Reviewed by Robin Tierney
Seventeenth century Dutch society a hotbed of hedonism? These folks fully enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh, judging by the 34 paintings on view in Amorous Intrigues and Painterly Refinement: The Art of Frans van Mieris.
Running through May 21 at the National Gallery of Art, this new retrospective is the first devoted to Van Mieris (1635-1681), perhaps the most accomplished and influential European painter you’ve never heard of. Back in the day—his day—his works were among those most prized by superstar collectors like Cosimo de Medici.
Applying his dazzling brushwork to render, even rival, nature in the style known as fijnschilderkunst (“fine painting”), this genre master spun visual narratives of love, seduction and other intimate encounters. The sensual interplay of rich dark tones with shimmering highlights, the magnificent textures that capture the look and feel of fabric (his hometown, Leiden, reigned as a world textile capital), the tight everyday detail-laden compositions—some painted on panel, others on copper—make you a covert witness to the action.
Oh, those lusty Dutch. Two elderly rogues giving an innocent lad coins to go fetch beer. In a sumptuously illuminated, erotic brothel scene, the pair of dogs getting busy in the background foreshadows action between the man and woman center stage. In “The Oyster Meal,” expressions suggest intentions well beyond dinner. Through glint of eye, turn of cheek, curve of back, nuances in these oil paintings reveal intimate and sometimes bawdy counterpoints to the Calvinist world.
Curator Arthur Wheelock delights in telling the stories behind these stories. He points out the significance of letters left open on tables or being sealed by women lost in thought. The humorous appearance of the artist himself, face turned away from the action to shoot the viewer a mischievous grin, as gullible villagers gather around “The Quack.” The painter’s drive to show off his skills in the contrasting textures of carved stone, plush fabric, feathery plumes, hard smooth glass, soft translucent skin and impossibly crisp overhanging leaves, in such compact masterpieces as “A Boy Blowing Bubbles.”
Then there’s “the most amazing curtain in the history of art!” showcased in “A Trompe l’Oeil with a Garland of Flowers and a Curtain.” Here, explains Wheelock, Van Mieris interprets the fable of the ultimate art showdown. Zeuxis painted grapes that appeared so real that birds tried to eat them, but Parrhasios won by conjuring a curtain that Zeuxis tried to pull aside.
A weak link in the exhibition, “The Family Concert”, has a back-story more interesting than the painting commissioned by Medici. The late-career piece was late in delivery, inspired by paycheck rather than passion.
Van Mieris studied under Gerrit Dou, himself a star pupil of Rembrandt van Rijn. Jan Steen was his drinking buddy, Vermeer a peer. To distinguish his work, Van Mieris demonstrated from early on his belief that masters can rival nature so well that viewer can hardly tell the subject is painted, not real. Elevating his artworks above simply beautiful portrayals by keenly capturing private moments and emotions, Van Mieris takes us behind closed doors to spy the amorous intrigues of ages past.
VIEWING VAN MIERIS
The Art of Frans van Mieris
On view through May 21
National Gallery of Art, West Building
6th Street and Constitution Ave. NW
Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For free gallery talks and other activities related to the show, visit nga.gov