The legacy of Peter the Great

THESE two vivid and beautiful paintings - Rembrandt's ``Flora'' and Van Dyck's ``Self-Portrait'' - are among 51 Dutch and Flemish masterpieces from the Hermitage in Leningrad now on view in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and will be shown at the Chicago Art Institute in July. Canvasses from the American museums will concurrently be shown at the Hermitage and at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, part of a great cultural exchange among four cities. There have been a few exhibits between the Soviet Union and the United States since the Russian Revolution, but the present undertaking is on a grander, more comprehensive scale.

Other Hermitage pictures the world has been able to see in the original, outside the USSR, are those in the National Gallery in Washington, the gift of Andrew Mellon. In 1930-31, during the depth of the depression, the then secretary of the Treasury purchased 21 pictures from the Hermitage, for $7 million, at that time an immense sum.

The Soviets were in dire need of money, and so were a great many people in the West - in the circumstances the transaction was not bruited about. A few years later, however, the matter received a great deal of publicity from a court case, in which the government brought suit against Mellon, claiming that he owed it a vast amount of money in unpaid taxes, that these very pictures had come in duty-free only because he had said that they were for the nation. Years passed; the public never saw the pictures. The defense protested that the intent remained, but that there was no gallery in which to show them. Mellon was enormously helped by the testimony of the brilliant Joseph Duveen, whose artful (in both senses) statements did a great deal to make his case plausible.

In the end, with Duveen's eager support, the National Gallery was built, and the pictures are there for all to see. The Hermitage ones included Raphael's ``Alba Madonna'' and his ``St. George and the Dragon,'' Perugino's ``Crucifixion With Saints,'' Botticelli's ``Adoration of the Kings,'' and Titian's ``Venus With a Mirror.''

The exhibit of Hermitage paintings is of unsurpassed quality in the field of Dutch and Flemish art. It contains pictures that also hold a particular sentimental interest for the Russians because of young Peter the Great's experiences in the Low Countries and his affection for their paintings. He bought some of them then - three centuries ago - and these formed the beginnings of the great collection at the Hermitage.

During the 18th century, this collection was substantially increased by Catherine the Great, who aspired to make Russia the equal of any other civilized nation in its galleries and museums. Agents were employed to purchase whole collections as well as individual works of art - pictures, sculpture, objects. The policy continued through the 19th century, making the Hermitage one of the richest treasuries in the world - and, happily, one of the best maintained.

When Rembrandt painted ``Flora,'' in 1634, he was not yet 30, and his bride Saskia, whose likeness it is, was 21. She was the daughter of the burgomaster of Leeuwarden, and he was to paint her many times - as a shepherdess, as a girl in a straw hat, as a bride. This portrait was intended to show her as a shepherdess, a fashionable guise at the time. But in the end he chose to have her represent Flora, the Roman goddess of spring, crowned with flowers, blossoms in her hand. She stands before us, modest and gentle, her head bowed, in spirit much more a shepherdess than a pagan goddess, bathed in light, a true Rembrandt.

The great Protestant illustrator of the Bible tended throughout his work to convey a Scriptural sense, and this very picture was indeed once listed in the Hermitage records as ``The Young Jewess'' or ``The Jewish Bride.'' It was suggested that she represents Esther. Because of Holland's religious toleration, the country had become a haven for refugees, including many Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. Rembrandt, as we know, delighted in painting these people with their rich dark coloring and expressive looks, that were such a contrast to the Nordic Dutch.

The illumination that floods the scene, the tenderness of Rembrandt's treatment of his first wife, her sweetness, and the inspired painting of the dress, are another revelation of this master's genius: We are silenced by its touching, penetrating quality.

The Van Dyck self-portrait is a splendid work, but it does not move us in this way. This artist, whose portraits of the nobility would become models of their kind, had come to feel himself one of them, and in the picture, executed in the late 1620s or early '30s (about the same time as the ``Flora''), depicts himself as 10 years younger than he actually was - an understandable weakness, but one of which Rembrandt would have been incapable. Van Dyck has dressed himself with an elegant negligence, ``a sweet disorder in the dress,'' as his contemporary Herrick has it. The satin jacket is only partly fastened, thus displaying his gleaming shirt to more advantage; his ability to paint textiles was a forte with him, as with most portraitists. In the background is a broken column; the evening sky glows, enhancing the romantic mood of the picture.

The artist has idealized himself, with those long, aristocratic hands and abundant russet hair, but there is much more here than the study of a successful and rather vain young man. The face is able, sensitive, and ambitious, done with consummate art. The Van Dyck who looks out at us seems to have been intended to suggest a dreamy attitude, in keeping with the background, but the penetrating eyes belie any such intent - the quick, observant glance will miss nothing, while there is an inward gaze unmistakably that of the creative artist.

These two portraits of young, happy, flourishing Netherlanders (one Dutch, one Flemish) are presented at a period when they were joyous and fulfilled. Natural, realistic, graceful, full of life, they contrive to bring us close to that wonderful period, a Golden Age of Painting: Three and a half centuries are no barrier, the youthful Saskia and the brilliant Van Dyck speak to us, we understand each other without difficulty.

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