- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2006

Entering the National Gallery of Art’s “Amorous Intrigues and Painterly Refinement: The Art of Frans van Mieris,” we wonder what those Dutch were up to — but we don’t question long. Although the paintings of van Mieris the Elder (1635-1681) are tiny (most are just 15 inches square, the largest 18 by 25 inches) their message rings loud: Amorous seductions are fun.

There are unmistakable inferences, such as a man trying to win over a woman by teasing her dog (“Teasing the Pet”); a bawdy scene with two dogs copulating in the background (“Brothel Scene”); and a view of an upper-class couple eating oysters, popularly reputed to be aphrodisiacs (“The Oyster Meal”).

They’re not the only hints. In “Teasing the Pet,” van Mieris portrays himself trying to pull the ear of a puppy in the lap of a woman (his wife, Cunera van der Cock). Although she pushes him away, another dog barking from the floor connects them as they look down. A lute (customarily played during wooing) sits atop a nearby table, adding sensuality.

“The Brothel Scene” is more explicit. A buxom woman with a partly unlaced blouse leans over to pour wine into a man’s glass while he pulls her closer to him. The bed linens falling from a balustrade above leave little doubt as to the couple’s intentions.

“The Oyster Meal” (1661), again featuring the artist and his wife, is even more explicitly sexual. The elaborately dressed woman eats oysters from a leering man’s silver dish while balancing a glass of wine. The work’s domed top adds to the couple’s closeness.

Van Mieris was born into a family of goldsmiths in Leiden, a city famous for its university and textile manufacturing. He was part of the Leiden school of “fine painting” or “fijnschilders,” led by Gerrit Dou, Rembrandt van Rijn’s first pupil. His personal life was successful, and his marriage to the middle-class, Leiden-born van der Cock in 1657 produced two sons who became artists.

Partly inspired by his contemporary Gerard ter Borch’s fame in the same genre, van Mieris turned to painting upper-class women in exquisitely shimmering fabrics and soft furs — a sure way to attract wealthy clients. (Those who saw last year’s “Gerard ter Borch” exhibit — also a part of the gallery’s long-running monographic series on 17th-century Dutch “Golden Age” painters — will remember a similar treatment of these luxe fabrics.)

The exhibit’s “Portrait of Agatha Paets,” the wife of Leiden’s wealthy mayor, is a measure of his success. Among his most compellingly painted works, it shows how the artist applied countless layers of oil pigments on wood panels for an enamellike effect.

Looking even more carefully, one sees traces of the tiny brush strokes that both modulated and layered the paintings that the artist executed on copper, sometimes overlaid with a thin layer of gold leaf for even greater detail. Above all, he wanted an intense, intimate viewing interaction between viewer and painting.

Not to be missed are the exhibit’s five self-portraits, including the 1667 panel from Polesden Lacey, a National Trust estate in Surrey, England. Clearly the finest self-portrait in the show, it presents van Mieris as an important painter holding his palette and brushes — and, of course, dressed in his trademark shimmering satin gown.

WHAT: “Amorous Intrigues and Painterly Refinement: The Art of Frans van Mieris”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, noon to 6 p.m. Sundays, through May 21

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB: www.nga.gov

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