It is heartening that collection catalogues are still being produced in printed format, especially those devoted to museums previously lacking scholarly catalogues, or ones in which color illustrations and comparative images were lacking. Although it may be true that such volumes are out-of-date even before they appear on shelves, there can be no argument about their long-term accessibility and usefulness. Rudi Ekkart’s meticulously researched and beautifully produced volume devoted to the Dutch and Flemish portraits in Budapest is a case in point. Researchers now have easy access to a vast collection that may have previously been unknown to them.
Representing the largest holding of Dutch and Flemish old master paintings outside of the Low Countries, the Szépmüvészeti Museum should be commended for undertaking the cataloguing of their collections. After issuing a summary catalogue in 2000, it embarked upon an ambitious plan to publish detailed, multi-volume catalogues organized by artistic genre. Ekkart’s book on the collection’s Dutch and Flemish portraits was the first to appear. A volume by Ildikό Ember devoted to Budapest’s Dutch and Flemish still life paintings (also reviewed in this issue) came out shortly thereafter, and Susan Urbach’s volume on Early Netherlandish painting, published by Harvey Miller and Brepols, is scheduled to come out later in June.
As the leading authority on Dutch and Flemish portraits and former director of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), Rudi Ekkart brought a depth of knowledge and wealth of professional experience to his authorial task. His book begins by providing a brief overview of the history of this important collection. As the author notes, it was the acquisition of the remarkable Esterházy collection in 1871 that set the tone for the gifts, purchases, and bequests to follow. Although interesting and available to readers in English and Hungarian, as are the individual entries, one wonders if in his introduction greater scrutiny might have been directed towards some of the purchases and acquisitions made in the decades following World War II.
In the catalogue that follows, one cannot help but be impressed by the handsome, easy to navigate layout used for each entry. Ekkart followed a proven path in conveying relevant information, with the provenance, exhibition, literature, and brief technical section appearing before rather than after his insightful discussions. Still, considering the large number of lesser-known masters found in the Budapest collection, separate biographies devoted to painters would have been welcomed.
Although it contains many high-quality color illustrations, including many details reproducing signatures, and nearly a hundred black-and-white comparative images, the catalogue reproduces no technical photographs. This lacuna, when considered alongside the rather brief ‘technical information’ section provided for each painting, represents the one major shortcoming of the volume. It is one that undoubtedly skews our understanding of the genesis of some of the individual paintings. As the museum expands its conservation capabilities, one hopes to see – perhaps in an online version – more information gleaned from technical examinations of the paintings.
The Budapest collection is remarkable for its scope, as the 105 entries covered here represent a virtual survey of all of the types of Dutch and Flemish portraits produced during the century. All of the paintings are authoritatively discussed by Ekkart, as his concise and persuasive arguments bring an unmatched wealth of information to the reader. While lacking an autograph Rembrandt or Rubens, there are outstanding examples by painters such as Gonzales Coques (no. 7), Aelbert Cuyp (no. 8), Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (no. 24), Frans Hals (nos. 27, 28), Bartholomeus van der Helst (nos. 30, 31), Jan Lievens (no. 40), Jacob van Loo (no. 42), Nicolaes Maes (nos. 45-49), and Johannes Verspronck (no. 80). These works are joined by excellent examples assigned to many ‘minor’ masters. Here, one counts pictures by Harmen de Bye (no. 5), Lodewijk van der Helst (32), Cornelis Janson van Ceulen (no. 36), Peter van Lint (no. 41), Frans Luyckx (no. 43), Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy (no. 65, 66), Gilles van Tilborg (no. 74), and Jan Weenix (nos. 85-87).
In reading the various entries one becomes quickly aware of Ekkart’s skill in identifying individual sitters – discussed in an ‘iconography’ section for all applicable paintings – and in connoisseurship. Consequently, scores of re-attributions and sitter identifications appear throughout the volume’s pages. This two-tiered approach coalesces in one of the author’s most convincing and important entries (no. 35). In it, Ekkart argues that the Portrait of a Family, a work previously attributed to Jan Weenix, is, in fact, a late work by Samuel van Hoogstraten. He also identifies the sitters as Arent Muys van Holy and his family.
Although the author brings scholarly rigor to all of the paintings he catalogues irrespective of whether classified as ‘autograph’, ‘attributed to’, ‘workshop of’, ‘circle of’, or ‘copy,’ Ekkart is especially attentive to so-called minor works. He offers readers two of his strongest arguments in discussing a copy after Thomas de Keyser (no. 39), and a painting assigned to an artist in the circle of Gerard ter Borch (no.3), reconstructed after having once been divided into three sections. Rather than being dismissive of these works – the type often relegated to checklist status on the back pages of collection catalogues – here they take center stage alongside their more important counterparts.
As with any catalogue filled with new attributions and sitter identifications, some of the author’s conclusions remain open to discussion. In addition, the obscure nature of many of the painters discussed here falls well outside the comfort zone of most researchers, including this reviewer. It is hoped that closer scrutiny of some of the attributions will be taken up by scholars specializing in little-known painters such as Theodoor Boeyermans, or the eighteenth-century artist Louis Francois Gerard van der Puyl, to name just two.
That said, Ekkart’s new attributions for a few of the better-known painters raise questions with this reviewer. Foremost among them is the picture on the cover of the catalogue, Portrait of a Woman (no. 53) from about 1635. In one of his lengthier entries, Ekkart identified the picture as ‘attributed to Jan Miense Molenaer’. While the author is correct in discarding its previous attribution to Paulus Moreelse, the new one to Molenaer should be reconsidered. Among other things, he illustrates and discusses a JM monogram found on the canvas to bolster his arguments in linking the picture to Molenaer. This cursive monogram, however, is not to be found on paintings he executed in the 1630s or 1640s. In addition, one is equally justified in doubting the new attribution on stylistic grounds. The Budapest painting displays a much softer touch and more subtle lighting than Molenaer’s one known formal portrait from 1633 (a work illustrated in my 2002 exhibition catalogue on the painter). Should Dirck Santvoort or someone working in the circle be considered in connection with the Portrait of a Woman? The attributions of Portrait of a Family (no. 34) to the ‘circle of Pieter de Hooch’ and Portrait of a 25-Year-Old Woman (no. 26) to Frans de Grebber may also be questioned.
Despite perhaps overplaying his hand in a few instances, Ekkart is, in general, cautious in making new attributions. The book catalogues more than a dozen portraits, both Dutch and Flemish, to which the author wisely decided not to attach names. The overall quality and stylistic individuality found in a number these works (e.g. nos. 94, 99, 100, and 102) may eventually lead scholars to find the names of the painters responsible for their execution.
Ekkart must be commended for taking the research on Budapest’s magnificent collection of Dutch and Flemish portraits to the next level. In the best tradition of collection catalogues, his book lays out the facts as we know them now, and leaves it up to others, including the next generation of scholars, to amend and update the material. Despite my reservations about certain points expressed above, it represents a considerable accomplishment.
Dennis P. Weller
North Carolina Museum of Art