The collection catalog is an unforgiving literary genre. Its purpose is to serve as a work of reference for scholars seeking information about individual works for their own purposes. At a minimum, it must convey certain kinds of indisputable or uncontentious information. In the case of paintings, these include support, medium, and dimensions; references to earlier scholarly discussions, including exhibition history; technical details, condition, and a history of conservation treatments; and provenance. Work on an allegedly unimportant painting that may never see the light of day outside storage can be as challenging and time-consuming as researching a prominent piece. Catalogers cannot afford to play favorites, for they must give each work its due.
London collections of Old Master Dutch and Flemish paintings have been well served by their catalogers. Neil Maclaren, curator of Spanish, Dutch, and Flemish paintings at the National Gallery, London between 1935 and 1960, set the standard with The Dutch School, published in 1960. In 1991, Christopher Brown, while curator of Dutch and Flemish paintings at the National Gallery, extensively revised and expanded Maclaren’s catalog. Brown’s predecessor as director of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Christopher White, published The Dutch Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen in 1982. Peter Sutton’s Dutch and Flemish Seventeenth-Century Paintings: The Harold Samuel Collection appeared in 1992. It deals with the Dutch and Flemish paintings owned by property developer Harold Samuel, bequeathed by him to the Corporation of London to hang in Mansion House, the residence of the lord mayor. Together, these collection catalogs set and maintain a high standard. The late Michiel Jonker and Ellinoor Bergvelt’s volume is a worthy addition to their number.
Although each collection catalog must include certain kinds of indisputable or uncontentious information, compiling that information is hardly free of interpretation. This is especially so in the case of the technical characteristics of a painting. A cataloger must succinctly give a report on each painting as a three-dimensional thing comprising a support, whether wood (usually oak), canvas, or metal (usually copper); a ground; layers of variously opaque and translucent paints; and varnish. No cataloger would be wise to proceed without having examined each work out of its frame in the company of a conservator. Paintings conceal a wealth of information regarding their making, suffering, and revision, so examination by technical means, such as x-radiography and infra-red reflectography, can reveal much, as can conservators’ reports on treatments. Jonker and Bergvelt include succinct technical notes for each painting. For instance, a Woman Spinning (DPG29) was long unattributed until in the course of treatment an inscription, “P. Nys Fecit 1652” was uncovered on the original stretcher. Richard Beresford was able to include the resulting attribution to Pieter Nijs, presumed pupil of Hendrick Martensz. Sorgh, in his 1998 Complete Illustrated Catalogue of the Dulwich paintings, and it is accepted here (p. 141).
If the technical notes are an important component of each entry requiring varying degrees of interpretation with the advice of conservators, the production of provenances also requires informed interpretation, though of a more strictly historical kind. In my experience, provenance research is the most arduous and time-consuming aspect of compiling a collection catalog. Yet much of the Dulwich Picture Gallery collection has been together since at least the early nineteenth century. Of the 228 paintings in the catalog, no fewer than 170 came from the group of works formed by the dealer Noel Desenfans and his younger associate, Francis Bourgeois, from 1790 onwards for Stanisław August Poniatowski, king of Poland. The turbulence of the times promoted the dispersal and commercial migration of artworks, as well as their owners and former owners. The Polish king was not immune. He lost his realm in 1795, divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and died in 1798. Desenfans and Bourgeois were stuck with the paintings they had gathered for him. In her Introduction, Ellinoor Bergvelt gives a succinct account of the history of Desenfans and Bourgeois’s ownership of the works. Desenfans died in 1807 leaving them to Bourgeois, who continued to add to what had in effect become a collection rather than dealers’ stock. On his death in 1811, Bourgeois bequeathed all 369 paintings to Dulwich College, a boys’ school in the south of London. With the financial assistance of Noel Desenfans’s widow, Margaret, the college built a picture gallery to the brilliant design of John Soane. This building, which opened in 1817, is surely the most pleasant place to view Old Master paintings in existence. This history means that the provenances of many of the paintings are entangled in the attempts of Desenfans and Bourgeois to shift them, whether en bloc or individually at auction, often unsuccessfully. The provenance entries in the catalog are succinct, based for the most part on auction sale catalog records. Bergvelt is currently working to enhance the entries for an online version to be hosted by the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD). The elaborated entries will include quotations from eighteenth-century sales catalogs with English translations, and reproductions of all the paintings and related works, including drawings and prints.
In addition to the information already described, collection catalog authors have a responsibility to adjudicate attributions. There are not too many surprises in this respect. The long-term Rembrandts—Jacques de Gheyn III (DPG99); Girl at a Window (DPG163); A Young Man, perhaps the Artist’s Son, Titus (DPG221)—all remain Rembrandts. None of the ex-Rembrandts—Jacob’s Dream by Aert de Gelder (DPG126), for instance—have been considered to be by Rembrandt for many years, though it was thought to be by Rembrandt when John Constable copied it in ink (private collection), a tenebrous drawing that the authors reproduce (p. 94). Such nineteenth-century artists’ access to, and study of, these works is a particularly interesting aspect of the use of the collection. The authors also reproduce Constable’s same-size copy in oils of Jacob van Ruisdael’s Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem (DPG168), also in the Dulwich Picture Gallery (DPG657) (p. 216).
One last duty of collection catalog authors is to summarize and tactfully adjudicate among interpretations of artworks proposed by other scholars. In doing this myself, I gained a healthy respect for the work of earlier generations of art historians, going back to at least the nineteenth century, however wrong-headed some of their ideas may now appear. Nonetheless, a collection catalog is a morgue of ideas. Those ideas are like so many cadavers. Catalogers choose some of them for resurrection.
For example, of Adriaen Hanneman’s Portrait of a Man (DPG609), Jonker and Bergvelt report: “Eddy de Jongh in 1975-76 suggested that the pearls held by the man were symbolic of chastity or faith, whereas Richard Beresford noted that they might merely indicate the sitter was a jeweller” (p. 97). Is the answer one or the other, or both, or neither? In their discussion of a Vase with Flowers by Jan van Huysum (DPG120), Jonker and Bergvelt exhume an unpublished exhibition catalog entry from the object file. They state that its author notes “that there was a tendency to interpret eggs in still-life paintings as signifying the life cycle or the Resurrection, but [the author] thought this seemed far-fetched. However, he regarded the inclusion of the cuckoo’s egg in another species’ nest as possibly evoking themes such as ingratitude, adultery and the nativity of Christ. He concluded that it was more likely that Van Huysum wanted to demonstrate his ability to depict different textures, colours and forms” (pp. 115-116). At least this author expressed a preference, but on what grounds remains unclear. So, again, what is the answer? Is an answer even available?
I must admit to having been the author of the unpublished entry on the van Huysum (written for the 1985-86 exhibition of Dulwich paintings in Washington, Los Angeles, and New York: the painting was not included). Finding a paraphrase of a passage from an unpublished manuscript I wrote in 1984 included in an entry in this catalog makes me feel like a ghost coming across his own corpse. These passages of iconographic interpretation by de Jongh, Beresford, and myself exemplify the bewilderment, hedging of bets, and obtuseness in the face of inevitable uncertainty that plagued the study of seventeenth-century Dutch painting from at least the 1970s onwards. People – myself included – wrote very silly things about artworks, failing to address the underlying hermeneutic puzzle.
The choice of works to catalog would seem to be self-evident: Dutch and Flemish paintings. Yet the vagaries of the collection as a whole has dictated that some outliers should be added for which accommodation would be hard to find in other volumes. Five works are by German artists, including, for instance, A Neapolitan Woman of 1876 by the Munich painter Friedrich Dürck (DPG643). Stranger yet than the additions is an omission. One of the best loved Flemish paintings in the collection, Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, on Her Death Bed, painted by Anthony van Dyck in 1633 at the behest of Sir Kenelm Digby (DPG194) is not to be found. I was so puzzled by its omission that I emailed Ellinoor Bergvelt, who kindly explained that the late John Ingamells, responsible for the catalog of British paintings in the Dulwich Picture Gallery, published in 2008, had decided that all paintings made in England, including Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, on her Death Bed, should be part of his remit. The publisher omitted Jonker and Bergvelt’s explanation of this misappropriation, compounding the confusion.
In spite of these oddities, and the excision of material that will find a place in the online supplement, the volume stands as a tribute not only to the discernment of Desenfans and Bourgeois and numbers of their successors as donors, but to both Ellinoor Bergvelt and Michiel Jonker. Jonker, with whom I had the pleasure of collaborating on an edited volume, Vermeer Studies (1998), was one of the most talented and gracious art historians in the Dutch art museum community. He died unexpectedly in 2014, before the enormous project was quite finished. The volume stands as a fitting tribute to his memory.
Bard Graduate Center