In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, writers commonly maintained that art should at once entertain and edify its viewers–“delight and instruct,” as Horace had put it. The four special exhibitions currently on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, collectively presented under the title Art in the Age of Rubens and Rembrandt, demonstrates the range of ways in which Dutch artists did both.

The centerpiece of the show is a monographic exhibition dedicated to the 17th-century Haarlem-trained painter Jan Miense Molenaer. Though to most non-specialists Molenaer is less well-known than his wife, painter Judith Leyster, he was one of the best genre painters of his day, specializing, like his contemporaries Adriaen Brouwer and Adriaen van Ostade, in scenes of peasant life.

The Molenaer exhibition in Raleigh is the first such show ever dedicated to the artist. Coming on the heels of retrospectives devoted in the last several years to artists such as Pieter de Hooch, Albert Cuyp, Jan Steen, Gerrit Dou, and Michael Sweerts, it reflects the recent surge of interest in what might be fairly called the “second tier” of Dutch Old Master painting.

One attraction of such shows for their host institutions is the opportunity they afford for showing off highlights from the museum’s permanent collections. The present case is no exception–one of the best paintings in the exhibition is Molenaer’s signed and dated 1629 work “The Dentist,” which is regularly on display at the NCMA. The real value in such presentations, though, is that they bring together works from all over the world, allowing visitors to gain a fuller impression of an unfamiliar but significant painter in a way not usually possible.

The Molenaer segment includes over 40 panels, most of them borrowed, and it leaves no doubt that, at his best moments, Molenaer could produce witty, inventive, and even virtuoso paintings.

In the first room, a series of pictures representing the five senses indulge in a bawdy humor that the artist must have hoped would appeal to prospective buyers. In the painting of “Sight,” Molenaer does not show us, as other painters did, bespectacled men and mirrors, but rather gives us a crestfallen tavern-goer who looks disappointedly into the bottom of an empty beer jug.

The joke is in how the artist imports a fairly abstruse allegorical subject into the most mundane of circumstances. It resonates further through the contrast between this picture and those of “Hearing,” where a young man delightedly lifts a full stein, and “Taste,” where an old man drains one. For “Smell,” no less comically, we get not flowers or perfume, but a woman wiping a baby’s bottom. In “Touch,” a woman whacks her mate over the head with a shoe.

For the modern viewer, these paintings may be as close as we come to sharing laughs that are nearly 400 years old. The paintings’ humor is characteristic of Molanaer’s other works. Motifs from them even creep into works ostensibly treating different subjects. As Mariët Westermann points out in the exhibition’s excellent catalog, much of the humor is so foreign to our own sensibilities that it can be hard to take.

This is not to say, though, that Molenaer pitched his work to the lowest appetites in his audience. The painter must also have appealed to collectors with a knowledge of earlier artistic traditions, ranging from Caravaggio’s con artists and dupes to Brueghel’s festivals and Hals’ “Merry Companies.” The “Five Senses” series is typical of Molenaer’s other painting in that it shows him inventing his own subjects by revisiting themes and types inherited from an earlier generation.

Often, Molenaer updates these subjects by re-mixing the high and the low, and thus forces the viewer to reflect on attitudes about social class. The paintings can look judgmental, and some scholars habitually take confrontations like those Molenaer employs, between the working poor and their middle-class contemporaries, as didactic in intent. Dennis P. Weller, the exhibition’s curator and the world’s leading expert on Molenaer, argues this position in the exhibition catalog. His evidence for how contemporaries would have regarded the painting includes prints of similar subjects by different artists, outfitted with moralizing inscriptions.

Certainly there is good reason, when viewing at least some of Molenaer’s paintings, to suspect that invirtuous behavior is largely ascribed to the poor. When the villagers in the background of the “Allegory of Fidelity” are shown brawling, or when drinkers in a Twelfth Night scene have large heads and misshapen physiognomies it is difficult to believe that the painter wants us entirely to sympathize with them.

As Weller observes, however, “the extent of Molenaer’s condemnation of these peasant merrymakers’ actions must be gauged against their intended comic appeal.” Class contrasts, that is, could themselves contribute as much to delight as to instruction. In some cases, these two imperatives seem even to collide.

Should Molanaer’s “Merry Companies” be interpreted as indications of the pleasures that drinking and smoking bring, as the Frans Hals images that inspired them tend to be, or are they caricatures of lower class behavior? Does the 1627-8 work “Boy Holding a Tankard and Pipe” represent the early acquisition of vices, or does it simply document how a painter like Molenaer would construct his images of revel, dressing up a studio assistant and having him pose for a study? Is the couple at the center of the circa 1630 painting “Dance in a Village Street” the subject of ridicule, or do they exemplify the kind of joyous behavior in which the temperate bourgeois couple to the right of the picture could only hope to indulge?

In this last instance, the catalog entry proposes that the deserted tools in the foreground indicate the dancing couple’s abandonment of responsibility. Why, though, should we not think instead of an inscription on a later image of festivity, “The Tavern of the Crescent Moon,” which suggests that “the farmer or peasant deserves a rest after his hard labors in the field, and that he likes to drink deeply when he is having his well-earned rest”? Weller’s impressively informed commentaries allow similar questions to be raised about many of the images in the show. Even casual visitors to the exhibition might ask themselves in each case whether this lower middle-class, urban painter’s views of the rural poor are snubs or celebrations.

The Molenaer show alone would have been sufficient to make this show the most important Dutch art exhibition to come through the region in years. These galleries, however, constitute but the first part of Art in the Age of Rubens and Rembrandt. Upstairs from the Molenaer, the museum has a substantial second show, Rembrandt’s Etchings of the Bible. Featuring 25 prints by the Dutch artist, all on loan from other museums, the exhibition includes a number of masterpieces, among them the 1632 “Raising of Lazarus” and the 1635 “Descent from the Cross.” Roughly arranged to follow the course of events described in the Bible, two walls are devoted to scenes from the Old Testament, and a third to the life of Christ.

In the absence of a catalog, the viewer must take guidance from the gallery’s wall texts, the most helpful of which focus on Rembrandt’s technique. As the texts point out, Rembrandt was a printmaker of extraordinary versatility, experimenting with etching, with burin and drypoint, with surface wiping and with different papers. None of the gallery’s texts help the viewer to understand what all of these processes involve or to locate examples of them in the works on display, but the show’s inclusion of such technically various prints makes it possible to appreciate the wide range of Rembrandt’s methods.

Most of the included works illustrate the fluency of line that was possible in etching. Using this technique, the artist needed only to draw a needle lightly across a wax or resin coating that had been applied to a copper plate. He could leave it to the subsequent application of an acid bath to eat through the scores in the surface and “etch” the picture into the metal below. The effect of this can be contrasted to that achieved in drypoint, when the artist would use a needle to rework a naked copper plate. The bleeding edges of the heavily inked lines of the lion’s mane in “Jerome Reading in an Italian Landscape,” for example, record where ink got caught in dug-out copper burrs.

The shadowy upper corners of “Christ Disputing the Doctors” appear to be the result of surface wiping, when the artist, in printing the sheet, chose to leave ink not only in the etched lines of the plate but also on the surface of it. The same print allows a rare view of an occasion on which Rembrandt left the plate too long in its acid bath, creating areas of “fowl biting”–the splotches visible in the ladder at the left.

Visitors might also note the pair of Roman numerals that follow the description of medium in the label accompanying each print. These indicate the etching’s “state,” the version of the plate that resulted from one round of re-workings. For example, the “iv/v” on the label for “Christ Before Pilate” indicates that the print on display is the fourth of five states: that the artist reworked the same plate five times and that this print was taken after the fourth round of changes.

Rembrandt’s often astonishing inventiveness as a printmaker is apparent not only in his technique but also in his treatment of subject matter. Witness the print of Adam and Eve, which renders the mother and father of humanity as dumpy mortals, and pairs them with a marvelous dragon of a serpent and, in the Edenic background, a little elephant. No less imaginative is the 1641 “Raphael Departing from the Family of Tobias,” which shows the exiting angel from the rear, and only from the waist down, with skirts flying and with the soles of his feet presented to the viewer. The suppression of wings, head, and all of the parts of the angel that denote its higher state exemplifies the tendency in Rembrandt to focus on the most humble aspect of his subjects. The 1635 “Good Samaritan” prominently depicts a dog defecating in the foreground, while the 1654 “Circumcision” is set not, as one would expect, in a stately temple, but in a lowly stable.

Though the biblical etchings provide a fabulous opportunity to see 25 great works of 17th-century art in a single gallery, it is still possible to quibble with some aspects of the exhibit’s presentation. It might have helped the non-expert visitor, for one thing, to explain the technical vocabulary used in the wall text. To highlight the nature of Rembrandt’s customary retooling of existing compositions, it would also have been useful to show at least one print in different states.

The gallery’s organization is also curious. The objects seem to be hung to follow the chronology of biblical history, though the presence of an introductory text and a Rembrandt self-portrait at one of the room’s entrances suggest that visitors should start with the Life of Christ, rather than with the Old Testament. Along the walls, moreover, the chronology is not always strict: “Adam and Eve,” for example, succeeds “Abraham’s Sacrifice.” Finally, why does an exhibition titled Rembrandt’s Etchings from the Bible include several images of St. Jerome, a Church Father from the fourth century?

In the galleries adjacent to the Rembrandt is the third part of the larger exhibition, this one featuring Dutch paintings of biblical scenes. The idea here seems to be one of providing counterpoint to the prints. Visitors coming from the Triangle area specifically to see the temporary exhibition might be encouraged to pass through these galleries at a quicker pace, since all but two of the paintings are regularly on display in the Museum’s permanent collection.

The final feature of Art in the Age of Rubens and Rembrandt–the one that allows the name Rubens to be included in the general title–is the newly unveiled kunstkamer or “art-room,” also now a permanent part of the museum. The room is intended to illustrate how art might have been displayed in a private residence in 17th-century Flanders.

Here, pictures are hung one above the other on the walls, and paintings are displayed alongside such naturalia as shells and coral. It is, perhaps, a bit misleading that the wall text refers to the space as a “period room,” for though the gallery includes some fine pieces of 17th-century furniture, a beautiful painted cabinet, and a great brass chandelier, the room itself is not, like the period rooms at other major museums, an actual historical object in itself, or even a reproduction of an actual historical space.

It is also sad that the museum, facing concerns about the security and preservation of the small objects displayed there, has had to place those objects in modern display cases, further undermining the effect of a historical collection or living space. The sometimes equally unhappy alternative, with which the museum is also experimenting, would have been to place the objects at some distance from roped-off visitors. This practice, followed by many European collections, can make the objects difficult to interpret.

Still, it is wonderful that museum visitors are now channeled through a space that forces them to reflect on the artifices of the modern museum, which, in allowing the public to examine individualized objects under halogen lights at close range, entirely removes those objects from the settings for which they were made.

In North Carolina it may be impossible to re-create anything like the effect of seeing a Flemish painting in situ, but the NCMA’s kunstkamer is valuable as an educational tool, and its lessons carry beyond its doors. EndBlock