May 22, 2004:
One day in the spring of 1967, Albert Blankert and I said goodbye to our women and children and, accompanied by Albert’s poet friend Rudi ter Haar, rode off in his deux-chevaux for the east. We were young art historians specialized in Dutch painting, and we felt that we owed it to our training to see the famous collections in the cities of central Germany. In the course of three intensive weeks, we visited the museums of Bonn, Kassel, Braunschweig, Marburg, Göttingen, Hannover and Berlin, east and west. We assumed that this was just the beginning of a march through the museums of the world, but that memorable trip has remained the only one of its kind I or he ever made.
Albert was even then, at the age of 27, an established authority in one particular field: the Dutch painters of Italianate landscapes. His catalogue Nederlandse 17de eeuwse Italianiserende landschapschilders (1965) was a legendary exercise in “rehabilitation.” An entire class of works that had until then been thought of as inferior was now, thanks to his efforts, the object of fresh admiration. Twice more in his extraordinary career he matched this achievement, in his exhibitions Gods, saints and heroes (1980), devoted to Dutch history painting, and Dutch Classicism in 17th-century painting (1999), on successive waves of a certain kind of stylistic self-consciousness. Before Blankert these kinds of art were considered somehow unDutch and therefore of less value than “typically” Dutch art. By expanding the meaning of Dutchness in art, Blankert has enlarged Dutch culture itself.
When a successful rehabilitation on this scale occurs – there are thousands of Italianate landscapes out there – museum curators are seized with a bout of professional shame. They too undervalued the works concerned, did not devote sufficient study to them and kept them in storage cellars rather than on the gallery walls. At all the museums we visited, the curator would be awaiting us nervously, notebook in hand, ready to take us downstairs to scrutinize the Italianate landscape paintings. Albert would look hard, frown, and then name a name. “No, that’s not a Berchem, it may be by Karel Dujardin.” Or, “The painting you call Jacob de Heusch isn’t Dutch at all. It’s probably French.”
Last month, in a chat with Albert’s wife Alice, I recalled these old memories. “Oh, they still drag Albert down to the cellar with their notebooks,” she said. The occasion was the presentation in the Rijksmuseum of a splendid new book by Albert Blankert, Selected writings on Dutch painting: Rembrandt, van Beke, Vermeer and others. The subtitle is vintage Blankert. Sandwiched between Rembrandt and Vermeer is one of the most obscure painters in the history of Dutch art, a sheriff of Bodegraven, a miserable character by all accounts, who in the early 18th century learned to paint from a professional artist who rented rooms from him.
In 1967 Blankert published for the first time the only two known works by Daniel van Beke, a still life and a classical Landscape with Narcissus, not even that bad. Although Blankert yields to none in his appreciation of the giants, even arguing forcefully for the application of the discredited concept of personal genius to Rembrandt (Schwartzlist 140), he is implacably opposed to an art history that lavishes all its attention on them.
The new book collects 23 of Blankert’s most important articles, long and short, in excellent English translations and in far more attractive typography than usual for collected essays. It is a treasure. Its 24-column index in small letters will lead art historians to wonderful nuggets that you find nowhere else. (Do Willem-Alexander and Maxima know that Vondel found the first Amalia in their family, Amalia van Solms, so beautiful that he was sure Paris would have chosen her above Venus in the famous beauty contest?) All students of the Dutch 17th century will need the translation of Blankert’s essential text “Art and authority in seventeenth-century Amsterdam,” first published in 1975 as Kunst als regeringszaak. Everyone who enjoys reading good art history will delight in Blankert’s gift for making everything he touches fresh and interesting.
The most remarkable essay in the book is the final one, “Barend and I.” Albert is the brother of the painter of still-lifes and interiors Barend Blankert (Schwartzlist 160: “Figuratively painting”). Dropping his scholarly guard, Albert compares Barend favorably to Pieter Claesz. and Zurbaran, Claude Monet and David Hockney, placing him as a 20th-century artist on the level of Francis Bacon, Balthus, Lucian Freud and Anselm Kiefer and their superior in avoiding sex and violence. The moderate relativism that marks Albert’s historical judgment is discarded in favor of an absolute scale of quality in art, on which Barend excels. The essay contains painfully revealing information about the brothers’ parents, with theories on how family relations guided the choice of profession of the father’s favorite (Albert) and the mother’s (Barend). Albert relates the “tragic view of life” in Barend’s art to his seriously disturbed relation with his father. Without drawing conclusions concerning his own view of art from his autobiography, in this disarming memoir Albert nonetheless provides the reader with materials for judging his scholarship in terms of his life. This too makes the cool-sounding Selected writings on Dutch painting an exceptional book.
One other point deserves mention. Many of the Selected writings as well as the book itself were sponsored or financed both by universities, museums and government agencies and by art dealers. The acknowledgments on p. 10 are an honor list of institutions, galleries and individuals who do themselves credit by supporting the work of this independent-minded and uncompromising art historian.
[Text originally published via garyschwartzarthistorian.nl.]
February 1, 2023:
After the death of Albert’s wife Alice in 2008, Albert went into a physical decline which she, a nurse, would not have allowed to happen. Although he never lost his sharpness of intellect, everything else fell away bit by bit, so that he spent his final two years in nursing homes, in rooms with no books or even tv. Mercifully, he did not seem to mind very much, and was able to keep himself entertained with his own thoughts and memories. His sons Anne and Bas and especially his daughter Lucine did what they could to keep him afloat. At his funeral in the Kloosterkerk in The Hague, his brother Wolter could give us the solace of telling that Albert’s last words to him were “Goed, goed.”
My last museum visit with Albert – and my wife Loekie – took place on February 4, 2020. He was still living in his house on the Koningsplein in The Hague. We drove Albert to the Bredius Museum to see the exhibition of the Inder Rieden collection of seascape paintings, which he was able to take in entirely, in a shuffling pace. Afterwards we went out to his favorite neighborhood restaurant, Da Sebastiano. I don’t think we talked about it, but the visit could have brought to mind two of Albert’s everlasting contributions to Dutch museology: his catalogue of the paintings in the Bredius Museum and his campaign to rejoin, and keep for the museum, the dismembered halves of Jan Steen’s Wedding Night of Tobias and Sarah, one of the great old master stories of our time.
Albert had a lot of memories to savor. And he left me, his senior by four days in mid-June 1940, with a rich shared store of my own.