Monday, April 26, 2010

Masterpiece Paintings Visit The Frick Collection

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Girl at a Window, 1645, oil on canvas,
32.1 x 26 in. (81.6 x 66.0 cm), Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
© The Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Masterpieces of European Painting from Dulwich Picture Gallery, the exhibition at the Frick Collection,is a gift to all those who respond to picture making at its highest level. Nine important seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings from the Dulwich’s renowned European painting collection are displayed in the Frick’s Oval Room and Garden Court. The Dulwich Picture Gallery, located in London, was the first public art gallery in England. Since its holdings do not often travel, this show is a special treat introducing audiences to works of art that may not be familiar. It joins a group of remarkable small exhibits the Frick has mounted from collections relatively unknown here.

The visiting paintings have received well-deserved praise in such informative reviews as “Dreamy Fantasies of Femininity and Nature” by Ken Johnson, The New York Times, and “Fresh Faces in the Family” by Lance Esplund, The Wall Street Journal. Much can be said about each paintings but I comment only on a few of the aspects that partiuclarly attracted me.

The star of the show is Rembrandt’s “Girl at a Window”, placed immediately at the entrance of the Oval Room as you approach it from the Court Garden. She brings to mind other seductive visiting beauties who in past shows occupied this central position – Parmigianino’s “Antea” from the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, in 2008 and in 2005, Rapahel’s “Fornarina” from National Gallery of Art at the Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

The "Girl at the Window" probably depicts a type or figure study rather than a specific individual. Nevertheless, she comes across as real – someone who may speak at any moment. Rembrandt’s masterly painting technique brings her life exquisitely rendering her florid cheeks, the slight tan of her left hand and lower arm and the tiny bug bites on both arms. Marvelous is the way paint describes her gold necklace, the shadowed fingers playing with this ornament and the rope-like decoration on her white blouse. She is at once absorbed in the painting and projected out of it.

In the Garden courtyard, on either side of the Oval Room entranceway, are two delightful eighteenth-century paintings: Canaletto’s “Old Walton Bridge”, and Watteau’s “Les Plaisirs du bal (Pleasures of the Dance)”. Of comparative easel size, these works invite comparison. Numerous characters narrate and animate the scenes. Especially delightful are the images of dogs: the foreground dog in the Canaletto and the four canines in the Watteau.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck, Samson and Delilah, c. 1618-20,
oil on canvas,59.6 x 90.7 in. (151.4 x 230.4 cm),
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Bourgeois Bequest, 1811
© The Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Sir Anthony Van Dyck’s “Samson and Delilah” and Sir Peter Lely’s “Nymphs by a Fountain”, two of my favorite works, are displayed across from each other in the Oval Room.

Peter Paul Rubens, Samson and Delilah, c. 1609-1610,
oil on wood,72.8 x 80.7 in. (185 x 205 cm),
The National Gallery, London

Van Dyck’s Samson is an early work by the artist inspired by Sir Peter Paul Rubens’s painting of the same subject. The artist had worked with Rubens and most likely knew the Rubens's Samson painting as well as an engraving of it by Jacob Matham.

Jacob Matham, Samson and Delilah, c. 1613, copper engraving,
14 x 17 in. (380 x 440 mm), Rockox House, Antwerp

Such reproductive engraving as Matham’s made works of art available to a wider public. Matham excelled in this medium. His detailed engraving of the Rubens’s Samson was completed just a few years after the painting was finished. Van Dyck most likely worked from the Matham print since the Van Dyck reverses Rubens’s composition as seen in the print. (Using the engraving technique, paper is pressed into the inked incised lines of the engraver’s plate reproducing the recorded image in reverse.)

Hermaphrodite endormi”,
2nd c. AD (Roman copy of Greek statue 2nd c. BC),
marble, 169 in. (169 cm), Musée du Louvre, Paris

The Samsons of Rubens and Van Dyck derive from a classical sculpture of the sleeping Hermaphroditus, a mythological being which combines a female head, breasts, and body with the sexual part of a man. Roman copies of the original Greek Hellenistic statue survive. Rubens could have seen one in Italy before painting his Samson. The Rubens and Van Dyck Samsons are manly and muscular but curiously allude to a figure of ambivalent sex.

Sir Peter Lely, Nymphs by a Fountain, c. 1650, oil on canvas,
50.7 x 57 in. (128.9 x 144.8 cm), Dulwich Picture Gallery, London
Fairfax Murray Gift, 1911
© The Trustees of Dulwich Picture Gallery

Sir Peter Lely’s “Nymphs by a Fountain”, displayed across from Van Dyck’s Samson, portrays the near recumbent nymph in a similar hermaphroditic pose. Lely’s nymph is also based on the same ancient source. I spent time in front of this work looking at this nude’s back. At first glance I thought it was male but discerned a slight swelling under the left arm indicating a mammary gland. I posed the question to several viewers, is the figure a male or female? The initial reaction of all in my small sample was a male. Whatever your thoughts, it is a tantalizing work.

By the way, take note of the prominent chafed soles of both the Lely nymph and the Van Dyck Samson. This is superb painting. Such quality painting you will find in all the works of this visually and intellectually splendid exhibition.

One further point: the fully illustrated catalogue by Xavier F. Salomon, Arturo and Holly Melosi Chief Curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, is excellent. Pithy explanatory notes illuminate and enhance enjoyment.

Masterpieces of Euopean Painting from Dulwich Picture Gallery
The Frick Collection
1 East 70th Street
Monday - Saturday 10 am to 6 pm
Sundays 11 am to 5 pm
Through May 20, 2010.

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