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One year before Vassar College first offered courses in 1865, the institution already had an art gallery and a collection. Purchases, beginning with that of the Reverend Elias Magoon’s American and English landscape paintings, and continuing into the present with acquisitions in various media from diverse cultures, have made the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (which occupies an elegant building by Cesar Pelli) into an important museum possessing 12,500 objects, and also—fulfilling the original intention—into an effective complement to the teaching of art and art history.
A good example of that synergy was the 1970 exhibition “Dutch Mannerism: Apogee and Epilogue,” held in what was then the Vassar College Art Gallery. The 108 paintings, drawings, and prints were selected and researched by students in an undergraduate seminar given by a visiting professor, Wolfgang Stechow, who wrote the introduction to the well-illustrated catalogue.
Similarly, the present exhibition evolved from several recent seminars (including “Dutch Ruins”) taught by Susan Donahue Kuretsky, and ultimately from the undergraduate paper she wrote about one of the gallery’s new acquisitions, Daniel Vosmaer’s View of a Dutch Village, with a Ruined Wall (1962). This panel of the 1660s was a revelation for many visitors to the present writer’s exhibition, “Vermeer and the Delft School,” at the Metropolitan Museum in 2001. And now the painting, as the cover image and one of the most evocative works to be discussed in Kuretsky’s catalogue (she wrote the main essay and the entries), is a revelation again, but from a very different, mostly iconographic point of view.
Reading the last phrase would cause some museum directors to click “X” on their computers. However, the director of Vassar’s museum, James Mundy, helped this exhibition (and many before it) to flourish into something more ambitious than originally planned, and his trust in the organizer was well placed. This is revealed, for example, by the catalogue entry on Vosmaer’s painting, which depicts a broken wall, a ruined house, and some overgrown foundations. Kuretsky explains the picture’s commemoration of the catastrophic explosion in Delft, but also why the composition is intriguing, its execution admirable, and its effect quite unlike that of Egbert van der Poel’s broader surveys of the damage, to say nothing of Herman Saftleven’s panoramic drawing of the city with its sweeping wasteland in the foreground, which reminds one of villages bombed to oblivion in modern wars.
In the gallery space, these images function primarily as works of art, while also elaborating the theme of the exhibition. One of the main conclusions to be drawn is that ruins were often represented simply because they were considered picturesque or schilderachtig (“painter-like,” meaning motifs that would catch an artist’s eye, such as brick walls with attractive tones and textures). Among the most striking examples are handsome panels by Aelbert Cuyp, Jan van Goyen, and Jacob van Ruisdael, as well as four of eighteen etchings by Jan van de Velde II entitled “Some very pleasant places and ruins of antique monuments” (1615). Like all the exhibited prints and drawings, the etchings are illustrated in color in the catalogue, which is essential for an appreciation of their subtleties. That they do not fall into the category “Time and Travel” but appear under “Monumental Ruins in the Dutch Landscape” (where the temple at Tivoli is also found) reflects the complexity of the issues.
The exhibition began with the idea of ruins depicted by Dutch artists and then grew into something much more comprehensive concerning time, history, loss, regeneration, transformation, and memory. A key concern is classical ruins, with their familiar place on the Grand Tour, in Arcadia, and as props on the pictorial stage. But in this context one comes to appreciate that the actual experience of, for example, the ruined Colosseum must have been overwhelming for the Netherlandish visitor, simply as a physical thing (would the local “Great Church” ever again seem grand?), and as the tangible evidence of a vast empire and its decline into rubble and vacant land (most of Rome, in the 1600s, consisted of the uninhabitable remains of antiquity). For some of the artists who produced works like Bartholomeus Breenbergh’s Preaching of St. John the Baptist (1634), it must have meant something to see, sketch, and then place in pictures monuments that Peter and Paul had known.
In this space one cannot do justice to the catalogue essays, especially Kuretsky’s rich and reflective contribution. As Rose Macaulay made clear in Pleasure of Ruins (London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1953), the subject calls for literary contemplation rather than a survey of types and interpretations. Drawing on previous publications, Catherine Levesque discusses Dutch ruins of national significance, Walter Gibson visits “rustic ruins” (including several privies), Lynn Federle Orr reports from Rome, and Arthur Wheelock writes about ruins in the making. A delightful addendum is Erik Löffler’s review of ruins that exist in the Netherlands now. He also considers questions such as “restoration ethics” and how, brick by brick, Romantic builders made history.
It will not surprise scholars that the term vanitas turns up frequently in the catalogue and on the labels. Whether the show should have actually included, as it does, vanitas still lifes, scenes of shipwrecks, floods, fires, dead and resurrected trees, and some even more marginal material is a matter of debate. But in the exhibition itself it is not the academic but the art lover who should decide, and lovers, thankfully, think with their hearts not their heads.
Curator of European Paintings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York