Vast changes came to Europe between about 1600 and 1800. Revolutions in exploration, including the opening of the New World and increased trade with Asia; revolutions in science and religion; revolutions in politics and government, economics and culture; and wars aplenty that ravaged the continent and the Americas; all reflected in the fine arts in manners subtle and drastic, unconscious and purposeful.
These myriad influences and irresistible forces are manifested in the large exhibition "Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age of Painting," opening Sunday at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens for display through April 15. Organized by the Speed Art Museum in Louisville from its permanent collection, the show is a reciprocal gesture as the Dixon's permanent collection of Impressionist art will hang at the Speed through the beginning of May.
"We started talking about the possibility of an exchange with Charles Veneble (director of the Speed Art Museum) exactly two years ago," says Kevin Sharp, the Dixon's director. "I told him about the successful exchanges we had had, and he jumped at the chance and e-mailed me an illustrated check list. We hope that this will lead to continuing collaboration."
The more than 70 paintings include familiar artists who were successful in their own eras, if not celebrities, and come down to us almost as household names: Rembrandt and Rubens, of course, Anthony van Dyck and Jan Brueghel the Elder; William Hogarth and Thomas Gainsborough; and Tiepolo. Crowding the stage behind these colossi is a host of highly regarded second-tier figures and then a phalanx of minor artists, who, whatever their status, embodied transformations in ideas and idioms, technique and subject matter as surely as their more famous colleagues did.
In fact, it's through a wide-ranging exhibition such as this one, that includes the illustrious with the obscure (obscure at least for the everyday museum-goer), that viewers are allowed to perceive the depth and scope of the fundamental fashion in which societies evolve. In terms of artistic style, the exhibition ranges from the High Baroque to the dawn of Neo-Classicism.
In subject matter, "Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age of Painting" can be divided into religious art, mythological paintings, portraits, genre work, still-life paintings, landscapes and seascapes. The earliest works in the exhibition, circa 1615 to 1670, are religious in nature, emphasizing the fact that the traditions of the Renaissance, during which almost all art focused on the religious or mythological, still had power over the imaginations of artists and their patrons.
At the same time, however, we see artists breaking from that model as the wealthy or the newly affluent middle class required portraits to immortalize themselves. Such discriminating patrons, especially in the Netherlands, also wanted to adorn their homes with the fashionable still-life paintings, with their hints of allegory and mortality, at which Dutch artists excelled and exemplified here by the sumptuous spread of "Breakfast Still Life" (1653) by Pieter Claesz.
While this assessment of "Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age of Painting" and its themes may seem to impose a didactic aura upon the exhibition, nothing could be more wrong. Artists seldom think, "Ah ha, I'm certainly reflecting changes in the zeitgeist with this piece." As Sharp pointed out, "These were artists of consummate skill and intense training," so their motivations revolved around their chosen subject matter, conception and execution, and a hopeful eye tilted toward their customers' proffered hands.
There is, in other words, a profusion of charm and elegance in "Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age of Painting," where expressions of political might and wealth share space with exquisite little portraits and delicate Madonnas, as well as keen depictions of ordinary existence or bountiful floral studies. The concept of something for everyone may be a cliché of modern marketing, yet it's a notion that encompasses the engaging diversity of this grand exhibition, not to mention the hypnotic power of all those elaborate old gold frames.
'Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Golden Age of Painting'
At Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park, opening Sunday and displayed through April 15. The opening lecture will be at 2 p.m. Sunday by Ruth Cloudman, chief curator and the Mary and Barry Bingham Sr. curator of European and American Art at the Speed Art Museum. Call (901) 761-5250, or visit dixon.org.