CLASSIC BEAUTIES at the Hermitage in Amsterdam

Hermitage Amsterdam offers a wonderful exhibition called CLASSIC BEAUTIES. ARTISTS, ITALY AND THE ESTHETIC IDEALS OF THE 18TH CENTURY. The exhibition shows 18th and 19th century art, inspired by finds from excavations in Italy during the same period. Though just one floor, there are over sixty works of art to admire and some are simply stunning.

Roman and Greek works of art were found, which inspired a new interest in anything classical. Part of a European gentleman’s education was the Grand Tour, with time spent in Italy. Artists also flocked to Italy.

Visitors to Italy included important and influential persons, like Goethe, as well as aristocrat and royalty like Tzar Paul I and his wife. They patronized local artists and often bought sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints.

The first few exhibition spaces not only show how Italy influenced artists and collectors. It lists artists’ most important or influential works, as well as links to other contemporary artists. One thing becomes clear: Angelika Kauffmann knew practically all and sundry!

Of course, this exhibition shows works by her. Art is also displayed by artists she knew. Works by Pompeo Batoni, Anton Raphael Mengs, Piranese and others impress. In the largest exhibition space are works by what the museum calls the most famous artist of his time: Antonio Canova.

Canova’s statues are indeed the cherry and icing on this exhibition ‘cake’: truly stunning. His talent and skill in turning marble into seemingly frothy lace, or sensual bare skin, is simply baffling. The museum offers visitors the chance to admire and walk around his iconic ‘Three Graces’, ‘Amor and Psyche’ and ‘Hebe’, and five other works.

Not that just Canova’s art impresses. There are plenty other sculptures to admire. But all are of course white. It would take quite a while for art historians to discover, that Roman and Greek statues had originally been painted over.

All statues, paintings, prints in the exhibition show the period’s craze for what was deemed to have been the Grego-Roman ideal of beauty. Not just about human bodies; but also in architecture, fashion, the applied arts.

Goethe’s treatise on colour; ideas and theories about beauty and art; the artists who knew one another and influenced each other: it makes for an interesting exhibition. Visitors see a new style being created and becoming the accepted standard: Neoclassicism.

Hermitage Amsterdam had exclusive access to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg’s collection, to pick and choose for this Amsterdam exhibition. The museum also added loans from private and public collections, including the Royal Collections in The Hague and the Teylers Museum in Haarlem.

As with the previous exhibition on Spanish art, the audio tour does not just include explanations to paintings, artists and classical myths. It also includes a ‘music route’. Visitors can scan special signs to hear classical music excerpts. Unfortunately, DJ Von Rosenthal found it necessary to maul some of the music.

It was also deemed necessary to rope in Dutch author Arnon Grunberg to write up a publication on ‘fear of nakedness’. Totally unnecessary, superfluous; just one of those stupid marketing & sales ploys some museums think necessary to cash in their exhibitions.

This is a marvelous exhibition on Neo-Classicism. It only disappoints in one aspect: it covers only one floor of the sprawling Amsterdam Hermitage. A warning: there is an extra charge for most visitors including those with a valid museum-card. Visit the museum’s website for all info; including accessibility of the building.  Kate Deni   26th June 2018


The exhibition Classic Beauties. Artists, Italy, and the Esthetic Ideals of the 18th century runs until 13th of January 2019.

Photo courtesy Hermitage St Petersburgh; Canova’s Three Graces, A. Amendola