How to Represent 200 Years of Art in 7 Paintings or Less

As the curator for an exhibition at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Mandy McRae ’15 immersed herself in paintings from Europe’s Golden Age.

The task: Curate an exhibition that showcases the full range of the Golden Age—a 200-year timespan representing all of Europe that includes some of art history’s heavy hitters (including Rembrandt). The rub: The space is only big enough for seven paintings.

What do you include?

That was the challenge presented to Mandy McRae ’15, the current Fred W. Hicks III Fellow for the Cornell Fine Arts Museum and a double major in art history and English.

“The museum has a lot of Golden Age paintings,” says McRae, 195 to be exact, which made it difficult to distill the exhibition down to just seven works. She ended up selecting two paintings from England, three from the Flanders-Dutch Republic region, and just one each from France and Italy.

The exhibition, titled Glimpses into the Golden Age, is a retrospective of the tumultuous era in Europe that is marked by great political, religious, and social upheaval and that includes the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. It coincides with the Speed Art Museum’s Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough and the Golden Age of Painting in Europe exhibition, which is on display at the Orlando Museum of Art at Loch Haven Park until May 25.

Located in the museum’s central hallway, Glimpses into the Golden Age invites viewers to take a brief but richly detailed tour of Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. “It’s a fascinating time period, and I hope that visitors get a sense of that through these works,” McRae says.

Thanks to the thought McRae put into selecting each piece, visitors can get a clear sense of the complex themes running through the Golden Age, beginning with the advent of more accessible portraiture. Three of the works on exhibition—Portrait of the Comtesse de Beaufort by Louis Michel van Loo (France), Portrait of an English Naval Officer by George Romney (England), and Portrait of Gaetan Apolline Balthazar Vestris by Thomas Gainsborough (England)—illustrate the diversity of portraiture during that period.

McRae’s exhibition also touches on the advent of paintings that captured everyday life. After centuries of art dominated by religious subjects, still lifes and domestic scenes emerged as key themes during the Golden Age. Some artists of the time also used paintings as a vehicle for social commentary. McRae selected two Dutch pieces to represent these themes. Still Life—Beakerglass and Fruit, painted in the style of Pieter Claesz, epitomizes the still life genre of the period; and Pieter Cornelisz van Slingeland’s A Lady with Her Dog is more than a portrait of a richly dressed woman and her pet. It is also a vanitas, a commentary on the preoccupation with physical appearances, as it depicts a woman gazing into a mirror.

Religious art continued to play an important role during this period, represented in this exhibition by two paintings, one by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo of Italy, St. John Gualbert (Contemplating the Crucifix), and one, a copy of a larger altarpiece by the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, The Virgin and Child Adored by Saints. Together, they portray two disparate approaches to religious art in the Golden Age. The Flemish work is painted in the baroque style, while the Italian painting is a departure from the typically idealized saintly portraiture, instead depicting Saint John with an emotional realism, despite the obligatory halo.

Glimpses into the Golden Age will be on display at CFAM until May 11.