At the Walters, a show of light Art: Painters in the Dutch city of Utrecht, influenced by Italy and the Catholic tradition, produced marvelous works that still appeal to the imagination.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The 17th century was the great age of Dutch painting, and the kind of painting is pretty familiar: Salomon van Ruisdael's flat landscapes with cool skies; Jan Vermeer's industrious lace maker and woman pouring the milk; Frans Hals' groups of civic-minded citizens. The Dutch world was Protestant, middle-class, hard-working and domestic, and the Dutch painters recorded it so.

But not in Utrecht.

In Utrecht art, gods and goddesses cavort; religious paintings rivet the attention with dramatic fervor and contrasts of light and dark; landscapes are hilly and bathed in warm light; and the sensual and sexual aspects of human nature receive full acknowledgment.

There has never been a major exhibition on this aspect of Dutch art until the one that opens today at the Walters Art Gallery. "Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht During the Golden Age" was conceived by Walters curator of Renaissance and baroque art, Joaneath Spicer, and organized by the Walters with the cooperation of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the National Gallery in London.

It is an extraordinarily beautiful and deeply significant show. It is also one of the finest exhibits a Baltimore institution has ever organized, and one that all Baltimore simply must see.

Among other things, it's just the right size: It does justice to the subject without being exhausting. Its 74 paintings are installed in two of the Walters' grand paintings galleries on the second floor of its original 1904 building, and in the loggia surrounding the central courtyard. It's organized by subject matter -- religious paintings, contemporary life, mythology -- so that the viewer can see a subject in depth and compare like works.

One can voice a few quibbles. Despite the presence of Abraham Bloemaert's grand "The Four Evangelists" (about 1615), the show's introductory space -- with its different-sized pictures, books and text panels -- is a visual jumble. And despite Jan Baptist Weenix's superb "Dead Swan" (1650) as the very last work, the show peters out somewhat at the end.

But the exhibit (and its accompanying catalog, by Spicer and others) constitutes a real contribution to knowledge.

Utrecht differed from other Dutch cities in its close connection with Italy and the Roman Catholic tradition. So strong was the link that 1522-1523 saw the brief papacy of the Utrecht-born Adrian VI, the last non-Italian pope before the present John Paul II.

In the late 16th century the present-day Netherlands revolted against Catholic Spain and proclaimed the Dutch Republic. The controlling Protestant majority suppressed public worship by Catholics. But they continued to worship in private and to be a major presence, especially in Utrecht.

The city lies considerably to the east of such Dutch centers as Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. At the beginning of the 17th century, Utrecht's population -- about 30,000 compared with Amsterdam's 150,000 -- was about 40 percent Catholic and maintained its ties to Rome. Much patronage came from the leisured, aristocratic (and largely Catholic) upper class.

Elsewhere, the merchant class dominated with its Protestant work ethic. Similarly, the economy of Utrecht was based on the production of luxury items such as silk, while other centers emphasized more common goods such as wool.

A different art

It is hardly surprising, then, that such a culture would produce a different kind of art.

It was, above all, an art of the imagination. Religious scenes showed the lives of Christ, Mary and the saints to please Catholic patrons. Landscapes possessed topography freed from faithfulness to Dutch surroundings. Scenes from mythology and legend satisfied an upper class that wanted images of the nobility, not pictures of a woman cleaning her house.

Given Utrecht's strong ties to Rome, it was only natural that some of its finest artists would travel to Italy and come under the influence of Italian art -- especially, in the early 17th century, under the influence of Caravaggio's direct and powerful art.

When the century dawned, the predominant Utrecht style was mannerism. It was characterized by crowded canvases, elongated figures, exaggerated poses emphasizing elegance of gesture, and aesthetic artificiality. Abraham Bloemaert and Joachim Wtewael were the leading Utrecht painters of the style, and both of them have mannerist paintings in the show.

The writhing figures in Bloemaert's "Moses Striking the Rock" (1596) look as if they're taking part in some especially complicated modern ballet. Wtewael's equally artificial "Saint Sebastian" (1600) even hints at eroticism with its virtually unclothed saint in a suggestive pose. However it may have looked to viewers at the time, the painting, for all its virtuosity, cannot help eliciting a smile from modern viewers.

How different, and how much more effective, are the two other nearby paintings of St. Sebastian, by Gerard van Honthorst (about 1620-1623) and Hendrick Ter Brugghen (1625). In the first decades of the 17th century, Honthorst, Ter Brugghen, Dirck van Baburen and others traveled to Italy and came under the spell of Caravaggio.

Unlike mannerism, Caravaggio's art was one of realistic people in dramatic scenes enhanced with sharp contrasts of light and dark.

The Caravaggio connection

The Utrecht followers exhibited some differences from Caravaggio, including a greater degree of human warmth. But Spicer's juxtaposition of Honthorst's and Ter Brugghen's St. Sebastians with Wtewael's makes clear the Caravaggio connection.

Honthorst's painting contains only the figure of the saint, bathed in light, against an indeterminate background of foliage. Nothing distracts the attention from the saint, slumped unconscious, who becomes a figure of genuine pity.

Ter Brugghen's masterpiece "Saint Sebastian Attended by Irene" has a sharply diagonal composition that thrusts the painting's figures at viewers, catching them up in the emotion of the scene. Here, too, Sebastian has fainted, but around his mouth plays an expression something like ecstasy, as if prefiguring the sainthood his martyrdom will bring. And Irene, who bends over him gently removing one of the arrows, wears an expression of perfect compassion.

Ter Brugghen was Utrecht's foremost painter, a versatile artist of consummate virtuosity and the transcendent ability to capture human emotion. He's represented in the show by a dozen paintings. Whether it's the ecstasy of Sebastian, the serene acceptance of the Virgin in "The Annunciation" (1629), the recognition of inevitable death in "Melancholia" (about 1627-1628) or the slightly conspiratorial way the young man and woman glance at the viewer in "Musical Group" (about 1626-1627), Ter Brugghen's expressions possess a believability and immediacy that connect across the centuries.

Of the other leading Caravaggisti, Honthorst was a virtuoso of light, particularly light at night. Paintings such as "Denial of Saint Peter" (1620-1625) with its reflected candlelight radiating from the central face, and "A Soldier and a Girl" (about 1622), with its glowing coal and candle, earned him the Italian nickname "Gherardo delle Notti," Gerard of the Night.

Drama was Baburen's forte. His "The Mocking of Christ" (about 1622) communicates both Christ's agony and his tormentors' cruelty. Even more dramatic is his "Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan" (1623). The figure of Prometheus, chained down on his back, looks out and catches the eye of the viewer, who thus identifies with the full horror of his situation.

If Caravaggio was the foremost influence on Utrecht's figure painters, the Italian landscape itself held similar sway over other artists.

Cornelis van Poelenburch, Jan Both and Jan Baptist Weenix were among the landscapists who made the trip to Italy. Their hilly, back-lighted scenes, their grottoes and waterfalls, their occasional classical ruins set them apart from those Dutch landscapists who recorded the local countryside. And the light, as in Jan Both's "Peasants with Mules and Oxen on a Track Near a River" (1642-1643), is the warm, hazy light of Italy, not the cool, gray light of the north.

A third crucial distinction of Utrecht painting was its tolerance for human nature. This may have reflected an aristocratic rather than a middle-class attitude, a Catholic rather than a Protestant one, or a combination of the two.

Bared shoulders

Whatever the reason, a sterner moral tone prevailed elsewhere, resulting in "Vanitas" pictures condemning material pleasures. In Utrecht, on the other hand, one finds an acknowledgment of the sensual side of life. The easily recognized sexual come-on of the bared shoulder, usually female but now and then male, appears so frequently in Utrecht art that it becomes almost laughable.

Even when the subject matter is prostitution, as in Dirck van Baburen's "The Procuress" (1622), there is little sense of sermonizing. The three people in it, or at least the two younger ones, appear to be enjoying themselves with no thought of consequences. It can be argued that the old procuress was introduced to show the ephemeral nature of the beauties and pleasures of the flesh. But the picture's liveliness argues against such an interpretation. It simply doesn't look like a moralizing treatise.

These pictures imply neither a Catholic nor an aristocratic approval of sin, but merely an acknowledgment of human nature and the inevitability of human foibles.

At any rate, the sensuality of Utrecht art cannot be denied. It's perhaps most obvious in mythologizing pictures of the feats and feasts of the gods so beloved of aristocratic taste. In works such as Wtewael's "Wedding of Peleus and Thetis" (1612), the gods and goddesses bare a lot more than their shoulders and suggest that a lot more than conversation goes on at their wedding receptions.

If the 17th-century art of Utrecht has been less widely recognized than other Dutch art in recent times, it was both recognized and influential in its own time. The influence can be seen in the dramatic light of Rembrandt, and Vermeer is now rTC thought to have trained in Utrecht. When the Flemish painter Rubens visited the Dutch Republic in 1627, his first stop was Utrecht.

This exhibit, which does great credit to the Walters and Baltimore, brings this art to the fore again. It may not have the huge appeal to the popular imagination of an impressionist show, or a big-name artist such as Picasso. But like the Walters' 1995 "Pandora's Box" exhibit on women in ancient Greece, it sheds light on an important subject that will be new to most museum-goers, and does so with glorious works of art.

Art show

What: "Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht during the Golden Age"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through April 5

Admission: $8 adults, $6 seniors, $5 students, $4 ages 6 through 17

Call: 410-547-9000

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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