Review: Philbrook’s “Rembrandt to Monet” exhibit is an introduction to art for all ages 

Monet’s meadow painting is just one of the beautiful works of art in the Philbrook’s “Rembrandt to Monet” exhibit. (Claude Monet (French, 1840–1926). The Meadow, 1879.Oil on canvas, 32 x 39 1/4”.Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Gift of Mr. William Averell Harriman, 1944.79.Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2019)

A traveling collection of paintings, titled “Rembrandt to Monet: 500 Years of European Painting,” will be on display at the Philbrook Museum through May 28, 2023.  

The exhibit includes paintings by artists who are internationally famous, such as Rembrandt and Monet and others, like Bouguereau and El Greco, whose work might not be as well-known to the public. This mix of artists allows viewers to see some familiar, recognizable paintings while also being introduced to many enjoyable new ones. 

The traveling exhibit is on display at the museum because the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., the paintings’ permanent home, is renovating its building. During this time, the Joslyn staff decided to share this collection with other art museums around the United States instead of putting it in storage during the renovations. Philbrook has collaborated with the Joslyn Museum in the past, including the recent Philbrook exhibit “In Living Color: In Andy Warhol and Contemporary Printmaking.”  

Susan Green, associate curator for Contemporary Art and Design and Philbrook’s curator in charge of the Rembrandt to Monet exhibit, is responsible for arranging the schedule. Additionally, Green is charged with monitoring the process of what is required to transport hundreds of year-old paintings from one museum to another.

First, a conservator checks that “all of the paintings and their frames [are] stable, secure, and have no underlying issues that might cause damage in transit,” Green said. Then a custom crate is built for each painting. “Crates are works of art in themselves,” Green said, because “each crate is built for one specific painting [and] lined with archival foam fitted to the dimensions of the single painting so that it is perfectly supported and cushioned.” Then the paintings are checked again when they arrive at their destination, and once more before they are sent back after the exhibition. 

Green said that the Philbrook hopes viewers of the exhibit will “connect with one (or more) of the paintings, deepen their understanding of European painting, and learn something new about the artwork at Philbrook.”

Here are some things that stood out about the exhibit from this reporter’s visit. 

It was helpful that all the written information in the exhibit, including the small placards explaining the artist and the painting’s history, was given in both English and Spanish.  

The details of the paintings were very impressive! Some of the paintings are only slightly larger than a piece of paper, and yet the objects – golden chalices, flowers, books, clothes, and so on – contained within them are precisely rendered down to the minutest detail to make the image look like the real thing. When you really think about drawing and painting such tiny images, and making them look realistic, it gives an appreciation for the hard work that went into creating these works of art. 

(Maria van Oosterwyck (Dutch, 1630–1693). Still Life of Flowers in a Glass Vase, c. 1685. Oil on canvas, 31 3/4 x26 1/4”. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Museum purchase with funds from the Ethel S. Abbott Art Endowment Fund and the General Art Endowment Fund,2019.4. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2019)

The Dutch still-lifes and portraits include very realistically painted flowers, food, and carpets that look similar to photographs. Meanwhile, the Renaissance-era paintings have bright, vibrant colors, especially blues, reds, and gold. This can be surprising, as bright colors may not be what typically come to mind when one thinks of the Middle Ages or Renaissance, but that is just one thing to be learned from the exhibit. 

Simply fathoming that you are looking at a work of art that is literally hundredsof years old is breathtaking. It is such a gift that we, at this time, can spend time in the same room as a painting that another person created in a long distant (or not-so-distant) past.  

Viewing a painting is like having a conversation with the artist. What do you think the artist is saying to you? What story is he or she telling? Some of the paintings are portraits of real people who lived at the same time as the artist. What do you think that person’s life was like? Sometimes we know, and sometimes we can only imagine, as the stories of ordinary people have often been lost to time and death.  

This painting from the “Rembrandt to Monet” exhibit is in typical Madonna and Child style. Mary sits in the center with baby Jesus, flanked by two angels and a young John the Baptist. The Philbrook has several similar paintings in its collection. (The Master of the Johnson Magdalene (Italian, Florentine, active first half of the 16th century). Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John and Two Angels, c. 1500. Oil and tempera on panel, diameter 35 1/4”. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Museum purchase, 1942.6. Photograph © Bruce M. White, 2019)

There are also multiple connections between the paintings in the “Rembrandt to Monet” exhibit and those in the Philbrook’s collection. One of these is the round Madonna and Child paintings, picturing Mary, baby Jesus, and often some angels and saints. These are very typical of the Renaissance and Middle Ages, when a large amount of Christian religious art was produced in Europe.  

There are also works in the Philbrook collection by artists whose paintings are in the “Rembrandt to Monet” exhibit. For example, the well-known “Shepherdess” painting that the Philbrook has in its collection was painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, who also painted the “Return of Spring” painting that is part of the “Rembrandt to Monet” exhibit. 

If this exhibit sounds like something you would enjoy, but you worry that your siblings, children, or grandchildren might lose interest, then fear not! The curators at the Philbrook have thought of that. They are, after all, masters at making art accessible and interesting for children. 

Kids may not be allowed to touch the paintings at the Philbrook, but they can touch physical representations of things in the paintings, which are on display in the tour of the exhibit. (Photo by Sarah Ray)

There is a wonderful interactive area set up about three-fourths of the way through the exhibit that houses picture books about art (in both English and Spanish), and replicas of things found in the paintings, such as pretend grapes, artificial flowers, and a stuffed cat, so that kids can touch and play with things, as they are apt to do. There is also a table with papers where kids (and adults, too, of course) can draw something from the paintings and write a story about it. If you need a laugh, just read some of the stories written by little kids! 

Art is often inspired by real life, as shown by the above drawing and nonfiction story created by a visitor to Philbrook’s “Rembrandt to Monet” exhibit. (Photo by Sarah Ray; story and drawing by Anonymous)

The Philbrook truly strives to make this exhibit for the whole community, so we can all enjoy looking through these paintings to the distant past and, as Susan Green says, “become more empathetic and consider someone else’s story and someone else’s needs.” 

And, after viewing the exhibit (which includes several landscapes of the beautiful European countryside), feel free to wander dreamily through Philbrook’s own magnificent gardens.  

The gardens at the Philbrook showcase the beauty of the natural world alongside the man-made works of art. Entrance to the gardens is included with general admission. (Photo courtesy of the Philbrook Museum of Art website)

Perhaps the combination of beautiful paintings and luscious scenery will inspire you to create some art yourself. After all, that is the Philbrook’s goal: “to make a creative and connected community through art and gardens.” 

More information about the exhibit can be found here

TCC students and other area college students can receive free general admission to the Philbrook with the presentation of their student ID.

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