It may sound counterintuitive, but the best way to see the art treasures of London’s Kenwood House is in Seattle.
True, you won’t enjoy quite the same ambience at the Seattle Art Museum that you would in the 18th-century London villa. But as Susan Jenkins, the English curator of “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London,” pointed out while leading a press tour through the show on Tuesday, SAM’s professional museum lighting does more justice to the masterpieces on display than their home setting (now under renovation) ever has.
The art in “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough,” assembled in the late 1880s and early 1890s, reflects the artistic tastes of its day. Which strands of the show (which opened Thursday) appeal to you will depend on your own leanings.
Some viewers will be drawn to extravagant 18th-century portraits that say “I am my own fabulous creation” (Thomas Gainsborough’s “Mary, Countess Howe” is queen of this category). Others will go for more informal 17th-century Dutch renderings of characters who seem to say “I am who I am — take it or leave it.” (Examples: Frans Hals’ jaunty and disheveled sea captain, “Pieter van den Broecke,” or a Rembrandt self-portrait, commonly deemed to be his finest, that was painted late in his life when, judging from his expression, he knew full well what he’d accomplished.)
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The exhibit is handsomely laid out, in loosely associative groupings. Across from Rembrandt is Ferdinand Bol’s “Portrait of an Unknown Woman” (ca. 1644) — her eyes alert, her demeanor modest, and her half-smile as unreadable as the Mona Lisa’s.
Gainsborough doesn’t always indulge in “Countess Howe” extravaganzas of artifice. “John Joseph Merlin” (1781), his portrait of an eccentric 18th-century inventor, is more spry and relaxed, thanks both to Merlin’s pose and to the lively pastel-softness Gainsborough brings to the flow of his oil paint.
While portraits dominate the show, there are extraordinary works in other genres, too.
Claude de Jongh’s “Old London Bridge” (1630), as well as being a masterfully rendered panorama, is a fascinating historical document of a time when homes and businesses perched on the bridge. Gainsborough’s “Hounds Hunting a Fox” (ca. 1785) almost anticipates Impressionism in its loose, fluid, action-filled brushwork.
The Kenwood show is paired with “European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle,” 30-odd paintings of approximately the same vintage on loan from local collectors.
Marquee names include Titian, Rubens and Hals (“Portrait of an Unknown Man,” painted roughly 30 years after the Kenwood Hals, and every bit as fine).
Still, it’s the less familiar names that are the biggest surprises. In the case of “Monogrammist I.S. ,” only the painter’s initials are known. Yet I.S. ’s “A Scholar Holding a Book,” once attributed to Rembrandt, is a subtle compact masterpiece. Its subject’s worn face, framed by a ragged beard below and a disheveled turban above, stares wearily at the viewer as though to say, “I’d rather be reading.”
A more explosive stunner of a canvas is Flemish artist Louis Finson’s “An Allegory of the Four Elements” (1611). It’s a cyclone of flesh, as four nudes — two male, two female — struggle fiercely for dominance. (Poor “Earth,” depicted as an old woman, gets the worst of it.)
Just as impressive, on a smaller scale, is Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi’s “The Fall of Rebel Angels” (ca. 1599-1601). Dozens of lost souls tumble through the firmament, getting wedged between seismic fissures below. The details and distortions of faces and figures are remarkably vivid and haunting: a blend of Blake and Bosch.
German painter Georg Pencz is a better-known name, but his “Portrait of Sigismund Baldinger” (1545) is still disarming, simply because it’s in such fantastic shape. Its 35-year-old Nuremberg businessman looks as if he might have sat for it last week.
Finally, a gallery of still lifes by Ambrosius Bosschaert, Fede Galizia and others is a tour-de-force of painterly illusion, whether the subject is a floral bouquet, a plateful of fruit or a recently devoured oyster supper.
Not every painting — or school of painting — in these two exhibits will appeal to every taste. But there are masterworks here. Not just a handful, but a score or more.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org