The gleam of DUTCH SILVER

Silver -- the word suggests everything from church bells to jewelry stores to the Big Board on Wall Street. The precious metal is third only to platinum and gold in cost, even after its recent decline in value. But it is important to see silver in the context of its art potential.

"Masterpieces of Dutch Silver," at the Museum of Fine Arts here through June 22, lets you revel in the beauty and study the fine points of the work of some of the world's greatest silver artist who were active between 1580 and 1830 in the Netherlands. These silversmiths had considerable impact on the work of their opposite numbers in other countries.

From our point of view today, the delight of the exhibition is in the superb craftsmanship and what it tells us about the Dutch ability through history to produce art of the highest quality. The display is arranged chronologically, and the simpler pieces -- some might call them the high points of the show -- come later in the sequence.

The first impression is of a massed gleam of silver vessel after silver vessel -- 168 of them -- overlaid with chased, engraved, gadrooned, or other decoration. Elaboration (one is tempted to say overelaboration) everywhere. But gradually the sheer magnificence of the work on view, the exquisite detail of scenes and figures and trailing vines, the craftsmanship that makes silver as malleable as clay, becomes apparent.

At the end of June the selective collection shown here will be separated and returned to the many museums which lent the items. So this is the only opportunity to catch it intact before it leaves the United States. It has not traveled widely, having been seen only at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, and Toledo , Ohio, before coming to Boston.

The period 1580-1830 or thereabouts was chosen for historical reasons as well as for a feeling of cohesion among the works produced in those years.

The first date, 1580, marked the beginning of the work following passage of the Treaty of Utrecht, which led to the formation of the state called the Netherlands. In the years that followed, as the extensive and detailed catalog to the present exhibition notes, the Dutch lands were woven "into a cultural power the like of which was scarcely known elsewhere." Silver, long a mark of a family's power and prestige, was one of the foremost examples of that culture. After 1830 a French influence on silvermaking in Holland became apparent.

This then was the period when artists such as Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Vermeer, and others were painting. Some of their works included the silver made by their country's famous silversmiths -- the van Vianens (brothers Paulus and Adam and Adam's son Christiaen), for instance, found their works, especially a ewer made by Adam, depicted by Rembrandt and his circle. Where possible, some of these paintings are now on view with the silver at the MFA.

Michiel Esselbeeck's cup and cover in parcel gilt (silver with highlights gilded for contrast), mounted in a case by itself in the middle of one of the galleries, bears classical figures, leaping goats, putti, flowers, children, the whole thing surmounted by an eagle which is the heraldic emblem of the town of Deventer, holding a shield enameled with the arms of the Van Boekholt family. It is just under three feet high, or 90cm.

That might not recommend itself today as a decorative piece for the home, but many other of the exhibits would. For instance Christiaen van Vianen's dish with its raised wavy rim that forms two dolphins meeting at one end, and so molded that water is apparently flowing into the bowl where another dolphin is seen cavorting. This member of the Van Vianens worked in London and it is thought a ewer once went with the dish. This is a remarkable piece, the worksmanship lending a soft roundness to the forms, not always to be seen in this metal. It was chased from a single plate of silver, and is thought to have been made at the commission of Charles I.

In the late 18th century come the simpler pieces where the silver is enjoyed for its own sake with perhaps some beading around the edge as the only decoration. Two cake boxes, one round, one oblong, by Diederik W. Rethmeyer, dating from 1791, illustrate this trend. A semioviform chestnut vase by Jan Smit, also made in 1791, has delicate sweeping handles that follow the curve of the bowl, a line reversed in the decoration of the stand. The eye surfeited with elaboration rests gratefully on such pieces. But the animal forms, shells, coats of arms, trailing vines, which cover every available surface on so many articles, did display the skill of these silversmiths.

Pieces which are accessible to a viewer's affection because of their modest size and exquisite workmanship include a potpourri bowl with openwork cover, some candlesticks -- plain and fancy -- a cruet or two, an inkstand with feet of twigs, its ink bottle and sand box formed like melons, and with a pear-shaped bell.

Among the candlesticks and on several wall candelabra the facile skill of the Dutch silversmiths is apparent. they enjoyed fashioning spirals that catch errant gleams of light from variant angles. One, Adrianus Beeldemaker, even formed a table piece, a castor, entirely of spirals in 1757.

Conversely, another artist, Diederik L. Bennewitz, in 1806 made a castor so plain it might have been fashioned today by one of our period's most spartan designers. It is a simple cylinder with rounded pierced top and a cover bearing a coat of arms. No other decoration whatsoever. Its tactile appeal is immediate.

Many of the pieces shown at the MFA were made for church use or for presentation, and, as the catalog makes clear, a citizen's standing was often underscored by the silver he owned.

This gathering together of Dutch silver was made at the initiative of Robert Mandle, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, whose special interest is this subject.

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