Louis Finson, An Allegory of the Four Elements, 1611, Flemish, oil on canvas, 70 5/8 x 66 3/4 in. Private Collection.

The Golden Age of Seattle. That’s our city, right now, according to the introductory wall text to European Masters: The Treasures of Seattle opening today at Seattle Art Museum. The show makes a good argument for that being true. The other half of the exhibition, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London, may be SAM’s main billing, but for my taste, the real thrills can be found here in Seattle.

Over the past 20 years, this city has accumulated off-the charts wealth and a new group of savvy collectors who are pulling in art works from the top of the world market. Not lesser pieces by famous names, but startling finds, such as Louis Finson’s jaw-dropping 1611 An Allegory of the Four Elements—a tangle of bodies that depicts earth as an elderly woman at the bottom of the heap. With in-your-face realism and figures that nearly spill from the picture plane, Finson adapts Caravaggio’s iconoclastic style to suit this dramatic allegory. A small but choice lineup of 17th- and 18th-century Spanish paintings includes a rare 1603 Juan Sánchez Cotán still life, one of only six known. Later that same year, Cotán joined a monastery and gave up still life painting for religious imagery. There’s also a group of superb Dutch still lifes on show. SAM’s European painting curator Chiyo Ishikawa points out that when she came to SAM in 1990, she knew of only one serious collector of European art in the city. This exhibition spotlights works from seven private collections, most anonymous (but we can always speculate, right?).  

Anthony van Dyck, Princess Henrietta of Lorraine Attended by a Page, 1634, Flemish, oil on canvas, 84 3/8 x 50 3/4 in. Kenwood House, English Heritage; photo courtesy American Federation of Arts.

Wealth, power, and prestige are behind much of the art we see in both parts of the European Masters exhibition, but are particularly evident in the Kenwood House paintings, many created to celebrate the sumptuous clothing and opulent lifestyles of the English aristocracy. The neoclassical villa with its art collection was donated to England by Edward Cecil Guinness (1847–1927), heir to the brewing fortune, and some 50 works on loan to SAM show off his taste in portraiture, landscape, and genre painting. Some of that uppercrust sensibility can be objectionable to the modern eye, such as Van Dyck’s 1634 Princess Henrietta of Lorraine Attended by a Page, with a black boy cringing under the hand of his grand white mistress. The painting shows off the princess’s personal power over the less privileged and reflects on British dominion. Subject matter aside, it also celebrates the magnitude of Van Dyck’s painting prowess, as England’s leading court painter of the day. The poster piece for the exhibition, though, is the moving 1665 Rembrandt self-portrait. Very modern in feeling, with its sketchy brushwork and two inexplicable large circles in the background, the artist painted a face that knows loss and anticipates his own end drawing near. There’s humor to be found, too, in some unexpectedly wacky paintings of kids and pets. Joseph of Derby Wright’s late 18th-century Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight would be the stuff of a YouTube hit these days.

European Masters is a big show with plenty to wonder at and marvel over—well worth repeat visits. On March 1, Ishikawa will talk about the exhibition at 11am in the auditorium. For other related tours and events, go to seattleartmuseum.org.

Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House
Feb 14–May 19, Seattle Art Museum, $12–$20

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