290 Dutch art on a European roll

The diffusion of Dutch art throughout Europe, the subject of a classical monograph by Horst Gerson in 1942, has never enjoyed more attention than it is receiving right now. Schwartz reviews current Franco-, Anglo- and Italo-Dutch developments, ending with a report on a spectacular new discovery concerning Rembrandt in Genoa.

In 1942, in fulfillment of an essay competition announced in 1936, the Teyler’s Second Society in Haarlem published the winning study on the spread of Dutch painting throughout the world: Horst Gerson, Ausbreitung und Nachwirkung der holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts (The diffusion and after-effect of Dutch 17th-century painting). Written in German-occupied Holland by a German immigrant of Jewish extraction, the Ausbreitung documents the Dutch artistic conquest of large parts of the world. The longest single section in the book are the 153 pages on “Das Deutsche Reich.”

The Ausbreitung came out in an edition of 500 copies, drew a mere two reviews and was underused for decades. Nonetheless, it is one of those enviable achievements that was destined for immortality. The great significance of the phenomenon it treats is rediscovered time and again by researchers in many different specialties, and all of them find that Gerson got there first. In 1983, five years after Gerson’s death, the Amsterdam antiquarian and reprint publisher B.M. Israël brought out a new edition, edited and introduced by Bert Meijer.

Sixty-six years after its first appearance the Ausbreitung is more indispensible than ever. From 28 to 30 May I attended a congress in the northern French town of Lille devoted to “Les échanges artistiques entre les anciens Pay-Bas et la France” (The artistic exchanges between the early modern Netherlands and France). In the introductory lecture, the first slide projected onto the screen was the title page of the Ausbreitung. Had their train not been cancelled by Dutch Railways, the moment could have been enjoyed by two scholars from the Netherlands Institute for Art History in The Hague (RKD), Ursula de Goede and Rieke van Leeuwen, who came to Lille in connection with their work on a new, digital edition of the Ausbreitung. (Gerson worked at the RKD for 30 years.) For three days, speaker after speaker discussed the impact, from the Middle Ages to 1800, of Dutch art on France and, in far lesser measure, vice versa. Many of them felt obliged to mention the paucity of research on their subjects. I was one of them. No new archive research on my artist, Jean-Charles Dominique van Beecq, an Amsterdamer in the service of Louis XIV, has been conducted since 1867. For 32 years I have been awaiting my chance to pick up the ball. It has not yet come.

The conference in Lille was only one of a small barrage of Gerson topics to be fired in quick succession this year. A Dutch-French subject not discussed at the symposium was covered exhaustively in a book launched on June 7th in the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam: Paysages de France dessinés par Lambert Doomer et les artistes hollandais et flamands des XVIe en XVIIe siècles. The book contains an unexpected wealth of material. Unexpected, as these authors too felt obliged to mention, because it was “nearly completely ignored after the Ausbreitung…”

Willem Schellinks, Baptism in Nantes. Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig Museum

Willem Schellinks, Baptism in Nantes, 1646
Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig Museum

The largest group of drawings was made in 1645 and 1646 by Lambert Doomer (1624-1700) and Willem Schellinks (1626/27-1678) during their travels in France, partly together. Schellinks kept a journal of the trip, preserved in a fair copy in Copenhagen. The two artists were driven not only by a search for picturesque motifs but also by curiosity concerning the folkways of the French. Their drawings are panoramic and personal at the same time. The melding of image and text, visual and sentimental interest bring the France of the mid-17th century wonderfully close. How precious is a note like this, dated 17 May 1646 in Nantes: “To pass the time of day, I painted the interior of the skipper’s cabin or hut all around with landscapes, with the result that afterwards the skipper did not ask me for payment for food or passage, in recompense.”

Then there is England. Next week will see the publication of the Dutch edition of Lisa Jardine’s new book, Going Dutch: how England plundered Holland’s glory. Jardine writes with irresistible verve about her various political, military, scientific and cultural subjects. With an eye always open for ties between England and Holland, the houses of Orange and Stuart, Dutch and British elites and denizens of the Republic of Letters, she enlivens and enriches every subject on which she writes. Her main informants are father and son Constantijn Huygens, both of whom straddled the Channel in their interests and, in the case of Constantijn Junior, his career as well. He was one of William III’s men when the stadholdership of the Republic and royal rule over Britain were exercised by the same man and his wife, William and Mary. The artists of the northern and southern Netherlands were in large measure the creators of what was to become English art.

Concerning national characteristics, Jardine is refreshingly blunt. While art historians strain to define the Englishness of English gardens and the Dutchness of Dutch, they fail to acknowledge that most of them were designed by the same crew of international gardeners scurrying all over northern Europe, many of them Frenchmen working on Italian principles.

Jardine’s book attracted some sensationally hostile reviews in the English press. The idea that England in 1688 allowed itself to be conquered by a Dutch condottiere without firing a shot, that so many elements of the English national character are interchangeable with Dutch or Flemish traits were simply insupportable for these reviewers. Their attacks on Jardine went beyond the critical to the vicious. Bad karma on them.

The man who presides over Dutch-Italian artistic contacts has no such problem. He is the same ubiquitous Bert Meijer we met above as editor of Gerson. When he retires this summer after 32 years as director of the Dutch Institute for Art History in Florence and a shorter period as professor at Utrecht University, he will be feted as an Italian cultural hero as well as a Dutch one. Rightly so. He has worked tirelessly as a scholar, teacher, organizer and administrator of indispensible publications and facilities a working life long. Between him and his colleague Bernard Aikema of Nijmegen and Verona, Dutch art history is represented in the Italian establishment at the highest level one could wish for.

The interaction between the Netherlandish and Italian schools continues to fascinate art historians. Although there are people out there with an axe to grind on the subject, scholars who believe that north is north and south is south and never the twain shall meet, that is no longer the prevailing opinion either in the Netherlands or in Italy. For decades, Meijer has been gathering all the examples he can find in Italy of the work of “Fiamminghi,” as all artists from the Low Countries were named in Italy. Many were previously attributed to Italian masters. Meijer’s retirement coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Dutch Institute, which will be celebrated on June 19th in the Palazzo Vecchio. The two events overlap seamlessly, with exhibitions celebrating him, his institute and Dutch-Italian relations in the Palazzo Pitti of Florentine and Netherlandish painting of the 15th century (curated by Meijer himself) and in the Uffizi of Dutch and Flemish 17th-century drawings (curated by Meijer and Wouter Kloek).

Missing from the exhibitions will be one of the greatest instances of Dutch artistic Ausbreitung into Italy ever recorded. It was discovered only a short time ago in the private archive of the Sauli family of Genoa, since 1938 incorporated into the Durazzo Giustiniani private archive. This afternoon, Friday the 13th of June 2008, the find was presented to the assembled Dutch Rembrandt specialists in the Rembrandt House by Prof. Lauro Magnani of the University of Genoa. (In 2006 he published the same material in the Italian journal Annali di Critica d’Arte, where it went unnoticed.) The missing artist was “Rembrant pitore fiammingo,” as he is called in a document of 2 June 1667, one of a series of references to Rembrandt between June 1666 and June 1668.

The story is gripping. In the 1660s the Genoese aristocrat Francesco Maria Sauli was in the midst of a campaign to glorify the family church, the 16th-century Nostra Signora Assunta basilica in Carignano. How and why we do not know, but he and the rest of the family decided to ask Rembrandt to submit models for two large paintings for the church. They commissioned Captain Gio Lorenzo Viviano of the Genoa merchant fleet to work together with the Amsterdam agents Voet and Benzi in order to get the work from Rembrandt. They had a hard time getting a straight story from the artist, whom they called unreliable and unpredictable, like all his colleagues (“al solito de pittori, quest’huomo è stravagante, e sopra le sue parole non gli si può far stato”), and avaricious to boot. (“Col Rembrante non so come ne usciró me ne domanda di tutte due fiorini 3000 quando ne chiedè da principio solamente fiorini 1200.”)

However, after a delay of more than half a year, Rembrandt delivered the two models, which were shipped off to Genoa. Of one of them the subject is recorded: an Assumption of the Virgin, the central iconography of the church. Whether a commission for the large paintings would ever have been forthcoming is doubtful. The captain and the agents wrote to their principals in Genoa that Rembrandt’s financial demands for the models were already so high that they did not think it likely that negotiations for the full-size works would be successful, despite Rembrandt’s stated intention to gain renown and honor in their city.
In the article he has now published in the Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis 2007, Prof. Magnani expressed doubt whether the paintings ever arrived, since one of Viviano’s voyages in 1667 ended at the bottom of the sea. However, in his presentation at a symposium in the Rembrandt House earlier today, he referred to later documents, one of 1699, concerning a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin in Carignano, artist unnamed, that he thought may well refer to one of the Rembrandts. His research was still in progress, he said, and he did not eliminate the possibility that the paintings may some day be found.

In the meanwhile, it is to be hoped that the documents concerned are published according to accepted standards. Of course we are all grateful and excited to know about them, but in the Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis the references to Rembrandt are quoted out of context, without transcriptions of the complete documents, and without photographs of even one of the original documents. Access to the archive where they are preserved is closed to researchers.

Readers of The Rembrandt book by yours truly, I immodestly note, will not be surprised by the nature of this major discovery. They know things that the readers of other books on Rembrandt do not know: that he gladly irritated his patrons (pp. 13-14), that he had deep affinity with Catholic iconographies and institutions (pp. 350-52) and that from the 1650s on he behaved in his art like an Italian artist of the 16th century (p. 39).

How wonderful it would had have been if Rembrandt had fulfilled the commission and delivered the two large paintings for Nostra Signora Assuntà in Carignano. Aside from the paintings themselves, which I already miss, their very existence would have shifted the accepted clichés about Dutch 17th-century art by a quarter turn. But who knows? The wonder of recovering the model would be nearly as great.

Stijn Alsteens and Hans Buijs, Paysages de France dessinés par Lambert Doomer et les artistes hollandais et flamands des XVIe en XVIIe siècles, avec une contribution de Véronique Mathot et une traduction des journaux des voyage en France de Willem Schellinks par Jan Blanc, Paris (Fondation Custodia) 2008

Lisa Jardine, Going Dutch: how England plundered Holland’s glory, London (HarperCollins) 2008

Lauro Magnani, “1666: een onbekende opdracht uit Genua voor Rembrandt,” Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis 2007, pp. 2-17


© 2008 Gary Schwartz. Published on 13 June 2008 on the Schwartzlist.

Tomorrow Loekie and I are leaving on a little tour to check out Dutch-French and Dutch-Italian relations in the two countries the Netherlands has just defeated in the European Soccer Championships. Two years ago we were driving our car, with Dutch license plates, in Dresden while Germany was playing Holland. We got some jeers, even though Germany won. We’ll find out in the days to come how sporting the losers are.

After visits to Nancy and Geneva, we will be attending the 50th anniversary of the Netherlands Institute for Art History in Florence, after which we will spend four days in Venice before returning to Florence to join the CODART ELF study trip to Florence, Genoa and Turin. This has got to be a great trip.

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