Paulus Potter, Punishment of a Hunter (1648-52)

"Dutch Masters from the Hermitage" is a phenomenal exhibition and a rare chance to see some treasures from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. The exhibition opens with a small but exquisite painting by Rembrandt of a young woman with earrings (1657), one of six paintings by Rembrandt included in the exhibition. It is the promise of many great things to come.

The first rooms of the exhibition are dedicated to painters who stood at the origin of the Golden Age of Dutch painting. A wall sized family tree nicely illustrates the relationships between the various painters. Rembrandt held a brief apprenticeship with Pieter Lastman, who also counted Jan Lievens among his pupils. Rembrandt in turn had various pupils who went on to become famous artists in their own right, including Gerrit Dou, Ferdinand Bol, Carel Fabritius and Nicolas Maes.

At first I had to look hard to find Elijah in Abraham Bloemaert's "Landscape with the Prophet Elijah in the Desert" (1605-15). The painting is dominated by a tree and a wooden shed. In the distance one can see some mountains. The landscape is entirely imaginary. As far as I know Abraham Bloemaert never visited the Middle East. Indeed, apart from a three year stay in Paris he never left the Netherlands.

In "Abraham on the Road to Canaan" (1614) Pieter Lastman depicts the moment God speaks to Abraham from the oak grove. Lastman does not actually paint God. He renders his appearance through rays of light that illuminate the faces of Abraham and his family.

The grand hall is dominated by five paintings by Rembrandt, including the phenomenal "Portrait of an Old Jew" (1654). Rembrandt didn't care about prevailing conventions or fashion. As this portrait shows he meticulously observed his sitters and sought to bring them to life in painting. But as two paintings in the same room show both Gerrit Dou and Govert Flinck hold their own with their former master.

Another highlight of the exhibition is "Punishment of a Hunter" (1648-52) by Paulus Potter (pictured above), which looks like a contemporary comic in the form of a painting. I can't think of any paintings like it.

Besides household names the exhibition includes many hidden treasures. I found it amusing to see two paintings by Melchior d'Hondecoeter (1636-95) in which the same pelican has been copy-pasted. Even the pose is identical. It was also fascinating to see various examples of the mastery of light for which the painters of the Dutch Golden Age are famous. "Concert" (1626) by Hendrick ter Brugghen shows three people lit by a candle in the painting's bottom right corner. Not only did Ter Brugghen get the shadows right, he also got the white balance right, since the painting is cast in a reddish glow.

The exhibition is just the right size, starting with an amuse in the form of Rembrandt's "Young Woman With Earrings", followed by an entrée, a main course and a dessert. For just when you think it can't get any better you encounter a portrait by Frans Hals and some domestic scenes by Gabriel Metsu, Gerard ter Borch, Pieter de Hooch and Jan Steen.

I've now seen various exhibitions with treasures from the Hermitage. I guess it is about time I visit the Hermitage itself.

Dutch Masters from the Hermitage is at the Hermitage Amsterdam through 27 May 2018.