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Kenwood House paintings make rare stop at Milwaukee museum

Rembrandt van Rijn 'Portrait Artist' ca. 1665; oil canvas. Kenwood House English Heritage Engl| Phocourtesy American FederatiArts

Rembrandt van Rijn "Portrait of the Artist," ca. 1665; oil on canvas. Kenwood House, English Heritage, England | Photo courtesy American Federation of Arts

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‘Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough:
The Treasures of
Kenwood House,

♦ Through Jan. 13, 2013

♦ Milwaukee Art Museum,
700 Art Museum Drive, Milwaukee

♦Tickets: $15, $12 students, seniors and military personnel and free for children 12 and younger


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Updated: December 26, 2012 6:11AM

On a ridge adjacent to Hampstead Heath, a spacious park with panoramic views of central London, sits Kenwood House, one of England’s great country residences.

While the 18th Century neo-classical villa and its period furnishings merit a visit on their own, the main draw has long been a first-class group of old-master paintings.

During a renovation of the structure, which is set to reopen next year, 48 impeccably conserved works from the collection are on a four-city American tour organized by the American Federation of Arts and English Heritage.

The exhibition, titled “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London,” opened recently at the Milwaukee Art Museum and remains on view through Jan. 13.

While it might not qualify as a full-fledged blockbuster in scale or scope, it is nonetheless a major offering that is well worth the two-hour drive up Interstate 94.

Not trying to break new art historical ground, the show instead sets out to simply showcase this notable group of works, most of which have never been seen in the United States. And it does so cogently and elegantly.

Featured are significant examples by such key English painters as Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and George Romney as well as Dutch and Flemish masters like Ferdinand Bol, Aelbert Cuyp, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals.

The exhibition’s unequivocal crown jewel, which easily justifies a trip to Milwaukee on its own, is Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Portrait of the Artist” (circa 1665), painted at the peak of his powers about four years before he died.

Rembrandt painted a series of more than 40 probing, unflinchingly honest self-portraits that span virtually the entirety of his adult life, offering an intensely personal yet universal look at aging that is unparalleled in the history of art.

This example, which is given a well-deserved alcove to itself in Milwaukee, stands out for many reasons, starting with its imposing size. It is the second largest of the self-portraits, measuring 45¾ by 38¼ inches.

Unlike many of the other works in the series, Rembrandt depicts himself unmistakably as an artist, holding his palette and other accoutrements of the trade. He peers at the viewer with a confident if slightly mysterious gaze that suggests a man at ease with himself and his accomplishments. The painting has a warm, naturalistic feel, with an execution that it is at once loose and supremely assured. Noteworthy on the grayish wall in the background are two enigmatic circles that have long spurred debate over their possible symbolism.

This piece, like all the others in the exhibition, was acquired by Edward Cecil Guinness, who transformed his family’s brewing business into an international success, becoming the second richest man in England at the time of his death in 1927. He built his collection in a surprisingly short period of time, amassing nearly all of his works in 1887-91.

Unlike some famous collectors of the period who looked to the Impressionists and other artists of the time, Guinness chose to focus on traditional, time-tested paintings, many from old, cash-starved aristocratic English families. Whether through his own keen
eye or the shrewd use of advisers, he clearly knew what he was doing, often outmaneuvering American collectors such as Henry Huntington and Henry Clay Frick, who were angling for prime examples by many of the same artists.

Keeping with the prevailing taste of the Gilded Age, Guinness leaned toward portraits and landscapes, mostly eschewing the mythological, historical and religious subject matter that was more common in the art of countries like Italy.

Although the 63 paintings he bequeathed to England along with the Kenwood House and its grounds certainly suit the villa, it is interesting to note that the collector actually purchased them for his central London residence. They were not shown in their current setting until 1928 when the Kenwood House was opened as a museum.

Guinness obviously favored English artists, acquiring 36 works by Reynolds alone, and at least half of this exhibition is devoted to them. Prime examples include Gainsborough’s prototypical portrait, “Mary, Countess Howe” (circa 1764), with its wispy paint-handling and light, translucent colors.

But some of the show’s most memorable standouts are to be found among the Dutch and Flemish selections. Among them are Van Dyck’s “Princess Henrietta of Lorraine Attended by a Page” (1634), realized with the artist’s usual technical bravura, and Frans Hals’ “Pieter van den Broecke” (1633), a smiling, ruddy-faced portrait rendered with crisp, lively brushstrokes.

While such famed museums as the Louvre and Uffizi will never be surpassed, “The Treasures of Kenwood House” provides a striking reminder that artistic gems are to be found in smaller, out-of-the-way institutions as well.

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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