422 Learning from laymen

The way art historians write about their subject leaves little room for highly personal responses to art or for freewheeling associations. Non-art historians can take more liberties, and it’s a pleasure to see them exercise them. (Followed by a take on the coming Dutch elections.)

Dutch artists of the seventeenth century did not paint for twenty-first century art historians. We think of our writings about them as contributions to “the humanities,” or with a bit of disconcerting equivocality “the scholarly project,” which are more nineteenth-century than seventeenth. This is all well and good, but it obliges us to suppress or disguise all too direct or subjective reactions, the kind of reactions that matter the most to lovers and buyers of art.

Fortunately, writing about art is by no means restricted to academic art historians alone. Art belongs to everyone, and it has long been claimed by novelists and poets, medical researchers and psychologists, physicists and chemists, though also, less happily, by authoritarians, xenophobes and snobs. Recently, the historiography of Dutch art has been blessed with a number of perfectly informed, truly impressive publications by non-art historians of the best kind. Meet George Abrams, Steven Nadler, Paul Schnabel and Benjamin Moser. (Laymen only in the sense that they haven’t taken degrees in art history.)

George Abrams (and his late, sorely missed wife Maida) is the longest-standing, most dedicated and most generous collector of Dutch art, mainly drawings, I know. He has donated nearly five hundred (!!) drawings to Harvard Art Museums. (No other proof is required that the Abrams collection as a whole is of museum quality.) For the past years, he has been treating his friends in the art world to small volumes of personal comment on items he has owned, with frank information about how he acquired them and sometimes passed them on. Here is a lovely example, the cover image, from a small book of 2022, on a painting that he has donated as “a partial gift” to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It illustrates Abrams’s deep engagement with historians, museums, study centers, and other collectors of Dutch art.

In other entries, Abrams lets us in on complicated buying schemes he concocted with art dealers, especially Johnny van Haeften in London and Robert Noortman in Maastricht, involving cash, trades, buybacks, finessing with clever feints, and elastic payment schedules. This tips us off to practices that have probably always prevailed in the art trade, showing that our dry reconstructions of provenances don’t tell how works of art really changed hands. It brings the works alive as the collectibles they were from the start, far more than illustrations on a page or displays on a museum wall. Speaking of which, more than just a handful of George Abrams’s donations to museums are dedicated to a family member or someone he wants to honor. (Including, I am proud to say, myself.)  Would that any collector of the seventeenth century had confided in us as graciously as Abrams does in his writings.

For the record, I mention the historian of philosophy Steven Nadler, who is not as much not an art historian as the others. Not only has he done incisive research into Rembrandt, he is a dyed-in-the-wool academic who shares our inhibitions. Yet, in his book of 2022 on Frans Hals, as I wrote for a blurb, he “delves into matters that we tend to take for granted.” For example, he wrote a page on the breweries of Haarlem such as you find in no other book on Frans Hals. “Haarlem brewers [averaged] fifty-seven million liters of beer annually, more than any other European city except London.” Did you know that?


In the most daring enterprise of its kind, in 2021 Paul Schnabel published a complete survey of Dutch painting, said in the title to be that of the Golden Age, but full of comparisons with some 180 later artists. Seen from a different angle (with a perfect choice of illustration behind the title, Constantijn Huygens and his wife Sterre, he looking straight into the distance, and she peering at us): the best and most enthralling Dutch painting of the Golden Age. On Dutch radio, when asked about his relation to professional art historians, Schnabel replied plainly, “I know more than they do.” He’s right. Once an art historian has passed his orals for the Ph.D., for which you have to know everything, he concentrates on his specialty and takes only superficial notice, if that, of anything else. Schnabel has read everything, looked at everything, and has a forthright opinion about everything, not only about artists and their paintings but also art historians and their writings. He is moreover an avid collector, leading him to look closely at paintings by masters so far out of the canon that the professionals can’t even be bothered to remember their names.

Here is a piece of Schnabel derring-do that gives his book a place of its own in surveys of Dutch painting: Carel Fabritius’s one-of-a-kind self-portrait (“the most beautiful of the seventeenth century”) juxtaposed with a one-in-ten-thousand-or-more self portrait by Philip Akkerman, a Dutch painter who has painted a self-portrait every day since 1981, “experimenting with materials, forms, colors and styles without having to bother himself about subject matter or theme.” Schnabel is one of the leading sociologists in the Netherlands, the former director of the Social and Cultural Planning Agency, and has a sharp eye for the values underlying appearances and forms of behavior. But he is also fearlessly independent, unafraid to call things beautiful or ugly, righteous or vicious, sincere or commercial. In the foreword to his book, he puts his finger on this key issue: “Art history has increasingly become a self-referential field, in which texts refer mainly to other, earlier texts by art historians.” Schnabel too refers a lot to art-historical texts, more as an object of study rather than as opinions calling for contradiction. But he draws other references copiously from wide ranges of Dutch culture. There’s a lot in his book for us professionals to take to heart.

Earlier this year,  the literary phenomenon Benjamin Moser published an even more personal book on Dutch painting, a survey not of museum holdings but of their meanings in his own life. The titles tell the tale. Paul Schnabel is looking at the Dutch masters, Ben Moser is meeting them, letting them into his life. Although he has lived in Utrecht for twenty years, with a degree from Utrecht University, Moser is more an American located in the Netherlands than a Dutch-American. The provisional crown of his considerable achievements was the award, in 2020, of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Sontag: her life and work. (The prize is only available for American writers. Steve Nadler was a finalist for his book Rembrandt’s Jews.)

Moser is milder on art historians than Schnabel.

Art historians try to […] show us what, exactly, we are seeing. And as they do, they show me how little, even on the most basic level, I see. I have often felt humiliated to realize how appallingly bad I am at seeing – how reliant I am on simple factual descriptions – how hard it would be to see anything in those galleries without other people’s eyes.

That makes Moser sound more modest than he is. He is also able to point things out to art historians that they (for one, I) have not noticed or thought about. Here is a major observation of his:

How many prostitutes do we find in the paintings of the Dutch – how many drunks and thieves and madmen? Dutch artists were famed – and either admired or denounced – for viewing humanity and its passions with the clear-eyed perspective called “realism.” This meant viewing the world as it was, not as it ought to be. This was the opposite of the view taken by the idealizing Italians.

But one human trait, which must have been as common there as it was anywhere else, was omitted. As far as I know, there are no depictions of homosexuality or homosexuals anywhere in the Golden Age; none, neither in painting nor in the mountains of prints and drawings they produced. Neither are there any Dutch artist – a Leonardo, a Michelangelo – whose homosexuality was so much as rumored.

Actually, Paul Schnabel did give it a transhistorical stab. Writing about portraits of ensigns, who had to be unmarried, and were usually dandified young men, he writes:

In 1617 Evert van der Maes painted a splendid portrait of the perky Willem Jansz Cock, standard bearer of the Orange platoon [of the Hague civic guard], dressed from top to bottom in shimmering pink-red satin. Pink, you should know – see too Johannes Verspronk’s portrait of Ensign Andries Stille – was then and until deep into the twentieth century a color associated more with boys than with girls. […] Not until after the Second World War, under American influence, did a massive gender-determining color shift take place. So Willem Cock, in his hyperfashionable outfit, was not coming out of the closet.

Implying that he, maybe they, was or were in it.

Without preaching about it, these writers shove aside the blinders that keep art historians from seeing big swathes of the meaning of the art they study. Thanks.

© 2023 Gary Schwartz. Published on the Schwartzlist on 17 November 2023. See also Schwartzlist 177: “Amateurs and professionals.”

After the fall on 7 July of the fourth consecutive government headed by Mark Rutte, leader of what the Dutch call the “liberal” (read “neoliberal”), Soviet-sounding “People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy” (Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie, VVD), it has taken four months for new elections to be held. The former government having fallen because Rutte was unwilling to let the families of refugees into our country, you might think that the parties are now vying with each other in demonstrations of empathy for the plight of refugees. If you do think that, you are wrong. The answer to the refugee problem they are all putting into their programs is to have fewer of them.

Astonishingly, although people here got used to the idea too uncritically too quickly, two months ago the polls showed that a majority of 76 seats in the 150-seat Lower Chamber of Parliament was attainable by two parties, each of which now has only one seat. These are newly formed grouch parties, spinoffs from the pathetic Christian Democrats (Christen-Democratisch Appèl, CDA), whose power of attraction rests in the charisma of their founding leaders:

Caroline van der Plas of the Burgher Farmer Movement (BoerBurgerBeweging, BBB, founded on 1 November 2019)

and Pieter Omtzigt of New Social Contract (Nieuw Sociaal Contract, NSC, founded on 19 August 2023), neither of whom wants to be prime minister. (The blond next to Caroline is the opportunistic, former Christian Democrat minister Mona Keijzer, whom Caroline has propelled into the position of candidate premier. Omtzigt refuses to say whom his is.)

Since then, the placing of BBB and NSC in the polls has plummeted to thirty-five between them, but it will difficult to form a new government without one or both. The coalitions they say they prefer are on the right, beginning with the VVD. Neither wants to form a coalition with the new party on the left, GroenLinks-PvdA, founded on 13 June 2023 as a merger between Green Left and the Labor party. A merger that looks more like a takeover by Labor of Green Left, led by the power-hungry Frans Timmermans, who has pushed the Green Left guy, Jesse Klaver, into the shadows. The strongest contender for the prime ministership is Rutte’s pushy successor in the VVD, Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius.

This shredding of the political field, in which few parties have defining, distinctive platforms in their programs, has plunged voters into confusion. Six out of every ten voters, four days before the election, say they do not know who they are going to vote for. The outcome of the elections will therefore not be a confirmation of any specific choice by the electorate, but an arbitrary jumble of power and powerless bases. The only good news is that the populist extreme right in the Netherlands has not been able to exploit things to its advantage. (Though our Populist Extremist Number One, Geert Wilders, in angling for a ministership.) I’m afraid that the formation of a new government may break the 299-day record of Rutte IV. Sadly, more evidence for what I am afraid is the ongoing deterioration of democracies in the world, with my two other countries, the U.S. and Israel, leading the way.

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12 thoughts on “422 Learning from laymen”

  1. “Sadly, more evidence for what I am afraid is the ongoing deterioration of democracies in the world, with my two other countries, the U.S. and Israel, leading the way.”

    Thank you for touching on this issue.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, Gary. It’s much appreciated.
    As for the politics — no matter how complicated and regressive things may look in the Netherlands, at least all your major candidates are relatively rational beings and not under indictment for multiple crimes. (I’m not counting Wilders as a “major candidate.”) Can’t say the same for the U.S. or Israel.

    1. Yes, Steve, I try to reassure myself up with the same thought. But on the 11 p.m. news just now I heard that a new poll had put Wilders’ party on par with the top-running VVD. To my astonishment, this afternoon the daughter of my Kurdish greengrocer told me she was going to vote for him. “He sticks to his word,” she said.

      1. 22 November, Election Day evening. Oh, was I wrong, when I wrote that it was good news that “the populist extreme right in the Netherlands has not been able to exploit things to its advantage.” It was happening, and I didn’t see it. (All right, commentators here, none of whom saw what was coming, are all having their Hilary Clinton 2016 moment.) My greengrocer’s daughter was on the inside track, and I could not and still cannot understand why. The MAGA Dutchman Geert Wilders (Netherlands First! Give our country back to the Dutch!) captured the most seats – 35, 10 more than the second largest party. Asked what mattered the most in their considerations, about half of Dutch voters said that “immigration” was a primary issue. For the Geert Wilders voters, all of 80% called immigration their main concern. I am sick.

        1. 23 November. The morning after – even worse. The PVV of Geert Wilders won 37 seats. Second was Green Left/Labor with 25. The emerging explanation: the anti-immigration rhetoric (not only of refugees, as I wrote) of all the centrist and right-wing parties went to the advantage of the PVV, as the holders of what politicologists seem to call “ownership of the issue.” This was especially disastrous for the VVD (from 34 to 24 seats), which tried to make itself look more like the PVV. So the Dutch voter is now standing shoulder to shoulder with the Trumpists and Brexiteers.

  3. The art part: enlightening and entertaining, making the argument for casting the net of arts appreciation across even small tributaries of the main stream. The politics part: universally distressing; do humans know how to decently rule themselves?

    1. Thanks, Bill. What can I say? Mankind is being (t00) fruitful and multiplying, in societies, cultures and polities that in certain, varying circumstances not only condone but venerate murderous violence. We seem to have this in common with the rest of the animal world. Can we expect it ever to go away?

  4. Thank you very much!

    Not an art historian but an art lover who dares to write about art from time to time in her Instagram profile. Just for herself.

    Hypocrisy in the art world was not touched upon as it is a broad subject by itself. But at least as it seems to me, you hinted at academic arrogance. And you know, on top of illiteracy some art historians are also rude and prompt to jump to conclusions.

    Thank you one more time. I will try to find those books.

    Please take care of yourself and your wife.

    1. The thanks are mine, Tanya. I’m afraid that more than a few Schwartzlist columns deal with art-historical arrogance. I was glad to be able to write in out-and-out approval of writings on art by others.

  5. A propos art historians and their failings, there is also the factor of power gained and maintained through institutions; a necessary ingredient of arrogance. No one can better appreciate this aspect than someone who has studied a single painting in an independent capacity (Rembrandt, Br. 431) and followed its vicissitudes over four decades. The painting becomes a gauge to measure specific art-historical performances, and the results in this case are deplorable. To mention only the most glaring instance of abuse of authority: the Rembrandt Research Project first disattributing the painting for no good reason, then reinstating it 25 years later and taking the credit for “new insights”, while ignoring others. Then there is the cultural approriation of the painting by a major museum that refuses to acknowledge and even hinders relevant scholarship. As if the task of understanding art works of the past were not difficult enough…

    1. We’re all in your debt, Jean-Marie, for this signal achievement. Everyone gives credit to you, not to the RRP. But forgive me for wanting in this column to praise non-art historians (I cannot think of you that way) without excoriating art historians.

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