“Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough” visits the Milwaukee Art Museum
Kenwood House’s Old Master paintings impress.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) isn’t my favorite Old Master. He overuses a muddy color palette, and the darkness of his paintings—seemingly all created at night—can be depressing. But there is an undeniable power to his Portrait of the Artist (circa 1665). The immediacy of the portrait’s brushstrokes makes it seem as fresh as if the Dutch artist had whipped it up yesterday.
Portrait of the Artist is the only Rembrandt on view in “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London,” but it sets the tone for this exhibition of 48 Old Master paintings, which continues through January 13 at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
While the paintings are outstanding, and the show is just the right size to avoid inducing museum fatigue, “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough” is particularly fascinating because it reflects the tastes of one man: Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh. Heir to the Guinness brewery, Iveagh took the family business public and in 1886 retired at the age of 39 with an annual income of £500,000—nearly $31 million in today’s money.
With all that cash, Iveagh decided to buy art—lots of it. From 1887–91, he amassed a huge collection of paintings by the likes of Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), who ended his career in England as King Charles I’s court painter; Dutch artist Frans Hals (1582/83–1666); and English portraitists Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–92).
Iveagh purchased Kenwood House, a manor on the outskirts of London, as a permanent public home for his collection. (Both are now managed by English Heritage.) As the house undergoes much-needed renovations, its paintings are traveling to four U.S. cities.
During a recent tour of the exhibition, English Heritage senior curator Susan Jenkins told me she chose “a good mix of different genres, concentrating on quality” but was limited by practical concerns such as size and condition. (A Vermeer had to stay in London because it’s too fragile to travel.)
“Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough” reflects Iveagh’s social aspirations. The earl received his title late in life and didn’t come from a noble background, but he ran with the Prince of Wales’s fast-living Marlborough House set. By purchasing most of his collection from aristocrats who needed cash, Iveagh ensured its authenticity and maintained its cachet.
Iveagh’s paintings also appealed to him personally—especially the portraits of fashionable women. Thanks to the strong interest in humanity running through his collection, it still resonates with a contemporary audience.
National Gallery of Art curator Arthur Wheelock speaks about Rembrandt’s self-portraits at the MAM Thursday 29.