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Remarkable exhibit a ferry ride away

Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Van Dyck: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London
Seattle Art Museum until May 19, 2013
$20 adult, $17 senior, $12 student and teen; free for 12 and under

Reviewed by Candace Fertile

Fabulously rich people can afford fabulous art collections, and the First Earl of Iveagh, Edward Cecil Guinness (1847-1927) (yes, that Guinness) apparently had a budget to match his exquisite taste in paintings. The current special exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) features 48 works from the collection usually on view at Kenwood House in London. Renovations at Kenwood House have created the opportunity for the collection to be exhibited at various US museums. Art lovers going to Seattle in the near future should pay a visit to SAM to see these remarkable paintings.

Before you go, you can download an app to your phone and then listen to experts discuss various works or you can use the free audio guides at the museum. Listening while observing is a good time-saver: you don’t need to read the descriptions as you feast on the images.

The key painting, which is also featured on the PR material, is Rembrandt’s Portrait of the Artist ca. 1665. Rembrandt painted numerous self-portraits, and this one done about four years before his death in 1669 shows him holding the tools of his trade. Rembrandt’s mastery of light and shadow is evident, and in the plain background are two circles that have puzzled critics for ages. One theory is that Rembrandt was simply showing his ability to draw circles. I listened to the docent’s talk about this painting (free talks are scheduled at various times), and she commented that Rembrandt kept a stash of self-portraits in his studio, ready for sale to visitors. And in that way the collector got “two for one”: a Rembrandt painting and a portrait of the artist.

My favourite portrait in the exhibit is Frans Hals’s 1633 Portrait of Pieter van den Broecke (1585-1640). Hals’s jaunty depiction of the merchant breathes life into a man who has been dead for centuries. And that perhaps is why I love portraits: a skilled portrait painter, such as Hals and Rembrandt, shows the humanity of his or her subject. The clothing could change, and the person could be walking down the street today.

The Kenwood House collection includes more than portraits, but they are the ones that captured me the most. But other paintings are also arresting. The first that comes to mind is Albert Cuyp’s View of Dordrecht (ca. 1655), a seascape with splendid and precise detail. You can even see the time on the clock in the background, and the flat Dutch city seems to cower behind a meticulously detailed sailing ship. I fell in love with Cuyp’s landscapes many years ago as he often includes cows in them.

Many of these 17th and 18th century paintings have never been shown outside of Britain before, so having them just a ferry ride away is a treat. Plan for a couple of hours, and your ticket will also get you into the European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle exhibit and the rest of SAM.