Dutch art, an export product from the start, has found its way into hundreds of museums and university curriculums in large stretches of the world. This might be on the decline, but there are still institutions outside the Netherlands devoted to the art Schwartz most loves.
Samuel van Hoogstraten said it already in 1678. The subjects of Dutch paintings are so accessible and attractive and the formats so transportable, they were made for export. He could have added that the sheer volume of high-level production was so great that export was more than just additional turnover – it was existentially crucial. And so the European and American art markets spilled over with Dutch paintings, many of which have ended up in museums. This in turn stimulated the academic study and curatorship of Dutch painting all over the collecting world.
Nothing lasts forever, and the effects of the above are wearing thin. This is not so much on account of any diminished appreciation for Dutch art itself, but because of larger forces. When I studied in the 1950s and ‘60s, art history was nearly synonymous with the study of European art, with old masters on the highest rung of the ladder. This unquestioned state of things has gradually broadened in the direction of global art history and a more inclusive museology, which to my mind is simply a very good thing. But it means that the number of dedicated professorships in Netherlandish art is diminishing, as is is the wall space for it in museums.
This makes all the more precious, for those of us still working in the confines of Dutch art history, the attention that continues to be bestowed on our subject, especially outside the Low Countries. In the past weeks I have been able to attend events at two of the foremost centers for my specialty. On 17 and 18 March Loekie and I were in Geneva for a symposium at the university with the resounding title The envy of some, the fear of others, and the wonder of all their neighbours: Seventeenth-century foreign insights on Dutch art. It was the first live scholarly event we attended in two years, and it was a pleasure. The ambiance could not have been nicer, and the framework friendlier, with plenty of time for discussion and conviviality.
The paper with the most power behind it, as presentation and in terms of data collection, was the one by my old buddy Hans Van Miegroet of Duke University. For decades, he has been collaborating with economic historians and data scientists, and has had generations of eager students at his disposal. The results, showing the pre-eminence of Dutch and Flemish painting on the Paris art market in the mid-eighteenth century, overturned the usual assumption that Italian art was prized above Netherlandish.
But a one-man show like that of Sander Karst of Utrecht University could be just as impressive. His mapping of artists’ studios in London from 1660 to 1720 is in itself enough to establish the same relationship between schools in London as Van Miegroet found in Paris.
The symposium was actually an example of its own subject, providing foreign insight, from Geneva, on foreign insights into Dutch art. It was the culminating event in a lengthy campaign, in which two books had already been published, breaking new ground in the study of the Dutch seventeenth century. The entire project – A Golden Age?: Rethinking 17th-century Dutch painting – was the brainchild, and the baby, of Jan Blanc, professor of art history at the Université de Genève. He enlisted not only his own scholarly staff, but also, cleverly, talented young Dutch art historians, for whom he was able to acquire faculty appointments they could fulfill remotely. In addition to book publications and symposiums, a website was created offering access to the contents of a hundred travelers’ journals on the early modern Netherlands: Visiting the Golden Age. Use it!
One of Jan Blanc’s other distinctions is that he is the first, in 2006, to have translated into another language – French – the most important Dutch publication on art from the second half of the seventeenth century, the tractate of Rembrandt’s pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten. And this is not his only specialty. See his dizzying list of publications on Academia. It was a disappointment to all that in mid-March Jan was in covid-19 quarantine in Paris and could not be present at this crowning event.
My other visit abroad to an important source for Dutch art was on Zoom: a CODART presentation on the new Center for Netherlandish Art (CAN) at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston. The CNA is based on a unique physical constellation. Three galleries in the museum proper have been reinstalled to offer a contextually didactic as well as artistically outstanding presentation of the best of the museum’s holdings in Dutch painting and decorative arts. One of the rooms is dedicated to the relation of Dutch art to its wider world. That in itself is unique for any museum outside the Netherlands. The intellectual grounding for this effort is located literally in the ground below it, through an elevator that descends to a spacious study area furnished with one of the best libraries of Dutch art in the western hemisphere, incorporating the famous library of the late Egbert Haverkamp Begemann in addition to the museum’s own holdings. These facilities, augmented by the Dutch drawings and prints in the MFA print room, allow for the best kind of interaction between book scholarship and aesthetic experience.
The impetus for this effort, the immensity of which, in human, financial and spatial resources and intellectual input, should not be underestimated, lay mainly, as I understand it, not with an art historian but two collecting couples, Rose-Marie and Eijk de Mol van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie. Their donations, of works of a quality not to be found in such numbers on the present market, raise the level of the MFA holdings in Dutch painting to new heights. With the faculties of Harvard, Boston University and Brown University around the corner, Boston is now the capital for the study of Dutch art on the American East Coast.
Across the border to the north is another nexus of academic and collection excellence, at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario. There too it is the interest and generosity of a married couple, Isabel and the late Alfred Bader, that led to the creation of a dynamic academic-museum entity dedicated to the study and display of Dutch painting. The Baders and their children have not only donated more than five hundred paintings and work on paper, mainly Dutch and including four paintings by Rembrandt, to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s, they have also financed museum construction, university chairs and curatorships. Not to mention the donation of Herstmonceux Castle in Sussex to serve as a campus abroad. With the pioneer of the scientific study of early Netherlandish painting Ron Spronk, the top Rembrandt specialist Stephanie Dickey and the up and coming Bader Curator of European Art Suzanne van den Meerendonk, Queen’s is at the forefront in the study and museology of Dutch and Flemish art in North America. See their three recent exhibitions: Ron Spronk and others, Bruegel: The hand of the master, materials and techniques of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; Stephanie Dickey, Rembrandt in Amsterdam: creativity and competition, and Suzanne van den Meerendonk, Studies in solitude: the art of depicting seclusion.
Then there are two academic-curatorial network organizations outside the Netherlands that I know of, dedicated to Dutch and Flemish art. The largest is the US-based Historians of Netherlandish Art (HNA), founded in 1983, with 788 members worldwide. HNA has an outstanding online periodical and holds well-attended congresses every so many years, sometimes in the US and sometimes in the Low Countries. For German-speaking historians and curators of Netherlandish art in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, “und den europäischen Nachbarländern,” is the Arbeitskreis Niederländische Kunst- und Kulturgeschichte (ANKK). Broader in scope is the Association for Low Country Studies in the UK, which publishes the journal Dutch Crossing. There are surely more centers and associations of this kind that I don’t know about.
In all, then, despite the relative recession in chairs and wall space for Dutch art, I do not now or have ever had the feeling that my efforts in the field, and those of my colleagues, were doomed to desuetude. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go more global ourselves.
© Gary Schwartz 2022. Published on the Schwartzlist on 1 April 2022
Rather than looking for words to express my shock and horror at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, let me tell you about its immediate impact on my life. Since November 2017, when Mirjam Knotter of the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam asked me to join her in curating a Rembrandt exhibition for the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, I have devoted much of my working time to the exhibition we planned, Rembrandt seen through Jewish eyes. All this time we have been working closely with a curator of that museum, Liya Chechik, who has become a dear friend.
In the last week of February, Liya finally was able, after two years of covid-19 restrictions, to pay a long-awaited visit to the Netherlands. On 23 February we met with Mirjam in Amsterdam, and I then drove her to Maarssen, to spend the evening with us and a mutual friend we both love. Liya slept in our garden cottage. At 4 a.m. on the morning of 24 February she woke up, and glanced at her telephone for news. That was the end of her night rest and the beginning of a living nightmare. The rest of her planned meetings in Amsterdam she had to cancel and fly to Moscow to get back to her husband and daughter while she still could.
The exhibition, which was to open on 19 October, has been postponed indefinitely. All the more important that the twelve lectures on the theme of the exhibition had been streamed on four Mondays, from 24 January to 14 February, and that they are now available on YouTube. I have put links to each of the sessions under their respective dates in my announcement page on the webinar:
The talks as delivered are to be worked up into essays for a publication to accompany the exhibition, scheduled to be published toward the end of the year by Amsterdam University Press. In these ways the project will have concrete results, while awaiting the day when the war has ended and enough confidence has been restored to allow for the exhibition, with loans from numerous museums and collectors outside Russia, to be mounted as planned. I continue to write texts for the Russian-language catalogue and the wall texts, now a spooky exercise.
A postponed exhibition in Moscow is nothing compared to what is happening in the museums of Ukraine. Through my work in CODART, I have made friends with a prominent curator in that country, Olena Zhivkova of the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko National Museum of Arts in Kyiv. She has spent the past five weeks with her staff securing the 25,000 objects in the museum against possible bombardment. She is uncertain whether the measures she is taking, packing the objects and moving them to the museum cellar, are sufficient, or whether they should be taking on the additional, far heavier task of packing them for evacuation. In other words, she is living with the dread of things getting far worse than they already are.
Closing on a lighter note, see the major updates to my analysis of the Camus complex in New Yorker fiction.
I was going to use installment 404 of the Schwartzlist to write something funny about the famous http error of that number, which we all see all the time. Couldn’t do it.
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