The Dallas Museum of Art’s “Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools: 300 Years of Flemish Masterworks” boasts over one hundred thirty Flemish artworks, some indeed masterly, albeit displayed against jewel-toned walls that never quite let the objects speak for themselves. Organized in conjunction with the Denver Art Museum and Antwerp’s Phoebus Foundation, the traveling exhibition debuts the Phoebus Foundation’s collection in the States. And with conspicuous graphics, the show appears to have a proselytizing mission: to get American audiences excited about Flemish art and culture. But because its strategy often amounts to little more than attaching frills, “Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools” risks suggesting that the artworks aren’t interesting without backup.
The exhibition is divided thematically, and within each section the works bounce around between the three advertised centuries—fifteenth through seventeenth. First comes religious art. A turquoise plaque introducing the section, with text in a haywire ransom-note font that recurs throughout the show, explains that detailed renderings reflect the artists’ love for God’s creation. In a small devotional painting by Jan Gossaert, The Virgin and Child (ca. 1520), a paper-pale Virgin Mary looks down at a chubby Christ Child, whose every blond curl is meticulously articulated. Not far off, a follower of Hieronymus Bosch depicts the miseries of Hell in a scene reminiscent of the rightmost panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
Next, a selection of portraits signals the wealth of a growing merchant class that increasingly sought to be portrayed in the same manner as the nobility. The exhibition includes images of both these merchants and the nobility they imitated. Portrait of a Humanist (ca. 1595) by Frans Pourbus the Younger depicts an older man with an incisive gaze; he holds a book closed over his index finger as if the painter has interrupted his study. A portrait by Jan Sanders van Hemessen depicts Anne of Hungary’s court jester, Elizabet, with less flair than is seen in many of the portraits, but much affection. Elizabet is wrinkled and flat-skulled, with wide cheekbones and sparkling eyes. Her ridiculous court-fool garb—a tentlike green coat, a matching conic hat, and a necklace of metal rings that must have jingled with her every move—fails to detract from her apparent wisdom and vitality.
Here the viewer first encounters an embellishment that persists throughout the exhibition: slogans, whose relationship to the works is often oblique, plastered on the wall. Placed above an exquisitely disciplined Portrait of a Young Woman (artist unknown, 1613) is the declaration, highlighted in aubergine, that “Opportunity makes desire.” This dictum is stacked askew over more text, this time highlighted in bright magenta, reading the same in Spanish: “La oportunidad crea el deseo.” These bilingual platitudes appear throughout in colors such as chartreuse, coral, and blue-green, none of which harmonizes with the displayed works.
Another oddity is the exhibition’s explanation of the “rebus,” an optical puzzle that combines visual and written clues to represent a word or phrase. The occasion for this explanation is a painting, The World Feeds Many Fools (ca. 1530) by Jan Massys, of two men in fools’ garb. Above the pair, Massys painted a hovering series of disparate letters and objects. Sound out these letters and the names of these objects in Dutch and you’ll get a common proverb of the day: “the world feeds many fools.” Though a simple explanation of the concept would have sufficed, the DMA insists upon providing visitors with examples of their own making. Next to the painting hang rebuses for phrases such as “hot dog” (a sweating emoji and a dog) and “for the time being” (a necktie plus the letter M equals “time”; a bumblebee and spilled ink make “being”). The designs of the DMA’s rebuses—overlaid onto high-chroma colors like lime and orange—are unappealing and childish, and they distract from the comparatively restrained palette of Massys’s painting.
The objects in the exhibition need not rely on near-neons or children’s-museum tactics to be worthy of attention. A section featuring Flemish exploration and scientific endeavor contains two lion-shaped maps, a Leo Belgicus (1656) and a Leo Hollandicus (1622), and twenty delightful prints that depict modern inventions and discoveries ranging from the printing press to stirrups to cures for venereal disease. The series includes an illustration of Amerigo Vespucci’s journeys in the Americas, “Amerigo Vespucci rediscovers America” (1590), which receives an additional label acknowledging the print’s “stereotypical details” that “shaped the harmful perception of the yet-to-be-colonized lands as ‘sinful’ and ‘uncivilized.’”
A trove of works by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Jacob Jordaens chronicle the Netherlandish religious conflict of the era and the region’s eventual split into a Protestant North and a Catholic South. The “world in turmoil,” as a purple plaque dubs the period, seems to have allowed for the loosening of brushstrokes and the livening of forms. In Serenade (ca. 1640), Jordaens skillfully captures the consternation of a man heaving into a bagpipe and the flattered satisfaction of a woman who listens with her lapdog. Nearby, in a humorous painting by Michaelina Wautier titled Everyone to His Taste (ca. 1660), two boys with delicate features and flowing locks tussle over a hard-boiled egg. Even the most restrained painting of the bunch—Portrait of Infante Isabella Clara Eugenia (ca. 1635), a full-length portrait by van Dyck of a Spanish noblewoman dressed as a nun—is lifelike to a degree that few of the show’s earlier works achieve.
Though “Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools” is primarily a collection of portraits, history paintings, and genre scenes, other kinds of works proliferate toward the exhibition’s end. Several fifteenth-century vitrines display richly decorated books of hours. A side gallery holds several floral still lifes, among which Daniël Seghers’s Roses, Tulips and Narcissi in a Glass Vase (ca. 1630–40) stands out for its seemingly brushstroke-free rendering: the silky petals, shaggy-edged leaves, and slick glass vase are treated with equal precision and poise.
Also near the show’s end is a vitrine of memento mori trinkets, including a crystal skull pendant and a carved wooden Death wielding a scythe, bow, and quiver of arrows. Two diminutive, wittily morbid paintings guide the viewer from here toward the exit: in Vanitas Bust of a Lady (1688) by Catarina Ykens II, a skull with a thinning coiffure emerges from a youthful décolletage. Neighboring the Bust of a Lady is Frans Francken II’s Death and a Merchant (ca. 1600–20). Here, Death is depicted in diaphanous yellows and ochres as a skeleton playing the fiddle before a white-haired merchant. The placement of these playful admonitions makes up one of the exhibition’s subtler moments, striking a redemptive note after the show’s gaudy design. We leave understanding that all things must pass, “Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools” included. And while endings are often mournful, sometimes they may also allow a sigh of relief.