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Art Review

New look at Old Masters in Worcester exhibit

Top: Rembrandt’s “Saint Bartholomew” (about 1633). Above: Paolo Veronese’s “Venus Disarming Cupid” (1550-1555) (left) and Bartolomé Murillo’s “Saint Rosa of Viterbo” (about 1650).

Frank E. Graham/Worcester Art Museum

Rembrandt’s “Saint Bartholomew” (about 1633).

WORCESTER — The Old Masters look crisply new in three recently reinstalled galleries at the Worcester Art Museum. “[remastered],” as the provocative new hang has been called, has so many great things in it that your first thought is to dismiss the idea that WAM’s collection needs special pleading at all.

You can’t go wrong with a lineup that includes El Greco’s “The Repentant Magdalen,” Jusepe de Ribera’s “The Astronomer,” Rembrandt’s “Saint Bartholomew,” and Bernardo Strozzi’s magnificent “The Calling of Saint Matthew” — not to mention great works by Frans Hals, Nicolas Poussin, Sebastiano Ricci, Luca Giordano, Jan Steen, and Jacob van Ruisdael.

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And yet, “[remastered]” is not so much an exercise in special pleading as an intelligent attempt to rethink WAM’s 16th-18th-century holdings — to display them to their best effect, certainly, but also, with a bit of theater, to slow us down, to suggest alternative insights, and to stimulate new pleasures.

The pretext for the display, engineered by the museum’s new director, Matthias Waschek, is the recent acquisition of “Venus Disarming Cupid,” a magnificent painting by Paolo Veronese. Dated to about 1555, the work was given to the museum earlier this year by New York collector Hester Diamond (mother of Beastie Boys member Mike D). She gave the Veronese in honor of her daughter Rachel Kaminsky, who is on the museum’s board.

Occupying pride of place in the central gallery, the painting’s main subject, Venus, is so improbably and intergalactically nude she seems to slide about in front of Veronese’s color-saturated backdrop like a floating schoolboy fantasy. If, looking away, you try to recall her actual pose, you struggle: Not unlike the 19th-century nudes of Ingres, this goddess flouts anatomical logic, even as she squirms with life.

Full of the flushing color of sex, she adds a profane, pleasure-loving note to a collection otherwise on the brown and somber side (or as Waschek has characterized it, very “Yankee”).

But Venus here is not merely a sex object.

Still in his 20s and in thrall to the older Titian (who addressed more or less the same subject around the same time), Veronese depicts the moment just after Cupid has pricked her with his love arrow, causing her to fall ardently for the mortal Adonis.

It is a moment, in other words, of fleeting pain, prefiguring a much greater and more enduring pain: Venus’s disarming of the mischievous little god foreshadows her subsequent, futile attempt to disarm Adonis, as he leaves their love nest to meet certain death.

Welcome to the world of the Old Masters, where no message is without its poignant counterpoint, where no light melody is left uninflected by an ominous bass drone.

The hang in these three galleries tries to make the most of such tensions. Against richly colored walls (milky lime and tomato soup red), the paintings have been grouped together in clusters. None has a wall label — not even a title (although each room has a brochure you can carry around, much as you can at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). And all jut out from the wall at angles that become more pronounced the higher up they are.

These are pictures as physical objects that urgently want you to notice them: to stop and admire them, and to try to figure out how they relate to one another.

On the same wall as the Veronese, for instance, we see images of sacred agony: Christ bearing the cross on the Via Doloroso in a painting by Alonso Cano, and Saint Catherine eyeing the fearsome spikes on the breaking wheel that is her instrument of torture in a painting by Giulio Procaccini.

The link between these paintings flirts with sacrilege. But Catherine’s glassy-eyed swoon combines agony and ecstasy in ways the Veronese has already presaged.

The finest grouping of paintings is on the wall opposite. Here, clustered around Procaccini’s “The Betrayal of Christ” — one of five loans to the show — are the El Greco, the Ribera, and a superb Murillo, “Saint Rosa of Viterbo.” Together, they create a minor storm system of contending gazes.

The group functions as a sort of makeshift altarpiece, replete with predella painting (a second loan, Jan Lievens “Lamentation of Christ”). In this new, patchwork composition, the only figure gazing out at us (echoing a device common to Renaissance and Baroque altarpieces) is the almost painfully tender face of Murillo’s Saint Rosa. For me, the uncanny resemblance of her face to the young boy who stares out from Titian’s “Pesaro Madonna” altarpiece in Venice (perhaps the world’s most beautiful painting) set off minor heart tremors.

In another cluster, this one in the third gallery, the secular argot of hand gestures, rather than the spiritual exchange of gazes, rises to a noisy crescendo. Here, four Dutch paintings are clustered around the Genovese Strozzi’s large “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” Strozzi floats hands through his tenebrous composition like butterflies picked out by flickering shafts of holy light.

In the adjacent paintings — by Pieter de Hooch, Pieter Lastman, Jacob Duck, and Gerbrand van den Eeckhout — hands variously hold cards, tune instruments, touch other hands with uxorious tenderness, grope breasts, or spoon milk into babies.

Color, too, is one of the qualities to which Waschek’s hang is keyed. In the Strozzi grouping, for instance, rich reds in the de Hooch enhance the red sleeve in the central painting and a dramatic red tablecloth in the van den Eeckhout.

On the opposite wall, another cluster calls attention to several different treatments of white in paintings by Gerrit Willemsz. Heda (a still life with spilling white cloth), Jan Fyt (the diffused white fur and plumage of rabbits and birds), and Pieter Saenredam.

All these paintings also, of course, reward individual contemplation, and several are rightly isolated. Look out in particular for a small portrait by Frans Hals, a superb painting of an old woman praying by Nicolaes Maes, and Gerrit von Honthorst’s “Smiling Young Man Squeezing Grapes.”

I was absorbed, too, by Michael Sweerts’s “A Young Couple and a Boy in a Garden.” It is an image of sexual intrigue made deeply unsettling by its novel lighting and anxious facial expressions.

Cornelis Schaeck’s “Peasants in an Interior” sets utterly convincing figures against a monochrome interior, to electrifying effect. And the two small pictures by Frans van Mieris capture fleeting moments with virtuosic precision.

That said, is there anything as good — as convincing, true, and astonishing — as Rembrandt’s “Saint Bartholomew”?

Not even close.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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