SSome of Britain’s greatest paintings – and I mean works by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Rubens – are all hung in one room, namely the Buckingham Palace Photo Gallery. It must be something to visit, the kind of royal shrine that many of us only see through The Crown on Netflix. Except we don’t – because obviously they weren’t allowed to film there. (Everyone notices their own clangers on the show: I stopped watching when Anthony Blunt, a photo surveyor of the Queen and a Soviet spy, explained the art – and this collection – to HM using the term “Early modern.” He did not say “modern” any more than he would have said “posted on Twitter.” He would have said “renaissance” or “baroque”.)
The photo gallery is having work done so that her paintings can be exhibited at the neighboring Queen’s Gallery. Here they are, these first modern masterpieces, in an astonishing revelation of the most beautiful paintings in the Royal Collection. There is a whole wall of Rembrandts, each amazing, some rarely seen outside. I had never looked into the eyes of Rembrandt’s rabbi. Always curious about his Jewish neighbors when he lived on the Breestraat in Amsterdam, the artist lingers on the anxious expression of an old scholar.
In another vibrant painting, he depicts Jan Rijcksen, a shipbuilder, and his wife, Griet Jans. He turns away from his office, where he is studying ship design, as she rushes over with a message. They consciously pose, play themselves in a little drama of their life together. Griet seems about to burst out laughing. But far from undermining the seriousness of the painting, this overt self-awareness adds to its reality and depth by making us part of the game, and therefore part of a conversation with these people.
The most imposing of all is his portrait of Agatha Bas. This long-dead woman walks towards you, her golden fan seemingly escaping the canvas onto a painted frame, her pale gaze formidable. If the Queen is alone in her picture gallery at night, I bet this ghost scares her. It scared me.
The Rembrandts alone would make it an unmissable event. But he has rivals. It’s hard to be sure for Anthony van Dyck. Was he a great artist or just a very talented one? Here is the answer. Right next to the Rembrandts hangs his portrait of Thomas Killigrew, resting his head limply on his hand beside a shattered column as he crumbles in grief. He had recently lost his wife. A friend – supposed to be William, Lord Crofts – gently tries to distract him with his job. The emotional punch and the sheer truth of this painting prove Van Dyck’s courage. Again, this is his greatest job.
If portraits aren’t your thing, try Vermeer’s surreal frozen cinema. Light and shadow form a huge wall on the left side of A Lady at the Virginals with a Gentleman, which was once called The Music Lesson. She stands at her baroque keyboard with her back to us, her face caught in a high mirror with other objects in the room. A man is watching her intently but probably not to watch her playing. The color seems to immerse and embrace them, as if the large room they are in is a bath of luminescent fluid.
It continues. Rubens, like Van Dyck, knew and worked for Britain’s greatest royal art collector, Charles I. His milkmaids with cattle in a landscape sparkle as if painted yesterday, swell with roly-poly life as Rubens attempts to distill all the strength and freedom of nature in a colorful carnival. The same appetite for life emanates from his Portrait of a Woman, whose rounded chest is wrapped in translucent lace that rises to form its ruffled collar. It’s either a glimpse into baroque fashion or Rubens’ personal fetish. What stops you, however, is the iridescent creamy color.
One of the strengths of disjointed old art collections is that they can preserve forgotten works that will later be recognized as masterpieces. There is a wonderful painting here by Paulus Potter of cows: their gnarled bodies, in a Dutch meadow, are like tree roots or droppings. The Royal Collection loaned the self-portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi as an allegory of the painting to her sensational exhibition at the National Gallery – she painted it for Charles I – and the Queen even found a Caravaggio in the loft some time ago. time.
So I say this with due respect for the virtues of the Royal Collection: this exhibition is disastrously brilliant. While I am grateful that some of the Royal Family’s treasures are revealed for a limited time, I object to them becoming decorations again for state visits and royal audiences. The universality of this magnificent art should not serve as a support for the royal spectacle. It’s hard to believe that the 21st century monarchy really depends on having all of these Rembrandts.
• At the Queen’s Gallery, London, from December 4 to January 31, 2022.