The getting and spending of money never goes out of style, but style itself, like taste, changes. Today’s roiling art market, in which Pollocks, Rothkos and Warhols fetch tens of millions of dollars, is not so different from the world of the Gilded Age, when wealthy parvenus in America and Britain tried to gain prestige and a place in society by accumulating pictures. Henry Clay Frick, Henry Huntington and Andrew Mellon had an important British competitor, Edward Cecil Guinness (1847-1927), the first Earl of Iveagh, who snapped up hundreds of Old Master paintings, most of them between 1887-1891, to hang on the walls of his Mayfair mansion.
Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough:
Of Kenwood House, London
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Through Sept. 3
Then travels to the Milwaukee Museum of Art.
Lord Iveagh, a rich boy who made good, parlayed family money into a fortune and died the second-wealthiest man in Britain. Winston Churchill, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, got so much in death duties that he reduced the general income tax.
Guinness came from a Dublin brewing family: You’ve heard of their beer. The youngest of three sons, he went to work at 15, then bought out his older brothers’ interests, multiplied the business five-fold, allowed the company to go public in 1886, and retired. He was a yachtsman and huntsman as well as a collector. He preferred portraits and landscapes, popular genres with collectors on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1925 he bought Kenwood House, a 17th-century estate perfected by Robert Adam into a great neoclassical villa between 1764 and 1779.
Lord Iveagh died before he could oversee the installation of his collection. He bequeathed house and pictures to a grateful English nation. Kenwood is now under renovation; 48 of its pictures have gone abroad, some for the first time.
The splendid result is “Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London,” at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. In these works you can take the measure of the man and the tastes of his age, shared by Huntington and Frick, whose own museums opened in 1927 and 1931.
The exhibit gives rightful pride of place to Rembrandt’s glorious late self-portrait (1665), Lord Iveagh’s costliest purchase. Even more than most paintings, this masterpiece must be seen up close; once seen, it is not easily forgotten. The brushstrokes range from bold to feathery; the palette is mostly dark earth tones, set off by Rembrandt’s luminous face, his white linen painter’s cap and undergarment. He looks older than his 59 years. For an interesting comparison, see Joshua Reynolds’s self-portrait of 1788, when he was 65, hanging in an adjacent room.
Rembrandt’s picture culminates his lifelong experiments in self-portraiture. It withholds as much as it shows; mystery contends with revelation. As your eye moves down from the painter’s face (bulbous nose; pursed lips; strong chin; deep, wise eyes), the darker tones take over, the brushstrokes become thicker, and you realize that his hands are totally occluded. The right one disappears into his smock. The left, holding the tools of his trade, is equally invisible. On a wall behind him you see two large circles, whose meanings scholars have debated and never ascertained. The likeliest explanation: Rembrandt’s testimony to the quick circle Giotto tossed off to prove his accomplished mastery.
With a few French and Italian exceptions, the Iveagh pictures are all English, Flemish and Dutch. Dutch landscapes influenced John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, one of whose great early pictures, an 1804 seascape, Lord Iveagh bought. The key figure in portraiture was Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), court painter to Charles I. Van Dyck paved the way for Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and their 18th-century contemporaries. Two marvelous Van Dycks dated 1634 hang across from the Rembrandt: Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, attended by a page, and James Stuart, First Duke of Richmond, a beautiful young man with cascading blond locks, attended by his powerful hound and backed up, like Princess Henrietta, by voluminous drapery.
From these royal portraits to the next century’s society pictures is an easy leap. Gainsborough’s “Mary, Countess of Howe” (c. 1764) and “Lady Brisco” (1772) capture the women’s essence through the artist’s attention to their faces, bodies, clothing, and to background detail. Mary is a study in pink, her gown covered by white silk gauze. She wears black pumps with gold buckles; five strands of pearls cover her neck; her delicately commanding gaze suggests her composure. Lady Brisco’s bouffant hairdo, piled high, doubles the length of her head. With her long, slender neck, she resembles a human greyhound, painted in airy strokes and matching the cloudy backdrop behind her. Reynolds said of his contemporary that his odd marks “by a kind of magic, at a certain distance . . . seem to drop into their proper places.”
Lord Iveagh also liked pictures of children and, especially, outdoor scenes. In addition to the Turner seascape, in which we can see early signs of the artist’s late swirling abstractions, the MFAH show includes two rare hunting scenes by Gainsborough, and a thrilling Edwin Henry Landseer picture of a heron caught in the grip of a hawk.
But it’s the portraits that give this show its weight. Looking at the Rembrandt as well as at a handful of society ladies in the guise of dramatic characters (Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, Miranda, Viola) makes one consider the nature of selfhood. We see Rembrandt as he sees himself and we see English aristocrats both as themselves and as others. Most of all, we see Lord Iveagh through his collection.
Mr. Spiegelman has written about looking at painting in “Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness” (FSG/Picador).