Thanks to a gracious Todd Herman, director of the Arkansas Arts Center, I got a tour today of the Arts Center’s bang-up “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: Treasures of Kenwood House, London” exhibition. It opens tonight to members and tomorrow to the public. Yes, it’s ticketed, but it may be the best $12 you’ll ever spend.
There is nothing like standing in front of a painting by Rembrandt. The 1665 self-portrait, made by the artist in his last years, comes from the collection of Lord Iveagh, who was simply Edward Cecil Guinness before he made a mint in the beer business and started climbing London’s social ladder in the late 19th century. The artist’s soft strokes and complex hues reveal the face of a genius. Rembrandt sits, draped in a dark jacket with red vest and with palette in hand, his face framed in light. The plain mustardy background has two arcs drawn on it; Herman said the latest interpretation of this strangely modern background is that the arcs are Rembrandt’s reference to 14th century Italian master Giotto, who was said to have won the pope’s commission by simply painting a perfect circle, suggesting that the artist believed himself to be the Giotto of his time. Yet this is a portrait of Rembrandt as a humble man, a jewel that is amazingly in Little Rock.
In fact, there is nothing quite like the exhibition in its entirety, especially to those of us whose travel abroad is limited. These 48 paintings have come to the United States while Kenwood House, which Guinness bequeathed to Great Britain, is restored. The 17th, 18th and 19th century paintings remind us that there was once a time when great art made grand scale was in demand. Like “slo-food,” this is slo-art, sumptuous work depicting the heroic and the wonderful. Today, people are too busy with their mobile phones and ipads and television to need great art, or music. Not so when Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Gainsborough worked, though only the wealthy few could afford such beautiful distractions.
Besides the Rembrandt, there are stunning full-length portraits — enormous paintings, seven feet tall and taller — of women in elegant finery or mythic costume by Gainsborough, Van Dyck, Sir Joshua Reynolds and George Romney; a rich Turner seascape; exquisite Dutch paintings of ships (including the 1630 painting of the London Bridge by Claude de Jongg); a pair of sexy Bouchers celebrating romantic love (see the two cherries dangle from the young lover’s finger); portraits of beautiful children that Herman said denote what he called the “renaissance of the child,” when they came to be viewed not as miniature adults but innocents. Reynolds’ “Mrs. Musters as Hebe” is a gorgeous painting of Sophia Musters as the cup-bearer to the gods, a portrait painted for Mr. Musters after the painting he commissioned ended up with Mrs. Muster’s lover, the Prince of Wales.
Guinness collected these paintings for his stunning home in Hempstead Health in only four years and from the same dealer, Herman said. Lucky dealer. The show will run through Sept. 8; reserve tickets at the Arts Center’s website.