“Von den Kleinsten, das Beste” (“The best of the smallest”), this self-proclaimed motto of the collecting strategy of Egon Rusche (1934-1996) is a fine characterization of the SØR Rusche Collection as a whole. The story of this collection began, as Marina Aarts points out in her Introduction, in the second half of the nineteenth century when Anton Rusche I (1839-1918) acquired the patent on the mail route between Wadersloh and Oelde in the Westphalian country. His son Heinrich Rusche (1875-1961) and grandson Anton II Rusche (1906-1964) developed a lively barter trade, exchanging textiles for furniture, tin, porcelain, paintings and other antiques. The collection greatly expanded in the twentieth century under the earlier mentioned Egon Rusche. He was interested in paintings by lesser-known old masters, leaving the hunt for the great masters of the current canon (among others Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, Ruysdael) to others. His son, Thomas Rusche (b. 1962), concentrated mainly on filling gaps in the collection of old masters. At the same time he sold the lesser part of the collection. The SØR Rusche collection thus grew in the course of four generations (Anton I did not buy paintings) into one of the few contemporary private collections that provide an accurate impression of the diversity in Dutch art in the Golden Age.
To present such a collection of varied minor masters to the general public, as done in Rotterdam in 2008, is worthy of praise. First of all, because of the quality and beauty of some of those paintings. Secondly, and more importantly, because this presentation to some extent gives a more nuanced and historically correct image of the art market of the Dutch Golden Age than the one presented to the public in museums of fine arts all over the world. The story is well known, but nevertheless revealing. Most of the painters of the seventeenth century have been forgotten in the course of time. In their own time, however, many of them were very popular and highly appreciated artists. And vice versa: painters who are now at the top of the art historical canon, were not always much in favor in their day. Since the studies of John Michael Montias and his followers from the 1980ies onwards, the Dutch art market of the seventeenth century has been systematically explored and has changed our appreciation of the art of the Golden Age fundamentally.
The essay by Marten Jan Bok in At Home in the Golden Age presents a concise and richly illustrated state of the art of the research of the last decades. It focuses on how and from whom seventeenth-century Dutch citizens bought paintings. The author describes the emergence of a mass market for paintings and the way it functioned: from the regular art trade to experimental sales methods like lotteries, dice games, shooting competitions and annual fairs. The reasonable prices of paintings (somewhere between 10 and 40 guilders) and the experimental sales methods brought paintings within the reach of the common man, a phenomenon foreign travelers often commented on. Bok also shows how painters introduced new and faster methods of painting and developed new genres. One graph and archival document alone make the essay worth reading. The graph shows the changes in terms of percentage in the genre distribution of paintings in the household inventories in seven cities in the Dutch Republic (p. 20) and thus is the result of many years of diligent study in city archives by many scholars, including Bok himself. The archival document is a so-called Rijfelarijboekje of the Amsterdam painter Laurens Mauritsz. Hellewech (c. 1625) containing the records of a dice game organized by him at an unknown location and day.
The other essays – by Martine Gosselink (on consumption and production), Christien Oele (on prices), Koosje Hofman (on meaning), Hester Schölvinck (on the location of where paintings hung) and Marlous Hemmer (on portraits) – are very short and partly overlap Bok’s essay. They do not shed much new light on the Dutch art market but rather function as a kind of introduction to a catalogue of paintings of the SØR Rusche collection, although the order of the paintings seems to be rather at random. Perhaps the editors wanted the catalogue to reflect the way paintings hung in Dutch homes in the seventeenth century (indeed rather randomly, see for example Public and Private Spaces by John Loughman and John Michael Montias, 2000). And, admittedly, the interested reader could further consult the collection catalogues of the SØR Rusche collection that were published before the present volume (1995-2004). However, a more structured presentation, in terms of categorization by portraits, genre, landscapes and seascapes, history paintings and still lifes, would have greatly improved the utility of At home in the Golden Age and would have shown the minor masterpieces to better advantage.
All genres are represented with fine examples such as Breakfast with a Goblet and Fish (c. 1640-1650) by Pieter Claesz, Young Musicians with a Dancing Dwarf (c. 1630-35) by Jan Miense Molenaer and Ceres and Bacchus (1701) by Willem van Mieris. The collection as presented shows an emphasis on paintings from the 1630s-1660s, the heyday of the Dutch art market. The many landscape and seapieces in the collection, almost one third of the total of 155 paintings on exhibit, reflect the spectacular rise of landscape painting in the seventeenth century. The variety of still-life and genre paintings in the collection is characteristic of the growing popularity of those genres in the Golden Age. However, if one is interested in the provenance of paintings from the SØR Rusche collection, the catalogue is of little use; an exception are some remarks on provenance following the essay by Christien Oele. For a publication that focuses on the art market, that is truly a pity.
In short, the paintings in At Home in the Golden Age wonderfully reflect the boom of the seventeenth-century Dutch art market in terms of both the number of paintings and their variety. It thus gives us a refreshing look into the world behind the great masters of seventeenth-century Dutch art.
Annette de Vries
Voorschoten, The Netherlands