Minor but superb Dutch art - and a save-the-Calder-'Circus' campaign

Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings are ideal for private collectors. They tend to be richly and beautifully painted, often delightfully anecdotal, easy to understand and appreciate, and small enough to hang comfortably on the wall of a home.

The only problem is that they are much in demand, and usually cost a great deal of money. But there are a few art lovers who are in a position to assemble some excellent collections by careful ''shopping'' and judicious buying. High on any list of such collectors, both for the size and quality of their holdings, are Mr. and Mrs. Edward William Carter.

Their collection of 31 Dutch paintings is on view at the Metropolitan Museum here - and it is as superb an exhibition of ''minor'' 17th-century Dutch paintings as I have seen in quite some time. (The exhibition was originally organized and shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.) While the great Dutch masters of the time, Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer are missing, there is a superb Jacob van Ruisdael, ''View of Grainfields With a Distant Town,'' and any number of only slightly less distinguished works by Jan van Goyn, Aelbert Cuyp, Meyndert Hobbema, Salomon van Ruysdael, Ambrosius Bosschaert, Willem Claesz, and others.

Most of the pictures on view are landscapes, still lifes, and marine paintings, with a fair number of remarkably detailed and wondrously alive city views, including some of the interiors of churches. Outstanding are the expansive and delightful ''Winter Scene on a Frozen Canal,'' by Hendrick Avercamp, and two church interiors by Emanuel de Witte.

Most of all, however, I was intrigued by Frans Post's ''Brazilian Landscape With a Worker's House.'' This painting has a remarkably 19th-century look about it, both because of its breadth of execution and its Corot-like conception and treatment of the building. Even the picture's sky seems more 19th-century French than 17th-century Dutch.

This excellent exhibition will remain on view at the Metropolitan Museum through June 20. Sailing ships in Dutch prints

A more specialized but nevertheless interesting exhibition of Dutch art is being shown at the New York Historical Society here. ''Sailing Ships in Dutch Prints'' consists of more than 90 prints on loan from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam depicting Dutch sailing ships built between 1550 and 1900. Included are woodcuts, engravings, etchings, lithographs, and a drawing or two by various anonymous and well-known printmakers including Rembrandt, Huys, Segers, van de Velde, Zeeman, and Jongkind.

Depicted are fishing boats, boats for pleasure and for official and government use, men-of-war, and great trading ships. Some of the works are exquisitely drawn and must be categorized as fine prints, while others - especially those of the 19th century - are of interest mainly because of their subject matter. The major exceptions among the latter are Jongkind's superb etchings, most especially his ''Sunset in the Port of Antwerp.''

At the New York Historical Society through May 30. Calder 'Circus'

Alexander Calder's ''Circus'' may soon lose its home at the Whitney Museum here. Unless $1.25 million can be raised by May 31 to purchase it for the Whitney, the Calder estate will have no choice but to sell it to one of several interested foreign museums for a price in excess of that first-option figure.

To prevent that happening, a ''Save the Calder Circus'' campaign has been put into effect. The loss of Calder's ''Circus'' would be a considerable one, especially for the children for whom it has been the main event at the Whitney since Calder himself placed and arranged it in the lobby there in 1976. It is also, however, of considerable art-historical importance, since its creation marked the beginning of Calder's artistic career.

Calder spent two weeks in 1925 sketching circus animals and figures, then translated those sketches into wire sculptures. For three decades he gave performances of his ''Circus' for friends and the public in Europe and the United States, acting the part of ringmaster and sound-effects man while his wife, Louisa, played circus music on a phonograph. His last complete ''Circus'' performance took place in 1961, and was recorded in ''Calder's Little Circus,'' a film by Carlos Vilardebo shown four times daily in the museum lobby.

At a press conference held to launch this campaign, co-chairman Irwin Feld urged ''children of all ages who have ever experienced the joy of the circus to send in a token of their appreciation'' to the Whitney.

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