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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2012

Rembrandt Up Close

Jewels of European painting at Milwaukee Art Museum

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Featuring paintings rarely seen outside of Britain, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s exhibition “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London” presents the incomparable art collection of Irish brewing tycoon Edward Guinness, the First Earl of Iveagh. Following his death in 1927, Guinness bequeathed the paintings to Britain. The British Parliament later transferred the collection to the curators of the present exhibition, the English Heritage.  

The collection was installed in Kenwood House, Guinness’ suburban London villa. Neither the earl nor his art ever inhabited the Kenwood estate during his lifetime, but the mansion has been transformed into an elegant museum featuring his art collection. 

Milwaukee is one of only four American venues for the traveling Kenwood House exhibition. Featuring more than 40 paintings that have never been displayed in the United States, the exhibit is proof that even the finest photographic or digital reproduction can never match the visual impact of seeing great art up close. The images may be familiar from books and documentaries, but they are a startling new experience on the walls of the Milwaukee Art Museum. As the exhibit catalog says of one of the exhibition’s signal works, Rembrandt’s monumental Portrait of the Artist (1665), “Once seen in the flesh, this painting is never to be forgotten.”

The self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was the culmination of a spectacular 40-year career by the Dutch artist, who demonstrated genius in drawing, painting and printmaking. From young adulthood, Rembrandt was frequently the subject of his own work. And yet, Portrait of the Artist is unequaled. According to Susan Jenkins, senior curator for English Heritage, “It is almost as if he’s using the portrait to bridge the gap between his world and ours, looking at the viewers he would never live to see.”

The portrait demonstrates Rembrandt’s innate gift to draw with exquisite line, capture shadow and light to filter character through chiaroscuro and develop deep human personality while evoking compassion on his canvases.

“This self-portrait shows a very human artist at work in his clothes, with his tools, how he wants to be remembered,” says Catherine Sawinski, the Milwaukee Art Museum’s assistant curator of earlier European art.

If Rembrandt embodied compassion for humanity in his paintings, other artists in the exhibition, including Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641) and Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), were masters of aristocratic propriety and pomp in their portraiture. The exhibit also gathers a wealth of portraits by other accomplished British artists and the Dutch and Flemish painters whose breakthroughs in composition and color inspired them, including Frans Hals, Sir Joshua Reynolds and J.M.W. Turner.

As the Milwaukee Art Museum’s curator of American art and decorative arts, William Rudolph, explains, “There’s personality in this exhibition. Artists were responding to the individual with dynamic, alive portraits.”

Perhaps the treasures of Kenwood House can help us consider not only the nature of portraiture in our time, but also the way we view ourselves and other people. “The exhibition essentially explores how artists might suggest the person sitting in front of them, a glittering persona that reminds us of our humanity, our personal and common values,” Rudolph concludes.

“Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London” will be on display at the Milwaukee Art Museum through Jan. 13, 2013.

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