The splendid exhibition now at the Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut (and this summer at the Cincinnati Art Museum), presents sixty-four of the ninety-seven paintings that are published in Peter Sutton’s 2011 catalogue of the Hohenbuchau Collection, which accompanied the exhibition of the whole ensemble in the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna. The collection, named for a German estate, was started in the early 1970s by Otto Christian and Renate Fassbender, who in 2007 placed their pictorial treasures on “permanent loan” to the Liechtenstein Museum. From 2004 until late 2011 paintings and objects from the magnificent collections of the Princes of Liechtenstein (many of which were exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in 1985-86) were accessible to the public five days a week in the Liechtenstein Garden Palace, but low attendance – for most visitors to Vienna the Kunsthistorisches Museum offered a sufficient dose of old masters – made the project untenable. Fortunately, the Hohenbuchau pictures went on tour, for example to the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in 2013-14.
Showing about two-thirds of the Hohenbuchau Collection at the Bruce Museum was a decision both necessary and wise. The galleries in Greenwich are domestic in scale and as seasoned curators will know sixty-odd works approach the saturation point for the average visitor. Some readers may have a particular need to know which works in the Hohenbuchau catalogue will not be found in Greenwich or Cincinnati, and these are cat. nos. 2-4, 7, 10, 13, 14, 17, 18, 22, 25, 27, 30, 38, 41, 45, 51, 52, 55, 58, 59, 64, 75, 76, 83, 84, 86, 88-90, 92, 93, 95. No one need fret: these pictures are either Italian, redundant (two out of three “forest floor still lifes” by Marseus van Schrieck should suffice), too minor, too worn (one or two), or simultaneously too big and boring (the usual wooded landscape by D’Arthois; a group of female nudes – Amphitrite and her sisters – said to be by Van Thulden).
In some ways the Hohenbuchau Collection is typical of Northern European and North American private collections: Netherlandish landscapes and seascapes, Dutch, Flemish, and German still lifes, middle-class portraits, genre high and low, and Antwerp-style cabinet pictures (for example, collaborations between Jan Brueghel II and Hendrick van Balen; Frans Francken II and Hans Jordaens III; a Savery “Paradise” scene with Adam and Eve by Cornelisz van Haarlem; a fine Lamentation by Cornelis Schut framed by flower garlands by Daniel Seghers). However, as Peter Sutton notes in his fluid introduction, the collection is also strong in Mannerist and Caravaggesque figure paintings, such as Bloemaert’s supremely suave Rest on the Flight to Egypt (the Holy Family remains seated while performing a pas de trois), Cornelisz van Haarlem’s Penitent Mary Magdalene, Wtewael’s erotic triangle of Adonis, Venus and Cupid (modern ballet this time), Ter Brugghen’s delightful Laughing Bravo with His Dog, Honthorst’s well-known Steadfast Philosopher, and Moreelse’s imaginary portrait of the pedantic potentate Periander, who was at once the “Tyrant of Corinth” and one of the “Seven Wise Men.” Sutton never seems être à l’essai in his essays or catalogue entries, but in the pages on the pictures by Honthorst, Moreelse, Pieter de Grebber (Mary and the Young Christ at Prayer, “an unprecedented subject in painting” which is convincingly explained), and many others (even the lighthearted Ter Brugghen) his hard work and deep learning are between, behind, and right in the seemingly effortless lines.
Within the Hohenbuchau Collection there are a few special collections, such as the small but remarkable group of Leiden “fine paintings”: two outstanding Dous, Frans van Mieris’s Self-Portrait as a Merry Toper, an elegant genre scene by Willem van Mieris, and A Hermit by Pieter van der Werff (attributed to his older brother Adriaen until Barbara Gaehtgens’s monograph of 1987). The still lifes are extraordinary, especially the big Van Beyeren, the game pieces by Fromantiou, Fyt and Jan Weenix, the three flower pictures by Jacob Marrell, the fabulous Snyders (dead game, fruit, vegetables, squirrel, monkey and cat), and a sumptuous Van Son. The landscapes form a good survey of Dutch and Flemish types, with works by D’Arthois, Van Everdingen, Van Goyen, Du Jardin, a Berchem-like Mommers, De Momper, Van der Neer, Pijnacker, Jacob van Ruisdael and Salomon van Ruysdael, a pair of small Ryckaerts, the Savery, Jan Tilens’s Expansive Mountain Valley(with Diana’s band by Van Balen), De Vadder and Wijnants. The willingness to buy fine examples by minor figures (such as Pieter van Asch and Anthony van der Cross) suggests a real affection for the countryside. Yet the number and variety of figure paintings reveals a taste extending well beyond landscape painting.
In addition to the Haarlem, Utrecht and Antwerp pictures mentioned above, there is a pair of Hannibal histories by Johann Heiss, Jan Mijtens’s Dismissal of Hagar, Van Poelenburgh’s Cimon and Iphigenia in an Arcadian Landscape, a Teniers tavern scene, the monochrome Elegant Couple Skating by Adriaen van de Venne, and Pieter Verelst’s Tobias Curing his Father’s Blindness. Perhaps unexpected in this context are the two big canvases by Jordaens (an important early Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and an Angel, and the Portrait of a Musician with his Muse, of the 1640s), Jan Boeckhorst’s painting of an exotically dressed black woman (an allegory of Africa), and the Van Thulden (?) cited above. There are also very good portraits (Cuyp’s Young Boy Holding a Plover) and a painting one wants to cart off immediately to a major museum, Rubens’s Portrait of a Capuchin Monk. The Sweerts, loosely called a “portrait” of an old man begging, is nearly as memorable in another way.
With pictures like these in the Hohenbuchau Collection it is surprising that there is almost nothing from the Rembrandt School, except for the Arcadian (and Italian-period) Young Man with a Flute by Drost, and De Gelder’s Judah Pleading before Joseph. Of course, collectors are not curators and personal preferences are the essence of private collecting. Mr. Fassbender knows his own mind and speaks it plainly in his essay, “A Lifetime of Collecting.” In one paragraph (p. 18) strong criticism is leveled at patrons of modern and contemporary art, “corporate collectors” who “invest” in the “emperor’s new clothes.” However, there are many more agreeable observations in this personal account, and a praiseworthy record of taste, judgement and generosity. A different virtue, diplomacy, installed this collection in the Liechtenstein palace (see director Johann Kräftner’s foreword to the catalogue) and then brought it to the Bruce Museum.
Metropolitan Museum of Art