Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Seattle University's student newspaper since 1933

The Spectator

Rembrandt, van Dyck Treasure Hunt at SAM


    Regardless of how you feel about the paintings, one thing about the Seattle Art Museum’s current exhibition is undeniable: it couldn’t be scheduled at a more appropriate time.

    The exhibit began on Valentine’s Day and will stay at the SAM through mid-May, and the dreamy, lush feel of the paintings left me pining for warmer days.

    Though the subjects of the masterpieces on display were ostensibly the focus, the verdant backdrops, airy textures and delicate pastel tones of each piece were more than enough to stir some spring fever and offer a welcome escape from the dragging Seattle winter.

    What may seem to be one large, cohesive exhibit is actually a double-feature of sorts on European masters such as Rembrandt van Rijn, Anthony van Dyck and Thomas Gainsborough.

    The first exhibit, “The Treasures of Kenwood House, London,” has been on tour in the United States since June, making stops in Houston and Milwaukee before arriving at the SAM. A leaky roof at Kenwood House necessitated the tour, as paintings had to be moved out while the building underwent nearly $8 million in repairs.

    The collection, known as the Iveagh Bequest after Edward Cecil Guinness, first Earl of Iveagh and (of course) successful brewery heir, is “an exceptional collection of Old Master paintings, including major works by Gainsborough, Hals, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck and many others,” said SAM in a description of the exhibit on their website. The paintings from Kenwood house fill four sizeable galleries at the SAM.

    The visiting paintings inspired a dual exhibit, “The Treasures of Seattle,” which fills an impressive five galleries. These works have been gathered from a number of Seattle-area collectors, who have slowly gained an impressive collection of European art over the past 20 years.

    “The paired exhibitions will give visitors the opportunity to observe different approaches to collecting, the history of taste, and how the market has changed since Lord Iveagh began to form his collection in 1887,” said SAM’s website. “Most importantly, our visitors will have the chance to see exceptional works of art from right here in Seattle.”

    It’s obvious, even at first blush: these pieces are treasures indeed. Most significantly, the exhibit features Rembrandt’s “Portrait of the Artist,” which is on display for the first time ever in the United States. The portrait is well-known and distinctive, and somewhat sneakily displayed around a corner; the masterpiece will blow away art lovers and Rembrandt enthusiasts alike.

    In keeping with SAM’s seasonal theme, feminine energy at the exhibit is high. Though almost all featured painters were men (they had one or two token pieces from women, but they were more or less unrepresented), the subjects were predominantly women and children.

    Take Joshua Reynolds’ “Mrs. Musters as Hebe,” the 1782 painting of society woman Sophia Musters was completed as a compensation of sorts to her husband, because one of Reynolds’ previous paintings of Musters had been given to her lover.

    The painting features Musters playing the role of Hebe, Greek goddess of youth. She feeds an eagle while gazing at the viewer; her hair, shawl and long red skirt are all swept by the wind. The enormous canvas is one of the most compelling and visually arresting of the show.

    Another striking piece was George Romney’s “Emma Hart as the Spinstress,” which featured the artist’s muse and near-obsession Emma Hart spinning thread at a wheel. The woman, who was a somewhat notorious mistress, is clothed in white from head to toe in a sort of knowing wink to the informed viewer.

    The exhibit also featured an extensive collection of paintings featuring children, which were lovely and occasionally comedic, if slightly creepy. There’s something about the depiction of long-gone children with slight dead-eyes that never fails to send a shiver down my spine—I have yet to find a painter who consistently depicted children very well. However, the youthful paintings did break up an exhibit that could be quickly bogged down by pomp and circumstance.

    Though the European Masters shows will be in town until May, enthusiasts would be wise to get down to the SAM sooner rather than later, if not to appreciate this stunning exhibit, then at least to take shelter from the neverending Seattle drear.

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