Just Because You Call it a Rembrandt Exhibit Doesn’t Make it One

I am no Art expert. I have never taken an Art Appreciation class, but I do have opinions about Art. When it comes to paintings I know what I like and have read enough about Art to discuss paintings like someone who knows what they are talking about, but there is some Art that I just don’t like or understand so when I went to see the traveling exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum recently I had some high expectations. First off the exhibit is called: Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London. The title of the exhibit might lead one to believe that somebody cleared out the Kenwood House and brought all the Rembrandt’s with them, but the title of the exhibition is a little deceptive in my opinion. The real title should have been this: One Painting by Rembrandt and a Bunch of Other Paintings Nobody Really Cares About: The Stuff the Kenwood House Won’t Really Miss. 

In an effort to fully disclose, there were lots of Rembrandt sketches there, most of them the size of a gum wrapper, but when you title an exhibit “Rembrandt…” you should be doing so because of the alphabet or because of the number of paintings. You don’t just get to name a traveling exhibit whatever you want, there has to be some honesty left in museums.

Now I like Rembrandt and a few of the other Flemish guys, and I know that he is the “master of light” and all that stuff, but most of the art from Rembrandt’s time period bores me. I usually race walk through sections of the museum with all the “dark paintings” as I call them. Sure it’s interesting to see how an artist can use color to deceive the eye into thinking there is a light source, but those paintings usually depress me a little bit as I consider how happy everybody looks to have one tiny candle lighting up their table. I end up thinking about how it must be Winter and how it probably smells like mold in the little house where everybody is gathered around this tiny candle, and then I wonder if there is a good café in the museum where I can get a warm cup of coffee.

My next beef with the exhibit is that is says: The Treasures of the Kenwood House, that would lead one to believe that the Kenwood House’s treasures are visiting Seattle, so I went expecting to see a Vermeer. I know where most of the Vermeers are in the world (yes, it is a little crazy, but he didn’t crank out a million of them like Monet) and I know that the Kenwood House has one. Why? (Warning: Nerd alert) Well I heard the author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring talking about visiting the Kenwood House while I listened to NPR, so I went to SAM expecting to see a Vermeer. Unfortunately Vermeer’s painting did not make the trip, maybe there was trouble with the painting’s Visa, or the dude running the Kenwood House figured those bumpkins in Seattle wouldn’t know the difference.

Rembrandt - Self-Portrait - WGA19221
Rembrandt – Self-Portrait

The one Rembrandt painting they did get was a good one: Portrait of the Artist. Most of us have seen it at some point, it’s the one where Rembrandt looks like he just woke up, tossed on some clothes and looked in the mirror and was not happy with what he saw. He has on a little baker’s hat, some kind of house coat, and is holding his painting gear. It is not a flattering painting, which I like because it is real. I get the feeling that Rembrandt rolled out of bed, put on his goofy hat and looked in the mirror and went, “Meh, I guess I’ll paint myself today.” I’m not sure if he is unhappy with his painting or what he looks like, but I like his attitude which seems to say, “This is as good as it’s going to get ladies. I’m a famous painter so I’m not going to get all dressed up this morning.” Almost all the rest of the paintings in the exhibit were portraits where the ladies were all dolled up looking elegant and lovely. I am not a fan of those eight foot tall paintings of rich ladies and their dogs. If I wanted that kind of Art I would turn on the Bravo channel and watch one of the 100,000 shows about housewives.

There was one other painting in the bunch that I did like, it was a Turner painting of some sailors on the beach. There were two boats on the sand and one in the middle of the breaking waves. The boat still in the water was turned up and looked to be having a tough time of it which is what I like about Turner. He gives his paintings lots of action. All of the seascape paintings I have seen by Turner are awesome, but he doesn’t get his name on the marquee.

So, if it is a rainy day and you want to see one Rembrandt painting and a bunch of forgetful stuff from the Kenwood House, I would suggest shelling out a couple bucks and checking out the SAM exhibit. If it is sunny I would suggest finding a park and pretending summer is just a few months away.

4 thoughts on “Just Because You Call it a Rembrandt Exhibit Doesn’t Make it One

  1. This is a great perspective — you have explained so clearly why you did or didn’t benefit from the exhibit, a great overview for the rest of us non-experts! I especially love the conclusion that it’s better to get out and enjoy a beautiful spring day in Seattle!


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