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Kenwood House 3

Rembrandt self portrait, circa 1665

Rembrandt self portrait, circa 1665

I’ve already written twice about Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, the current exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum: two months ago, when we had to miss the opening because of a conflict, and a couple of weeks later, after we toured the exhibition under the expert guidance of Susan Jenkins, senior curator of English Heritage.

I’m returning to the subject in order to write about another tour we had the opportunity to take, two mornings ago, this time led by Seattle Art Museum’s own Chiyo Ishikawa, the curator for European painting and sculpture. Recall Chiyo’s description of the exhibition from SAM’s website:

Within the neoclassical Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath on the outskirts of London, resides a magnificent painting collection known as the Iveagh Bequest. Kenwood is home to an exceptional collection of Old Master paintings, including major works by Gainsborough, Hals, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Romney, Turner, Van Dyck, and many others. The Iveagh Bequest was donated to Great Britain by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847–1927) and heir to the world’s most successful brewery. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: Treasures of Kenwood House, London, a selection of approximately 50 masterpieces from the collection, will tour American museums for the first time. Among other treasures, the exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see Rembrandt’s late Portrait of the Artist (ca. 1665), which has never left Europe before.

The Earl of Iveagh’s personal collection was shaped by the tastes of the Belle Époque—Europe’s equivalent to America’s Gilded Age. His purchases reveal a preference for the portraiture, landscape, and seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish paintings that could typically be found in English aristocratic collections. Since the earl was a newcomer to London emigrating from his native Ireland, he may have selected works that would help him fit in with his peers and elevate his social standing.

Chiyo took a group of about thirty of us from SAM’s lobby up to the exhibition’s opening room, where she reviewed Guinness’s astonishing buying spree and a change in British law that made it possible. (Families with agricultural holdings who previously were not allowed to sell their art were now permitted to do so provided they reinvested the income in farming.) She then took us from room to room, focusing on two or three portraits per room and providing context that complemented what we had learned from Susan Jenkins. For example, Chiyo singled out the Frans Hals portrait of Pieter van den Broecke from 1633 (featured atop my second Kenwood post and reproduced below) as the most unusual in Guinness’s collection, because Hals’ work had only recently been rediscovered and was not widely viewed as a worthy painter.

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Chiyo also spent some time contrasting the work of Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough, eventually confessing—in case it wasn’t clear—that she was a big Gainsborough fan, more so than Reynolds. She invited us in particular to look at the two portraits below, which are hung on perpendicular walls within a single room.

First, Reynolds’ 1782 portrait of Mrs. Musters as ‘Hebe’.

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From the webpage:

Hebe is the Greek goddess of youth, the daughter of Zeus and the future wife of Hercules. Here she is on Mount Olympus, portrayed by 24-year-old Sophia Catherine Musters. Mrs. Musters sat 18 times for this portrait by Joshua Reynolds.

Mrs. Musters, however, was unhappily married. She had many male admirers and was unfaithful.

In fact, an earlier portrait by Reynolds was reportedly not given to Mr. Musters but instead to Mrs. Musters’ lover, the Prince of Wales.

So Reynolds compensated for that loss by painting a new portrait for the husband. This time he chose to portray Mrs. Musters as that ultimate beauty: a Greek goddess.

And here is Gainsborough’s 1760 portrait of Mary, Countess Howe.

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From the webpage:

Thomas Gainsborough actually preferred painting landscapes to portraits. But early in his career, his landscapes weren’t selling all that well.

He studied the full-length portraits of aristocracy by Anthony Van Dyck and eventually Gainsborough attracted commissions from fashionable clientele such as Mary, Countess Howe.

Countess Howe was actually an aristocrat by marriage and not by birth. So technically the painting should be called “Lady Howe.” But Mary Hartopp became a countess after her military husband became an earl. The couple was vacationing in Bath when they asked Gainsborough to paint each of them.

Gainsborough went all out painting her in pink silk and ruffles standing outdoors on some estate. She was, of course, posed inside Gainsborough’s studio but that landscape suggests the countess as both aristocrat and a landowner.

The couple had come to Bath because Earl Howe was suffering from gout and needed to recuperate. Gainsborough chose to underscore strength and boldness in Countess Howe. She has her hand on her hip, her toe pointed and her eyes gazing straight ahead.

Putting details of technique aside, Chiyo distilled the issues into the simple question, how would we like to be depicted? She then talked about Gainsborough’s marvelous treatment of Mary’s clothing and the pleasure he took in magically creating effects that one must stand back some distance to appreciate.

Oh, but I’ve skipped ahead. For what would English portrait painting be without Anthony van Dyck and his arrival in London in the 1630s to paint in the court of Charles I? Chiyo talked about this while we focused on van Dyck’s 1634 portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine.

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From the webpage:

If art is an escape, then the full-length portraits hanging throughout Kenwood House sent the 1st Earl of Iveagh back to a more civilized time. The paintings of young wives, mistresses and of course, royalty, underscored elegance, grace and poise. The world was nothing but genteel, as seen in this portrait of Princess Henrietta of Lorraine.

But this princess was dripping in scandal: charges of treason, banishment from France, masquerading as a man in order to escape punishment, and even suspicions of orchestrating attempted murder.

There’s only the slightest hint in this portrait that she has suffered: the thorns on the roses held by a page. Otherwise, all is well. She’s wearing pearls and Flemish bobbin lace; standing in front of gold brocade with a boy at the ready.

Van Dyck has painted a 23-year-old princess who is defiant and not a bit defeated.

Chiyo explained that the seemingly disproportionate size of the head compared to the body in this and other portraits makes sense once we understand that at the time, portraits would be hung high on the wall. (One must have a home with high walls! Some of these paintings wouldn’t fit on our walls no matter how low we hung them, though I’d be happy to take a couple home and give it a try.)

The final room of the exhibition features portraits of children. Here’s Thomas Lawrence’s 1825-27 portrait of Miss Murray.

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And from the webpage:

Louisa Georgina Augusta Anne Murray is between three and five years old. She’s got a lapful of petals. Her stockings are rumpled. Her hair is in ringlets. She’s bright eyed and pink cheeked and a picture of purity.

She was born out of wedlock and her mother’s lover commissioned this portrait. He chose the greatest portrait painter at the time: Sir Thomas Lawrence. The painting might have been a way to underscore the child’s innocence (and obscure her actual social status). The child’s parents were eventually wed.

The artist had been a child prodigy himself, so he knew all about being the center of attention. In a letter to her parents, the painter said he wanted to capture her “fleeting beauty and expression so singular in the child before the change takes places that some few months may bring.”

This portrait of sweetness ended up being one of the most reproduced images of a British child; replicated in Victorian engravings and on biscuit tins.

The exhibition closes May 19. We hope to get back to explore it more closely on our own. If you’re here in Seattle, be sure to go.

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