Realism is the most celebrated quality of 17th-century Dutch painting. Vermeer shows us the city of Delft or a comfortable living room as the camera might have seen it; Rembrandt's self-portraits persuade us that they are telling the truth about their subject's life, from youth through old age.
But realism is not all the Dutch have to offer. The first American museum exhibition devoted to painting done in the city of Utrecht, currently on view in San Francisco, shows us a more imaginative side of old Dutch art, greatly admired in its own time.
Minutely detailed interior scenes are characteristic of such painters as Terborch, de Hooch, and Vermeer. But Hendrick ter Brugghen's "The Concert" (above) presents his musicians against a vague indoor background. This was the norm in Utrecht. At its height, the Utrecht taste did not run to material or social realism as subject matter in itself. Where Hals or Rembrandt would paint the governing board of a poorhouse or a guild, their counterparts in Utrecht would paint a banquet of the Greek gods.
In style, the city leaned toward the Italianate. Utrecht was the most Roman Catholic city in the Netherlands, so many of the city's art patrons had religious reasons to travel in Italy or keep in touch with Italian culture.
Paintings of middle-class sobriety or lower-class drunkenness offer part of the truth about the culture. By contrast, the artists of Utrecht brought together the stylized beauty of Italian Renaissance and baroque painting with the painstaking finish of Dutch craftsmanship. We cannot hope to revive the 17th-century connoisseur's taste, but with the help of exhibits like this we can broaden our understanding of Dutch art.
"Masters of Light: Dutch Painters in Utrecht During the Golden Age," was organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Walters Art Gallery, in Baltimore, and London's National Gallery. It is at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco through Nov. 30. It will travel to Baltimore and London.