Holland’s Golden Age in America
Collecting the Art of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals
Edited by Esmée Quodbach
Holland’s Golden Age in America
Collecting the Art of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals
Edited by Esmée Quodbach
“This book provides answers for anyone who has ever wondered why there are so many great Dutch paintings in U.S. collections. Essays by leading curators and scholars draw on the history of art, as well as an understanding of cultural, economic, and political conditions, to illuminate the American taste for seventeenth-century Dutch painting.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
In addition to the editor, the contributors are Ronni Baer, Quentin Buvelot, Lloyd DeWitt, Peter Hecht, Lance Humphries, Walter Liedtke, Louisa Wood Ruby, Catherine B. Scallen, Annette Stott, Peter C. Sutton, Dennis P. Weller, Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., and Anne T. Woollett.
“This book provides answers for anyone who has ever wondered why there are so many great Dutch paintings in U.S. collections. Essays by leading curators and scholars draw on the history of art, as well as an understanding of cultural, economic, and political conditions, to illuminate the American taste for seventeenth-century Dutch painting.”
“Drawing on the experience and insights of many of her colleagues in museums and the academy, Esmée Quodbach brings us an impressively broad overview of the early collectors of Dutch art in America. This essential volume provides illuminating context for major figures such as J. P. Morgan and welcomes unsung heroes such as Robert Gilmor, Jr., onto this stage, but also lifts the curtain on early colonial as well as contemporary collections. These varied accounts are spiked with color, drama, and highlights, including the story of the wealthy collector who has to ask, ‘Who is Vermeer?’”
“Americans esteem Dutch art for its portrayal of the apparent reality of everyday life, unpretentious and tidy citizenry, and seemingly naturalistic landscapes and seascapes. This beautiful volume of authoritative essays on the collecting of Dutch art is not only for specialists but also for general readers, who will find many familiar names of businessmen who were the founders or enrichers of American museums. Foremost among these are the National Gallery, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, as well as privately founded galleries—the Frick, the Morgan, and the Getty. Among the many topics discussed are the early presence of Dutch paintings in New Netherland, parallel appreciation for Vermeer and American painters of interiors, European-born scholars and dealers who helped shape American appreciation for the arts, the rivalry among collectors for the acquisition of declared masterpieces, and the usefulness and value of painted and printed copies for display and instruction. The acquisition of Dutch art is as much about the art as it is about social history.”
Esmée Quodbach is Assistant Director of the Center for the History of Collecting at The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library in New York.
List of Illustrations
Introduction: A Taste for Dutch Art
Peter C. Sutton
The Early Years: The Formation of America’s Taste for Dutch Art
1 “Pictures chiefly painted in oils, on boards”: Dutch Paintings in Colonial New York
Louisa Wood Ruby
2 Robert Gilmor, Jr.’s “Real” Dutch Paintings
3 Collecting Old Dutch Masters: Originals, Interpretations, Copies, and Reproductions
4 Wilhelm von Bode and Collecting in America
Catherine B. Scallen
The Gilded Age: Great Collections and Collectors of Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art
5 Golden Age Paintings in the Gilded Age: New York Collectors and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1870–1920
6 “They leave us as they find us, they never elevate”: John G. Johnson and the Dutch Masters
7 Collecting Vermeer, 1887–1919
8 Collecting Dutch Paintings in Boston
9 The Dutch Painting Collection at the National Gallery of Art
Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr.
The Twentieth Century: The Dissemination of Dutch Art Across America and the Dutch Reaction
10 The Passionate Eye of W. R. Valentiner: Shaping the Canon of Dutch Painting in America
Dennis P. Weller
11 Unexpected Rivals for the Dutch: Competing with the Americans for Holland’s National Heritage in Great Britain and Elsewhere
12 Golden Opportunities: Collecting Rembrandt in Southern California
Anne T. Woollett
13 Has the Great Age of Collecting Dutch Old Master Paintings Come to an End?
List of Contributors
A Taste for Dutch Art
Peter C. Sutton
The remarkable appetite for the collecting of Dutch art in America is one of the clearest expressions of the enduring cultural ties between the United States and the Netherlands. The reserves in American public collections alone rival those of any other country on earth, indeed even approach those of the Netherlands itself. Moreover, while once concerned only with trophy collections primarily featuring the triumvirate of Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, America’s public as well as private collections are increasingly representative historically, and speak to a desire to understand the variety and diversity of Dutch pictorial culture. No serious student of Dutch art from abroad can claim to be acquainted with the field without a pilgrimage to this country. This assembly of art is all the more impressive for its swiftness; most of it has been gathered in the last century and a half, and certainly postdates the Civil War. Literature on the subject has begun to appear in recent decades, but the phenomenal enthusiasm for Dutch art in this country still remains largely unexplained.
There is, of course, a historic identification with the Dutch that extends to America’s roots as a nation. With a ceremonial cannon shot fired in November 1776 at Fort Orange in Saint Eustatius in the West Indies, the Netherlands became the first nation to recognize the flag of the Continental Congress and to implicitly acknowledge the sovereignty of the United States. Although the Dutch were not without self-interest, charging exorbitant fees for gunpowder, their clandestine trade in military supplies helped keep the American Revolution alive during its precarious early stages and even served to precipitate the so-called Fourth Dutch and English War. The swashbuckling John Paul Jones captured the Dutchmen’s popular imagination when his fleet limped ashore at Texel following a bloody engagement with the British. Less romantic but more crucial were the loan negotiations that John Adams undertook in the Netherlands in 1789, writing home to his wife of his admiration for the Dutchmen’s industry, economy, and culture: “They have less ambition, [by which] I mean that of conquest and military glory, than their neighbors, but I don’t perceive that they have more avarice. And they carry learning and arts, I think, to greater extent.”
Recent publications, like Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World (2004), have reminded us how many distinctly American, and specifically New York, institutions and ideas had their origins in New Amsterdam, though it lasted fewer than forty years. The great collections of Dutch art in this country were not assembled by the descendants of these settlers, nor by and large even by individuals with any direct ties to the Netherlands. However, there has been a consistent identification with the Dutch and their struggle for independence that was first codified by the American historian John Lothrop Motley in his Rise of the Dutch Republic, published in 1853. Motley called William the Silent the George Washington of the sixteenth century, likened the Dutch Oath of Abjuration of 1581 to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and saw the Dutch revolt against the Spanish as paralleling the American Revolution in extensive detail. For Motley, the two struggles were part of the same racial and cultural imperative. He wrote, “To all those who speak the English language, the history of the great agony through which the republic of Holland was ushered into life . . . is a portion of the record of the Anglo-Saxon race, essentially the same, whether in Friesland, England or Massachusetts.” Other foreign observers also remarked at this time on the parallels between Dutch and American cultures; in 1860, for example, the great French art historian and “rediscoverer” of Vermeer Thoré-Bürger characterized seventeenth-century Holland as “a new society, strange, absolutely incomparable to the rest of Europe, and not unlike the young American society today, protestant and democratic.” While these affinities have at times been caricatured, they continue to strike a chord: both countries waged a war of liberation against a foreign oppressor as a federation of separate territories (each with its own local pride and sense of independence); both enjoyed the fruits of the popular celebration of commerce, industry, mercantile values, and free enterprise; each prided itself on its social mobility, its ready absorption of foreign peoples and ideas, its intellectual and spiritual tolerance; and each emphasized domesticity and middle-class values of thrift, simplicity, and self-reliance. Finally, both countries celebrated naturalism in art and literature.
There were precious few good Dutch pictures on these shores in the first half of the nineteenth century, but local critics extolled the unpretentious realism of Dutch art and its system of patronage, which seemed not unlike that of the “burgher-merchants” of their own young American nation. For example, George Murray, in reviewing the annual exhibition in 1814 at the Pennsylvania Academy, wrote, “For faithful representation of nature, [Dutch painting] has never been excelled. Who were the connoisseurs? Who are the patrons of the artists? Merchants and other wealthy citizens—men of plain and simple manners, possessing taste without affectation.” Those rare collectors who had painting collections of any merit had usually acquired them in Europe. With the proceeds of a fortune made in three-cornered foreign trade with Latin America and Europe, Richard Codman (fig. 2) of Boston and Lincoln, Massachusetts, who like his brother John was portrayed by Copley, acquired a house in Paris as well as two châteaux in the wake of the French Revolution. These he furnished lavishly with more than a hundred paintings, many acquired from the dealer Jean-Baptiste Le Brun, husband of the painter Madame Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, taking advantage of what the American painter John Trumbull called “the confusion of the time, and the consequent ruin of ancient and opulent families.” Le Brun’s bills of sale list mostly Italian Baroque and French paintings, but also include Dutch and Flemish paintings by Eglon van der Neer, Jacob van Ruisdael, David Teniers the Younger, and Godfried Schalcken. Richard Codman had run through most of his money by 1799, but shipped back some of his collection to Lincoln, where in the Codman House one can still see paintings dubiously attributed to Cornelis van Poelenburch, Jacob van Ruisdael, Willem van de Velde, and Willem van Mieris, as well as a Jan Miense Molenaer scene of peasants, an attractive eighteenth-century Jean-Louis Demarne Market Scene that descends from Dutch prototypes, and a still life acquired by Richard Codman’s nephew, Charles Russell Codman, which is assigned to Willem Claesz. Heda but which seems more likely to be by his son, Gerrit Willemsz. Heda (see fig. 63).
Charles Russell Codman served on the committee that organized the inaugural painting exhibition held in the Boston Athenaeum in 1827, the first of forty-six annual exhibitions. Few of the works in these shows can be identified, but the reviewer in the North American Review was probably correct in concluding that many were “of doubtful origins and various degrees of merit.” One lender to the first show was Harrison Gray Otis. Otis had developed the real estate on Beacon Hill, served as Boston’s third mayor, and is perhaps best remembered for having banned the grazing of cattle on Boston Common. He lent eight pictures to the Athenaeum, including works attributed to Jan Both, Adam Pynacker, Jan Steen, and Rembrandt. The last mentioned is the only one that can be identified today and hangs in Otis’s former home on Beacon Street, currently the American Meteorological Society’s chambers; it is a fully signed work by Willem de Poorter (see fig. 64). Otis wrote a letter to the North American Review calling for the establishment of a museum in Boston, claiming that “New York, Boston and Philadelphia will run away with our population and capital [unless] we make ourselves the capitol of the arts and sciences [to insure] that our town will increase in the sort of society that is desired . . . , not mere laborers and mechanics.” The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was not founded for another fifty years, but its mission statement recalled Otis’s patronizing phrase, calling for “raising the public taste,” with galleries filled with plaster casts of antique statuary.
Copies of superior fidelity were prized in the first half of the nineteenth century. When a tanner named Thomas Dowes of Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, won a lottery in 1821, the first prize was a series of copies of great paintings in English private collections, executed by the British illustrator William Marshall Craig (ca. 1765–1834); the copies still reside in the Boston Athenaeum. They had initially been designed to be engraved in a publication to raise money for a British national gallery. Included were copies of works like Gerrit Dou’s Self-Portrait in the Duke of Sutherland’s collection and the Paulus Potter in the Duke of Westminster’s collection. The watercolors were praised by artists like Washington Allston and Gilbert Stuart; a reviewer writing in The Pioneer as late as 1843 lamented the fading of their colors but recalled what a revelation they had been to local artists accustomed to collections in which “every red group is Rubens, every dark landscape a Salvator Rosa, every Madonna a Guido, and every scene that is impossible to see for dirt and blackness a Rembrandt.” A similar surprisingly realistic and self-deprecating attitude was taken by Robert Gilmor of Baltimore (see fig. 20), who had traveled in Europe, was a personal friend of the director of the Rijksmuseum, Cornelis Apostool, and formed a collection of old masters that was regarded as outstanding. Nonetheless, Gilmor wrote to his friend Charles Graff of Philadelphia (whose sale in 1856 included 143 European paintings, of which nearly half were Dutch) that “one good picture of a London cabinet would be worth the whole [of my collection].” The specific contents of these collections can rarely be traced, but a reviewer in the New-York Tribune summed up the sad state of American connoisseurship in 1855, writing, “It is safe to affirm that there is not another land under the sun which contains so many worthless, smoky, dirty daubs as this, nor another that offers so good a market to the busy manufacturer of such impostures.”
In truth, many of the better old master paintings on these shores in the first half of the nineteenth century may not have been accessible to the public. Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon and briefly the king of Naples and Spain, settled in Point Breeze, New Jersey, after he was driven into exile in 1815. His royal chattels included Netherlandish works, including a Paulus de Vos Fox Hunt now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. New York collectors like Luman Reed, Jonathan Sturges, Philip Hone, and Gideon Nye regularly exhibited their Dutch paintings at New York’s American Art Union and the National Academy of Design in these years. However, it was Thomas Jefferson Bryan (fig. 3), a Philadelphian and Harvard man who had spent twenty years in Europe, whose collection probably had the greatest impact on the New York public. Like Codman before him, he took advantage of revolutionary disturbances in Paris in 1830 and 1848 to assemble his collection of 233 paintings, which he opened to the public in the 1850s at 839 Broadway and Thirteenth Street. Bryan reportedly took an active role in running his gallery. One observer recalled that “a call upon [Mr. Bryan] was like visiting a venerable burgomaster of Holland, or a merchant-prince of Florence, in her palmy days. . . . [Entering his gallery] from bustling and garish Broadway . . . we [seemed] to have wandered from Babel to Elysium.” Bryan deeded his collection to the New-York Historical Society and lived in the hope that it would inspire the formation of a national gallery. It remained intact until the late twentieth century, when it unfortunately was dispersed in a series of four sales, the largest of which was held at Sotheby’s in New York in 1995. Bryan’s contemporaries affirmed that for technical brilliance his favorite school was the Dutch and Flemish. Among his better Dutch paintings are the posthumous Portrait of Moses ter Borch by Gerard and Gesina ter Borch, now in the Rijksmuseum; a Jan Weenix, called the Thieving Cat, and Gerbrand van den Eeckhout’s Continence of Scipio, now in Philadelphia. More than half of Bryan’s attributions were incorrect, but at that rate his successes probably exceeded those of most of his contemporaries.
Bryan called his Broadway Elysium “The Bryan Gallery of Christian Art.” Implicit in this spiritual title is the missionary zeal of nineteenth-century educators and reformers, and possibly also something of the new Transcendentalist notion that, far from seducing the observer (as our antivisual Puritan forefathers feared), art could be enlisted to improve morals and taste. Some of Bryan’s paintings could be considered didactic and moralizing in any Western culture. The Scipio by Eeckhout, for example, depicts the Roman general returning a young girl to her fiancé and family, a theme that traditionally illustrated the virtues of restraint, magnanimity, and good government. But most of Bryan’s Dutch paintings were anonymous portraits, landscapes, or genre scenes. The “Christianity” of many of Bryan’s Italian paintings was, of course, intrinsic. But during this period in America, Dutch painting’s naturalism and unelevated, secular subject matter could also be associated with Christian ideals. One need only recollect the emphasis on the familiar in Emerson’s writings, or the poetic inventories of everyday themes and objects in Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (who was a regular visitor to Bryan’s museum), to appreciate how these incantatory catalogues verge on the spiritual. Mid-nineteenth-century defenses of Dutch art were also often couched in Christian terms. Heinrich Gustav Hotho’s Geschichte der deutschen und niederländischen Malerei of 1842 celebrated Dutch art as the Christian art par excellence because of its concentration on individual details and humble particulars. Hotho’s purpose in writing was partly to criticize his contemporaries, the Romantic painters then active in Düsseldorf, a mecca for American artists and art lovers. He concluded that Dutch painters are “closer to the original life of nature, to the true heart of humanity than our contemporaries, who never cease to boast of their religious art.” His evangelical defense of Dutch painting against Classicist doubts, against a traditional hierarchy of “high” and “low” subject matter, struck a chord elsewhere in Europe and America. At this moment, Thoré-Bürger was praising the quality of “little Dutch masters,” as they were then called without condescension. And among literary critics conscripted into the bataille realiste, Flaubert was regularly compared to Rembrandt and George Sand to Hobbema.
Through the horrifying crucible of the Civil War, America came of age. The great fortunes amassed during and after the war enabled the collectors of the so-called Brown Decades, or Gilded Age, to first collect on a truly grand scale. This was also the era of the establishment of many of America’s great museums. Whereas institutions like the Boston Athenaeum, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, and the Pennsylvania Academy had been collecting for decades, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art all were founded in the 1870s. In these early years Bostonians mostly bought what were then contemporary French paintings (initially Millet and the Barbizon painters, later Monet and the Impressionists), where there was less chance of forgery or a salesman’s misrepresentations. But there were a few exceptions, such as Stanton Blake, who bought Dutch genre and still life, including Metsu’s Usurer with a Tearful Woman, Maes’s Eavesdropper, and Jan van Huysum’s splendid Vase of Flowers at the sale of Prince Demidoff’s collection at San Donato in Florence in 1880 and donated them to the Boston Museum shortly thereafter. Mrs. Frederick Ames left a pair of Rembrandts to the Museum as early as 1893 (see fig. 66).
The enterprising leadership of the Metropolitan Museum typically did not wait for benefactors to bestow gifts. Two trustees, William Tilden Blodgett and John Taylor Johnston, borrowed $120,000 on their own good names and traveled to Europe, taking advantage of the Franco-Prussian War (again the American opportunists!) to purchase 174 paintings in Brussels and Paris one year before the Museum opened its doors. Many of these pictures are still in the Metropolitan, and most were Dutch and Flemish. Reviewing the collection, no less a critic than Henry James found it an “enviably solid foundation for future acquisitions and development.” While he mistakenly singled out a copy of Hals’s Malle Babbe as a “masterpiece of inelegant vigor,” he rightly praised Salomon van Ruysdael’s Drawing the Eel (see fig. 39) for its unpretentious fidelity. He writes, “The scene is specialized; it seems timed, to the hour; . . . the work leaves us wondering that such degree of illusion should result from such bald simplicity of means.” James goes on to oppose Dutch art’s probity with “factitious Italian stylishness.” “We know what it is to have turned with a sort of moral relief, in the galleries of Italy, to some small, stray specimen of Dutch patience and conscience.” Comparing a Jan van der Heyden to a Guardi, he prefers the former’s “glowing fidelity and sincerity” to the latter’s “skeptical reflections of Venetian splendor.” He writes, “The Italian, born amid lovely circumstances and debauched, as it were, by the very grace of his daily visions, dispenses with effort and insight, and trusts to mere artifice and manner. The Dutchman, familiar with a meaner and darker range of effect, feels that unless he is faithful, he is nothing.”
We now know that the Dutchman’s vaunted naturalism was a much more complicated and subjective matter than was understood in the nineteenth century; indeed, Van der Heyden’s cityscapes provide the perfect example of how Dutch artists manipulated actual topography for expressive effects. But Dutch art’s “glowing fidelity and sincerity” (James’s phrase) seemed well suited to the elevated goals of America’s new public museums. The Museum’s early benefactors, such as Henry G. Marquand (fig. 4), part of whose collection came to the Museum in 1889/90, certainly heeded the call. The railroad financier left the Metropolitan French, Italian, Spanish, English, and Flemish paintings, but most of his works were Dutch, and included paintings by Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer, as well as Metsu’s elegant A Musical Party. While, for better or worse, his collection was not without mistakes (one Rembrandt was a fake), Marquand announced the dawning of a more selective era of masterpiece collecting. The 1880s saw the advent of the greatest half-century of American collecting, when an aristocracy of money reigned in this country before the advent of the graduated income tax. Merchant princes took as their models European royalty and nobility, often collecting as a form of social aspiration or a way of getting a leg up on perpetuity. Several of the most ambitious private collectors (such as Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon, see figs. 8 and 9, respectively) assembled their collections with the public’s response in mind and even planned museums. But individual motivations are difficult to deduce. They may be historically associative, aesthetic, or merely possessive and personally aggrandizing. There were, of course, false starts: rich men who were victims of plausible agents or self-delusion, who gathered great names rather than great art. When Senator Charles Sumner exhibited his collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1874, the Museum felt obliged in the catalogue to disavow any association with Sumner’s attributions. Judge Edwin Crocker of Sacramento made a fortune in railroads and graft, and also took advantage of the Franco-Prussian War to buy Dutch art. During a two-year sojourn in Germany, he bought more than seven hundred paintings and twelve hundred drawings, which is a rate of two paintings and three drawings a day. The curator in Boston described Crocker as “a credulous man in a hurry.” The mediocre results of this shopping spree can still be seen in Sacramento, and include a few somehow appropriate surprises, such as Roelant Savery’s drawing of dodo birds. There are other, later examples of the dangers of hasty collecting. The great circus impresario John Ringling bought almost all of the hundreds of works in his collection that now resides in Sarasota, Florida, in a four-year period in the 1920s. However, he managed to acquire important paintings by Rubens and his studio as well as an impressive Hals and Jan Davidsz. de Heem.
Other major collectors of Dutch art from the turn of the last century are scarcely remembered today. Charles T. Yerkes embezzled public funds in Philadelphia, spent time in jail, and relocated to Chicago, where he made a fortune in “traction” or trolley cars. Of the 122 paintings catalogued in his elegant folio-sized sale catalogue of 1910, more than two-thirds were Dutch and Flemish, and included such superior paintings as Rembrandt’s The Raising of Lazarus (see fig. 98), now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and his Joris de Caulery in the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Yerkes, too, aspired to establish an American national gallery, but his recidivist corruption finally drove him from Chicago to London, where he tried to electrify the Underground before dying a broken man. Two of Yerkes’s partners in the trolley business were the Philadelphia collectors William Elkins and Peter A. B. Widener (fig. 5). Elkins left his paintings to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, including lovely landscapes by Paulus Potter and Meindert Hobbema. Peter Widener’s far grander collection, housed at Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, was inherited by his son, Joseph Widener, who was eventually persuaded by Andrew Mellon to donate it to the fledgling National Gallery of Art in Washington. The wealth and importance of Delaware Valley collectors has often been obscured by the fact that many of the collections (not only Widener’s but also those of Chester Dale and Lessing Rosenwald) were enticed to Washington by the lure of the newly formed National Gallery. While Widener made mistakes (a copy of Hals’s Isabella Coymans was hastily sold when the original turned up in the Rothschild collection), his collection was one of the greatest ever assembled in this country, including Rembrandt’s Saskia of 1633 and Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance. Widener also had the self-confidence to depart from the masterpiece mold, acquiring low-life genre by Steen, Ostade, and Potter (albeit of a distinctly domesticated variety) and paintings by lesser-known Dutch masters such as Quiringh van Brekelenkam and Esaias Boursse. He also owned Rembrandt’s The Mill (see fig. 71), which is still a topic of controversy, and The Circumcision, a rare example of Rembrandt’s religious art in a masterpiece collection.
Widener’s traveling companion and adviser was John G. Johnson (fig. 6), whose vast collection of more than 1,250 paintings is now housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Johnson offers an alternative to the masterpiece gatherer, while simultaneously escaping the failures of uncritical, scattergun collecting. Although his various catalogues claim otherwise, Johnson never secured a Rembrandt, Hals, or Vermeer. The strength of his collecting was in its breadth. He sought an encyclopedic breadth. His passion was for the outstanding work by lesser-known masters, such as Pieter Saenredam and Christoffel van den Berghe, or the excellent painting by a neglected master; Johnson acquired a dozen works by Jan Steen, including a masterpiece of his less fashionable religious painting (see fig. 45). He also had a weakness for the interesting or merely curious pictures, which explains why at his death they were stacked against the walls in his Broad Street home (see fig. 52). His library with an extensive collection of annotated sales catalogues survives and attests not only to his passion for collecting but also to his love of a bargain. His connoisseurship was sufficiently regarded by his contemporaries that he sat on the Metropolitan Museum’s Board and administered the Wilstach funds that were used by the Fairmount Park Association to form the core of the first collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He also took a genuine interest in scholarship and was acquainted with many of the leading scholars of his day. The fact that Johnson acquired no fewer than five paintings by the varied, interesting, but scarcely sublime master Govaert Camphuysen probably owed something to the fact that his friend Cornelis Hofstede de Groot was working on an article on the master.
Like Frick, Benjamin Altman, and more recent collectors, such as Robert Lehman, Johnson wanted to insure that his collection remained intact after his death. As a shrewd lawyer, he left his paintings not to the Philadelphia Museum or to the city, but to the “citizens of Philadelphia.” As a consequence, it has only been in recent years that the Johnson paintings have been integrated into the hanging in the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum. Johnson was the lawyer to the voracious J. P. Morgan (fig. 7), who today is not only remembered for his eponymous banks but also his benefactions to American museums. Educated abroad, Morgan had a more developed historical sense than many of his fellow collectors, and thus was often as much interested in a work of art as a reflection of history as for its aesthetic quality. The Morgan Library preserves one of the greatest collections of Dutch drawings in the world; characteristically, the core of this group was purchased en bloc with the famous Charles Fairfax Murray collection of drawings. It has often been observed that Morgan collected much as he managed his vast business and banking empire, with large acquisitions and mergers. However, he is now largely forgotten as a collector of Dutch paintings because his pictures were sold by his son after his death. His pendant portraits by Frans Hals are now at Yale; the Nicolaes Ruts by Rembrandt eventually came to the Frick (see fig. 86); a Hobbema and a Vermeer (see fig. 60) are now in the National Gallery of Art; and a pair of charming little Dirck Hals genre scenes is in the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Morgan, the financial titan, fostered a dream of creating a museum that was so vast and varied as to make a trip to Europe unnecessary.
Advisers often played important roles in the formation of famous collections in these years. Bernard Berenson is renowned for his scholarship in Italian painting, but he did not hesitate to advise for profit Isabella Stewart Gardner on her acquisition of Dutch paintings, including two Rembrandts. Gardner also sought to buy The Mill directly from Lord Lansdowne, but lost it to Widener, so it now resides in Washington rather than in her palazzo on the Fenway. Widener also relied on the advice of Berenson, as well as Hofstede de Groot, Roger Fry, Robert Langton Douglas, and of course John G. Johnson. In this era of unprecedented civic largesse, individuals made huge donations of money and art to American museums, while a new group of museum professionals emerged to fill curatorial roles, cataloguing gifts, organizing shows, and advising private collectors. One figure stands out as having shaped the character of American collections of Dutch art more extensively than any other. W. R. Valentiner (see fig. 79) was born in Germany and trained in The Hague with Hofstede de Groot. He also was apprenticed on Museum Insel in Berlin to the father of all modern museum directors, Wilhelm von Bode (see fig. 36). Bode set an impossibly high standard of energy, versatility, and connoisseurship for Valentiner, who eventually immigrated to New York to become the curator of decorative arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1909, Valentiner was assigned the pleasurable task of selecting the Dutch paintings for an exhibition of unprecedented ambition (if somewhat eccentric rationale) which purported to celebrate the tricentennial of Henry Hudson’s trip up the river to Albany in 1609, and Robert Fulton’s similar voyage almost two hundred years later in his famous steamboat. Although it had its share of misattributions (five of the eleven Aelbert Cuyps were probably wrong, four of the twenty-one Halses were misattributed, and seventeen of the thirty-seven Rembrandts were probably dubious), the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition is still the greatest assembly of Dutch masterpieces ever gathered in this country, largely because of its concentration on the works of Hals, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. It included loans not only from museums but also from all the private collectors we have just mentioned, including Widener, Morgan, and Johnson, as well as Mrs. Collis P. Huntington, the widow of the railroad magnate, who lent both Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (see fig. 42) and Hendrickje Stoffels, and Henry Clay Frick (fig. 8), the Pittsburgh coke-and-steel industrialist, who loaned the great Rembrandt Self-Portrait of 1658 (see fig. 1). The story has often been told of Frick’s early enthusiasm for paintings and his effort to emulate the peerless Wallace Collection in London. In so doing, Frick created the greatest masterpiece collection, picture for picture, in America. He not only strove for glorious quality (ensured in part by judicious editing at the end of his career) but also had a keen eye for condition, so that his pictures are usually very well preserved. Frick followed the pattern among leading collectors of the day in concentrating upon the triumvirate of the most famous artists, Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer, acquiring three of the latter, which distinguishes Fifth Avenue in New York, as the address of both The Frick Collection and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, as the home of no fewer than eight works by the rare master, or more than a fifth of his known production. Frick also acquired a magnificently expansive Jacob van Ruisdael landscape, but no still lifes or peasant paintings and few works in other genres.
Other prominent lenders to the Hudson-Fulton show included M. C. D. Borden, who made his money in textiles and banking and lent several genre scenes and landscapes as well as Rembrandt’s Lucretia (see fig. 81), later given to the National Gallery of Art by Andrew Mellon (fig. 9); the widow of the Domino sugar king, Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, who lent Pieter de Hooch’s Visit as well as Rembrandt’s Herman Doomer (see, respectively, figs. 43 and 44); and the Montana senator W. A. Clark, who sent a group of landscapes that now reside with his collection in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. Late additions were the loans from Benjamin Altman, the department store magnate, all of which were included as a supplement at the back of the catalogue. Altman (fig. 10) was by all accounts a thoughtful, quiet, and unprepossessing individual, but as a collector had a discerning eye and adventurous taste. His collecting followed the masterpiece formula impeccably, but with surprising flair, including the two marvelously energetic early Hals genre scenes, the Shrovetide Revelers and Young Man and Woman in an Inn (“Yonker Ramp and His Sweetheart”) (see fig. 37), Rembrandt’s pendants Man with a Magnifying Glass and Woman with a Pink, as well as the majestic Wheat Fields by Jacob van Ruisdael (see fig. 38), all now among the jewels of the Dutch collections of the Metropolitan. Johnson, who collected on a much smaller budget while working for men for whom cost was no object, enviously griped that the only consolation that Altman could take in having so many Rembrandt portraits would be “in the adage that too many riches are the root of evil.”
The contents of the Hudson-Fulton show confirm standard collecting patterns of the era, in that there were almost forty portraits by or attributed to Rembrandt and very few biblical subjects, many high-life genre scenes, and virtually no peasant paintings, and almost no still lifes. In his introduction to the catalogue, Valentiner remarked on the dearth of good-quality Dutch still lifes in America and the fact that, with the exception of Van Ruisdael, Hobbema, and Cuyp, there were few landscapes, cityscapes, or animal paintings. He specifically appealed for the collecting of works by Paulus Potter, Jan van de Cappelle, Jan van der Heyden, and Adriaen van de Velde. Valentiner’s introduction to the Hudson-Fulton catalogue is one of the purest expressions of what might be called the Hegelian view of Dutch art. In his Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik, Hegel first posited the theory that there was a causal relationship between the nature of a society and the forms that its art took. His prime example was Dutch society, which, as he perceived it, was made up of independent-minded, egalitarian Protestants, whose pictorial naturalism (in which each motif, however minor, was recorded in exact detail) seemed like an appropriately “democratic” style. Valentiner wrote, “Holland’s contribution [to the history of art] lay primarily in the fact that she freed [painting] from its dependence on the Church. . . . Artists began to reproduce simply what they observed in nature around them. . . . The simple realism . . . was natural to the Dutch people, whose strength lay less in their imagination than in their powers of close observation.” We now know that history and biblical painting scarcely ceased to exist in the Netherlands but continued briskly under private patronage. We also understand that the process of Dutch picture-making involved a liberal use of the pictorial tradition, one’s imagination, as well as observation. But Valentiner’s writings help us understand the narrow conception of Dutch art that prevailed at the turn of the twentieth century. Rembrandt, for example, was, in his words, the solitary genius, “one personality alone to whom all others were subordinated. . . . The greatest delineator of character and of pathetic humanity.”
Valentiner also followed Bode’s example in cataloguing the private collections of many of the leading collectors, including those of Johnson, Borden, and Widener. His huge tooled-leather volume devoted to Widener’s Dutch and Flemish paintings was so outscale that Johnson complained that consulting it could “fatigue an athlete.” Had Valentiner not felt obliged to fight on the wrong side in the First World War, he might have loomed even larger as a figure in the history of American museums. As it was, he did not return to these shores for nearly a dozen years, when he became director of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Valentiner’s snippy remarks about the narrow tastes of American private collectors were recorded in an article published in Kunst und Künstler in 1918–19, and his resentment at being barred as a German from the Frick Art Reference Library is buried in a footnote in his monograph on De Hooch. In addition to writing books on Nicolaes Maes and Rembrandt, as well as numerous articles, Valentiner organized many major shows, including the 1939 World’s Fair exhibition. He went on to run the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and came out of retirement to direct the newly founded North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Along the way he purchased many Dutch pictures and encouraged the gifts of such major works as Rembrandt’s The Visitation (see fig. 78) and Van Ruisdael’s The Jewish Cemetery, now in Detroit. Valentiner’s ungenerous critics would claim (with some cause) that he did too much, compromising the accuracy of his scholarship and connoisseurship. But his mark remains clear and his insights worth rereading. He also reminds us of the many European scholars who made their homes in the United States, especially after the Second World War, and made such enduring contributions to the study of Northern painting, such as Jakob Rosenberg, Julius Held, Wolfgang Stechow, Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, and such unsung heroes as Clothilde Brière-Misme, who made the Frick Art Reference Library the invaluable resource it is today.
Especially in the early decades of the last century, in addition to museum people and academics, collectors often relied on dealers as trusted advisors. Frick, for example, acquired two of his Vermeers and a half-dozen other great Dutch paintings from Knoedler’s. Joseph Duveen’s predatory pursuit of Andrew Mellon has been extensively reported. But Mellon’s spectacular achievements as a collector of Dutch paintings are abundantly clear in the National Gallery of Art. Duveen’s influence on American collecting has been the subject of several books, but the importance of dealers like Jacques Seligman and Charles Sedelmeyer and firms like Tooth and Co. and Rosenberg and Stiebel has yet to be adequately investigated. The Metropolitan continued to enjoy the benefactions of figures like Jules S. Bache and Michael Friedsam. And many of the country’s larger and medium-sized museums through the middle decades of the last century enjoyed substantial purchase funds, such as the Hannah money in Cleveland, Sumner money in Hartford, and Libbey money in Toledo, the latter two respectively being ably guided by Chick Austin, who favored Dutch Italianate works in advance of taste, and Otto Whitman, who bought lovely paintings by Ter Borch, Cuyp, and Van de Cappelle. Often the leaders of these museums were taught in Paul Sachs’s museum courses at Harvard or later were part of the Williams College mafia that has dominated museums’ curatorial and managerial ranks in recent decades. Perry Rathbone, who directed St. Louis and Boston, is perhaps better known for his promotions of contemporary artists, such as Max Beckmann, but he made inspired Dutch acquisitions like the Rough Sea by Jacob van Ruisdael.
Southern California was one of the most vibrant centers on earth for the collecting of old master paintings in the last half century. In the 1960s and ’70s one of the most active collectors was Norton Simon, whose collection is preserved in his museum in Pasadena. His tastes were eclectic, but he had a splendid eye, acquiring the Portrait of a Boy (“Titus”) by Rembrandt, of which he was especially proud (see fig. 96), but also many other outstanding Dutch paintings by the likes of Gabriel Metsu, Jacob van Ruisdael, and Salomon van Ruysdael. Robert Lehman donated his collection to the Metropolitan in 1975, with the daunting requirements not only that it hang separately but that the Museum must recreate the rooms of his apartment. Nonetheless, the collection includes several fine Dutch pictures, including Rembrandt’s portrait of the syphilitic Gerard de Lairesse and Pieter de Hooch’s atmospheric Interior. During the 1980s, American museums once again asserted themselves with ambitious acquisitions. Ted Pillsbury at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth acquired several lovely Dutch paintings, including a fine Saenredam and Van Ruisdael marine, while John Walsh at the Getty Museum acquired more Dutch seventeenth-century works than those of virtually any other school. Walsh wrote his dissertation on Porcellis, and acquired works by Ter Brugghen, Van Ruisdael, Philips Koninck, De Hooch, Steen, Frans van Mieris, Breenberg, and Knupfer, two works each by Ter Borch and Huysum, and many others. This initiative probably would have pleased the Museum’s founder, since J. Paul Getty recalled that the very first painting he ever bought was a Jan van Goyen. Sometimes patterns of collecting seem to follow scholarship; in recent decades scholars’ inquiries into Dutch Mannerism and Dutch Italianate paintings, both subjects once spurned by public and private collectors, have seen a remarkable revival. Both the Los Angeles County and Philadelphia museums acquired major works by Hendrick Goltzius, and immediately following the appearance of Anne Lowenthal’s monograph on Wtewael, examples of his work were snapped up not only by Kansas City, but also Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and the Getty.
A new pattern emerged among late twentieth-century collectors of Dutch art, who tended to specialize in one or two genres or a single style. It is unclear whether this is an acknowledgment, conscious or otherwise, of the tendency of Dutch painters to specialize, whether in landscape, genre, or still life. But it is surely a new trend. Collectors in seventeenth-century Holland, indeed in all later ages in Europe and America, were rarely so exclusive in their tastes. Ed Carter of Los Angeles and department store success acquired only landscapes, still lifes, and church interiors, all of superb quality, but always minimizing if not shunning the human form. Senator Jack Heinz of Pennsylvania in the 1980s assembled more than eighty Netherlandish still lifes with the assistance of the dealer Peter Tillou. In recent years a private collector in New York has pursued Leiden fijnschilder painting and works by Rembrandt and his school with extraordinary enthusiasm and passion. As we have seen, the naturalism, technical brilliance, and secular subject matter of such pictures have long held an attraction for businessmen and successful men of affairs, but rarely has there been an era of such highly focused collecting.
Alfred Bader of Milwaukee has assembled a large collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings that is bequeathed to Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. He owns examples of most genres, but especially favors Rembrandt and Rembrandt school paintings, figural art, and Old Testament subjects. George and Linda Kaufman assembled a fine collection of Dutch paintings and like others recognized how beautifully this art is complemented by early American furniture. Some contemporary collecting of Dutch art is distinctively regional. For several decades Boston has been the home of a very distinguished group of collectors of Dutch art, who are all mutual friends. Among this group we count George Abrams and his late wife, Maida, the most important private collectors of Dutch drawings anywhere, who also own superb Dutch paintings. The renowned economists Kate and Marty Feldstein of Boston have devoted themselves to Dutch and Flemish landscapes, notably to tonal and classical landscapes, with splendid results. Matt and Susan Weatherbie cast their nets more broadly, with an eye for paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters of renown as well as outstanding works by lesser-known masters, such as their still life by Fromantiou. As a recent traveling exhibition has triumphantly demonstrated, Eijk and Rose-Marie van Otterloo (fig. 11), who are also from the Boston area, have assembled one of the most distinguished and extensive collections of Dutch paintings anywhere (see fig. 106).
In the modern era, there are still cases in this country of meteoric collectors of Dutch art who emulate. Proof that the ghost of Charles Yerkes lives on, the real estate maven Gerry Guterman, who is perhaps best remembered for having thrown a bar mitzvah for his son on the QE2, assembled a remarkable collection of sixty-three Dutch paintings in all genres in a very short period, installing them in their own vast, purpose-built gallery in a palatial home in Westchester, only to suddenly sell the entire collection in 1988 following financial reversals. For sheer want of supply, the era of “masterpiece collectors” is probably past, but there are still avid and often better-informed collectors who have discovered the pleasures of owning excellent works by the seemingly inexhaustible ranks of the Dutch “minor masters.” The legions of visitors who press into The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht each year attest to this demand. As our knowledge and connoisseurship improve, the roll call of desirable Dutch painters lengthens; indeed, we are reminded of Constantijn Huygens’s remark in 1629, when he observed that “the harvest of landscape painters is so great in our Netherlands that anyone attempting to list them would fill a notebook.” Happily that book is still open.
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