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The Drama of a Kitchen Maid

By M. S. Mason / July 20, 1992

A TRAVELING exhibition of great works of art from a distinguished institution opens all kinds of doors to the imagination for the viewer. That's one of the reasons museums do them. It is one thing to see a Velazquez painting in a reproduction, but it is another thing to stand in its presence.

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This, of course, is a truism about art in general. Whether it is dance, theater, music, painting, or sculpture, the work of art loses a lot in mere mechanical reproduction. Sometimes what is lost is a layer or two of meaning. Sometimes what is lost is the opportunity to respond to a work of art as deeply as the viewer has the heart to do so (and the work merits).

The Art Institute of Chicago is currently hosting a terrific traveling exhibit from the National Gallery of Ireland. "Master European Paintings" is an eclectic show offering 44 mostly exquisite examples of 15th, 16th, and 17th century master craftsmen's work. The paintings roam over mythical, religious, genre and historical subjects, formal portraiture, and landscape. There's scope here, all right, and room for the viewer's own reflections on the past, on truth and beauty, and on the pursuit of meaning i n art.

I cannot find a real thread of meaning - either aesthetic or moral - that leads easily from one piece to the next as I look at the work, except this: Once again, I feel among so many of the pieces that effort of the artist to reify profound truths, to participate in something great, or to picture forth what he understands of the nature of reality.

Not all these works are profound. But most still express something perhaps more scarce in our own time. "Spring and Summer" (1640) by Bernardo Strozzi is an over-door painting featuring two lovely, full-figured women as the personification of summer and spring. They carry the harvest of their respective seasons, their hair bedecked with flowers and wheat in exquisite disarray. They represent a robustness and joy in life that is neither sentimental nor decadent. As airy as the subject is, the light that e manates from this magnificently painted picture still manages to touch on some deep appreciation of nature.

The many portraits of the exhibition reveal as much of the sitter's character (even when they may have been meant to flatter) as they do of the artist's skill. Sir Joshua Reynolds's sumptuous portrait of "The Earl of Bellamont" (1773) features the vain seducer cloaked in pink satin over white, a plumed hat jauntily astride his arrogant head. The viewer's eye sweeps around the canvas, lingering on the rich details of costume and drapery, but all the finery of Solomon could not disguise the sensualism and hubris of this handsome strutting peacock.

In sharp contrast to the earl is Willem Drost's "Bust of a Man Wearing a Large-Brimmed Hat" (c. 1654). A student of Rembrandt, Drost captured his sensitive subject with the skill of the master, his golden light appearing to radiate from within the figure. The man seems to me to be intelligent, perceptive, perhaps touched by sorrow or some burden of the world, his beautiful eyes both frank and sad. He is costumed in some made-up finery, not of the period, possibly a studio prop such as Rembrandt himself o ften used.

In "Portrait of a Gentleman and His Two Children" (c. 1565) by Giovan Battista Moroni, the subject embraces his little ones in paternal care. The older girl watches the viewer with her father's steady gaze, her toddler sibling looks to her. There is such tenderness in this solemn family, some scholars have conjectured that it might be a self-portrait of the artist with his children. (The name of Moroni's hometown, Albino, is inscribed in the portrait.) But whoever it is, his soul shines through him.

Jacob Van Ruisdael's "The Castle of Bentheim" (1653) proposes a realistic-looking landscape that at no time actually existed. The masterly piece was painted when the artist was only 24 years old. He placed a real castle on an unreal mount and felled a tree in the foreground (a Dutch symbol for "vanitas" or the temporality of things), creating a heroic landscape.

Thomas Gainsborough's more natural (if luscious and dramatic) landscape of chalk pits near Suffolk borrows from Dutch 17th-century landscape painting. But its simple beauty speaks more to real experience than does the formal elegance and artifice of so many of the paintings.