Three years ago, the N.C. Museum of Art put on “Rembrandt in America,” an ambitious exhibit that was big in every way. The largest collection of authentic paintings by the Dutch master painter Rembrandt van Rijn ever gathered in the United States, “Rembrandt in America” topped 150,000 in attendance during its 12-week run.
In comparison, the sequel “Small Treasures: Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and Their Contemporaries” is much smaller-scaled. True, it does have a dozen-plus more works than “Rembrandt in America.” But all of this show’s 66 paintings are miniature-sized oil portraits, from 10 by 10 inches down to a three-inch oval.
Which is not to say that these tiny portraits, done in painstaking detail by some of the 17th century’s greatest Flemish and Dutch master painters, aren’t worthy in their own way.
“I’ve long been interested in these small paintings,” said Dennis Weller, curator of Northern European art, who assembled the show. “If you think of Rembrandt as the main course of a meal, these paintings are like the hors d’oeuvres that might be better than the main course – or dessert.”
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The scale makes “Small Treasures” an unusual show, in part because it is the rare exhibit in which all the works are depicted at actual size in the accompanying printed catalog.
“Everything in it fits on a 10-by-11-inch page in a normal-sized catalog,” Weller said. “That never happens, particularly with an old-master exhibition. They’re hard to display in a museum setting where they might have to compete with other works measuring in feet or yards in a big space like ours. The mentality for museums and collectors with big stages is that these are small things. They’ve been overlooked because they’re usually thought of as not being as important as the larger paintings. But I’ve got to say, a lot of these works are just spectacular.”
Three of the paintings in “Small Treasures” are part of the N.C. Museum of Art’s permanent collection, and two of them – “A Bearded Man Holding a Pipe” and “A Woman Holding a Basket of Eggs,” both by the painter Jacob van Toorenvliet – were acquired at auction this past summer with funds raised by the museum’s Volunteer Board. The rest are on loan from other museums and private collections.
At the time these works were made in the 17th century, they were usually made as an appendix to full-sized paintings. Sometimes the artists did them by request as a bonus, either of their patron buyer or themselves or some other subject.
“You could even call some of these early ‘selfies,’ ” Weller said. “Some were calling cards, or they were done for collectors who wanted a piece of genius beyond the painting they’d commissioned and bought. They’d work out ideas regarding facial expressions or lighting ahead of time.”
Given their small size and the precise brushwork required, in some ways these were actually more difficult to execute than better-known larger works. One of the signature works in “Small Treasures” is the third painting from the museum’s own collection, 1651’s “An Allegory of Vanity” by Matthijs van den Bergh, which measures less than nine by seven inches yet is exquisitely detailed.
“I imagine that one propped up on a table, near a mirror, as a warning to a lady,” said Sarah Schroth, director of Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art in Durham. “These small-scale paintings are somewhere between miniatures and easel paintings, meant to show off an artist’s skill. They were viewed as curiosities, but they all show incredible technical skill and great patience. It is not easy to capture likenesses and render such amazing detail on a small surface with tiny brushes.”
Getting a good look
Fittingly, given that the new exhibit’s works are a fraction of the size of the “Rembrandt in America” paintings, expectations for “Small Treasures”’ attendance are that it will be some fraction of that earlier show. Weller put the museum’s attendance goal for the 12-week show at 70,000, not quite half of “Rembrandt in America.”
Of course, security is a concern, as it always is with shows featuring works that are hundreds of years old. But N.C. Museum of Art registrar Maggie Gregory does not anticipate any major problems.
“We’re not doing anything too unusual beyond the normal things, because they’re not that small when they’re framed,” Gregory said. “Some of them are small enough that they’d fit in a pocket, but they’re all framed and either in cases or behind glass on the wall. There is some security hardware, which is an extra bit of protection, and they’re all behind glass. That’s to protect them from anybody getting too close. They’re so small that, by necessity, you have to lean in to see them.”