even three dozen pictures, of which Henry Clay Frick bought three which are in the main gallery and worth a trip any time of the year.
Wardropper drops me off in a niche presenting a contemporary tribute to a 17th-century bouquet by Boschaaert. Created by Rob and Nick Carter with a wizardly use of digital techniques, the flowers slowly change over three hours. Just as we arrived, a tiny caterpillar slipped into view and then disappeared behind the frame.
The blossoms wilt and night descends. It’s a perfect ending to a show devoted to the pleasures and shortness of life.
“Vermeer, Rembrandt and Hals: Masterpieces of Dutch Painting from the Mauritshuis” runs through Jan. 19, 2014, at the Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St. Information: +1-212-288-0700; http://www.frick.org.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)
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