When you visit an exhibition of northern European art, you probably make assumptions about what you'll see: lots of portraits and scenes of everyday life in the styles of Rembrandt and Vermeer, for example.
If so, "Story and Symbol: Dutch and Flemish Paintings from the Collection of Dr. Gordon and Adele Gilbert" at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg will be a revelation. It was for me.
It covers the range of categories — some of them new — that made northern European art suddenly as important as that of southern Europe. The show is from a single collection assembled over 35 years by the Gilberts, who have also been longtime donors to the museum. So it's personal, reflecting their tastes more than an eye for the Big Get you find in professionally curated exhibitions.
Dr. Gilbert and the late Mrs. Gilbert, who died in July, shared a penchant for what we call history paintings that deal with historical, religious and mythological subjects. In the rigid hierarchy of genres, which was established in the 16th century and dominated into the 19th century, history painting ranked at the top. Still life was at the bottom.
But historical events in northern Europe combined to change the balance in that part of the world. The Reformation was in the ascent, and clashes between Protestants and Catholic Spain, which ruled the Netherlands, led to a formal split in the 17th century and the creation of the Dutch Republic in the north. Its shipping industry made it one of the wealthiest nations in Europe, and a new class of Protestant merchants there wanted to decorate their homes with less ponderous, more intimate works.
In complying with those tastes for realism, Dutch artists launched what we now call the Dutch Golden Age, which, astonishingly, became great by concentrating on the lower ranks in the hierarchy: still lifes, landscapes and portraits of everyday people. Even Rembrandt, who began as a painter of religious allegories, became known as a great portrait painter out of financial necessity.
In the southern provinces, ruled by the Hapsburgs, religious themes remained popular, so most of those in this collection are Flemish rather than Dutch. Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (c. 1600) by Hendrick de Clerck, for example, has the same lushness as works by his fellow Baroque painter, Peter Paul Rubens.
God Appearing to Abraham at Sichem (1642) is an early work by Paulus Potter and a prime example of the Dutch treatment of a religious theme. It is essentially a landscape. Abraham and his family are to the left, almost pushed out of the canvas. The main players are the livestock, front and center. Potter would come to realize there was cash in those cows and became famous for his portraits of livestock.
Indeed, animals as subject matter became a lucrative subcategory in landscape painting with some artists specializing in one animal throughout their careers. Melchior d'Hondecoeter (1636-1695), for example, was the bird man of Amsterdam. You can understand that moniker in A Golden Eagle Attacking a Menagerie of Birds (undated). No one does feathers better.
But artists were generally charged with more than rendering beauty, which was revered but also feared for its potentially corrupting influence. So d'Hondecoeter infuses his birds with character and personality, almost like a gathering of people in a public square. Similar treatment is afforded to still lifes, which evolved into a form known as vanitas, based on the Biblical warning that "all is vanity," because they contained reminders of mortality. That is the message of Abraham van Beyeren's (1620-1690) Still Life of Fish on a Table, which celebrates the bounty of the sea and references Christ's bountiful haul in the New Testament. And it's the message in Jan Davidsz. de Heem's Still Life with a Silver Pitcher (1632). De Heem was one of the vanitas virtuosos of all time and, while this one is smaller and simpler than his later works, it bears his hallmarks of gorgeous surface treatment and subtle death threats.
Nowhere is this ambivalence toward pleasure better visualized than in Merry Company paintings, a new category invented by Netherlands artists that portrayed groups carousing together as humorous narratives underpinned with moral concerns. One of the more direct examples is Jan Miense Molenaer's group scene in which people sing, dance, drink and smoke (all rather tamely) while two skeletons lurk. Its title: Merry Company With Death Entering the Door (c. 1631).
The collection contains only four portraits (I don't count the Virgin Mary and Venus), but two of them are among its best, in my opinion. Frans Hals' Portrait of a Woman in a White Ruff is not one of his greats yet it is great in its mastery of technique and psychological insight.
The star, though, is Double Portrait of Husband and Wife With Tulip, Bulb and Shells (1609) by Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt, not as well known today but one of the most acclaimed portraitists of his time. Single subjects were the norm, but here a couple are turned toward each other, their faces looking out. He holds a tulip flower and bulb (symbols both of wealth and mortality). She is more detached and seems to recede into the dark background. One scholar has suggested that this is a posthumous portrait of the wife, commissioned by a loving husband.
The poignant backstory on this painting's provenance is that it was the last purchase of the Gilberts before her death. And it is a fitting pendant to the first painting they purchased, Lot and His Daughters Fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah (c. 1480-1555) by Herri met de Bles, a tiny work with dramatic plumes of flame casting light on the family. A bit further back is the lifeless figure of Lot's wife looking away.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.