Nowadays, writing a museum catalogue has become one of the most challenging art-historical endeavors. It should keep its value for several decades, and offer an in-depth yet succinct treatment of the works of art in a particular collection, thereby keeping pace with new acquisitions and incorporating the latest scholarly findings about the pictures, their creators and owners. In addition, improved methods of photography and reproduction should ensure the availability of clear and accurate illustrations for the reader who is not able to visit the museum in person. With the latest and welcome catalogue of the Flemish Baroque paintings in the Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, this mission has received a creative interpretation.
For Konrad Renger, this publication is the pinnacle of his work as curator at the Alte Pinakothek. The museum is home of one of the largest collections of Flemish Old Master paintings in the world, a venue where star painters as well as their more modest colleagues can be found in impressive numbers. It always attracted distinguished art lovers, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Joshua Reynolds, to name but two. The foundations of the collection of Flemish paintings was laid by the Wittelsbach Elector, Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria (ruled 1597-1651), for whom Rubens executed four hunting scenes, and his cousin, Duke Wolfgang Wilhelm of the Palatine-Neuburg (ruled 1614-1654), who commissioned four altarpieces from the Flemish painter. The collecting tradition was continued by their respective grandsons Maximilian II Emanuel of Bavaria (ruled 1679-1726), and Johann Wilhelm of the Palatine-Neuburg (ruled 1690-1716). Johann Wilhelm’s famous collection in Düsseldorf was united with that in Munich when upon the extinction of the Wittelsbach line in 1777, the Palatine line inherited the Electorate of Bavaria. Furthermore, the political influence of the Wittelsbach Electors in the Southern Netherlands made it relatively easy to purchase large numbers of paintings by Flemish artists: first of all, on the local art market – the most notable acquisition being the collection Max Emanuel purchased from the Antwerp merchant Gisbert van Colen in 1698; and secondly, apparently by acquiring important pictures from churches and monasteries.
Only 170 seventeenth-century paintings from a total amount of 1200 works have been selected for this catalogue, and most of them are currently on display in the galleries. Emphatically present are Jan Brueghel the Elder with 28 works, Anthony van Dyck with 22 and Adriaen Brouwer with 17 pictures – a quarter of his entire surviving oeuvre. But it is of course Rubens who claims the lion’s share. The Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen owns about 80 paintings by or attributed to him, of which no less than 60 outstanding examples are exhibited in the Alte Pinakothek and described in the present catalogue. The artists, each with a short biographical introduction, are catalogued in alphabetical order; within one artist, works are arranged thematically, starting with portraits, Old Testament, New Testament, and so on. The entries are accompanied by inventory numbers but not catalogue numbers, with the result that they do not follow any numerical order. It is unfortunate that there is no numerically arranged index. Equipped with an inventory number, it is not easy to find the relevant entry. The entries themselves consist of the standard information on format, support etc., followed by an accessible and eloquent descriptive part dealing with provenance, attribution, iconography, style and dating, with additional information in the footnotes. These entries are based on a thorough study of the relevant literature, which is discussed and, if necessary, corrected. Each entry concludes with a list of copies and variants, a bibliography and list of exhibitions. Every painting is shown in one or more reproductions, often in color.
The strength of this catalogue is twofold. First of all, it demonstrates a good understanding of technical issues, which is above all the result of an intensive collaboration between Konrad Renger and the remarkably well-equipped restoration department of the Alte Pinakothek. Renger offers new insights into the creative process of the paintings executed by Rubens and his followers, which he underpins using graphic representations of support make-up, X-rays and infrared photographs. Secondly, two artists in particular are treated in a brilliant way: Adriaen Brouwer and Peter Paul Rubens. Renger’s personal penchant for and his intimate knowledge of these two artists – he has already published numerous contributions on their work – are of seminal value for this catalogue. Here Renger fuels the scholarly discussion by means of new attributions (Rubens and Helena Fourment Walking in the Garden; inv. 313), by modifying and correcting confusing titles (see for instance, Landscape with a Cowherd; inv. 322), by separating former companion pieces (Battle of Senacherib; inv. 326) and by suggesting new interpretations (Medici series; pp. 393-443).
This preferential treatment of Rubens does however mean that other masters, even great ones, do not always receive the attention they deserve. Van Dyck’s double portraits of Filipe Godines and Sibylla van den Berghe (inv. 995, 201) and of Theodoor Rombouts with his Wife and Daughter (inv. 603, 599) and his Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist (inv. 622) receive polished but hardly profound treatments. For these and other pictures, a more extensive discussion of the scholarly literature as well as a balanced and transparent structure would have been welcome. Likewise unequal is the selection of illustrations. Although the full-image reproductions and the full-page enlargements of details in color add considerably to the reading pleasure, they seem somewhat randomly selected.
In its attempt to serve two target groups, the art-loving public and the scholarly, academic community, this book is in fact a compromise of three different types of characteristic museum publications: the traditional catalogue providing a thorough, scientifically-underpinned overview of the entire collection; the handy manual guide easy to use during a museum visit (though this of course applies only to the content and not format of this rather weighty volume); and the sumptuously edited art book, which the interested visitor takes home as a souvenir. As a result, and despite its obvious merits, neither audience will be truly satisfied with this publication. The art historian in particularly continues to look forward to a complete survey of one of the most outstanding collections of Flemish paintings in the world. However, an undertaking of such magnitude could only be accomplished using the concerted effort of an entire team of scholars and curators.
Karolien De Clippel