The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a masterpiece of the Gilded Age, owes its preeminence—and institutional ambition—to the great collectors of that period. And there was nothing that a wealthy New Yorker of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries liked better, as a rule, than a Dutch painting. Not only were Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer admired by the connoisseurs of New Amsterdam, but they also suited the American taste for realism and a kind of moralizing Protestant modesty. (A magnate who placed a humble Dutch genre scene in his opulent Fifth Avenue palace had the existential waterfront covered.) Of the 174 European old-master paintings in the founding purchase of the Met, 23 were Dutch. Today, the Met owns 228 Dutch pictures, including 20 by Rembrandt and 5 by Vermeer. Its holdings in this area are easily the most important outside Europe.
“The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” will present all 228 of those pictures in roughly the order in which they entered the museum. It will be an eccentric—and for that reason fascinating—exhibition. Pictures that rarely, if ever, emerge from storage, including fakes, misattributions, and the forgotten, will hang near works of genius. That can be a godsend; there’s no better way to discern the difference between good and great. Jumbling together works by different artists will convey—in a way no retrospective does—the marvelously untidy character and breadth of a great moment in art history: Try to hold Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and van Ruisdael together in your mind’s eye. And the behind-the-scenes story of collecting will be celebrated. Rembrandt’s great portrait of the disease-ravaged Gerard de Lairesse came to the Met, for example, only because the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, presented it to his starchy trustees as “a portrait of a syphilitic,” and was rejected. The revered Vermeer, believe it or not, was once almost forgotten.
Not least, “The Age of Rembrandt” is a fine piece of institutional cunning. The Met’s curators know that the fabulously rich collectors from our own Gilded Age will visit this show that honors their predecessors. As these collectors pass the Rembrandts, they may be inspired to ask themselves not just what the meaning of life might be—anybody can do that—but “What have I done for the Met lately?”