The Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings is one of the finest private collections of its kind in the world, and may well be the finest. The collection began growing only about 20 years ago. But it already includes strong works by most of the best-known artists of the Dutch Golden Age, including Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Gerrit Dou, Aelbert Cuyp, and dozens of others.
In fact, among painters of the very first rank, the collection lacks only a Vermeer, which — unless a new one suddenly emerges from under a bed in a Delft brothel — is not likely to become available, and a Gerard ter Borch. Religious and history paintings are also mostly lacking, and the van Otterloos might perhaps hope for a good work by one or more of the Dutch Caravaggists, a small but fascinating group of painters who fell under the spell of Caravaggio’s influential style and provide a link, of sorts, between the shadowy realism of Rembrandt and that of Caravaggio.
Nonetheless, all in all, it’s pretty eye-popping.
And it is still very much in the process of being formed.
Over the past couple of years, the collection has been on tour in the Netherlands and the United States (nearly 70 paintings and a number of items of Dutch furniture from the collection opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem in February 2011).
Now a selection of 44 van Otterloo works has been put on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, in a show called “Complementary Collections, Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and the MFA.”
The show and its title are at once tendentious and admirably frank. It’s tendentious because the MFA is hoping that, down the road, the collection will end up complementing its own Dutch and Flemish holdings on a more permanent basis (it is not the only museum harboring such hopes). It’s frank because a great many van Otterloo works have already been on long-term display at the MFA over the years, and because the two collections are in fact wonderfully complementary.
It was MFA curator Peter Sutton who played a major role in first persuading the van Otterloos to switch from collecting horse carriages to 17th-century Dutch paintings.
Since then, the van Otterloos have received advice in shaping their collection from a number of museum curators, including Walter Liedtke at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Ronni Baer, the MFA’s senior curator of paintings in the Art of Europe department. They have also received advice from numerous dealers, conservation specialists, and a former director of the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Frederik Duparc.
Baer, who is Sutton’s successor, is herself a leading expert in Dutch painting, and has worked closely with the van Otterloos over the years. She has had the chance to mount this show because renovations to the van Otterloos’ house remain incomplete, and as a result the couple must wait a few more months before welcoming home their beloved collection from its international tour.
She has made the most of the opportunity, reinstalling several galleries, including one the size of the MFA’s cavernous central Koch Gallery. Here, 16 works have been intelligently integrated with the MFA’s own holdings, along with several works loaned to the museum by other collectors.
In a smaller, adjacent gallery, described by Baer as a “collector’s cabinet,” hang 33 other works from the van Otterloo collection, including their latest acquisition, a view of Haarlem by Gerrit Berckheyde. The paintings are grouped, for the most part, by theme and subject matter.
In the large, integrated gallery, Baer has cannily drawn out various satisfying narrative threads. It’s wonderful to see, for instance, the MFA’s own Rembrandt, “Artist in His Studio,” hanging close to the van Otterloos’ Rembrandt, “Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh,” which is in turn hanging beside two other MFA Rembrandt portraits.
“Artist in His Studio,” one of the most important paintings in Boston, was painted in Leiden when Rembrandt was starting out: It is full of the haunted, skittish romance of a young, ambitious artist on the make.
A few years later, Rembrandt was in Amsterdam, where he planned to make it big. He lived for a time with Hendrik van Uylenburgh, an art dealer, while he painted portraits and plotted more ambitious history paintings.
Aeltje, the subject of the van Otterloo picture, was van Uylenburgh’s cousin (as was Saskia, Rembrandt’s first wife). Rembrandt’s portrait of her is incredibly assured. It’s also, by the way, in great condition; all the subtleties of color and texture are still there. And its success must have played a part, Baer told me, in helping Rembrandt attract the kind of commissions that resulted in the MFA’s nearby pendant portraits of a husband and wife, painted a year or two later.
It’s neat, too, that the van Otterloos’ “Young Girl in Profile” by Jan Lievens, Rembrandt’s friend and fellow student from his Leiden days, hangs nearby. And that several brilliant works by Gerrit Dou, Rembrandt’s first pupil, also from Leiden — one belonging to the MFA, two to the van Otterloos — are also here.
Baer has chosen to hang a number of major pictures by artists not represented in the MFA’s collection. Among them are Aelbert Cuyp, Ludolf Bakhuizen, and Jan Weenix. The Cuyp, in particular, is a joy. Called “Orpheus Charming the Animals,” it’s a retort to those who think that “Cuyp” is a synonym for all things bovine. Yes, it features a few characteristically sturdy bulls, but it also includes two jaguars, a camel, a frog, an elephant, and all kinds of birds, including an anomalous ostrich parading nonchalantly along the horizon.
Happily, “complementary” — as in the show’s title — is a quality that works both ways. The MFA, for instance, has two paintings by Dutch Caravaggists, including the splendid “Boy Singing,” by Hendrick ter Brugghen, which help tell a part of the story of Dutch 17th-century painting that the van Otterloos, so far, cannot.
Other paintings, including some of the finest works the van Otterloos own, beautifully enhance the MFA’s holdings. The MFA’s large-scale still life by Jan Jansz. den Uyl, for instance, hangs between a bravura still life by Willem Claesz. Heda and another by Pieter Claesz., both in the van Otterloo collection. They make an impressive triumvirate.
Look closely at that Jan Jansz. den Uyl. Almost every single object on the table is precariously balanced. The whole composition feels barely a tremor away from falling to pieces.
The best-laid tables, the painting reminds us, are often like the best-laid plans: How easily they go awry.
Who knows what the van Otterloos’ long-term plans for their collection are? Those plans are their business, and theirs alone. But this show is a welcome opportunity for the rest of us to observe how well these paintings look in Boston.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.