It is not often one is able to stand in the presence of almost indisputable masterpieces, but the Cincinnati Art Museum is offering just this opportunity with Northern Baroque Splendor. The exhibit consists of 64 Dutch and Flemish paintings from the prestigious Hohenbuchau Collection, a bounty of 17th-century marvels from Vienna’s Liechtenstein: The Princely Collections museum, which is on a brief tour in the U.S. Cincinnati will be the collection’s second and last stop.
Baroque art is recognized by its embellished detail and dramatic lighting — choices that regularly result in vibrant, emotive gestures. Shown together for the first time in the U.S., the Hohenbuchau Collection — originally assembled to adorn a hunting lodge — thoroughly forms a representative portrait of the Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish art. Genre painting, naturalism, landscape, collaboration and other themes typified by the Golden Age structure the exhibit, which includes masterworks by painters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Gerard van Honthorst, one of the Utrecht “Caravaggisti.” Many of the artists made pilgrimages to Italy, returning with painting techniques like chiaroscuro, a high-contrast lighting effect, and the use of Italianate landscape styles, characterized by idealized pastures and subtle hues.
The oil paintings are ordered more or less chronologically — a curatorial move that makes it easy for viewers to follow the trajectory of the stylistic and thematic changes within the epoch. Domestic scenes, empathetic portraits, untamed landscapes, roiling seascapes and still-lifes unfurl in the cornucopia of the exhibit, captured luminously in the museum’s Western & Southern Galleries.
The collection has a multitude of genre paintings that depict everyday events, either in public or domestic environments. In Honthorst’s evanescent painting “The Steadfast Philosopher,” a woman, naked from the waist up, attempts to seduce a robed scholar, quill in hand, who looks at an hourglass at the edge of the canvas. In “A Laughing Bravo with his Dog” — a personal favorite — painter Hendrick ter Brugghen seizes the pure joy of a master being licked by his dog. Paintings like these often seem accessible and simple on first viewing, but leave a changing mental aftertaste with subsequent pondering. With the Dutch tradition of including ample allusion, a single work may easily allow for many interpretations.
Unique in the display are 10 paintings created collaboratively between painters with different strengths: One artist would paint the figures while the other would tackle the landscape, as in works made by Joos de Momper and Jan Brueghel the Younger. These rare pieces demonstrate an approach that is much less common today and highlight the artists’ ultimate priority — the art itself.
The still-lifes in the exhibit are their own inspiring experience. The grandeur of decadent banquets is caught in rich light, goblets gleaming and lemon rinds dangling in spirals. Hunting trophies are depicted ceremoniously, dead hares and the plump, iridescent plumage of birds among the game preserved elegantly on canvas. Impossible floral arrangements and sottoboscos, or “forest still-lifes,” offer glimpses into the inventiveness of the Northern Baroques, who helped develop the still-life into a genre all its own. An informative visual aid from the museum is also present to help illuminate and decipher the symbolic imagery hidden in each work.
Those expecting little imagination in these perhaps-antiquated modes of painting will be surprised by the creativity and emotive gestures they evoke. In the breathlessly titled “Still Life With Fruit, Dead Game, Vegetables, a Live Monkey, Squirrel and Cat” by Flemish painter Frans Snyders, a lavish abundance of colors and detail unfolds, strangely alive, as though at any second the monkey, grabbing at a basket of fruit, will leap within the canvas.
This is the collection’s last visit to America for what will probably be a very long time, so this may be the last time to see it intact and as it was originally assembled (unless you travel to the Lichtenstein Museum, where it is on permanent loan). Of course, these paintings are not all timeless, but this makes them that much more important to witness — as windows into the remote cultures of 17th-century Europe in all of their splendor.
NORTHERN BAROQUE SPLENDOR is on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Sept. 20. More info: cincinnatiartmuseum.org.