The Metropolitan Museum of Art (the MET) in New York City owns one of the greatest and most comprehensive collections of Dutch art outside of Europe. With over two hundred paintings dating mostly from the seventeenth century, the MET's collection is largely comprised of works donated or purchased specifically for the museum by American collectors. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story.
All 228 paintings are on exhibit together for the first time in the MET's history, and 20 of the works are by the celebrated Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. Eleven paintings from the museum's collection are by Frans Hals and five works of art featured in the show are by the much-beloved Johannes Vermeer.
The curator for the exhibition, called The Age of Rembrandt, says the MET's collection was intentionally built by late 19th and early 20th century New York collectors who were drawn to 17th century Dutch art. Curator Walter Liedtke says there was a link between Dutch society and the growing American republic.
"America in the 19th century saw itself as a democracy of strong working-class or middle-class individuals who made their own way in life. And they compared themselves in that regard to the seventeenth century Dutch republic," he said.
In the art world, the 1600s in the Netherlands are considered the Golden Age of Dutch painting and Rembrandt is seen as the master artist of that time. Liedtke says that period in painting continues to be one of the most popular in all of art. He says the MET began its collection of seventeenth century Dutch paintings in 1871, a year after the museum was founded. He says the booming economy in the United States and the fact that European economies were not doing so well at the turn of the twentieth century helped in the purchasing of many of the works.
Art historian Esmee Quodbach agrees that the MET's collection was formed deliberately by the earliest officers and trustees of the museum and that there was a push to create an art institution in New York that would rival any great museum in Europe. But, she says, many of the New York collectors were probably also competing with each other.
"They liked the same artists. They liked the big names, and if one would have had a Rembrandt, perhaps his friend or his business rival also wanted a Rembrandt. And I'm sure that that's part of the reason that these collections are what they are," she said.
Liedtke says there is another reason why Americans, and particularly New Yorkers, found these paintings appealing - nature. Many of the works in the show depict landscapes, seascapes and other naturalistic themes.
During the exhibition's audio guide, we hear about a painting by Meyndert Hobbema, a leading landscape painter during Holland's Golden Age, which portrays quiet village life in the Dutch countryside. "Holland's largely urban population favored rural views like these with their sense of well being, and more than two centuries later, so did New York collectors."
Liedtke says the show reveals how great New York collectors, like Henry Marquand, J.P. Morgan and Benjamin Altman, coveted Dutch art and provided the cornerstone of the MET's permanent collection. He says the paintings are closely tied to the institution's history, but the collectors were also forward looking.
Liedtke says nowhere is this more apparent than in the works of Vermeer, who today is one of the world's most admired artists, Dutch or otherwise.
In the audio-guided tour of the show, we hear about Vermeer's popularity in the United States.
"The poetic light-filled images of Vermeer exerted extraordinary appeal to [U.S.] East Coast collectors. The artist produced an extremely small body of work, and today only some 35 are regarded as authentic Vermeers. There are five Vermeers at the MET alone, which is more than any other museum in the world," said the recording.
Of the 35 Vermeers, 13 are in the United States and eight of those are in New York. But while the five Vermeers in the MET's collection are truly gems in the museum's treasure trove of Dutch paintings, Liedtke says all the works are appealing to viewers. He says that is partly because the Dutch masters painted works that did not need a lot of historical or scholarly or even Biblical knowledge to be appreciated.
"People are drawn to these pictures partly because they are naturalistic. Things are recognizable and anyone can appreciate a good-looking landscape or an interesting-looking person," he said.
Liedtke says looking at these pictures is like relaxing in a hammock with a good book, or in New York, getting out of the city's 21st century hustle and bustle to escape into the stillness of 17th century Holland,even if for just a little while.