This publication, the proceedings of a symposium organized in 2009 by the Center for the History of Collecting at The Frick Collection, considers from numerous vantage points the tidal shifts in collecting Dutch Golden Age pictures in America from colonial times to the present day. Handsomely illustrated with 108 excellent color plates, superbly edited (the notes contain useful cross-referencing between the authors’ papers), and possessing a valuable bibliography, it is a major contribution to the subject at hand, furthering Peter Sutton’s A Guide to Dutch Art in America of 1986 and the collection of essays included in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition “Great Dutch Paintings from America” held in The Hague and San Francisco in 1990 (ed. Ben Broos).
Following an Introduction by Peter Sutton, the book comprises thirteen essays arranged in three sections. The first part, entitled “The Early Years: The Formation of America’s Taste for Dutch Art,” includes pieces by Louisa Wood Ruby on inventory records of Dutch New Yorkers in the 1680s and 1690s and reporting the existence of a bona fide Frans Hals in New York by the end of the seventeenth century; Lance Humphries on the collection of Robert Gilmor, Jr. (1774-1848) of Baltimore (who possessed paintings by Jacob van Ruisdael, Godfried Schalcken, and others); Annette Stott on the role played by the general public and contemporary artists in stimulating interest in seventeenth-century Dutch art in America; and Catherine B. Scallen on Wilhelm von Bode’s influential views on private collecting, museum policy, and professional practices in America.
The second section, “The Gilded Age: Great Collections and Collectors of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art,” includes an essay by Esmée Quodbach tracing the early history of collecting Vermeer in America, from Henry G. Marquand’s purchase in 1887 of Young Woman with a Water Pitcher to Henry Clay Frick’s 1919 acquisition of Mistress and Maid. The late Walter Liedtke dwells on the motives and values of the Metropolitan’s major donors of Dutch art, Benjamin Altman in particular. His essay notes interestingly that of the Met’s extensive holdings of paintings by Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, and Jacob van Ruisdael, the museum purchased only one, Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (in 1961). Lloyd DeWitt characterizes the collection of John G. Johnson, prize jewel of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which remains the largest amassing of Dutch paintings in any museum in America. Ronni Baer surveys the collecting of Dutch paintings in the city of Boston, including the purchases made by Isabella Stewart Gardner. The formation of the Dutch collection in the Museum of Fine Arts receives the lion’s share of her attention, however, with the author pointing out “it was built up, not through occasional princely gifts, but through continuous collecting…” (121) Last but not least, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr. provides a fascinating account of the metamorphosis of the National Gallery’s Dutch collection from the time of his arrival at the museum 42 years ago to the present time, detailing the stunning expansion of the canon during that period.
The last section, entitled “The Twentieth Century: The Dissemination of Dutch Art Across America and the Dutch Reaction,” treats matters closer to the present day. Dennis P. Weller’s contribution, “The Passionate Eye of W.R. Valentiner…,” admits to his subject’s flawed record (the museum man’s expansionist views led him to make attributions that have not withstood the test of time) while demonstrating Valentiner’s pivotal role in American museum life from his arrival in 1908 as a curator at the Met (where he had the cuspidors removed from the galleries) to his death in 1958. (It is telling that the important “Loan Exhibition of Paintings by Old Dutch Masters,” organized by Valentiner in 1909 at the Metropolitan Museum is cited by no less than nine of the present publication’s authors.) Anne T. Woollett describes, often in delightfully curious detail, the acquisition over the last six decades of the fourteen (now fifteen) Rembrandt paintings in five southern California museums, purchases of “fabulously wealthy entrepreneurial businessmen,” (170) which, it must be acknowledged, mimic the collecting heyday of the Gilded Age. Somewhat as a counterpoint, Peter Hecht discusses Dutch museum acquisition history in the context of its rivalry with American collecting. He illuminatingly points out that “the most important collection of Dutch seventeenth-century art [the Rijksmuseum] is far younger than most of its visitors would ever guess,” (154) as it was largely acquired between the two world wars.
Quentin Buvelot’s rhetorically titled essay “Has the Great Age of Collecting Dutch Old Master Paintings Come an End?” concludes the book. Provoked by a review in The Burlington Magazine declaring “the scarcity of important works on the market tells us that the great age of collecting is over” (Xander van Eck, February, 2009, pp. 103-04), Buvelot counters by posing the question “Does this slowing pace really herald the end of an era?” (184) Astutely claiming that “The emphasis has gradually shifted from quantity to quality,” (182) he rehearses some of the many noteworthy paintings that have come on the market in the last two decades – works by Steen, Berckheyde, Coorte, Ter Brugghen, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hals, Jacob van Ruisdael, Van de Cappelle, Lastman, Salomon van Ruysdael, Cornelis van Haarlem, and Goltzius. The breaking news of March 2015 that Rembrandt’s Portrait of Maerten Soolmans and Portrait of Oopjen Coppit of 1634 have come on to the market, paintings owned by Eric de Rothschild that rarely have been displayed in public since their arrival in France in 1877, only supports Buvelot’s contention. In the press again from the middle of September 2015 and reported as having a price tag of 160 million euros, the Dutch government is cited as offering to put up half the sum for these full-length pendants, the remainder to be supplied by the Rijksmuseum. As of this reviewer’s writing, it would seem a tussle is playing out with the French state, which understandably is attempting to keep one, or both, of these gems for the Louvre. The appearance of these impressive canvases certainly puts the lie to the argument that significant collecting of Dutch Golden Age paintings is entirely a thing of the past.
Lawrence W. Nichols
Toledo Museum of Art