Terms of reception: Europeans and Persians and each other’s art

From Mediating Netherlandish art and material culture in Asia, edited by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann and Michael North, published by Amsterdam University Press, distributed in US by University of Chicago Press, 2014

From University of Chicago Press website (with more information on the book): “Scholars have extensively documented the historical and socioeconomic impact of the Dutch East India Company. They have paid much less attention to the company’s significant influence on Asian art and visual culture.

“Mediating Netherlandish Art and Material Culture in Asia addresses this imbalance with a wide range of contributions covering such topics as Dutch and Chinese art in colonial and indigenous households; the rise of Hollandmania in Japan; and the Dutch painters who worked at the court of the Persian shahs. Together, the contributors shed new light on seventeenth-century Dutch visual culture—and the company that spread it across Asia.”

Open (large) pdf (60Mb)

174 Shoot the piano player’s girlfriend

In the romantic thriller Shoot the piano player (1960) by François Truffaut (1932-1984), it is not the piano player who gets shot. The piano player, Charlie Kohler, plays bar music in a shabby Paris café. He is unhealthily withdrawn and unwilling to talk about himself. In a flashback, his retreat from life is provided with a concrete reason. There was a time when he played piano not in cheap cafés but in concert halls, under his real name, Edouard Saroyan. His career was going brilliantly, but his marriage, to a waitress named Théresa, is suffering from it. He is completely self-absorbed and unable to stand the slightest criticism. Théresa becomes morose, to a degree not explainable by Edouard’s behavior alone. On a concert tour, she finally confesses to him what is bothering her. In order to get him the contract that launched his career, she slept with his impresario. She craves his forgiveness, which he is unable to give. He slams the door on her, and she jumps out of the hotel window to her death. Edouard becomes Charlie.

The action of the film takes place against this heavy psychological background. Charlie is jolted out of his isolation by two events. One of his criminal brothers comes to him for help when two gangsters he has double-crossed follow him to the café; and he and the waitress Léna fall in love with each other. The plot is an intertwining of these themes. It ends tragically at the Saroyan family home in the country, where Charlie and Léna have fled. The gangsters find them there, and in a shootout between them and the brothers, Léna is shot and killed.

Shoot the piano player is a faithful filming of an American crime novel, Down there by David Goodis (1917-1967). Goodis’s own life was something like Charlie’s. As Bleeker Books.com encapsulates it: “David Goodis started out with great promise, only to see a promising career turn into a slide to oblivion. He got off to a good start – his second novel, Dark Passage was made into a successful movie – before his personal decline … After the success of Passage, Goodis became more and more eccentric, eventually moving from Hollywood to his native Philadephia to live with his parents. Having given up his dreams and dropped out of society, he began to write about life’s losers, those who become dropouts themselves.”

The difference in cultural status between Truffaut and Goodis has led some critics to treat the novel like a kind of objet trouvé which did not become art until it was picked up from the street by the genius moviemaker. To his discredit, Roger Greenspun wrote: “With perfect instinct, Truffaut has utilized most of the events in David Goodis’s miserable novel, merely moving them from New York and Philadelphia to Paris, while rejecting almost all its interpretations of them.” In fact, Truffaut’s main departure from the novel is – I say this reluctantly, as an admirer of the film – cheaply sentimental. He gives the three grown Saroyan brothers a cute 10- or 11-year-old sibling who is kidnapped by the thugs. Nearly all the features for which Shoot the piano player is praised by film critics, including the flashback, the interior monologue, the comic turns, come straight out of Down there.

In the film literature, Shoot the piano player has gone down in the terms in which it is presented by Truffaut: a homage to American noir novels and movies. It has always surprised me that neither Truffaut, who wrote and talked frequently about Shoot the piano player, nor as far as I know anyone else who has written about this modern classic, has realized that Down there is a retelling of a great early 20th-century novel by the Ukrainian-Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad (1857-1924): Victory: an island tale (1915), which has been filmed at least four times. Goodis took far greater liberties with his source than Truffaut with his, but the debt to Conrad is unmistakable. Victory too is the story of a man who has retreated from society and is drawn out of his isolation by a young woman and a pair of gangsters. It takes place in a hotel-restaurant with musical entertainment, provided by an all-female orchestra in which the girl plays violin. In both books the girl is pursued by her married male boss, under the eyes of his wife, and is rescued from him by the (anti-)hero. The man and the girl are chased to the man’s remote hideaway by the thugs. She protects him with cunning and courage until, at the climax, she is shot dead by one of the gangsters. If these hints were not broad enough – Conrad’s girl, like Goodis’s and Truffaut’s, is also named Lena.

It’s too bad that Truffaut did not know the source of this heartbreaking tale, with the power of a myth. If he had, he might not have ended his film with another cheap shot that occurs neither in Goodis nor Conrad. After the death of Léna, Charlie, like Goodis’s piano player, returns to the café. In the film, though, he is introduced to the new waitress who has come to replace Léna. With an implicit wink at the audience Truffaut suggests that she will be the third woman in Charlie’s life, as if there were nothing wrong with him that another waitress in his bed couldn’t cure.

To Conrad, the victory of the title belonged to Lena, in her death.

“Who else could have done this for you?” she whispered gloriously.

“No one in the world,” he answered her in a murmur of unconcealed despair.

In that despair, he surrendered the life for which Lena had sacrificed hers and simply let himself be killed. Had he read Victory, Truffaut would have realized that his film was not a comedy.

© Gary Schwartz 2003. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, 4 January 2003. Tenth anniversary re-issue 1 June 2013.
_______________________
The New Year has begun for us as the Old Year ended: in a house full of carpenters, painters, plumbers, electricians, heating installers, marble restorers, fabric hangers, monument consultants and bankers. We set out the main lines of this operation jointly, but Loekie is the overseer of the fabrica. She coordinates everything brilliantly, keeping the workers out of each other’s way, supervising their tasks and monitoring their performance.

We also bought a new stove, one of those Italian stainless-steel semi-professional jobs, and a new car, a hybrid electric-internal combustion model by Toyota that is the most comfortable car we’ve ever had. I understand from the New York Times that Leonardo di Caprio and Meryl Streep also ride in a Prius, which I well understand. Earlier in the year we finally bought a dishwasher and a kitchen machine.

It isn’t as if we can afford all of this. It’s all paid for out of new debt. As it happens, I can trace this spending jag to its origins, which I hereby recount as a contribution to the discussion of the state of the world economy. It all began at a lunch at the Astra Restaurant outside Sibiu, Romania, on March 17th, 2001. Loekie was sitting next to the host of a group lunch, the extraordinary Brussels art dealer Jan De Maere. De Maere told her that he had bought several old houses in a picturesque village on the other side of Sibiu, for very little money. He told her about another house that he had not bought, and that was on the market for 12,500 guilders. That afternoon we went to his village with De Maere, saw the little house he had spoken of, and fell in love with it.

To make a long story short, that deal never materialized, and another, to buy a larger house for 39,000 D-Marks, fell through. At that point, we decided not to buy a house outside the country at all, but to use the money we were apparently prepared to spend on our own house. We were going to start by turning our large shed into a studio and guest house. While working on this idea, we realized that the main house was in need of repair and renovation, and that we could not very well rebuild the shed without doing the house first. At this moment, our bank called us to point out that our mortgage was ridiculously small, and offered us monstrous amounts of credit on our house. In Holland, the interest on home-repair loans is still deductible from income tax, making it all the easier to take the plunge. We did.

As the estimates piled up, to an amount considerably higher than 12,500 guilders, the cost of things like dishwashers and kitchen machines – our lack of these shows how economically we had been living until then – looked derisory. Even new cars looked like a sensible buy. Yet, in quiet moments (rare these days), I find myself wondering what the hell has gotten into us. A possible answer to this question occurred to me when I heard some captain of industry or other comment at year’s end on the world economy. Everything was falling to pieces, he said, and the only reason we are not in a vicious downward spiral is that consumer spending is holding up. Consumers, he said, still have faith in the economy.

I had a Eureka moment. No, I thought, you’re wrong. It’s exactly because we consumers have no faith at all in the economy that we are letting ourselves go. We know as well as your average captain of industry that the economy is going to the dogs. What this says to us, perhaps not out loud, is that we may never again be able to dispose, even in the form of debt, over the amounts we can spend now. Can that be the secret ingredient that is keeping us from going into a downward spiral? Consumers’ fear of the future, combined with desperate lending by banks?

In support of this notion is one of the reasons we were prepared to dish out money for a house in a Romanian village: you can live off the land there, if the Western economy falls to pieces. In the meanwhile, we are spending lots more on things that you can’t live off. If this is typical, then the real crash might still be awaiting us. What to do? Quick, spend some more money. On to the shed.

Two of the best men I know died in the past two weeks. On December 23rd, Julius Held passed on in his mid-90s. He was one of the great 20th-century students of Dutch and Flemish art, and one of the teachers (at Barnard College) who put art history in America on its feet. Julius kept up his work and his correspondence to the end. I have known him since the 1970s, and at one point, after the appearance of my book on Rembrandt in 1984, our relations suffered a strain. However, this was all forgotten when in 1992 I made use of a discovery of his concerning a painting by Jacob van Campen to further its acquisition by the Mauritshuis. In the years afterward I corresponded with him regularly, and I dedicated to him an article I wrote on one of his subjects: the Antwerp kunstkamer paintings.

On New Years Day the world lost Bas Kist, the retired curator of Dutch history at the Rijksmuseum, at the age of 69. Working mainly in the field of arms and armor, which has never been fashionable here, he was a pioneer and an explorer. Unlike most art historians, he loved conceptual and technical precision. This got him into arguments with his colleagues, which were always tempered by his sense of humor and good nature. He helped me sharpen my ideas on militarism in the Dutch 17th century, for my work on this subject in 1998, and provided invaluable support for my book on The Night Watch, which appeared last year. The last time I saw him was at the opening of the East India Company exhibition at the Rijksmuseum on October 9th. He was indispensable, and now we have to live on without him.

Responses are always appreciated and answered: Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

Your donations help defray the costs of the Schwartzlist and encourage Gary Schwartz to write more columns.

Donate Button

326 Antwerp and Houghton Hall rehung

With the potent presence of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in its streets and monuments, Antwerp always brings you back in time. On my virtual list of cities that once were the greatest in the world, Antwerp occupies a shared position with Madrid for the third quarter of the sixteenth century. The rulers of those cities and their realms who looked at the maps and globes that were being produced for them will not have seen worthy rivals for their economic, commercial and military might anywhere on the newly spheroid planet. For Antwerp, add the element of artistic prominence, which continued to operate down through the lifetime of Peter Paul Rubens, 1577 to 1640. Among the buildings that still emanate a surpassing historical thrill are the cathedral (1352-1521), the town hall (1561-64), the church of Carolus Borromeus (1615-21) and more subtly the interior of the Sint Jacobskerk (1491-1656).

Visiting the city on a rainy day in June, Loekie and I enjoyed an impressive enhancement of the historical environment in two locations, the cathedral and the mansion of the burgomaster and art collector Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640). Rockox’s house in the Keizerstraat was bought in 1970 by the KBC Bank, which maintains it as a museum dedicated to the contribution of burghers to the artistic and collecting environment of Antwerp. This is a very worthwhile aim; the art life of the city from the early seventeenth century became increasingly dependent on wealthy enthusiasts. This is an interesting point for the study of Dutch art well. The hoariest cliché in Dutch art history is that after the Northern Netherlands abolished the aristocracy and the Catholic church, art became an affair of the bourgeoisie. But much the same thing happened in the Southern Netherlands, where aristocracy and church retained their elevated status throughout the ancien régime. Even within the churches, the main donors were Antwerp families. Time for a rethink?

The collection owned by the KBC bank is worthwhile, but not exceptional. Normally, one- or two-day visitors to Antwerp will give it a pass in favor of the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (KMSKA), the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp. What has now happened is that the KMSKA is closed for a long period for major renovation. To keep at least part of the vast collections available in Antwerp, the KMSKA lent to the Rockox House Museum a rich sampling of its treasures, topped by incomparable paintings by Simone Martini, Antonello da Messina, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling. This is wonderful in itself, having the cream of the KMSKA holdings available in the kind of rich domestic environment where these paintings hung for so many centuries. Adding to the effect is the hanging plan realized by Hildegard Van de Velde of the Rockoxhuis and her associates. Making use of the room-by-room inventory drawn up on Rockox’s death and of paintings of Antwerp collections by Frans Francken the Younger (1581-1642), she installed the KMSKA paintings, with some other loans and works from its own collection, in a form approximating the look of the house and collection in Rockox’s time. All but one – a St. Jerome by Jan van Hemessen, now in a private Antwerp collection – are stand-ins for paintings in the Rockox inventory.Image          Image
The renovation of the KMSKA created another Antwerp lending opportunity of grand allure. The museum normally houses half of the sixteen surviving altarpieces from Antwerp cathedral, of the sixty that are numbered in a mid-eighteenth century groundplan.

 18thCGroundplanWithAltarsKathedraal_Antwerpen_Schip_Wikimedia_20130729

With the museum closed, its eight altarpieces have been moved to the cathedral for display as close as possible to their original locations. In this regard the organizers – the admirable Ria Fabri and Nico VanHout – have had to make a compromise. The church authorities did not wish to mar the current virginal look of the nave.

Rather, then, than hanging the foremost altarpieces on the nave piers which were once their location, within an exclusive enclosure known as a “tuin,” a garden, they have had to retreat to the side aisles, where they nonetheless exercise their magic.

 18thCGroundplanWithAltarsStandpoint1IMG_7576

The northern side aisle of Antwerp cathedral, with the altarpieces of the fencers’ guild, Frans Floris’s Battle of the fallen angels, the tailors’ guild, an Adoration of the Magi by Artus Wolffort and more. Photos and markings of groundplan by Gary Schwartz.

 18thCGroundplanWithAltarsStandpoint2 IMG_7580

Transverse view from the first bay of the northern aisle, between Frans Floris’s Adoration of the shepherds for the gardeners’ guild and his Battle of the fallen angels, onto Wolffort’s Adoration of the Magi and, into the southern crossing, Rubens’s Descent from the Cross, always in the cathedral, but in the context of the exhibition seen in its historical function as the altarpiece for the musketeers’ guild.

The exhibition enriches the visiting experience magnificently, with a display that not only changes the prospect within the great building but also kindles your historical imagination, bringing the artists and their patrons back into a picture that is otherwise often unrevealing. I must admit that I would also have liked to see at least one altarpiece fitted out with its altar, its enclosure and a hint of the main function – a mass for the donors, with music, if included in the endowment – for which the altarpieces were ordered. As presented, the exhibition can be faulted for paying excessive tribute to the art of painting, which already captures so much more cultural territory than it merits in historical terms. This is true of the title of the exhibition as well, From Quentin Metsijs to Peter Paul Rubens: masterpieces from the Royal Museum return to the cathedral. These are scholarly quibbles, though, that fall away in the face of the unique offering – and of the catalogue, with its generous splash of excellent color plates and foldouts of paintings that are so hard to photograph. (Another quibble: I would have appreciated a modern groundplan, with the placing of the altars historically and in the exhibition.)

Initially, the exhibitions in the Rockox House and the cathedral were scheduled to close at the end of 2013. However, work on the KMSKA having gone into overtime, both are open for the indefinite future. Still, don’t wait too long to enjoy this historical thrill.

You will have to be quicker to savor another historical rehanging, across the Channel and up the coast to Norfolk, at stately Houghton Hall, the former demesne of Robert Walpole (1676-1745), one of the greatest art collectors of the eighteenth century. (Originally intended to close on 29 September 2013, the exhibition Houghton revisited has providentially been extended until 24 November.) The present heir to the estate, David Cholmondely, on the advice of curator Thierry Morel, director of the Hermitage Foundation UK, undertook the ambitious aim of bringing back to the house 60 of the old masters that hung there before George Walpole (1730-91), come on hard times, sold them in 1779 to Catherine the Great (1729-96), empress of Russia. The total purchase, including heirlooms from other Walpole houses, comprised no fewer than 204 paintings. There was public outrage at the time over this loss of British treasure, and the hiatus of Houghton Hall left a lasting gap in the national heritage.

Morel writes momentously of Houghton Hall that it “is distinctive for having been designed and built as the setting for an art collection” and of his show Houghton revisited that it is “a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition [that will] transport visitors back to the eighteenth century.” As hyperbolic as they sound, these claims came to life for us on our visit. The hanging had a solid historical basis in the form of drawings made for the purpose after the Walpole paintings were moved from London to the wilds of Norfolk in 1743.

 DrawingForRehandOfCommonParlourCommonParlour

A drawing for the Common Parlour next to a photograph of the hanging for the exhibition shows how close they have been able to come. Above the fireplace, which is in the upper center of the drawing, hangs a portrait by (the German-born, Dutch-trained numero uno of English portraiture) Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) of the (Dutch-born and trained) sculptor and carver Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721), who created the surrounding garland of gilded wood around the portrait, the motif of which was imitated in the marble relief decorations of the fireplace. How contextual can you get? The Russian empress may have bought the painting fair and square, but in St. Petersburg its context cannot be more different. “The Hermitage collection of 16th- to 19th-century English painting includes over 450 items and is of particular importance, bearing in mind the rarity of works by English artists in European museums” (from the museum website). One of 450 examples versus a true one of a kind. Of course not every display in Houghton is as stunningly in its place as the Kneller, but that great prize illustrates the spirit in which Walpole built and furnished his house, its appurtenances and its art. It is saddening to think that after November the sheer rightness of this hanging will be undone, and the spell it casts over visitors will never again in our time do its magic.

Behind all three exhibitions is a complex of artistic and historical values that are dear to me. In 1987, upon the invitation of the Swiss Institute for Art History, I wrote an essay with the title “Le musée documentaire: reflections on a database of works mentioned in art treatises and town descriptions before 1800.” (Available on Schwartzlist documents.) There I took a step to recording in a database “the works of art in Europe which are still located on the premises, or owned by the families, for whom they were made.” The immense effort put into the living reconstructions in Antwerp and Norfolk, and the gap between these temporary realities and the ideal that I sketched only goes to show how vital it is to build that database. May it serve as an instrument for the preservation of artistic-historical values where they still exist and for stimulating more projects like these inspiring and moving shows.

© Gary Schwartz 2013. Published on the Schwartzlist on 27 August 2013. The first Schwartzlist column to be offered in WordPress, a move made to gain better control over things and sooner or later to save money. Reactions are more welcome than ever. All will be answered. Gary Schwartz@xs4all.nl.


From September 1995 until April 2007, the items on the Schwartzlist were English-language versions of biweekly columns that were published in Dutch in the cultural supplements of the daily newspapers NRC Handelsblad and then in Het Financieele Dagblad. The newspapers paid for the writing of the columns. When that source of income fell away, along with the pressure of a newspaper deadline, it became impossible to maintain the clockwork regularity of the previous twelve years. With the award of the generous Prince Bernhard Cultural Foundation Prize for the Humanities in November 2009, I was able to charge the writing of columns to that fund, but now the pot is empty.

I am therefore turning for the first time to readers to make voluntary contributions, to help defray the cost of maintaining the website and mailing manager and to stimulate me to more intense effort than I have been able to put into the Schwartzlist. From now on, you will find a PayPal button on each column, which can be used with a credit card even if you do not have a PayPal account. Every donation will serve as a help and encouragement.

Donate Button

189 Summer spoilage

On every sunny summer morning I think of Joe Krieger. When my wife and I finish our breakfast in the garden and I stand up from the table, his gruff voice echoes in my mind. “Livestock first.” Obediently, I take the milk and cheese and jam to the refrigerator before returning to clear off the dirty dishes.

It was summer 1955. I was working as a camper-waiter in Camp Monroe, Monroe, New York. The position was a brilliant way of exploiting grown children. Since employers are not allowed to put 15-year-olds to work for seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., with long, unsupervised breaks in the American wilderness between shifts, what Camp Monroe did, as I suppose all the other summer camps outside New York did as well, was to turn the work relationship inside out, like Hiawatha’s mittens. Instead of paying the boys for their labor, the camps charged their parents $200 and called the jobs camper training.
The work regime was hard and allowed for little leeway. At 7 we were beaten out of bed to leave our bunk for the mess hall, where each of us set two long tables for breakfast. Uncle Joe was in charge of the kitchen. (His brother Uncle Moe ran the camp activities.) Joe was an ex-prize fighter with a broken nose and a lot of lies to vouch for it. I did not envy him his job. The recalcitrant camper-waiters were bad enough, but Joe also had to deal with the chef, an authoritarian son-of-a-bitch who was capable of throwing ladlefulls of hot gravy into the faces of the lined-up waiters as collective punishment for the grumbling of any one individual, and with the kitchen staff, who I remember as a crew of amiable alcoholics who were in the habit of disappearing without notice.

Joe’s advice was good. Even if livestock does not mean what he thought it meant, we got his message perfectly well. Of course you should put the perishables back in the cold room before clearing the rest of the table. Whether it was necessary to enforce the injunction, which after all involved only slight food loss, with threats of physical violence, is still considered an open question in the Catskills. There was a broader lesson in Joe’s command. A person should always do first the things that can’t wait. Unfortunately, I have not been notably successful in the more metaphorical application of this piece of Krieger wisdom. I often get my work and life priorities wrong, but I never put away the vitamin pills before the left-over strawberries.

I was able to make a conceptual leap from another lesson I learned from Joe. This involved far more tension, tension to the point of conflict. In the summer of 1955 Camp Monroe did not have enough silverware on hand for the entire complement of eaters, if everyone on the grounds showed up for a full-course meal. The reason I happen to know this is that due to circumstances that have nothing to do with this memoir I was often the waiter confronted with the end-of-the-line shortfall. You would think that Joe would have been pleased when I called this structural but correctible deficiency to his attention. He was not. His invariable reaction, which I still consider a patent injustice, was “You again, Schwartz!,” as if it were my fault that he had too little silverware. The man was incapable of realizing that the identity of the last waiter who appeared for work was utterly beside the point. Nonetheless, I was the one who had to remove forks and spoons from the place settings of the runts at my station and move them to where the counsellors and the psychopaths sat. The lesson I learned from this is that people with power are irrational and that it’s a bad thing to work under them.

Washington Market, 1962, photo by Phil Stanziola in the World Telegram and Sun, Library of Congress

It had not crossed my mind before now, but my summer job in 1956 also involved foodstuff spoilage. For one exciting week I was a clerk at a shipping office for fruits and vegetables in Washington Market. This part of New York, off the Hudson River docks on the Lower West Side, was then filled with firms of the kind, all long gone. The place where I worked had a big rail map of the United States on the wall. In the course of the day, as telexes came in from across the country, the pins on the map, marking the location of box cars with produce, were moved right, from west to east. The company bought fruits and vegetables on the west coast and as they travelled cross-country tried to sell them. There was a lot of money riding on those cars, and the idea was to sell the contents as soon as you could, to buyers on the Plains, Chicago, the Midwest or, only if this failed, New York. If a box car crossed the Mississippi on its way to New York without a customer to take it off your hands, the place went into panic mode. Once a car reached the Jersey freightyards unsold, there was only a day or two before the contents would become unsaleable and had to be dumped.

This was quite an enjoyable job, and it made me feel a lot more grown-up than Camp Monroe. Why they asked me to leave after a week I do not remember. Was I responsible for the loss of a box car? Did I misplace a telex? I don’t remember. But then again I don’t remember exactly what Uncle Joe had against me either. Could these teenage experiences with perishables have had anything to do with my choice of study? In September 1956 I registered for my first course in art history.

© Gary Schwartz 2003. Published in Loekie Schwartz’s Dutch translation in Het Financieele Dagblad, Amsterdam, 2 August 2003. Published on the Schwartzlist on 19 June 2013, inspired by a spoken radio column (in Dutch, on the outstanding Sunday morning program OVT, on 16 June) by Nelleke Noordervliet, in part about a summer job of her own.


I’m on vacation. [This is still 2003.] Part of it I am spending sensibly at my desk, working off at least some old commitments, so I can return to work next week morally refreshed. For physical refreshment, Loekie and I returned last Saturday for three-and-a-half days to a wonderfully picturesque and relatively underpopulated part of Belgium called La Hesbaye in French and Haspengouw in Flemish. The region is spread over five provinces: the eastern portions of Vlaams-Brabant and Brabant Wallon, the north of Namur, the west of Liege, and the south of Limburg. Although La Hesbaye and Haspengouw are in principle the same territory, on the ground they are two different countries, divided by the French-Flemish language border. We came home in possession of five recommended routes for visiting the area: a Flemish brochure that takes you through three Haspengouw loops; and two French ones, Hesbaye insolite and Les blés d’or. Not one place on the Flemish-language brochures is visited in the French ones and vice versa. Locals with whom we spoke about our trip revealed themselves to be ignorant of even the best-known places across the line. If Belgium can survive, so, I suppose, can the world.

Responses are always welcome and will be answered: Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

You can also make a donation to keep the Schwartzlist up and running.

Donate Button

300 O Solomon, where art thou?

To the memory of Dan Tsalka.

Among the acts of art vandalism blamed on the nineteenth century, one of the minor ones was actually undone fifteen years ago. It had to do with the dismemberment of a painting by Jan Steen of the wedding night of Sarah and Tobias, a story from the apocryphal book of Tobit or Tobias. Sarah had been married seven times, but on each of her seven wedding nights her groom had been killed by the demon Asmodeus before the marriage could be consummated. Tobias was her eighth husband, but he enjoyed the protection of the archangel Raphael and by following Raphael’s instructions for the wedding night and sacrificing a burnt offering instead of diving straight into bed with his bride, he survived and he and Sarah lived happily ever after.

The right side of Steen’s painting shows Raphael subduing Asmodeus on the altar where Tobias had burnt the heart and liver of a fish that he, on Raphael’s instruction, had caught and gutted on the way to Sarah’s house. On the left we see what happens next: saved but delaying their nuptial bond, Tobias and Sarah, on Tobias’s initiative, are praying to God for continued protection. Tobias assures God that he is bedding Sarah, whom he calls his sister, not out of horniness but in pious sincerity.

At a given moment in the nineteenth or eighteenth or even according to some the seventeenth century, someone took a knife to the painting and separated the praying couple from the angel, demon and sacrifice. The right section, without the clue offered by the rest of the composition, proved too difficult for art historians to interpret. After some unnecessary polemics about whether the subject was an allegory or not, whether the painting was a signboard or not and whether the main figure was Raphael or Michael or Daniel, the subject was identified properly in 1926 by the student of Dutch literature G.J. Boekenoogen. Still, it was not until 1960 that the correctness of this interpretation was accepted by the last die-hard. The painting was acquired before 1907 by Hofstede de Groot’s colleague Abraham Bredius and was bequeathed by him upon his death in 1946 to the city of The Hague as part of the Bredius Museum.

 

The left side did not emerge until the 1920s. It was published in 1928 by Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, who recognized its relation to the angel. In 1940 the painting belonged to the Dutch Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker when he died while fleeing the country after the German invasion. During the war it was seized by the German occupiers of the Netherlands. In 1945 it was returned to Netherlands, where, following years of negotiations with Goudstikker’s widow, it came to be regarded as national property and was deposited in the Centraal Museum in Utrecht.

The clincher for recognition that the two canvases were part of the same painting came in 1965, when a cleaning of the wedding night uncovered the archangel’s right wing, which had been painted over. This was the situation in 1993, when the art historian Albert Blankert proposed that the harm of the separation be undone and the two halves reunited. This was accomplished successfully in 1996, with addition of a missing piece of the Raphael, and the resulting masterpiece was put on display in the Bredius Museum. The museum website has an item on the reconstruction athttp://www.museumbredius.nl/reconstr.htm.

And then came 1997. Following the U.S. Senate investigations into the Swiss bank holdings of Jewish account holders killed in the Holocaust, attention turned to the art collections of victims all over Europe. The Dutch state proclaimed that statutes of limitation would be relaxed if good arguments could be brought by claimants. One of those to enter a claim was the widow of Goudstikker’s son Edo, Marei von Saher. One of the more than 200 paintings that she claimed was the Jan Steen Wedding night of Tobias and Sarah. In 2006 she was awarded ownership of the entire remnant of the Goudstikker collection in Dutch hands, including the left section of the reunited painting in the Bredius Museum.

Neither The Hague nor von Saher wanted the painting to be cut up again. Nonetheless, estimates of the value of the two pieces as separate paintings had to be made. The amounts assigned to them were $2,892,000 for the larger, more attractive left part belonging to von Saher, and $913,263 for the angel and the demon belonging to the Bredius Museum. Since the township has no intention of paying her for her part, the two parties began to manoeuvre toward a sale of the Bredius fragment to her, for $913.263 plus €45,000 for the cost of restoration and reconstruction. On 4 June 2009 the township submitted a request to the courts to allow it to sell Raphael and Asmodeus.

This was too much for lots of Dutch museum people and art historians who had applauded the rejoining of the mutilated masterpiece for display in a Dutch museum. A committee formed of the director and a past director of the Rijksmuseum, the retired director of the Mauritshuis and other major players set up a Foundation for the Protection and Preservation of Art owned by Dutch Public Organs. Family members of Abraham Bredius joined with them, reminding the world that Bredius attached to his bequest the condition that the legacy be displayed in perpetuity in the Bredius Museum. On 22 October 2009 the Foundation and the Bredius family entered counterpleas to block the request of The Hague to allow it to sell its share of the Jan Steen. On 17 December the court will adjudicate the plea. If it is turned down, the Dutch museums will lose a painting that not only for its artistic value but also its unique story deserves to be on display here forever.

Does anyone out there know Mrs. von Saher? Even if her experiences with the Dutch state and its institutions have not been uniformly pleasant, I cannot imagine that she has no sympathy for the Bredius Museum and its visitors. The Jan Steen case offers her an opportunity in life that few of us can hope to experience. She can play the role of the good mother who solves a Solomonic dilemma by giving her section of the Jan Steen to the Bredius Museum on indefinite loan if not in possession. If anyone does know her, please forward this column to her.

© 2009 Gary Schwartz. First published on the Schwartzlist on 8 December 2009.


This story has personal meaning for me. In 1994 I published a novel called Dutch Kills, brought out in English in 1996 under the title Bets and scams: a novel of the art world and in 2000 in German as Liebe eines Kunsthändlers. In it I described a deal made by a young Dutch art dealer named Lodewijk Altstad. I used what I knew about the Jan Steen Wedding night of Sarah and Tobias to allow Altstad to sell the demon to the museum that owned the bridal couple, which I called the Reynolds Museum. I placed it in Houston, Texas, so that unlike the Bredius Museum, the museum would have the money to buy the missing half of its painting.

Chapter 12 begins thus:

The case of the dismembered Jan Steen was closed when he and Henry Walker put the two paintings side by side in the restoration department of the Reynolds. It was obvious at a glance that Altstad was right. The two fragments were the same height, and their combined width produced a landscape format of classical proportions. The picture space, the scale of the figures and the tonality interlocked seamlessly. To expel all doubt, the smoke rising from the incense dish on the left of the bridal chamber began forming a loop which came round to the right of the demon. After some two hundred and fifty years, Steen’s composition returned to view.

I took some additional poetic liberties with the case, beside format and the wisp of smoke, but in essence I was anticipating the re-unification of the Hague fragments two years later. The prices I assigned to the two parts of the painting were $2,500,000 for the Wedding night and $1,000,000 for the demon. I was twenty years ahead of my time.

The novel got some nice reviews but didn’t burn up the marketplace. In discussing the draft with my late friend Dan Tsalka, the Israeli novelist, he gave me advice that I did not but possibly should have followed. “Your crime story is OK, but the art story is much better. You should rework the plot and turn the discovery of the two parts of the painting into the climax.” That is my reason for dedicating this column to his dear memory.

Reactions to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl

285 The Cotswolds Rembrandt

A country art auction in England made the front page all over when the world when 2.2 million pounds was paid for a painting that looks a lot like a Rembrandt self-portrait. Is it? Schwartz thinks it is, and supplies an analysis to explain why. At the same time, he shows how the published opinions of the Rembrandt Research Project could have led to the rejection of the painting by the experts consulted by the owner and the auction house. More like an article than a column. Continue reading “285 The Cotswolds Rembrandt”