The first Dutch university-educated art historian, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1863-1930), grew up in the North Netherlandish towns of Kampen and Groningen and, because of poor health, at spas in France and Germany. He studied classical languages in Groningen and Leiden and art history in Leipzig. In 1891 he became vice-director of the Royal Picture Gallery the Mauritshuis, and in the same year published his dissertation on Arnold Houbraken’s Groote Schouwburg . From 1898 Hofstede de Groot worked independently, published extensively and collected a vast number of drawings (mostly seventeenth-century Dutch) alongside his collection of paintings and medals. Among his most important publications are the Handzeichnungen Rembrandts(1906) and the Beschreibendes und kritisches Verzeichnis der Werke der hervorragendsten holländischen Maler des XVII. Jahrhunderts(1907-1928). His documentation, the basis of his publications, forms the foundation of the RKD (founded 1932) in The Hague. Already in 1914 he promised his collection of paintings, as well as an important part of his collection of drawings to the museum in Groningen. This collection has been the starting point of the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue Van Cuyp tot Rembrandt – De verzameling Cornelis Hofstede de Groot in the Groninger Museum.
The time and location of this exhibition were well chosen. Apart from Hofstede de Groot’s large bequest left to Groningen, it coincides with the ‘Rembrandt year’, commemorating an artist of whom this connoisseur was a highly influential specialist. It also took place at a time when a new museum, focussing on regional history, led to a fierce debate in the local media. Finally, it seems to be part of a tradition of the Groninger Museum, to put influential figures in national cultural history in the spotlight, following for instance museum director Jos de Gruyter. The present exhibition consisted of 88 drawings and 29 paintings, seven of which are not included in the catalogue since they were never in the possession of Hofstede de Groot (even though, for instance, Ferdinand Bol’s Portrait of Elisabeth Jacobsdr . is the only work mentioned in the director’s foreword, and it will play a pivotal role in a presentation in the Rijksmuseum this year).
The catalogue further consists of six 10-15 page essays, dealing with several aspects of Hostede de Groot and his collection. Luuk Pijl, responsible for the concept of the exhibition and editor of its catalogue, places the realization of Hofstede de Groot’s collection in an historical context, sketching his network of dealers, connoisseurs and museum professionals. Herman Overmars and Henk van Veen have written an essay on Hofstede de Groot’s place in Dutch art history, which can even be connected, through his student Horst Gerson, to the present day art history department at Groningen University. Rudi Ekkart stresses the importance of Hofstede de Groot’s numerous scholarly contributions, including the (then relatively new) method of using and comparing photographs. Volker Manuth analyzes Hofstede de Groot’s importance for Rembrandt researchers and concludes that, notwithstanding his reputation as a ‘scholarly’ art historian, he is also firmly rooted in the nineteenth-century romantic tradition. The author concludes, apparently in agreement with Hofstede de Groot’s 1922 stipulation: “dealing with Rembrandt is among the greatest aesthetic pleasures in the world” [translated from the catalogue].
Esmée Quodbach’s interesting essay deals with ‘American Collections Rich in Dutch Art.’ She gives an overview of the American situation around 1900 and provides insight into Hofstede de Groot’s two-month journey to the United States in 1908, probably the first visit to the New World by an eminent Dutch art historian. By this date some of the most important American collections, such as those of P.A.B. Widener and H.C. Frick, had relatively recently been established, partly at the expense of the impoverished French and British aristocracy. Dieuwertje Dekkers describes Hofstede de Groot’s role in the ‘Museumkwestie’: the early twentieth-century Dutch debate on the position of museums in society.
Regrettably, the catalogue does not contain an essay dealing with Hofstede de Groot’s position in the international discourse; his relationship with Max Friedländer – practically his contemporary, who graduated in Leipzig in the same year, also a specialist of drawings, and whose documentation forms another important part of the RKD – is discussed nowhere. One of the more fundamental weaknesses of the catalogue is the lack of coherence. Luuk Pijl’s biography of Hofstede de Groot is repeated in Herman Overmars’s and Henk van Veen’s essay on the famous art historian’s place in Dutch art history. Some biographical facts, like his study of art history in Leipzig, are repeated four times in this contribution (pp. 13, 15, 16, 18), alongside lengthy biographical data that are repeated in other essays. Moreover, one would expect this particular retrospective essay to have been placed at the end, since it takes for granted knowledge that will only be dealt with in the following essays.
One only seldom learns how one aspect of Hofstede de Groot’s career has influenced another. In the chapter on the ‘Museumkwestie’, De Groot’s thesis of 1911 follows directly after the paragraph on the ‘Commissie de Groot (1904-1907).’ Hofstede’s 1911 theorem that the meaning of an art museum is defined by its possession of masterpieces, rather than a large number of mediocre pieces, however, appears to have been inspired by his American journeys of 1908 and 1909. At least, already in 1908 the New York Times quoted him as saying: ‘To make a museum the best in the world rather than the greatest is, [ É ] the true ideal toward which to reach.’ (cited from the catalogue). His 1911 appeal to the Dutch government to establish such a museum is essentially a repetition of his appeal of 1908 to important American collectors.
The regrettable lack of coherence also affects the catalogue itself. The sequence is alphabetical and does not follow the exhibition. One wonders why the editor made such an arbitrary decision. Of course, for a catalogue of Hofstede de Groot’s collection this would be among the obvious solutions, but since the exhibition only covers part of the collection, others might have been more welcome to the reader. Thematic grouping, as in the exhibition, would have given better insight into Hofstede de Groot’s favorite subjects. Another more illuminating arrangement might have been following the collector himself. Most of the exhibited works have a lengthy pedigree, and Pijl and others have been able to establish when Hofstede de Groot acquired them (an extensive exhibition history and bibliography is included in every entry). It remains for another author or for the reader him/herself to find out what influence Hofstede de Groot’s development and travels may have had on his collecting policy.
Moreover, the entries themselves sometimes relate clearly to the central theme of the book, but quite often only consist of a brief discussion of the work or artist under consideration. One cannot go as far as Hofstede de Groot did himself when he judged the new arrangement of the Rijksmuseum in 1900, but a clearer motivation for the catalogue would have been most welcome. This may be, understandably, due to time pressure. Writing over a hundred entries on a couple of dozen artists is not an easy job, and certainly a time-consuming one.
Notwithstanding its imperfections, this exhibition is one of the first to take into consideration Dutch people’s own history. It sheds some light on the way Dutch art history came into being and thereby gives the reader an idea of the origin of a Dutch canon. This alone makes the project worthwhile.