Once upon a time, the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) used to show a ticketed exhibition roughly once every 18 months. The past two-and-a-half years, however, have seen four such exhibitions, including a comprehensive display of the works of Norman Rockwell, a passionate show of Eugene Delacroix paintings, and most recently an exhibit of the arms, armor and woodblock prints of Edo period Japan.
The fourth such exhibition has a lot to live up to, since it follows exhibitions featuring the most popular American artist of all time, the leader of the French Romantic school and a forerunner of Impressionism, and a highly entertaining show of samurai artifacts. But Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and Their Contemporaries, opening Jan. 31 and running through April 26, is just as intriguing in a subtler way.
The exhibition features 40 small-scale oil paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, when the newly independent Netherlands became one of the most powerful nations in Europe. The works in Small Treasures include household names like Rembrandt and Vermeer, but the real attraction of the show is the unique intimacy of the small-scale art, revealing the personalities both of individual people and of a culture at the height of its glory.
The painters in Small Treasures were drawing on a unique tradition, according to Robert Schindler, the museum’s curator of European art. Instead of egg-based paints, Schindler said, the Dutch prioritized the use of oil-based paints, which “allowed artists to have a range of different options at their disposal. You could apply them very thinly, with underlying paint layers showing through. The level of detail that you could achieve was greater. There was also interest in showing their surroundings: Dutch interiors, the appearance of their countryside in landscape paintings, depicting fabrics.
“That interest in detail, meticulous finish, mastering oil painting, the interest in recording surroundings – actual things in your environment – all of that carries through into the 17th century,” Schindler continued. “There is a newly found variety in terms of subject matter. What Dutch Golden Age paintings are really well known for is genre painting on an unprecedented scale. … It really gets going in the 17th century with all these painters showing peasant scenes, tavern scenes, Dutch interiors, women tending to their children, cleaning their houses, etc.”
That wide range of subject matter – as well as the small army of artists who were able not merely to find work, but also to enrich themselves during the period – is indicative of the Netherlands’ thriving economy in the 17th century. With new social classes came the resources to try and preserve pieces of family histories; portraits tried to capture not just a person’s likeness, but the essence of their personality.
“Portraits, of course, show people,” Schindler said. “In some cases they were passed down in families through the centuries. They serve as memorials to loved ones or deceased family members. At a time when there’s no photography, a painting is the one way to record the likeness of someone else.
“But it’s not just about physical resemblance,” Schindler added. “Frans Hals was probably the greatest portrait painter in Haarlem…of the period. And he was known at the time for being able to bring his sitters to life through paint and brush. It goes beyond physical appearance, giving a sense of who that person is and developing a personality. Going through the show, there are a lot of portraits, but there’s so much variation, there are so many intriguing things to look at.”
The most intriguing things are the ways in which these people who lived centuries ago seem to come to life again within their portraits. William Faulkner wrote that, “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” Particularly in Vermeer’s Girl in the Red Hat, Hals’ portraits and in the many self-portraits on display in the show, these people move again, with all the virtues and vices that come with humanity on full display.
They also reveal a great deal about the energy and wealth of their culture. Social standing, economic class, character traits and more are all in full view, often depicted very self-consciously. Gerrit Dou, one of Rembrandt’s students, “shows himself in his very best clothes: hat, overcoat with the fur lining, very expensive leather clothes,” Schindler pointed out. “This is something that he has achieved by way of his profession, his painting. And you learn about his profession in the background of the painting: there’s an easel in the background.”
The works in Small Treasures are indeed small, in the sense that their subject matter doesn’t feature any historical figures crossing the Alps or the Rubicon. But the content of the exhibition is only truly small if you aren’t interested in people – in their eccentricities, in their emotions, in their pretensions. Because above all else, Small Treasures is a show for people who are fascinated by other people, who never tire of the surprises we hold for one another.
“Small doesn’t mean it’s not important,” Schindler said. “I think this show perfectly illustrates that. If you bring some time and an open mind, and you’re willing to take your time investigating standing in front of a painting, you’ll discover really great, fun things.”
Small Treasures will open to the public on Jan. 30 with a 6-9 p.m. opening reception called “Small Paintings, Big Party!” Tickets to the party are $25 for non-members. Admission to the exhibition alone is $12. For more information, call (205) 254-2565 or visit artsbma.org.