Published: January 20, 2004
Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer
The Bruce Museum presents “Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer” in partnership with the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin. Organized by the Bruce Museum, this landmark exhibition comprises 38 Dutch masterpiece paintings drawn from European and American public and private collections. The viewing at the Bruce Museum, January 31-May 2, marks the only US showing of the exhibition, which had been on view since October 2003 at the National Gallery of Ireland.
Featured are extraordinary works by artists such as Gerard ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu and Pieter de Hooch, with one of the many highlights being the first ever public showing in Connecticut of a painting by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. In addition, the exhibition brings to Greenwich masterpieces from collections and institutions throughout the world, including from such venerable Dutch museums as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Mauritshuis in The Hague.
Since this is the most ambitious and costly exhibition ever mounted by the Bruce Museum, visitors to “Love Letters” will be charged an additional entry fee of $10 for nonmembers and $5 for museum members. Robert Bruce Circle members are free; and admission on Tuesdays remains free to all.
A 200-page catalog with full color images of all paintings in the exhibition is available in the museum store. Peter C. Sutton, executive director of the Bruce Museum and scholar of Dutch art, is the primary author, with contributions from other leading specialists.
On Saturday evening, January 31, the Bruce Museum will celebrate its “Love Letters” exhibition with an elegant, formal dinner in the museum galleries. The museum will be transformed with flowers and fabrics, in colors reminiscent of early spring in Holland. Each one of the Old Master painters in the exhibition will provide a theme for the tables of eight or ten guests.
Music will play during cocktails, which will be served starting at 7:30 pm, and guests will enjoy an exceptional dinner provided by Marcia Selden Catering. Mary Bell Case is chairing the event, which will benefit the exhibition funds of the museum. Seating is very limited and advance reservations are required. Tickets are $500 per person. For information and reservations, call Leslie McDonald at 203-869-6786, ext 329.
“Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer” examines the sudden interest among Dutch painters in scenes involving letters — their writing, dictation, delivery and reception — and relates these images to the sudden explosion in epistolary activity in Europe around the turn of the Seventeenth Century. Never before has an exhibition been organized that explored this theme exclusively, and presented such a variety and range of works to illustrate how genre painting, or scenes of everyday life, reflect important developments in Dutch history and culture.
Holland was the most literate country in Europe in the Seventeenth Century, the foremost center of publishing and the focus of a sudden fascination with the possibilities of personal communication through letters. Letters had long been used to issue public proclamations, recount mere commercial information or current events, but at this time the notion that written letters could convey private feelings and emotions captured the popular imagination and transformed private communications among individuals.
The subject of letter writing was first broached in painting around 1630 in Holland and became increasingly popular in the third quarter of the century through the masterful works of artists such as Gerard ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer. The works of these artists featured images of figures writing, reading, dictating, receiving and dispatching letters. Some of these images feature soldiers while others depict private citizens. Companion pieces represent images of ladies as the glad recipients of missives from the front or abroad. The Dutch invention of pendant paintings on the letter theme linking the sender and receiver of the letter served to underscore the reciprocity and intimacy of letters.
The exhibition catalog will investigate the contextual relationship of the letter theme to such cultural developments as the spread of literacy, the establishment of a more reliable and widespread postal delivery system, the rise of an epistolary literature and the importation and translation of letter writing manuals. From Westervaen’s translation into Dutch of Ovid’s Heroides to the multiple French and Dutch editions of Puget de la Serre’s Secretaire a la Mode (the most popular letter writing manual of the Seventeenth Century), the literature of the period attests to the allure and mystique of letter writing.
The exhibition also examines the ways in which the content of the unseen letter is subtly conveyed through such time-honored devices as the painting-within-the-painting. In Dirck Hals’s paintings, for example, a woman sits contentedly with a letter before a calm seascape, while in another work by the master the recipient is a woman who seems to sway and tear up a letter before a marine painting of rough seas. The clear implication is that one has received reassuring news while the other has received troubling news. Some letter scenes convey the idea of the vanity of letter writing, while others by Jan Steen and others use the letter as a prop in the traditional theme of the doctor’s visit to the lovesick maiden.
Some letter scenes depict highborn women tantalizingly composing letters in the privacy of their boudoirs while others depict prostitutes with letters in a bordello. Still other scenes seem to depict figures reading letters out loud, either to an unlettered audience or merely to share the pleasure of the communication. Many paintings by ter Borch, Frans van Mieris, de Hooch and Vermeer simple depict the beauty of the contemplative activity of the solitary figure reading or writing a letter. Finally, few works that depict history — painting subjects but in the guise of genre (e.g., Nicholas Knupfer’s “Sophonisba,” and Steen’s “Bathsheba”) — are included to underscore the literary associations that resonate in letter themes.
The Bruce Museum celebrates February 14 with a special Valentine’s Day treat. Special admission prices will be in effect all day and hours will be extended until 7 pm on Saturday, February 14, only.
On Valentine’s Day, visitors pay for one admission and get one free. The special discount includes admission to “Love Letters: Dutch Genre Paintings in the Age of Vermeer,” which requires a separate admission fee.
The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science is at 1 Museum Drive. For information, www.brucemuseum.org or 203-869-0376
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
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