The publication of this catalogue of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Flemish paintings in the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum Braunschweig is a cause for celebration. This old and distinguished collection of Flemish paintings, which was largely formed in the late seventeenth century by Herzog Anton Ulrich (1633-1714), and originally housed in the Schloss Salzdahlum, has never before been sufficiently studied. The only complete record of the collection heretofore was the check list of paintings executed before 1800 that the museum published in 1976. Fortunately, this present publication, which catalogues 159 Flemish paintings in the collection, was written by Rüdiger Klessmann, whose intimate knowledge of these works was gained through his many years as the museum’s distinguished director.
Duke Anton Ulrich apparently gained his interest in Dutch and Flemish paintings on a trip he took to the Netherlands in the late 1650s. He seems to have had strong literary interests, which probably accounts for the large number of subject paintings found in this collection. While the Duke, who was a Protestant, had a stronger preference for Dutch painting than for Flemish art, he had wide-ranging interests, and collected portraits, landscapes and still lifes as well as religious and mythological works.
As with many old collections, this one is crowned with a few wonderful masterpieces, but is also interesting for the many minor masters whose works are little known and studied. Thus, the catalogue is valuable not only for its informative texts about major works by Peter Paul Rubens (Judith with the Head of Holofernes and Portrait of the Marchese Ambrogio Spinola), Anthony van Dyck (Portrait of Lucas van Uffel), and Jacob Jordaens (Adoration of the Shepherds), but also for its discussions of interesting paintings by lesser masters, including Paul Brill (Roman Landscape with Ruins), Caspar de Crayer, (Tobias and the Angel), Ludovicus Finson, (Allegory of the Five Senses), Joos de Momper and Jan Breughel the Elder (The Four Seasons), and Cornelis de Vos (Allegory of Transience).
These highlights are among the 40 paintings illustrated in color in a plate section following the individual entries. All the other works, including a number which cannot be firmly attributed, are reproduced in black and white. While one might wish for larger images and more color, this catalogue is the first instance in which many of the minor works in the collection have been illustrated at all. The catalogue also includes a section containing photographs of all the signatures that could be properly recorded.
Although larger in format, this volume complements Klessmann’s 1983 scholarly catalogue of the museum’s Dutch paintings. In fact, a number of artists who one might have expected to have been included in the present volume, including David Vinckboons, Roelant Savery and Alexander Keirincx, were discussed in that earlier publication since they spent much of their career in the Dutch Republic. The character of the entries in the two volumes is quite comparable. While informative, they tend to be relatively short, consisting primarily of a cursory description of the work and its subject matter, followed by a discussion of artistic precedents and comparable works, and a synopsis of proposed dates and attributions.
Two areas in which Klessmann does not delve into extensively are stylistic or iconographic issues. For example, in the discussion of Peter Paul Rubens’s powerfully expressive Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1616, little is said of the way Rubens used chiaroscuro effects or bold brushwork to help bring the scene to life. Nor does Klessmann discuss Rubens’s effective use of an artificial light source to illuminate the scene, a visual conceit the artist derived from Adam Elsheimer’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (Wellington Museum, Apsley House, London), a painting he had in his own collection. Similarly, one would have liked to have learned about the visual and thematic appeal of this subject for the artist’s contemporaries and the moral message that Judith’s heroic act would have conveyed.
While Klessmann does discuss the complex panel construction and the interesting pentimenti found in this work, artists’ materials and techniques, and the condition of paintings are other areas of inquiry that receive little attention in this catalogue. As Klessmann explains in his introduction, a systematic analysis of the Flemish paintings was not possible to complete in time for the scheduled publication of this catalogue as part of the 250th anniversary of the museum in 2004.
As one would expect with a careful scholarly assessment of such a collection, a number of reattributions have been made. Most of these, 43 in all, concern relatively minor paintings, but the reassessment of one work is of some significance. Klessmann, following the lead of a number of recent scholars, has rightly attributed the imposing Portrait of a Man, c. 1616, to Anthony van Dyck, a work that had hung in this collection as a painting by Peter Paul Rubens ever since it was in Schloss Salzdahlum in the early eighteenth century. Most reattributions in collection catalogues tend to be demotions, but not all. Following the lead of Wolfgang Adler, Klessmann has concluded that Jan Wildens painted the previously unattributed Landscape with the Huntress Diana (inv. no. 1126). This catalogue, thus, brings forth a wide range of material that will provide new insights to our evolving understanding of Flemish art, and for that we are extremely grateful to Rüdiger Klessmann and the Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum.
Washington, National Gallery of Art