Relations are better today between France and Holland than they were in 1795. That was the year the French invaded the Netherlands, carrying off many of the country's finest artworks to be exhibited, as proud war plunder, in the Louvre.
Not until after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 were most of these treasures returned, about 125 of them to the Royal Picture Gallery in The Hague. They were to form the nucleus of what has grown into one of the finest collections of Dutch and Flemish 17th-century paintings anywhere -- the Mauritshuis.
Now, thanks to a rather more constructive arrangement between the two countries, the Grand Palais in Paris is host (through June 30) to a creamy selection of 60 exclusively Dutch paintings from this museum, which is currently closed for renovation, due for completion in 1987.
Some 40 Mauritshuis paintings have already toured the United States, Canada, and Japan. The Paris exhibition looks like a grand finale before the Mauritshuis once again opens its doors in The Hague.
Eugene Fromentin, one of the many 19th-century French admirers of Dutch art, observed that you can get a very accurate idea of the character of this art by just strolling around the Louvre. Evidently, though, the Parisian thirst for great Dutch art is not so easily quenched. And anyway, Fromentin would not have understood the attraction of two of the paintings here -- ``View of Delft'' and ``Head of a Girl,'' by Vermeer. Strangely, Fromentin had no particular liking for this painter with the incomparably tranquil sensibility and astonishing eye.
``View of Delft'' is so often reproduced that a face-to-face encounter with the original is quite surprising. Kenneth Clark wrote that it renders atmosphere with a ``sheer accuracy'' that ``has never been surpassed.'' But the French writer Thor'e-B"urger, whose name is forever associated with the rediscovery of Vermeer, did, in fact, criticize it for its ``excess.'' Its realism, he felt, took the painting of a town too close to the actual building of a town, with trowel and mortar.
From a distance, the picture's tonal truth, its authenticity as a representation, is magical. The large sky is uncannily real and deep. Close up, however, the application of paint, particularly in the buildings, is unexpectedly approximate -- and not particularly attractive. But then, its function is not to carry out some childish notion that every brick must be painted in order to be realistic. It is used as a painter's tool to suggest, quite hurriedly, the visible world.
Paulus Potter's enormous painting ``The Young Bull'' has been hung near ``View of Delft.'' Fromentin wrote tellingly about this picture, not uncritically, but with an understanding of its simple, nonartificial strengths. Again, it is Dutch ``realism'' -- but different from Vermeer's. Vermeer subordinated everything in his paintings, however tangible, to a concentration on its purely visual qualities. What mattered to him was the light-information taken in by the eye. Potter's bull, by contrast, is a physical tour de force, an attempt to make a painting no less mammoth, substantial, and tactile than its big, solid subject. There still seems something almost outrageous about this, but Potter succeeded triumphantly: The great bull is here in all its sinew, horn, and hide. Past French commentators, however, were not all impressed. Th'eophile Gautier wrote that ``this thick-set, downy animal'' could not ``move him very greatly.''
Given the characteristic limits of Dutch 17th-century art, this exhibition (thankfully not too large) has been selected to show how varied this school was. Dutch painting is not all sumptuous and floriferous still lifes (though there are excellent examples here). It is not exclusively Avercamp skaters on frozen ponds (though his boisterous, amusing ``Pleasures of Winter'' is included). Domesticity is not a sole concern -- though Gerard ter Borch's ``A Mother Fine-combing the Hair of Her Child'' is a specially gentle, maternal exercise in this genre. The chosen paintings show art of profound humanity (for example, the two nicely contrasting self-portraits by Rembrandt -- one young, one old); they include seascapes, landscapes, society narratives; they express the allegorical, the satirical, the social comment; they have a relish for pleasure and luxury, a clean appreciation of ecclesiastical architecture, a joie de vivre (Hals's ``Boy Laughing'' is irresistible); and, finally, these artists were absorbed by the close observation of natural creatures -- butterflies, sheep, tortoises, frogs, birds.
One of the most charming pictures in the Mauritshuis is Carel Fabritius's ``Goldfinch'' -- and to see it firsthand is extraordinarily revealing. It is a little work of dignity, sensitivity, and aplomb. It is quite exceptional of course, but it is by no means the only painting in the exhibition to indicate the general delight of Dutch 17th-century art in natural minutiae. Like all masterpieces, the ``Goldfinch'' made its appearance in a sympathetic, rich context. The pleasure of this selection from the Mauritshuis collection is that it wonderfully demonstrates just such a milieu.