- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2000


The grand paintings of Dutch artists Rembrandt and Frans Hals usually embody the 17th-century baroque style in Holland. The masterpieces of Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo sum up the 16th-century High Renaissance in Italy.
But to think that all works from these artistic golden ages were like these would be a mistake. Wealthy Dutch merchants needed smaller paintings for their homes and installed "cabinet galleries."
The National Gallery of Art in 1995 re-created three galleries like the original ones — the Dutch called them "kunstkamers," meaning intimately scaled rooms for displaying private collections — and now presents the intriguing exhibit "Small Northern European Portraits From the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore" in the central gallery.
These are not formal, frontal portraits but ones that show a more intimate, affectionate warmth. They also are remarkably varied in use and material. Many, such as Lucon Master's miniature "Book of Hours, Female Donor Presented to the Virgin by Saints Catherine and John the Baptist," embellished illuminated manuscripts.
Other portraits appeared in enamels, oil paintings and prints and on bronze figures and medals.
The new Italian Cabinet Galleries, adjacent to the Titian room in the Italian galleries of the West Building, also fill the need for displaying smaller Renaissance paintings, bronze statues, portrait medals, engraved rock-crystal vessels and majolica dishes. The galleries are meant to evoke the small private chambers or studies ("studioli") of Renaissance princes and wealthy merchants.
Seven highly successful installations have been mounted in the Dutch Cabinet Galleries. The eighth, the portrait show, is one of the best.
"A show devoted to the role of small portraits in different mediums has never been done before," says exhibit co-curator Arthur Wheelock Jr. of the National Gallery. "It was the perfect time to mount the show with the Walters closing certain galleries during their renovation. They have a rich and varied collection, and their loans made this unusual exhibit possible."
The Walters' objects are combined with art from the National Gallery and other public and private collections for the 43-work show.
The early 15th century is a fascinating time to examine the role of portraiture in Northern European countries such as the Netherlands, England, France and Germany. Co-curator Joaneath Spicer of the Walters says: "The idea that it's valuable to depict a person was new at the time. During the Christian Middle Ages, attention was turned toward God and the afterlife and not this life. It's really only in the late 14th century that we see a revival of interest in portraiture after that of the Romans.
"The primary motivation for individuals to commission portraits of themselves as parts of the altarpieces was to identify themselves in terms of their Christian faith," she says. "Some of the first portraits were of donors, persons who funded paintings of holy persons, as in the Lucon Master's 'Book of Hours, Female Donor.' "
Portraits of donors with their patron saints usually appeared on small altarpieces placed in homes for meditation and prayer.
Such is Hugo van der Goes' "Donor With St. John the Baptist" (circa 1475) from the Walters Gallery. The only painting in North America by the renowned Flemish portraitist, it shows the saint pointing the donor toward the Virgin and Child. It's a fragment, with the top and bottom trimmed, but it retains the gleam of its oil pigment. The figures, therefore, look more crowded than they would have looked originally.
It was originally the right section of a diptych, an altarpiece with two wings. The donor looks intently at the Virgin and Child painted on the other section. "We revere Van der Goes today as a portraitist, as he was the first to express the inner person," Miss Spicer says. "Look at the way the donor arches his left eyebrow and chews on the inside of his cheek as his looks at the Virgin."
The panel shows the new importance of the individual and interest in expressing human emotion.
Devotional likeness, however, was not the only kind of portraiture introduced at this time. Miss Spicer explains that portraits had many functions in society, and she organized the exhibit in four parts to reflect this: the Devotional Portrait, Political Portraits, the Intimate Image in England and France, and Intimate Images: the Dutch Contribution.
Many 16th- and 17th-century political portraits appeared on medals. They show the influence of the severely profiled portraits of emperors on Roman coins that once symbolized unwavering power. Rulers often made gifts of the medals to supporters and other monarchs to confirm their power and legitimacy.
Emperor Charles V, shown wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece on a gilt bronze medal (circa 1521), was this kind of ruler. Hans Schwartz, the prime designer of the German Renaissance medal, probably made it.
"Charles needed all the PR he could get," Miss Spicer says. "Elected Holy Roman emperor as a very young man, he was thrust into a position of prestige but unpredictable power."
Schwartz probably made the medal on the occasion of Charles' first trip to Germany, where he led the Diet of Worms in 1521. The profile view, rich gilding and detailing of the elaborate collar transmitted his imperial position.
Personal miniatures, first painted at the court of the English King Henry VIII in the 1520s, were far more engaging than the portrait medals. Many depicted husbands and wives and could be carried in lockets.
This was some three centuries before the invention of photographs and enabled the wealthy to carry mementos of their loved ones with them.
"Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby" looks out directly and engagingly from Henri Toutin's painted enamel-on-gold miniature. The English used softly nuanced color to create skin tones and intricate details of jewels and lace. A Frenchman such as Toutin, however, employed painted enamel for the glistening, jewellike surfaces of portraits such as "Lady Digby."
The Dutch preferred the fluid qualities of oil pigment for tiny engagement portraits such as Cornelis van Poelenburgh's paired images of Jan Pellicorne and Susanna van Collen. The translucency of oil also lent itself to depicting children, as in Jan de Bray's studies.
The new Italian Cabinet Galleries (Numbers 25, 26 and 27) move us to another time and world. They're meant to show smaller-scaled objects and paintings like the Dutch displays. The velvet-covered, straight-backed chairs help evoke the original "studioli" of the Italian Renaissance princes.
Admiration for Greece and Rome dominates such varied art as coins, medals, intricately carved rock-crystal vessels, gold and silver clocks, ivory carvings, paintings and bronzes and the brightly painted majolica dishes.
The most interesting exhibit, set in its own gallery, is Bernardino Luini's "Fresco Cycle of Procis and Cephalus" (circa 1520-22). The nine paintings are the only examples of an Italian fresco cycle in this country.
Although fragments of larger frescoes painted for a Milanese nobleman's palace or villa, they effectively tell the story of Ovid's Procris and Cephalus and the pitfalls of marital jealousy.
There's much more. Outstanding paintings are Lorenzo Lotto's diminutive "Allegory of Virtue and Vice"; a Veronese artist's "Finding of Moses"; and a Giorgione Circle painter's "Venus and Cupid in a Landscape."
The lesson of both these handsome cabinet galleries exhibits is that big is not always better. They present rare opportunities to experience art close-up, in a more personal way than larger artworks offer.

WHAT: "Small Northern European Portraits From the Walters Art Gallery" and "New Italian Cabinet Galleries"

WHERE: West Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. "Portraits" runs through Feb. 19. "Italian Galleries" is a permanent installation.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/842-6353

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