‘Clouds, Ice, and Bounty’: In conversation with curator Betsy Wieseman on an exhibition over two decades in the making

The exhibit is part of the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund Collection of Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish Paintings

‘Clouds, Ice, and Bounty’: In conversation with curator Betsy Wieseman on an exhibition over two decades in the making
Simon de Vlieger Estuary at Day's End, c. 1640/1645 oil on panel overall: 36.8 x 58.4 cm (14 1/2 x 23 in.) framed: 50.2 x 72.4 x 6.7 cm (19 3/4 x 28 1/2 x 2 5/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund and The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund in memory of Kathrine Dulin Folger

Tucked into a U-shaped exhibition room in the National Gallery of Art, “Clouds, Ice, and Bounty” transports visitors to a world of rich color and detail. Viewers get a glimpse into the 17th century in the low Northern European countries through paintings that highlight the everyday pleasures of what was a relatively peaceful and optimistic time in history. 

Having curated more than 10 exhibits for the National Gallery, Betsy Wieseman said she was drawn to Northern European art through its seemingly simplistic representations and generally playful nature. In collaboration with the Lee and Juliet Folger Fund, this 28-piece exhibit celebrates the Folger’s contribution to the NGA’s collection of Northern European art as well as four new acquisitions. 

Although the whimsical paintings may not draw explicit connections to our contemporary realities, Wieseman urges viewers to picture themselves “on a tour of the Netherlands in the 1750s,” while walking through the exhibit, to relax into the paintings and “get a flavor of life in a different time and place,” Wieseman said in an interview with The Eagle.

Undoubtedly, not many can relate to the objects and experiences depicted in these paintings. Nonetheless, Wieseman makes the point that the 17th century was certainly not a time of great public access to art: nothing like the influx of images and media that we experience today. 

"We are constantly bombarded with images whether they're on our phones, visual media, magazines, anything – images all day long,” Wieseman said. “Whereas in the 17th century, somebody might own one painting and that was it, and you would spend more time with the individual works. So artists cater to that by putting in that wealth of detail and encouraging people to look again and again and again in the hopes of discovering something new."

Still Life with Flowers Surrounded by Insects and a Snail” by Clara Peeters, the only work by a female artist in the exhibit, invited viewers to return to its detail. Despite the rarity of older works by female artists, the NGA — as well as many other museums — are now taking initiatives to add more works by women to their collections. 

“Many collections now are in a position where they’re trying to just rectify oversight of past generations,” Wieseman said. 

This new emphasis on acquiring works by female artists is not the only thing drastically changing how museums operate today. The coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot for the NGA. Despite all the limitations, such as the year-long postponement of “Clouds, Ice, and Bounty,” Wieseman said that COVID-19 has “opened up a lot of other opportunities” for sharing art with the public. 

“It has made [The NGA] aware of greater options for accessibility when it comes to art,” Wieseman said.

On view for the public until Feb. 27, 2022, “Clouds, Ice, and Bounty” provides viewers with small, detail-rich paintings from talented artists not previously shown in the National Gallery’s main galleries. These smaller, intimate paintings are “generally much more intimate and designed for really close one-on-one viewing,” Wieseman said. “Enabling us to present different sorts of experience in viewing engagement [with art].” 

“You have one sort of experience if you’re looking at a Rembrandt or a Rubens and they’re big and they’re muscular and they’re massive,” said Wieseman. “But then, something like the Saftleven [“Imaginary River Landscape”], it kind of sucks you in and it's a quieter sort of experience.”

Although she loves them all, Wieseman said that if she were to take any of the newly acquired paintings home, it would be the rich and colorful “Merry Company on a Terrace” by Dirck Hals, “just because I’m fascinated by the costumes.”

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