You have heard that Guinness is good for you. Here's why: If it weren't for Edward Cecil Guinness, a self-portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn might not be on display at the Arkansas Arts Center starting June 7, along with paintings by J.M.W. Turner, Anthony Van Dyck, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds.
"Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Gainsborough: The Treasures of Kenwood House, London" contains 48 works by some of the greatest names in art of the 17th through the 19th centuries, Dutch, Flemish and English. The collection — which Guinness' beer wealth allowed him to accumulate, is on tour in the United States while Kenwood House, bought by Guinness to display his art and, like the art, donated to Great Britain upon his death, is being spruced up.
The star of the show is the Rembrandt, one of the last self-portraits the Dutch master painted and the second largest. It dates to around 1665 and shows the artist holding his palette, an unusual pose for one of his self-portraits. When the painting was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in April 2012, the New York Times arts writer described it as "wonderful almost beyond words."
But even without the Rembrandt, the exhibition, which Arts Center Director Todd Herman managed to land for the Arts Center though Little Rock wasn't on the original tour schedule, would be special. Imagine the Townsend Wolfe and Jeannette Rockefeller galleries hung with imposing full-length portraits of these grande dames: "Princess Henrietta of Lorraine, Attended by a Page" (1634) by Van Dyke, which is 84 3/8 inches by 50 3/4 inches, or a little over 7 feet tall by over 4 feet wide; the taller "Mary, Countess Howe" (ca. 1764) by Gainsborough, a 95-inch-by-61-inch portrait of the lady in flowing pink silks and white lace; and "Mrs. Musters as Hebe" (1785) by Reynolds, a gorgeous 94-inch-by-57-inch depiction of the lady as the Greek goddess of youth, feeding an eagle from a golden bowl. Herman described these masterful portraits, and others in the exhibition, as having "wall-power."
Besides the portraits, visitors to the show will see a Turner seascape, "The Iveagh Seapiece" (1803), a painting by Britain's famed Romantic painter whose mastery of light is unparalleled; an Edwin Landseer painting of boys racing on their horses and followed by dogs, "The Hon. E.S. Russell and His Brother" (1834); and a Joseph Wright of Derby chiaroscuro "Two Girls Dressing a Kitten by Candlelight" (1768-70), which though it sounds saccharine is actually sardonically sexual. For real sweetness, there is Sir Thomas Lawrence's "Miss Murray" (1824-26), a portrait of a child in ribbons and lace holding flowers in her skirt. There will also be works by Francois Boucher, Albert Cuyp, Francesco Guardi and others.
The stop in Arkansas is the last for the exhibition, which has traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Seattle Art Museum. Julius Bryant, Keeper of the Word and Image at the Victoria and Albert Museum, will give a lecture, "Kenwood: From Guinness to Gainsboroughs," at 6 p.m. Thursday, June 6, in the lecture hall. The exhibition will run through Sept. 8. Exhibition tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $8 for military and $6 for students. Lecture tickets are $10. Arts Center members get in free to both.