A Feast for the Eyes: Dallas Museum of Art overflows with 300 years of Flemish masterworks

“Stepping into this exhibition truly feels like you’re embarking on a journey through time,” says Dr. Nicole R. Myers, Dallas Museum of Art’s interim chief curator and The Barbara Thomas Lemmon senior curator of European Art. She’s referring to the exhibition Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools: 300 Years of Flemish Masterworks, a sumptuous collection of more than 140 works of art from the 1400s through 1600s. Organized by the Denver Art Museum in collaboration with The Phoebus Foundation in Antwerp, Belgium, the traveling exhibition is making its final stop in Dallas Feb. 19 through June 25, 2023, in the DMA’s Clinton Gallery.

“The Flanders, or the Southern Netherlands, was an absolute powerhouse for arts and culture throughout the medieval and Baroque periods,” says Dr. Myers. “It turned out some of the most influential artists and artwork of those periods, artists like Hieronymus Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, and Anthony van Dyck. As the DMA has few examples of historic Flemish artwork in its collection, we jumped at the chance to bring the incredible Phoebus Foundation collection here to share with our community.”

Visitors can expect six thematic sections with paintings, manuscripts, sculptures, prints, and decorative art objects from what is today Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and Luxembourg. It begins with the religion-themed “God is in the Details.” Artists of the time began presenting holy figures as flesh-and-blood human beings in contemporary settings, a new approach that heightened feelings of connection. Works in this section include Hans Memling’s The Nativity and Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s Triptych with The Adoration of the Magi, all showcasing the extraordinary attention to detail and devotional imagery that artists and patrons favored at the time.

“Visitors will likely recognize the names of some of the more famous artists, like Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck, and also be familiar with the types of objects presented, such as large-scale triptychs—a painting composed of three panels—that served as devotional altarpieces in public or private places of worship that are as emotionally moving as they are visually dazzling,” says Dr. Myers.

The second section, titled “From God to the Individual,” showcases how wealthy members of high societal standing were allowed to remain eternally pious through depictions of their holy reverence. The next, “Exploring the World,” marries art and science, as microscopes, telescopes, compasses, and quadrants were developed following earthly exploration, and that urge to learn and explore was then reflected in the works of Southern Netherlandish artists. A pause for fun follows in “The Fool in the Mirror,” a section dedicated to works that humorously critique humans’ innate greed, lust, and other earthly follies. Jokes, pranks, and witty double meanings encourage laughter while warning against a sinful existence.

In “The Triumph of Emotion,” historical context regarding the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) fought between the Netherlands and Spain helps viewers to understand why artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck adopted an emotional approach to painting. In these works, religious scenes were meant to move and overwhelm the viewer, thus securing allegiance to the Catholic faith, embraced by the Spanish rulers.

“I don’t want to give too much away, but the exhibition ends with quite a bang in a gallery dedicated to the Kunstkammer, or Room of Wonder,” reveals Dr. Myers. “Kunstkammers were essentially galleries in the homes of wealthy collectors who displayed their elevated social status and cultural refinement by amassing impressive holdings of paintings, sculptures, and objects that sparked wonder for their rarity or exquisite craftsmanship, such as cups made of coconut, small bronze antiquities, silver ornaments, or sculptures carved from ivory or exotic woods. Our display will transport visitors back in time to experience the awe and wonder of a Kunstkammer.”

This roughly chronological journey presents visitors with the most pressing themes and historic events of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. “This period of production was a defining and pivotal moment, not only in the development of medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art, but in the greater scheme of cultural, scientific, and political evolution in Europe,” says Dr. Myers. “We see shifts in the importance of religion in everyday life and the rise of Humanist values, the birth of a wealthy middle class and the toll taken by warring political factions. We see humans at their very best and at their very worst. The Flemish help us to laugh at human folly and marvel at how, in spite of ourselves, artists have this incredible ability to convey the beauty, tragedy, and ups and downs of the shared human experience that unites us all across time through art that still speaks to us today.”