Masters of the canvas
Kenwood House collection visits Milwaukee Art Museum

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“Princess Henrietta of Lorraine Attended by a Page,” oil on canvas, by Anthony van Dyke. -PHOTO:Courtesy American Federation of Arts

The Milwaukee Art Museum is the second stop for a tour of 48 paintings from the historic Kenwood House outside of London. While the building, a masterpiece of neoclassical elegance, undergoes restoration, the art is taking a working vacation. It is an exquisitely charming guest in Milwaukee. 

The paintings are part of what is known as the Iveagh Bequest, given to the British nation by Edward Cecil Guinness, first Earl of Iveagh. If that surname conjures up visions of a frothy pint of dark beer, you are quite right. His great-grandfather founded the Guinness brewery.

However, his prospects in life were not as certain as one might expect. The exhibition catalog says, “As the third son, Edward Cecil stood to inherit neither a title nor an estate nor a family fortune. … His older brothers and sister fulfilled their social ambitions by marrying into the Irish aristocracy, but Edward Cecil set his sights far beyond Dublin.” Showing considerable business savvy, he acquired control of the family company. In 1886, he took it public and, with this fortune, turned to other pursuits, including collecting art. 

The sorts of painting especially popular with well-to-do art aficionados of the time included aristocratic portraits. Even though buyers might not have any relation to the subjects, the paintings were prized for the cachet of the artists’ reputations and the glow of social status that conferred on the new owner. Guinness’ buying spree began in earnest in the late 1880s, as he snatched up sought-after works by Dutch and Flemish masters such as Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Anthony van Dyke, along with English paintings by Gainsborough, Reynolds and others. 

At MAM, the famed Rembrandt self-portrait is shown in its own alcove, like a mini-exhibition within the larger scope of the show. The painting depicts the artist at around 60 years old, a virtuoso in his life’s work. The translucent lines splayed across his body are the implements of his trade – brushes, a maul stick and palette. Expressive yet concise, this series of symbols communicates what Rembrandt knew best. 

Rembrandt’s face, however, is a locus of change. The surface is almost otherworldly. It seems like something that accumulated over time rather than a single painting by one man. It has been speculated that the painting is unfinished, though this is not certain.

Circles in the background add to the mystery. One theory is they were eventually going to be painted as maps. Another theory, more widely disseminated, is that they reflect an old story, tracing back to ancient Greece, that the evidence of an artist’s expertise was in the execution of a perfect circle.

A contemporary of Rembrandt, also famed for panache with a paintbrush, was Frans Hals. The exhibition includes his portrait of Pieter van den Broecke – a traveller, cloth merchant and one of the first Dutchman on record to have sampled the then-exotic beverage coffee.

Hals paints this worldly man with bravado. His eyes twinkle, his lips are pursed as though sharing a joke. Hals’ paint handling makes this painting exciting. Thick, skittering slashes of paint form the hands, and dashes and slashes make up lacy collars and cuffs, part of the fashion of the day. 

The second half of the exhibition largely focuses on British artists. Artistic rivals Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough are well-represented.

Gainsborough was an adventurous upstart. In 1759 he moved to Bath, England, in hopes of improving his painting career by attracting a fashionable clientele for portraiture. He succeeded, and one stunning example is “Mary, Countess Howe.” While her husband was being treated for gout, she was having her portrait done.

She is a commanding figure with a clear and steady gaze, glistening in lush pink satin, her bloodless white flesh appearing sculptural against an ominous sky. She lifts her diaphanous skirts and lace with a bare hand, her other hand still sheathed and holding the other glove. This is a small detail, but is meant to relieve the sense of formality. It shows that she is comfortable, yet still a formidable, important figure, which was on a par with her social ambitions. 

In contrast, Reynolds’ paintings often presented society ladies in the guise of goddesses or other figures of flattering mythology. The most sensual of these is “Kitty Fisher as ‘Cleopatra’ Dissolving the Pearl.” This plays on a famous story of Cleopatra and her amorous designs on Mark Anthony. To impress the Roman, she dropped a large pearl in wine, dissolved it, and then drank it.

Kitty Fisher was a famous courtesan in the London scene, a modern femme fatale with similar powers of seduction. When these paintings were shown during their day, exhibition visitors would have recognized the contemporary figures – aristocrats and actresses alike – and the tangled stories of scandal and romance attached to them. 

While the taste for celebrity gossip was not new, the depiction of children in art was. Prior to the 19th century, kids were usually shown as miniature adults. The exhibition rounds out with examples of youngsters in the spirit of the new view of childhood, which is familiar to us today.

Joseph Wright’s dark painting shows two girls, illuminated by candlelight, who have given up dressing dolls and have moved on to placing a bonnet on a disgruntled kitten. Today, there is probably a similar video somewhere on YouTube.