Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 3, 2008
Walter Liedtke Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York and New Haven: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2007. 1083 pp.; 230 color ills.; 250 b/w ills. Cloth $175.00 (9780300120288)
Exhibition schedule: Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 18, 2007–January 6, 2008
Frans Hals. Merrymakers at Shrovetide (ca. 1615). Oil on canvas. 51 3/4 x 39 1/4 in. (131.4 x 99.7 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Benjamin Altman, 1913 (14.40.605).

The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings, organized by Walter Liedtke, Curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, provides unparalleled opportunities for the enjoyment and study of Dutch art on a vast scale. Timed to coincide with Rembrandt’s four-hundredth birthday (2006) and the publication of Liedtke’s masterful two-volume catalogue, Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this impressive exhibition puts on display every one of the museum’s 228 Dutch paintings produced from 1600 to 1800. Since normally only about a third of the collection can fit in the galleries at any one time, many of the Met’s “lesser” Dutch pictures hardly ever appear in public. This generous hanging thus introduces quite a few works heretofore known mainly to specialists. It also reacquaints visitors with once-familiar pieces now usually relegated to storage, not to mention current favorites that glow with added luster in the context of the collection as a whole. It is a rare treat to see this many fine Dutch paintings exhibited in one place. In its size and richness alone, the exhibition leaves an indelible mark.

The significance of The Age of Rembrandt lies also in its unusual system of organization and scholarly focus. Rather than adopting a conventional scheme—chronological development, geographical origin, or genre—Liedtke grouped the pictures largely according to when and how they came to the Met, that is, by benefactor and collector. In keeping with this plan, an entire room hangs exclusively with Dutch paintings belonging to the institution’s founding collection, the so-called Purchase of 1871 assembled by William Tilden Blodgett (1823–1875), one of the museum’s initial officers. Another gallery displays gifts from Henry G. Marquand (1819–1902), a railroad man who became the museum’s second president in 1889. Yet another contains works presented by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), the museum’s fourth president, along with paintings bankrolled by other moneyed patrons of the young institution. The immense bequest of department-store magnate Benjamin Altman (1840–1913) occupies a large gallery of its own, whereas major gifts from the collections of Henry O. Havemeyer (1807–1907), Collis P. Huntington (1821–1900), Michael Friedsam (1858–1931), and Jules Bache (1861–1944) share sumptuous quarters nearby. The collection’s more recent acquisitions hang together as well. Although not rigidly maintained—it breaks down in some areas and disappears entirely in a second section of the exhibition detached from the main galleries—this developmental system of organization stands as the show’s most significant defining feature.

Liedtke’s scheme for presenting the museum’s vast collection has multiple virtues. Not least among them, it draws welcome attention to the intricate process of collection formation. Museum visitors generally give little thought to the means by which works of art come to be assembled by institutions. They may be unaware that the procedure depends upon the concerted efforts of benefactors, private collectors, advisers, dealers, and museum personnel of every stripe. To be sure, most painting exhibitions do little to inform visitors about matters of acquisition. Owing to its unconventional organization, however, this show does so indelibly. Moving through the galleries, the visitor witnesses the growth of the collection through time, and is thus led to dwell upon the means by which that development was accomplished. The scheme graphically demonstrates, furthermore, that the acquisition of Dutch paintings was a high priority of the museum from the beginning, and remained a matter of passionate concern for the institution’s most distinguished early benefactors. That point seems worthy of emphasis, especially since in later times the Met has intermittently seemed less committed to its Dutch collection than to its holdings in other European schools.

The show’s developmental format also has the merit of illuminating the tastes of the collection’s principal organizers and benefactors, revealing how those preferences changed over time. The first Dutch paintings to enter the Met, those assembled by Blodgett and purchased by the museum in 1871, were by no means uniformly distinguished. Indeed, only the strongest twenty-three of them remain in the collection today, the remainder having been gradually culled. Judging even by the retained examples, however, the purchase comprised a varied lot reflective of the Dutch school’s remarkable heterogeneity. Blodgett bought landscapes, portraits, still-life pictures, genre scenes, and even a history painting or two. To be sure, he sought out works by famous names, managing to acquire examples by Salomon van Ruysdael (three splendid landscapes), Jan van Goyen, Jan Davidsz de Heem, and Willem Kalf. Yet he did not turn his nose up at paintings by lesser-known figures such as Quirin van Brekelenkam, Margareta Haverman, and Jacob Vosmaer. He even purchased several pictures by Johannes Lingelbach and Nicolas Berchem, Italianate masters then still severely out of fashion. Blodgett’s main concern seems to have been to assemble a collection that would represent Dutch painting in as many of its varied aspects as possible, given the limitations of his budget. He succeeded admirably in that endeavor.

Marquand and Morgan, the money men enlisted to develop the collection soon after its founding, clearly had another agenda. These captains of industry went almost exclusively for big game. Marquand brought the Met its first Rembrandt (a Portrait of a Man, possibly from the 1650s), its first authentic works by Frans Hals (The Smoker, painted in the 1620s; a Portrait of a Woman from ca. 1650; and a Portrait of a Man from the early 1650s), and its first Vermeer (Young Woman with a Water Pitcher of ca. 1662). Morgan contributed masterful works by Gerard ter Borch (Young Woman at Her Toilet, ca. 1650–51), Gabriel Metsu (Visit to the Nursery, dated 1661), and Nicolaes Maes (Pendant Portraits of Admiral Jacob Binkes and Ingena Rotterdam, 1676). In general, the turn-of-the-century tycoons wanted to see their own values reflected in the pictures they acquired and donated. They looked askance at works by little-known masters. They gave preference to pictures in which upper-class Dutchmen wearing elegant costumes behave decently, eschewing works depicting the bawdy rabble. They had little truck with representations addressing spiritual matters. Marquand, Morgan, and other early benefactors who shared their values propelled the museum’s Dutch collection ahead in worth and status. Their gifts and leadership also changed its character from one aimed at representing the school in all of its richness to one focused primarily on showcasing the art of blue-chip masters.

To be sure, Altman also favored major masterpieces by famous artists. He acquired thirteen Rembrandts (six accepted widely as authentic today), as well as works by Aelbert Cuyp, Gerrit Dou, Hals, Meyndert Hobbema, Maes, Jacob van Ruisdael, Ter Borch, and Vermeer. The stunning gallery dedicated to his 1913 bequest gives the impression, however, that he possessed a somewhat broader vision of Dutch painting than his contemporaries. The room contains the first large-scale paintings to enter the museum celebrating the coarse side of Dutch culture, Hals’s irreverent Merrymakers at Shrovetide of ca. 1615, and the same painter’s joyous Young Man and Woman in an Inn (“Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart”) of 1623. It is heavy in works depicting trivial activities of unpretentious Dutch folk, such as the elegiac Young Woman Peeling Apples of ca. 1655 by Maes, the Old Woman Cutting her Nails of ca. 1655–60 (formerly attributed to Rembrandt), and Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep of ca. 1656–57. Altman’s paintings seem particularly adept at discovering noble grandeur in the modest Dutch world they habitually represent. Ruisdael’s Wheatfields of ca. 1670 and Cuyp’s Young Herdsmen with Cows of ca. 1655–60, which share pride of place on the far wall of the gallery, lead the way in this regard. The Altman bequest forms the heart and soul of the Met’s Dutch collection, and not just because of its richness and amplitude. Seeing the gift in the context of the current exhibition, where it receives a particularly sensitive hanging, makes its centrality ever more apparent.

Liedtke’s chosen system of presentation has yet another asset: it plays to the strengths of the collection better than any of the likely alternatives. Despite impressive size and splendor, and key recent additions, the Met’s assemblage of Dutch paintings is notably uneven. It is neither strong in all areas nor representative of the production of paintings in the Dutch Republic as a whole. Owing to the penchants of its early benefactors, which set a course that has never been fully abandoned, the collection is marvelously endowed with works by heavy hitters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Ter Borch, Pieter de Hooch, and Ruisdael. It is, however, not nearly as rich in pictures by the so-called “minor” Dutch masters, those painters responsible for the bulk of art making at the time. As pointed out in Esmée Quodbach’s indispensable essay about the development of the Met’s Dutch collection (“The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 65, no. 1 [Summer 2007]: 68–70), the museum still possesses no paintings by such pivotal masters as Hendrik Goltzius, Pieter Saenredam, Gerrit van Honthorst, Dirck van Baburen, Jan Both, Balthasar van der Ast, and Ambrosius Bosschaert. It owns but few works representative of Dutch Mannerism, Utrecht Caravaggism, and Italianate landscape painting. History painting as a whole is underrepresented, as is low-life genre painting. The collection boasts a plethora of pictures in large format, but contains relatively few works small in scale. Had the current exhibition been organized, let us say, by artist, or town, or genre, or scale, or type, even by relative chronology, the scheme would have highlighted the collection’s unevenness and holes. Liedtke’s developmental organization deftly masks those deficiencies, or at least makes them seem relatively superfluous.

For all of its adeptness, The Age of Rembrandt also possesses some less adroit attributes. One of those features, it seems to me, is an underlying ambiguity about its fundamental objective. Is the main intention of The Age of Rembrandt to allow for the dispassionate examination and scrutiny of the Met’s Dutch holdings and the growth of the collection? Or is its aim to glorify the museum’s Dutch asset and to extol those benefactors and others who have participated in amassing it? The exhibition’s comprehensiveness—putting on display every Dutch painting in the collection—speaks clearly in favor of the former option. Other features of the hanging, however, suggest the latter to have been the operative concern.

I am referring above all to the displacement of certain pictures bequeathed by major donors from the primary galleries to rooms non-contiguous with the rest of the show. The Age of Rembrandt, Part 2 comprises three galleries displaying seventy-five pictures, about a third of the entire collection, organized largely by genre and general appearance. Dispersed among them hang four paintings donated by Altman, four by the Havemeyers, six by the Huntingtons, five by Friedsam, five by Morgan, and two by Marquand. Many of these works are problematic for one reason or another, and I think it fair to say that most of them were relegated to part 2 to improve the looks of the main galleries. Banishing weak or demoted pictures from their horde may have solved some aesthetic and practical difficulties in the primary part of the exhibition, but their exclusion distorts the historical picture. To mention but one crucial case, Altman’s achievement and focus as a collector of Dutch paintings would have been more candidly represented had all of his purchases, including his less distinguished ones, been included in the gallery dedicated to his bequest.

Nowhere is the theme of benefactor glorification more visibly on display than in the very first room, the show’s thematic prologue. This impressive gallery contains seven highly authoritative canvases: three single-figure compositions by Rembrandt, another one close to Rembrandt, and landscapes by Cuyp, Ruisdael, and Hobbema. On the wall above each picture appear seven surnames, all boldly emblazoned in oversized lettering. Rather than identifying the painters responsible for producing the pictures, their expected function, the labels proclaim the affluent benefactors—Altman, Friedsam, Marquand, Huntington, etc.—responsible for adding these priceless works to the collection. The imagery here has palpably sepulchral overtones. It recalls Renaissance and Baroque tombs in which the names of deceased noblepersons and high church officials appear chiseled into marble plaques adjacent to impressive and costly sculptures. Just as those shrines heap praise upon the departed, implying the receipt of eternal life through art, so too does the initial gallery laud the wealthy patrons it tags, suggesting that their gift to the museum ennobles them forever. I stipulate to the cleverness of this conception. Nonetheless, the gallery’s rhetoric strikes me as a bit over the top, and hardly conducive of objective assessment.

Also troubling is the exhibition’s near absence of information or argument concerning the nature of Dutch painting per se. When did the entity that we call Dutch painting begin to take shape? How did it change over time? Was it conceived differently in different Dutch towns? Was it the product of rising national consciousness? What role did religion play? These questions and others like them receive little attention here. In this show, Dutch art stands in isolation from Dutch history and culture. One could spend hours visiting The Age of Rembrandt without learning much or anything about the Dutch War of Independence, the founding of the Dutch Republic, the Twelve-Years Truce, the fiery controversy between the Remonstrants and the strict Calvinists, Prince Frederik Hendrik, or the Dutch East India Company, let alone about how these events, people, and institutions helped to shape Dutch painting. The show’s one attempt to address a picture’s original function, setting Hendrick Ter Brugghen’s magisterial Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John (ca. 1624–25) in a little enclosure more or less of its own in order to recall a secret Roman Catholic place of worship (the wall label mentions “Our Lord in the Attic” in Amsterdam), succeeds mainly in calling attention to the absence of such efforts at contextualization elsewhere in the galleries. It may seem churlish to criticize The Age of Rembrandt for failing to connect Dutch painting more thoroughly to Dutch history and social life. After all, this show has other fish to fry. The omission is too worrisome to go unremarked, however. It recalls circumstances in days of yore when exhibitions regularly presented Dutch paintings without reference to the historical and social factors surrounding their making. Let us not return to the attitudes of those times past.

To be sure, the matters raised in the preceding few paragraphs have had no adverse affect upon the show’s popularity. Visitors have been mobbing The Age of Rembrandt from day one, and almost everybody seems to leave happy. What accounts for the exhibition’s enormous appeal? Surely not its comprehensiveness. My guess is that the show’s developmental structure is playing a primary role here. By presenting Dutch paintings as commodities highly desired by generations of wealthy consumers rather than as expressions of a remote, hard-to-grasp foreign culture, the current show recontextualizes the art under discussion in terms both familiar and comforting to modern Americans. Seen from this perspective, the unconventional organization and focus of The Age of Rembrandt emerges as this historic show’s most satisfying and, simultaneously, its most contrary accomplishment.

David A. Levine
Professor of Art History, Art Department, Southern Connecticut State University