The 17th century was the great age of Dutch painting, and the kind of painting is pretty familiar: Salomon van Ruisdael's flat landscapes with cool skies; Jan Vermeer's industrious lace maker and woman pouring the milk; Frans Hals' groups of civic-minded citizens. The Dutch world was Protestant, middle-class, hard-working and domestic, and the Dutch painters recorded it so.
But not in Utrecht.
In Utrecht art, gods and goddesses cavort; religious paintings rivet the attention with dramatic fervor and contrasts of light and dark; landscapes are hilly and bathed in warm light; and the sensual and sexual aspects of human nature receive full acknowledgment.
There has never been a major exhibition on this aspect of Dutch art until the one that opens today at the Walters Art Gallery. "Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht During the Golden Age" was conceived by Walters curator of Renaissance and baroque art, Joaneath Spicer, and organized by the Walters with the cooperation of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the National Gallery in London.
It is an extraordinarily beautiful and deeply significant show. It is also one of the finest exhibits a Baltimore institution has ever organized, and one that all Baltimore simply must see.
Among other things, it's just the right size: It does justice to the subject without being exhausting. Its 74 paintings are installed in two of the Walters' grand paintings galleries on the second floor of its original 1904 building, and in the loggia surrounding the central courtyard. It's organized by subject matter -- religious paintings, contemporary life, mythology -- so that the viewer can see a subject in depth and compare like works.
One can voice a few quibbles. Despite the presence of Abraham Bloemaert's grand "The Four Evangelists" (about 1615), the show's introductory space -- with its different-sized pictures, books and text panels -- is a visual jumble. And despite Jan Baptist Weenix's superb "Dead Swan" (1650) as the very last work, the show peters out somewhat at the end.
But the exhibit (and its accompanying catalog, by Spicer and others) constitutes a real contribution to knowledge.
Utrecht differed from other Dutch cities in its close connection with Italy and the Roman Catholic tradition. So strong was the link that 1522-1523 saw the brief papacy of the Utrecht-born Adrian VI, the last non-Italian pope before the present John Paul II.
In the late 16th century the present-day Netherlands revolted against Catholic Spain and proclaimed the Dutch Republic. The controlling Protestant majority suppressed public worship by Catholics. But they continued to worship in private and to be a major presence, especially in Utrecht.
The city lies considerably to the east of such Dutch centers as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. At the beginning of the 17th century, Utrecht's population -- about 30,000 compared with Amsterdam's 150,000 -- was about 40 percent Catholic and maintained its ties to Rome. Much patronage came from the leisured, aristocratic (and largely Catholic) upper class.
Elsewhere, the merchant class dominated with its Protestant work ethic. Similarly, the economy of Utrecht was based on the production of luxury items such as silk, while other centers emphasized more common goods such as wool.
A different art
It is hardly surprising, then, that such a culture would produce a different kind of art.
It was, above all, an art of the imagination. Religious scenes showed the lives of Christ, Mary and the saints to please Catholic patrons. Landscapes possessed topography freed from faithfulness to Dutch surroundings. Scenes from mythology and legend satisfied an upper class that wanted images of the nobility, not pictures of a woman cleaning her house.
Given Utrecht's strong ties to Rome, it was only natural that some of its finest artists would travel to Italy and come under the influence of Italian art -- especially, in the early 17th century, under the influence of Caravaggio's direct and powerful art.
When the century dawned, the predominant Utrecht style was mannerism. It was characterized by crowded canvases, elongated figures, exaggerated poses emphasizing elegance of gesture, and aesthetic artificiality. Abraham Bloemaert and Joachim Wtewael were the leading Utrecht painters of the style, and both of them have mannerist paintings in the show.
The writhing figures in Bloemaert's "Moses Striking the Rock" (1596) look as if they're taking part in some especially complicated modern ballet. Wtewael's equally artificial "Saint Sebastian" (1600) even hints at eroticism with its virtually unclothed saint in a suggestive pose. However it may have looked to viewers at the time, the painting, for all its virtuosity, cannot help eliciting a smile from modern viewers.