Although the private foundation of public museums is a common phenomenon in North America, it forms the exception in Europe, and the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt is the only prominent example in Germany. The institution started as a bequest of the Frankfurt banker and art collector Johann Friedrich Städel (1728-1816), consisting of his collection of around 500 paintings and 2000 works on paper, along with the funding to establish a museum as well as an academy of art in his name. With further donations from Frankfurt’s citizens, and acquisitions from prominent collections such as the Schönborn Collection and that of the Dutch King Willem II, the Städel has taken its place as one of the world’s great collections of European art, especially rich in German and Netherlandish works, favoured by its founder.
The Netherlandish paintings from before 1800 were last catalogued by curators Bodo Brinkmann and Jochen Sander in 1995. Ten years is not long for a major museum to wait before revisiting its collection catalogue. The prompt for such a project is often the realization of substantial growth in a collection, or the progress of scholarship and research on the works in it. In the case of the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, a desire to present a whole new level of intensive research and analysis of its holdings to scholars and interested laypersons motivated a project for a two-volume catalogue of its Netherlandish paintings of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Two young specialists in Dutch art, Leon Krempel and Mirjam Neumeister, were engaged to take on the task of reviewing and responding to the considerable body of scholarship pertaining to these works.
Neumeister comes to this project having recently published an overview of night scenes with artificial light, based on her dissertation, an interest immediately perceptible in her detailed descriptions of the many scenes that fall into this category in the Frankfurt collection. In presenting the works of Netherlandish artists born before 1615, including Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Jan van Goyen and Aert van der Neer, she faces the formidable demand of a wide range of research methods, including technical analysis. Neumeister is methodical and attentive, and supplies the reader with an abundance of pertinent information, well organized, and delivered in a very clear and uncomplicated writing style, a relief to the non-native reader. Her discussions of the research on the three Rembrandt paintings in the collection, all long and involved, are exemplary. Haeselaer’s technical reports are likewise detailed, although canvas thread counts and the finishing of the reverse side of panels are two relevant points that do not receive much attention.
The support of the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung has permitted a truly expansive and lavish treatment of each individual work, and the result is unparalleled, setting a standard which few other institutions will be able to match in the future. With 532 pages devoted to 59 paintings by 37 artists, and numerous supporting illustrations in each entry, an exhaustive approach is indicated, packaged in an uncrowded and clear layout.
The individual entries have expanded the usual essay format into several distinct sections, devoted to technical information, provenance, literature and exhibitions, known copies and prints, a description, state of research, and discussion. One is immediately struck by the curious section in each entry devoted to the State of Research, in which all contributions, however insignificant, are included. It is reminiscent of a dissertation literature review. Even references from the provenance are cited, and much of the material then resurfaces in other sections, especially the discussion, often in the same words. This information should have been included selectively, and incorporated into the body of the entry, under a firm editorial hand, to avoid grating repetitions. One occasionally develops the impression that the contents of the museum’s files have been emptied into these entries. It is not necessary to indicate the point at which the spelling of an artist’s name is revised in the literature, for instance from “Douw” to “Dou”. Indeed, the expanded approach does not present a convincing case for abandoning the traditional compact “tombstone” structure of collection catalogue entries, with basic information, provenance and literature lists placed at the head of each entry.
This does not take away from the enormous usefulness of much of the information and research presented here. Haeselaer’s accounts of losses and inpainting, accompanied by dendrochronological data from Peter Klein, are invaluable. Numerous detail photos, their quality owing to the use of a microscope, allow the reader the benefit of close-up study. An unintended effect is occasionally to supply material that undermines the author’s conclusions. An example is Neumeister’s analysis of one of the most challenging works in the catalogue, the mistitled “Woman Setting a Supper Table” by Gerrit Dou, a work which has suffered considerably from mistreatment and alteration (pp. 69-80). Neumeister’s support for Bettina Werche’s interpretation of this painting in a recent Frankfurt exhibition catalogue, as a scene of instruction, does not engage with evidence presented by a near-contemporary and convincingly reliable copy by Godfried Schalcken in the Schönborn-Buchheim collection (p. 77, fig. 55), costume analysis, an infrared reflectogram, and comparisons to related works by the artist. The infrared evidence is critical, because it shows that a specific area of the background was overcleaned right down to the ground, in an obvious attempt to remove a figure that was once integral to the original paint structure. Neumeister misreads the light reflection there as overpaint, although it shows no traces of brushwork. At any rate, such a reflection could only come from light, not dark, pigment.
The old man Dou originally painted sitting by the fire, seen in the Schalcken, served as a polar opposite to the vibrant young woman at the table. The dim glowing embers of the fire contrast with the bright candle illuminating her, and underscore the man’s function as a Joseph-like symbol of sexual impotence, set against the girl’s radiant charm. This would accord well with her identification as a maid, and Neumeister twice cites Marieke de Winkel’s analysis of her dress as consistent with this occupation, but nonetheless persists in identifying her action with the matronly role of instruction. A more appropriate reference point is the persistent cultural suspicion of maids and their potential to attract the master of the household and disrupt family harmony. Instead of Dou’s Night School (Rijksmuseum, fig. 56), devoid of sexual tension, a more suitable comparison would be to Dou’s Wine Cellar (Hohenbuchau Collection, also illustrated here page no. 73, fig. 53), in which a young maid fills a canister between her legs with wine streaming out of a spout from the vat, an obvious erotic reference. She is likewise brightly lit in the foreground, and contrasted with an old man by a dimly glowing fire in the background, providing a precise parallel to the Frankfurt picture. Reliance on the technical evidence provided would have demonstrated that the bourgeois prudery in this instance was not exercised by Dou, but by a later owner and his restorer, imposing this traditionally Germanic characterisation of Dutch society of the Golden Age, consistent with Goethe’s famous title of “The Paternal Admonition” given to a Ter Borch with amorous, perhaps even erotic overtones.
Very few of the paintings here present serious problems of connoisseurship. One exception appears to be the charming Head of a Child traditionally attributed to Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp (pp. 481-491). As Neumeister relates, this view was brought into question at a symposium on the occasion of the Dordrecht exhibition devoted to this painter and his artistic progeny (Dordrecht, 1-2 September 2002). Yet significant stylistic traits place this work very close to the Cuyp workshop: its dry, stiff handling, rounded and abstracted forms, static pose and composition, and its reduced and warm palette. Indeed it appears to partake of a particular Dordrecht penchant for red, later seen in the works of Bisschop, Maes, and Abraham van Dijck. So it is baffling to see the author follow a suggestion made at the symposium to attribute the painting to Pieter Claesz. Soutman, known for his smooth and fluid handling, and dynamic poses and compositions, fusing elements of Rubens and Hals. The basis for this attribution is the one flowing strand of hair to the left of the forehead, an element that even appears in portraits by Aelbert Cuyp himself. An attribution to an unknown follower of Jacob or Aelbert would have been both safe and more accurate.
These points of discussion aside, this remains a tremendously useful publication. By revising established practice, it also prompts the question of how best to approach a museum catalogue. There is an arguable value attached to the interpretative intervention of a curator connected to the collection over a longer period of time, as represented in catalogues by Arthur Wheelock and Walter Liedtke, for example. Yet Neumeister and her colleagues have produced an abundance of up-to-date information and intelligent commentary, and the volume’s reasonable price will allow a wide readership to enjoy and study the Frankfurt collection and the scholarship on it.
David De Witt
Agnes Etherington Art Centre