European Masters at Seattle Art Museum

Those of us obsessed with the PBS series “Downton Abbey” are in awe of the opulence and grandeur of English great houses. Well, right now, you can savor some of that splendor right here in Seattle at the Seattle Art Museum.

Kenwood House in North London is a treasury of 17th to 19th C. European paintings. Last owned by Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh, it was bequeathed to Britain in 1927 along with its art collection. The estate is currently closed for major renovation, and 48 of its masterpieces are traveling to three American museums, and SAM is one of them.

Paintings by Rembrandt, Gainsborough, van Dyck, Turner, Reynolds and other masters are included. Wonderful portraits and splendid landscapes fill the walls of SAM’s temporary exhibition halls. When you go you’ll want to look carefully at the workmanship—the brushstrokes, use of color, chiaroscuro, composition, and all the other artistic techniques. But for me, equally important is the story that each painting tells or hides.

Among my favorites is Emma Hart as “The Spinstress” one of George Romney’s late 18th C paintings of Emma. She’s clothed in virginal white before her spinning wheel. With head modestly covered, she looks at the viewer with a sweetness and innocence. In real life Emma was anything but innocent. Born the daughter of a lowly blacksmith, she took advantage of her good looks and talents. For a time she resided in a high-class house of prostitution, then became an attendant at what might now be called a sex club. She was mistress to noblemen and probably Romney too. She became the wife of Sir William Hamilton, a much older man. Simultaneously she was the great love of England’s naval hero, Lord Nelson. So much for sweet innocence.

Another portrait that I love is Joshua Reynolds’s depiction of Mrs. Tollemache as Miranda. It was common in the 18th C. for painters to place their subjects in pastoral or classical settings. Here we find Mrs. Tollemache playing Miranda from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” See her father Prospero peeking out from behind a tree and the nasty Caliban crouched behind her.

Pieter van der Broeche, painted by Frans Hals in 1633 reveals all the wealth and vitality of the Dutch Golden Age. This portrait shows a successful man who wanted his world to make note of it. His ruddy face, rimmed by a mass of tousled black hair, smiles out at the world. He’s dressed in black but his exquisite lace collar and cuffs as well as the massive gold chain that crosses his chest assure the viewer that this is a man of note.

Among the landscapes, I’m particularly fond of Isack van Ostade’s 1645 A Canal in Winter. Scenes that depict the daily lives of people have always fascinated me. This charming scene, so like the work of Breughel shows a frozen canal with skaters, wooden sleds, muffled children, and a horse-drawn “ice taxi.”

Many of these wonderful pieces, typical of the tastes of the wealthy at the end of the 19th C., have never traveled to the United States before. Enjoy them while you can.

Through May 19, SAM Downtown, 1300 First Ave., Seattle (206 654-3100 seattleartmuseum.org)

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