The depth and richness of the Szépmüvészeti Múzeum’s collection of Dutch and Flemish still life paintings, long known to European audiences, first came to the attention of Americans in 1989, when a selection of forty still lifes from Budapest toured eight different venues throughout the United States. A supplement to the accompanying catalogue reproduced the balance of the Dutch and Flemish still life paintings owned by the museum, and presented basic information about the provenance, exhibition history, and scholarly treatment of individual works in the collection. Although remaining useful, that catalogue only hints at the significance of Budapest’s extraordinary holdings. Numbering some ninety-two paintings, the collection boasts both great range and superb quality. These factors more than justify the publication of the independent volume authored by Ildikó Ember, chief curator of the museum’s Old Masters’ Gallery, here under review.
The book begins with a brief essay by Ember, providing a clear overview of the subject. Focusing first on questions of collection formation, the author discusses the important acquisition of the Esterházy collection in 1871. Few additions came from other aristocratic sources since European nobility in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries did not commonly collect still life paintings. A robust acquisitions policy during the Directorship of Gábor Térey (1904-26) significantly increased the size and scope of the museum’s holdings; during this period the number of Dutch and Flemish still life paintings more than doubled. In recent decades acquisitions have been made primarily by opportunity. Nevertheless, twenty-four additional paintings have come into the collection since the 1940s.
Ember underscores the crucial foundational role that Ágnes Czobor, Old Master Gallery’s previous chief curator, played in the understanding of the still life collection. Czobor worked on a key 1962 exhibition, and also published a series of articles on the collection. Her plans for a more substantial publication of the still life paintings were unfortunately left unrealized, however. Although Ember generously and rightfully acknowledges the work of her predecessor, it is clear that Ember’s own work on the collection has been both steady and tireless. The RKD was central to the realization of the project. Not surprisingly, Fred G. Meijer, Curator of Dutch and Flemish Still Life and Genre Painting at the RKD, was deeply involved, contributing three entries to the catalogue.
The organization of the catalogue is straightforward and clear. All information appears in both English and Hungarian in facing columns. The entries are organized alphabetically by artists’ last names. Each entry begins with basic tombstone information, followed by provenance, exhibition history, references, technical information, iconography and finally the text of the entry itself. Provenance information seldom goes back further than the 1800s, with a few notable exceptions such as cat. 44, Corner of a Room with Curiosities by Jan van der Heyden. The references are thorough, making this work a fundamental resource in any further research on the collection. Technical information describes not only the physical construction and condition of each painting, but details any conservation work that has been carried out on the piece. The section detailing the iconography of each painting sometimes feels somewhat redundant for the accompanying entry usually covers similar ground. However, it is a useful key for a quick assessment of each painting.
The entries themselves are thorough and vigorously argued. Ember not only lays out important details such as attribution history, but she also provides brief biographical sketches of each artist and provides a thorough visual analysis of each painting. It is abundantly clear that she is extremely familiar with these paintings, for these entries reveal a command of the scholarship and an attentiveness to subtle detail and nuance that can only come from an extended relationship with a work of art. Comparative illustrations are provided when necessary, along with detail images of signatures and images that support provenance, such as collector’s seals. Included among entries on more traditional still lifes are discussions on some of the museum’s animal paintings by Melchior d’Hondecoeter and others.
The catalogue concludes with a thorough bibliography, along with a helpful index of previous owners and a numerical index with notes on changes in attributions – a feature that secures this catalogue’s place as a crucial resource on the collection. The index of previous owners, furthermore, underscores the significant role that certain collectors, such as the Esterházy, played in the formation of the museum’s formidable group.
The catalogue is beautifully produced, with generous, full-page color illustrations of each entry, and a clear and logical structure. It is written in a direct and accessible style, with thorough and complete documentation on each piece. A significant resource for all subsequent research in the field, this volume will long stand as the definitive catalogue of the Budapest museum’s fine collection of still life paintings.
Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art
Milwaukee Art Museum