T he other day I had the pleasure of co-hosting a party given by Sotheby's for their friends and clients at the Wallace Collection, which culminated in dinner around an extremely long table in the Great Gallery at Hertford House. The food was good, the company was exuberant and the art was out of this world. I don't think I have ever attended an event of this kind where the guests stayed quite as late, so I think it is safe to say that a good time was had by all. A very good time was certainly had by me: there are few things I enjoy more than talking to people who know about art and love it, and goodness knows there have been few opportunities to do that during the last eighteen months. To cap it all I can now say that I have eaten ice cream in the colours of the rainbow, in front of Rubens' Rainbow Landscape.
Before dinner, Xavier Bray, director of the Wallace Collection, gave guests a tour of the stunning new exhibition that he has curated for the museum, "Frans Hals: The Male Portraits" while I took them to see some of the highlights of the permanent collection in the upper galleries.
There have been quite a few changes since I was last at the Wallace Collection: little tweaks and rehangs that have enhanced the experience of visiting the museum in all kinds of subtle ways. The two masterpieces of Boucher's career as a mythological painter, The Rising of the Sun and The Setting of the Sun, still hang over the main staircase, where they have been for many years; but Xavier recently took the inspired decision to reverse the order in which they used to be shown. Before, the setting of the sun preceded its rising, but now it is the other way around - and the result is a revelation. Seen in their new orientation, these two whirling and sexually charged compositions might almost be a single canvas, in which Apollo first rises to meet his sea-nymph lover, then sinks to sleep in her watery boudoir. Viewed through half-closed eyes they possess – or so it seems to my mind – the whirling cosmic energies of New York School abstract painting: a rococo anticipation of Jackson Pollock.
Whether I am right about that or not, the new orientation surely reflects their original arrangement on the wall in the bedroom where Madame de Pompadour received her royal lover, Louis XV, in a chateau strategically placed between Versailles and Paris. Apollo, of course, was to be understood as Louis XV himself in mythological guise; while the while sea-nymph was none other than Madame de Pompadour herself. The two pictures therefore represent the before and after of their own liaison dangereux, which would have actually taken place on the bed in the middle – the act of love itself complementing the two pictures that mythologise it. The intense eroticism that still emanates from Boucher's pictures – once described by the Goncourt brothers as "the two triumphal pages of his art" – may well have helped the Fourth Marquess of Hertford to acquire them for a song. In the second half of the 19th century, no French aristocrat (or museum, for that matter) wanted to be associated with the sexual licence of the ancien regime, so anything by Boucher was strictly off limits. According to the Wallace Collection catalogue, they were purchased for £808 the pair. Those were the days.
Leaving Madame de Pompadour's bedroom behind, we spent the rest of my short tour focusing on all things Dutch – and there are few better places than the Wallace Collection to do that. We looked at Rembrandt, who has enjoyed something of a resurgence at the museum in the last few years – in the sense that a number of the museum's pictures once believed to be by his hand, then ruled out thanks to the extremely rigorous approach taken by the Rembrandt Research Committee, are now being actively considered for re-acceptance into his oeuvre. His touchingly affectionate and poignant portrait of his son, Titus – a picture made almost unbearable by the knowledge that this boy, his father's pride and joy, would be dead within a few years, of the plague – has of course never been questioned as an autograph work. But the artist's small Self-portrait of 1650 on copper, demoted to the mere designation "After Rembrandt" some years ago, has now been allowed back into the same gallery as Titus, and it certainly looks right to me. So too do the magnificent pair of portraits of Jean Pellicorne and his wife Susanna van Collen, with their son and daughter respectively, which Xavier has promoted to the setting of the Great Gallery itself. The painting of the lace, the handling of the fabrics, the expressions in the faces of the sitters (above all the children) – everything about these pictures proclaims Rembrandt's authorship to me, all the more so now that they can be seen virtually side by side with some of the greatest portraits by Van Dyck and Velazquez.
While on the subject, I also believe there is a good case for the magnificent large history painting of The Centurion Cornelius in the Wallace to be given back to Rembrandt for the simple reason that I cannot imagine who else could have painted this glowing picture, so filled with a sense of compassionate humanity. Currently, it too is listed as mere "Follower of Rembrandt" but if it really was painted by someone else they were anything but mere. The Wallace Collection suffered more than most from the so-called "Rembrandt drain" that occurred during the 20th century, when many attributions (some, admittedly, over-optimistic) were ruthlessly culled. When the Fourth Marquess of Hertford died in 1870 he believed that he owned 13 Rembrandts, which had become just one (the indubitable Titus) by the late 1980s. That represents quite some drain. But now the number seems to creeping back up, by my count to four or even five. The moral of the story is that attribution is an inexact science, so always keep an open mind.
As well as looking at Rembrandt, we looked at a number of Dutch genre paintings, including some of my favourites, such as Caspar Netscher's incomparably delicate Lacemaker and Pieter de Hooch's Mother Teaching her Daughter to Peel Apples. They might seem like straightforward pictures of domesticity, about which there is not much to be said – beautiful, in other words, yet also a little dull – but I think that with a little historical imagination they can be appreciated in a different and deeper way. Such pictures were only painted in Holland after 1648, which was a hugely significant year in European history, given that it marked the end both of the long Eighty Years War between the United Provinces and Spain, and of the yet more terrible Thirty Years War, in which between a quarter and a third of the entire population of Germany lost their lives. So when we look at pictures like those of De Hooch and Netscher, I think we should look beyond the mere specifics of the painted moment; and then what we really see are quietly ecstatic celebrations of things that, for several generations of northern Europeans, had been the most distant of dreams or fantasies: peace, in all its simplicity; and inviolate love, of a kind made long impossible. When life has for so many years been so fraught, so traumatic, so regularly shattered by violence, a domestic scene of peace and quiet can seem like a miracle; and I think that is exactly how it did seem to many of the great Dutch painters of 1650s and 1660s. Surely that is what de Hooch meant to signify in that wonderful, dancing mosaic of light playing on the wall above the head of his mother and child as they peel their apples. You can choose to see it as just light, naturalistically painted, with consummate skill. But I see it as more than that. I see it as a benediction.
At the end of the evening Xavier and I spoke together for a little while about the male portraiture of Frans Hals, so many brilliant examples of which have been brought together in his exhibition. What struck me with particular force when visiting the show was the sense of palpable, immediate human presence conjured up by Hals in his portraits of mostly powerful Dutchmen of the first half of the 17th century. Who were they, these men who seem to have so little to declare other than their sense of self, and self-reliance? Not aristocrats, but wealthy burghers, many of them no doubt regents of their cities; tradesmen; merchant travellers; diplomats. They were precisely the men who, in the 1630s and 1640s, fought for – and won, albeit briefly – the peace and prosperity that would be celebrated in the paintings of artists such as Pieter de Hooch, Caspar Netscher and indeed Johannes Vermeer a generation later.
Unlike the court portraits of the same period painted in other countries, which depict the European aristocracy in all their finery, there is little to distract the eye from the proud, truculent faces of Hals's sitters, their predominantly dark costumes enlivened only by the odd frill of lace or casually worn pair of kid gloves. This sense of naked human presence is enhanced, especially in some of the later portraits – that of the merchant Willem Coymans, for instance, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum in New York – by Hals's free and impressionistic use of paint, so broken up into little dabs and dashes that it makes painting seem like a form of morse code.
I had a friend once, a painter, who spoke admiringly of Hals's "see-me-dance-the-polka brushwork", and the Wallace Collection's show positively sways to its rhythm. There is an element of exhibitionism to it, which is especially manifest in The Laughing Cavalier, that splendid and rightly famous Valentine's card of a painting, surely created to be a gift from the sitter (whose costume is embroidered with love hearts and cupid's arrows) to the woman he had his twinkling eye on.
But that picture is an exception in Hals' oeuvre, and in general I don't see his polka-ing with the brush as virtuosity pure and simple; I think it has a meaning, in relation to the men whom Hals was painting. The Dutchmen of the 17th century were the great exceptions of Europe. They lived in the only true republic in Europe, the only state where all religious beliefs were tolerated (if not encouraged) and where freedom of speech existed alongside freedom of trade. Theirs was the society in which 17th century science made many of its greatest discoveries and in which Descartes and Spinoza wrote their philosophies. It was also virtually the only place in Europe where a man might truly rise from humble origins to become a member of the ruling elite. So when Hals painted all those miraculously free portraits, portraits that look as though dashed off in a sitting – when he put the process of painting so nakedly into the final look of painting – I think he was expressing a truth, not merely adopting a style. These were men who were making themselves up, and remaking their world, as they went along. Hals's way of painting them, in all its fluidity and with all its sudden and startling improvisations, was a perfect reflection of who they were.