Art: Dutch Treat

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Sponsored by Princess Juliana of The Netherlands, the finest exhibition of old Dutch masters the U.S. has seen in a generation this week lured throngs of Manhattan gallery-goers to Fifth Avenue's palatial Duveen Galleries. Purpose of the exhibition: to raise funds for Dutch refugees.

As an exhibition of great art, the show was worth many times the price of admission (50¢). On the somber, dignified Duveen walls were spread 15 Rembrandts, 15 of the finest of Frans Hals's broad-brushed portraits, Vermeer Van Delft's world-famed $500,000 The Milkmaid (see cut), meticulous landscapes, still lifes and street scenes by Hobbema, Jan Steen, Nicolaes Maes and dozens of minor masters.

Some had been borrowed from U.S. museums and private collections. Many had never been seen in the U.S. before. Others, like The Milkmaid (owned by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), had been sent originally to the New York World's Fair. One jewellike Domestic Scene by Jan Steen was lent by King George of England, reached the U.S. by bomber. The 70 masterpieces, insured for $5,000,000, represented one of the most valuable art hoards of its size ever assembled in a private gallery.

Painted during one of Europe's most war-torn centuries (the 17th), these 70 old Dutch masterpieces are as placid as a cow pasture. They depict not only the quiet surroundings but the quiet minds of sober, thrifty Dutch burghers: well-fed merchants of Amsterdam and Haarlem and their complacent, buxom wives, peaceful seascapes, fertile landscapes, plethoric fishmarkets, tables loaded with fruit and flowers. What makes them great art is no transcendental or heroic message but the unequaled quality of their honest, painstaking craftsmanship.

The 17th-Century Dutch masters were (with a few neighboring Flemings) the first realists in Western art. Discouraged by the strict doctrines of Calvinism from painting religious subjects, they applied the deft oil technique of the Italians to the simple subject matter they found about them, discovering for the first time the pictorial beauty of barnyards, shops, kitchens, streets, simple people.