SALEM — The Peabody Essex Museum's new exhibit, "Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection," offers 67 paintings from the 17th century, representing a leap in the development of art.
They also serve history with a vivid glimpse of a phenomenon as the new middle class and the world around them is lovingly re-created.
And then there's the dog.
The man who has spent nearly 20 years collecting these works, Eijk van Otterloo, a Dutch-born Marblehead investor and developer, paused only a moment when asked which is his favorite. He nodded approvingly, "'Sleeping Dog' by (Gerrit) Dou."
It's one of the smallest images and one that could have been painted yesterday. Frederik Duparc, guest curator at the PEM, lingered over the image during a recent tour of the show.
"It's very important how to render the different textures," he indicated. The dog's soft fur seems real enough to pet, and the gleam of a nearby pot's baked finish contrasts where it is chipped, chalky and flaking at the lid.
"The dog's nose is wet," Duparc said as he leaned in close. "He is a healthy dog."
This is a show that includes a Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Jan Steen, as well as a number of pieces of 17th-century furniture so wonderfully carved that each stands as a work of art in itself. And if a single painting catches particular attention — Duparc called Rembrandt's portrait of the aging Aeltje Uylenburgh "the pearl of the collection" — it's more a case of being the tallest giant.
"They're all stars," enthused Duparc, the former director of Mauritshuis, the Royal Picture Gallery in the Hague. "Every single picture in the exhibition is really, as the financial people say, triple-A. I've seen many, many private collections, but I've never seen a private collection where every single picture is of such quality."
Van Otterloo, a partner at Grantham, Mayo & Van Otterloo in Boston, began collecting Dutch and Flemish art at the suggestion of a Museum of Fine Arts curator. Not only did he and his wife have the resources for such a venture, but the van Otterloos spoke the language, giving them access to many of the people who dealt in such paintings.
"Also," van Otterloo noted, "it's a part of our heritage."
Rose-Marie, he explained, hails from a Flemish section of Belgium, while Eijk is Dutch born. He speaks with the slightest accent, and both became American citizens in 1991.
"Remember the 'perfect storm?'" he asked. It was that night that they came home from the naturalization ceremony.
As a young man, van Otterloo studied economics. That might not seem the perfect preparation for developing a passion over art, "But people are complex," he said, smiling. "They have a wide range of interests."
Many of the artworks adorn the couple's homes in Marblehead and Naples, Fla. But allowing them to be seen by the public is also a priority, and they are constantly lent out to museums.
"We're delighted it's here in Salem," he said of the current show, the first time the entire collection has been in one place.
After closing on June 19, the paintings go to museums in San Francisco and Houston.
What's it like to have a 400-year-old cabinet in the house? Van Otterloo stressed that these things have been lived with for centuries, and there's no reason to treat them differently now. If one of his grandchildren leaves a drink on the cabinet, he simply wipes it clean.
On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine growing accustomed to such stunning paintings. They include the extraordinary "Barber-Surgeon Tending a Peasant's Foot," by Issack Koedijck, an exacting reproduction of the barber's quarters and possessions, the image seemingly as real as a snapshot, with a book opened on a nearby table and so carefully done that Duparc was able to track down the actual book. It's included in the show.
The first society to develop modern corporations, a stock exchange and real wealth that was earned rather than taken by kings and princes, 17th-century Holland was girded by its belief in Calvinism. Leisure allowed the elect to take up the brush. Other artists were drawn to the thriving Low Countries where merchants paid good money to see themselves rendered for all eternity in oils.
The artists' vision of the world was expanded by Dutch explorers and conquerors whose reach extended to the ends of Earth. The result was an explosion of creativity never seen before, with painters showing an unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, perspective and, in some cases, even techniques that seemed to foreshadow expressionism.
Jan van der Heyden's "View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam," then the most beautiful and largest Protestant church in the world, seems so faithful you expect tiny figures near the canal to move. But here, Duparc reveals the difference between art and photography. Heyden was uncertain about his ability to produce realistic figures. He had a friend do the work.
"But he forgot something," Duparc said. "He forgot to paint their reflection in the water."
The curators here did not forget much. The actual sound of the Westerkerk bell tolling is part of the show. Art lovers be aware, it tolls for thee.
If you go
What: "Golden: Dutch and Flemish Masterworks from the Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo Collection," 67 paintings along with furniture, all by 17th-century masters of art and woodworking
Where: The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem
When: Feb. 26 to June 19
Cost: Admission is $15 for adults, $13 for seniors, $11 for students
Hours: Open Tuesday to Sunday, holiday Mondays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
More information: Visit pem.org or call 978-745-9500.