The first noticeable thing about the exhibition “Vermeer and Rembrandt: the Masters of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age” at the Mori Arts Center Gallery is the juxtaposition of the names. Vermeer’s name comes before that of Rembrandt, marking him as the leading Dutch artist as far as the modern art public are concerned.
The second thing I observed is that most of the pictures are being exhibited at a much greater height above sea level than they perhaps are used to — on the 52nd floor of the Mori Building — something that, interestingly enough, helped evoke the famously low-lying country from which this art originated.
Despite the less than “old masterly” setting of a modern high-rise building in central Tokyo, the Mori Art Center Gallery has done a good job of darkening its walls and creating a suitably somber atmosphere for this group of paintings sourced from New York’s Metropolitan Museum, London’s National Gallery and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
The exhibition’s name is misleading, as they often are, with only one painting by Johannes Vermeer, which looks rather small and lost in all the space accorded it, and a couple — one certainly, and one possibly — by Rembrandt van Rijn, though not his best work.
People going in, therefore, may have the wrong expectations, so the best way to view the exhibition is to step away from the big names and to regard it instead as a general overview of 17th-century Dutch art.
The way that we view art now, namely through the prism of celebrity artists, each with his or her own distinct style, is a relatively recent innovation and particularly inappropriate here, as none of these artists was actually striving to be unique or “different.” The real point of comparison is the degree of skill that each artist attained.
This exhibition is more about precision than expression, verisimilitude than artistic attitude.
Different artists of almost equal abilities tend to produce works that are remarkably difficult to tell apart. A good example would be a comparison between the painting technique in Salomon van Ruysdael’s “The Watering Place” (1660) and Meindert Hobbema’s “A Watermill” (ca. 1664), although Van Ruysdael’s compositional abilities seem a tad superior in this case.
There are also close similarities between the Vermeer — “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” (ca. 1662) — and one or two other paintings. Pieter de Hooch’s “A Woman and a Maid in a Courtyard” (ca. 1660-61) is an obvious reference point.
Although the painting is set outdoors in contrast to Vermeer’s preference for interiors, it nevertheless has a very similar feel. It has the same note of quiet domesticity and similarly subdued lighting, while the courtyard and the walls around it turn it essentially into an outdoors interior painting.
If one didn’t know better, it would be very easy to imagine the two paintings were by the same hand — and in a sense they were, as De Hooch was not only a contemporary of Vermeer, but he was also a member of the same painting guild, in the same town.
In a later age, two artists thrown so close together would have made more of an effort to distinguish their art from each other, adopting radically different styles or divergent subject matter on purpose, but in 17th-century Holland, the artists clearly measured themselves against a standard of realism and painterly technique to which all aspired.
This can also be seen in the exhibition’s section dedicated to still lifes, where the focus was much more on the subject matter than the artist’s ego, although this was no doubt the hidden engine. Both Abraham van Beijeren’s “Still Life with Shrimps, Fruit, and Wine Glasses” (ca. 1650-60) and a similar work by Pieter Claesz, “Still Life with a Silver Tazza, a ‘Roemer,’ a Glass of Wine, and a Peeled Lemon” (1660) try — very successfully — to capture the translucent qualities of peeled fruit and wines in glasses.
Claesz’s work also shows his skill at capturing the gleam of metallic surfaces, a quality that we see in another work in this section, Willem Kalf’s “Still Life with a Collection of Shells and a Shell Cup” (1675), as well as in Rembrandt’s painting of the Roman goddess of war, “Bellona” (1633), which can be found in another section.
It is these elements of skill that weave the exhibition together subtly, like gossamer threads. But we should not be surprised that an exhibition with so many different artists and several distinct sections — still lifes, portraits, marine paintings, architectural paintings and more — should have so many resonances. Almost all these painters represented here agreed on the central question of what a good painting should be — the answer being vivid realism.
The only separation between the painters was either the sufficiency or deficiency of skill in achieving that goal.
“Vermeer and Rembrandt: The Masters of the 17th-Century Dutch Golden Age” at Mori Arts Center Gallery runs until March 31; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. ¥1,400. Closed Tue. bit.ly/morirembrandt