Long before Thomas Kinkade trademarked the title “Painter of Light” for himself, there was Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. Comparing the two would make most art aficionados howl, and rightly so — a revered 17th-century master of realism and a critically reviled, living American master of dreamy bathos?
Yet both found an audience among the middle class; both experienced wild commercial success within their own lifetimes; both use the beauty and power of light to create dramatic heft in their works.
The comparisons pretty much end there. To get an eyeful of Kinkade’s work, head to your nearest mall storefront gallery. For a taste of Rembrandt, until now one would’ve best booked a ticket to the Rijkmuseum in Amsterdam, which houses several of his major works, including the massive — and massively famous — “The Night Watch.”
As of today, though, all that’s necessary is a quick trip to the downtown Phoenix Art Museum. While the Rijkmuseum undergoes renovation and restoration, it’s touring several pieces from its collection to three U.S. museums, with Phoenix between stints in Dayton, Ohio, and Portland, Ore. (“The Night Watch” will stay home: At 11 feet by 14 feet, it’s simply too huge.)
The show, “Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art,” includes 14 pieces by Rembrandt and 76 by his contemporaries in the fine and decorative arts. It runs through May 6.
Coming on the heels of the Phoenix Art Museum’s recent $50 million expansion, the exhibit is considered a “real coup,” says Tom Loughman, curator of European art.
“The range, I think, is really stunning,” he says. “It’s the greatest collection of Dutch Golden Age work not just here in Arizona but the American Southwest. It’s really A-class stuff.”
The Dutch art exhibit is opening halfway into the run of one on 17th-century Italian art from the Naples region. Which thrills Diane Wolfthal, art history professor at Arizona State University with an emphasis on baroque-period European art.
“This is a important for Phoenix,” says Wolfthal.
Of the Rembrandt pieces on exhibit, the eight etchings and six paintings include his “Self Portrait as the Apostle St. Paul” and the only still-life he ever created. The exhibit, Loughman says, encompasses much of the artist’s ever-evolving style throughout his long lifetime.
Today, Rembrandt is known mostly for his mythological and biblical themes and his self-portraits. (In his day, his etchings were more popular.) A sense of drama thrives in much of his work — imbued in subtle expressions, bold swaths of light against inky dark, a natural but heightened realism.
While many of his contemporaries at the time were creating polished, detailed works of beauty and architecture for the Netherlands’ burgeoning business class, Rembrandt was a kind of iconoclast.
“He’s very introspective,” Wolfthal says. “He’s very interested in drama. He gives you a sense that something’s going on inside these people; they feel, they think. And his self-portraits, the fact that he strips himself bare ... it’s not the public face, it’s the private face that we can see. It’s a very different ideal.”
More than Rembrandt
Yet Wolfthal — who has no connection to the touring exhibit, she says, other than it inspiring a symposium on 17th-century Dutch economy and its effect on culture, which she’s hosting in late March at the museum — says attendees shouldn’t slight the other works for the sake of admiring Rembrandt’s.
There is too much to be gleaned from pieces by Frans Hals (whose painting of Nicolaes Hasselaer, in the exhibit, showcases a sadder phase of his work), Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch and the others in the exhibit, along with examples of glasswork and sculpture and Delft pottery. “Rembrandt will bring in the crowds. He’s the marquee name,” she says. “He’s kind of the brand name, but there are many more interesting objects.”
They were artists working in a thriving capitalist economy, when the Dutch were colonizing and trading across the globe, when a new monied class was being born and looking to art for status and prestige.
Thomas Kinkade, one imagines, would have fit right in.
The “Rembrandt” exhibit, then, aims to provide more than beautiful masterpieces. Loughman hopes attendees come away with a deeper sense of the place and time that spawned the works.
“For those of us who are interested in this art,” Wolfthal says, “this is really something exciting.”
>> 'Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art’ runs though May 6 at 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, closed Mondays. $18 ($8 for children). (602) 307-2090 or phxart.org.