Muscarelle Displays Caravaggio-Style Paintings as a Last Exhibition Before Renovations


Saturday evening, the Muscarelle Museum of Art was abuzz with over 600 students attending “A Divine Evening with Rembrandt.” This event marked the opening of two exhibitions, “Women With Vision: Masterworks from the Permanent Collection” and “In the Light of Caravaggio: Dutch and Flemish Paintings from Southeastern Museums.”

The latter displays 16 paintings by Dutch and Flemish Old Masters, including Rembrandt, who were greatly influenced by the rugged realist art of Caravaggio’s Rome.

“[This exhibition looks] at these young Dutch and Flemish artists who were in Rome at the time of Caravaggio, or just afterwards, when his influence and style was so high, and for them to learn from this and develop their own visual vocabulary and style, and then take it back north,” museum Director Aaron De Groft ‘88 said. “That is how ideas spread, by exposure, over the course of human history. The influence was immense because Caravaggio was the most famous and most popular painter in Rome during his lifetime. He was immensely influential because what he was doing was new and fresh, these deep shadows and bright highlights, and using everyday people and everyday scenes to depict life or images from the Bible or from mythology. For us, we are like ‘gee that doesn’t sound so revolutionary,’ but at the time it was astounding.”

Extensive planning and critical thought went into the assemblage of the upstairs exhibition of Dutch and Flemish artists. Each element, from the color of the room and the placement of the paintings to the uniform formatting of the labels, is carefully executed. Assistant Director and Chief Curator of the museum, John Spike, said that the deep, warm chocolate color chosen for the walls was very intentional and works to complement tones within each painting as well as sooth the audience. Spike also said how the simple display of each painting, accompanied by its description, creates for minimal distraction for the viewers and allows them to focus on the presented artwork as they are transported to a different time period of the early 1600s.

“This show asks you to imagine a little bit about Amsterdam and Utrecht, and Haarlem, that’s another city in the 1600s,” Spike said. “That is not a thought that you have every day, but you are taken there, to stuff they appreciated. … That is what I like the most about [the exhibit], is that although we are still on campus, we are far away; it is like a time machine.”

The influence that the seventeenth century Dutch Caravaggists had on one another’s work is apparent in the exhibition. Spike said that the similarity seen between the painted dogs in two of the featured paintings is not coincidental, but rather demonstrative of how the artists worked in close proximity and had every opportunity to view and be influenced by each other’s work.

The collection of paintings in the show was made possible through a series of loans from six other Southeast museums, including the National Gallery of Art’s contribution of Hendrick ter Bruggehen’s “The Bagpipe Player,” 1624.

Additionally, the exhibition is particularly unique as it includes Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Forty-Year-Old Woman, possibly Marretje Cornelisdr. Van Grotewal,” 1634, making the Muscarelle the only Virginian museum to showcase a work by this renowned Dutch painter.

Saturday, Feb. 10 marked the public opening of the exhibition that will run through May 13. During the evening, the museum held a free event, complete with food and drink, to encourage and invite student engagement.

“This [event] is part of a long line of us throwing the doors open to students, because in many ways that is why we’re there,” De Groft said. “We’re a laboratory for experimental learning just like any other laboratory or classroom on campus.”

De Groft said that an exhibition dedicated to the Dutch and Flemish followers of Caravaggio has not been presented in the United States for 20 years. Hundreds of students flooded the museum in order to glimpse the rare showing and relish in the artwork.

“I really enjoy art and art history, so I thought it would be a really fun evening. So I came, and I’m having a good time,” Lucia Butler ’20 said. “It is really interesting reading about all of the different artists and looking at all of the details in the paintings. I’ve learned a little bit; it’s been fun. I guess a lot of these things are once-in-a-lifetime paintings and pieces of art that you’ll get to see, so for people who like art, and I guess even for those who don’t, it is probably really good to see and to come out and learn something about history or about art.”

The Muscarelle will close in the summer for construction and renovation in accordance with the remodel of Phi Beta Kappa Memorial Hall. The “In the Light of Caravaggio” exhibition acts as a final hurrah for the museum prior to its remodeling.

“We wanted an important exhibit to happen because we have raised funds to build a new Muscarelle [that is] twice the size, right on this place,” Spike said. “So, this is the last show… and we wanted to have the proper sending off.”

While this final display of splendor stands out as quite impressive, De Groft emphasized that the museum’s current exhibit of Old Master paintings and their particular housing of a Rembrandt is simply a natural progression on-course with the world-renowned acquisitions for which the museum had become known.

“It’s huge, but it’s no more huge than what we’ve become accustomed to – wrestling with these monsters like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio,” De Groft said. “This is a great university, and we try to do and to provide programs and experiences that are commensurate with the great prestige and historic importance of our university. And I think it sets the stage for this brilliant future where we can do more with more, instead of doing all the things we’ve done with so much less. I mean I got quoted a couple years ago by saying, to the newspaper, ‘we’re running a Ferrari in a coffin’. We’ve got this fine-tuned, raging, great beast and we are just trapped in a little box. We have made the most of it. Actually, we have gone way above and beyond what anyone thought was possible for our museum.”


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