Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Recent books: collecting Dutch art in America, and Bernard Berenson

I've just read two edited volumes on the history of collecting and connoisseurship, one on Bernard Berenson's influences and one on the history of collecting Dutch art in America. Both have some excellent chapters and many interesting insights, but I thought both relied too heavily on familiar material and had too many chapters that were insufficiently developed. The topics fascinate me, and the nascent scholarship is fascinating, so looking on the bright side I see these books as tasters for more substantial research projects that might bear better fruit in another season.
Picture: Amazon
Esmée Quodbach Holland's Golden Age in America: Collecting the art of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals Penn State University Press 2014 £66.95

American museums and private collections are exceptionally rich in Dutch golden age pictures, which are still collected avidly. This handsome, well-illustrated volume is part of the Frick's series on the history of collecting in America, but despite its auspicious origins the chapters are rather mixed. Overall there is a good deal of repetition between various chapters, such as similar observations about John Lothrop Motley's History of the Rise of the Dutch Republic and the Hudson-Fulton exhibition in New York in 1909. And it's a regrettable gap that there are no chapters on dealers, notwithstanding Sutton's correct note that "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", eclipsed by obsessive interest in Duveen and Knoedler (p. 15). There is also little on the minor museum collections of Dutch art, and on the collections that have been dispersed, such as Bordon's.

Arthur K. Wheelock writes on the collection in Washington, which began with a strong group of Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer and Cuyp from its founding benefactors, and which Wheelock himself has built into surely the strongest collection of Dutch art in America. But Wheelock's work should have been assessed independently, rather than allowing him to write his own puff piece (notwithstanding that much may legitimately be puffed!). Whilst his acquisition of Dutch art for the NGA has been outstanding, it has been at the expense of every other curatorial department and a more independent scholar might have probed the institutional politics further. Worse is Wheelock's discussion of the conservation of the collection, which is a shameful whitewash. He emphasises several times the dirtiness of the pictures when they arrived (despite, in many cases, recent Duveen provenance, which is a sure indication of excessively drastic cleaning), but says nothing about the furious restoration controversies arising from the museum's inept conservation department, which I wrote about in this review.

The chapter on W. R. Valentiner by Dennis P. Weller was the best of the bunch, a frank and balanced re-assessment of a controversial character. Valentiner made many bad connoisseurial judgments, but was lionised in his day (I would like to have seen a fuller account of how he came to win such a strong reputation on such a weak basis). But Weller balances due criticism with a fair assessment of his contributions. This chapter was a welcome balance to Wheelock's hagiographic account of, um, himself. Lloyd Dewitt's chapter on John G. Johnson is perceptive, and I'd like to have read more. The brevity of the chapters means that a lot of ground is covered, but many chapters don't go much beyond points that are already well-known. Catherine B. Scallen's chapter on Wilhelm von Bode is a good treatment of a fascinating and important character, and again I was left yearning for more. Walter Liedtke's chapter on the New York collectors whose pictures were given to the Met during the 'gilded age' is mostly familiar stuff, but redeemed by the liveliness of Liedtke's prose.

A couple of chapters cover ground that is already well-worn. The editor's own chapter on collecting Vermeer addresses a topic that is perennially popular, given the romantic tale of Vermeer's late rediscovery and belated appreciation. The chapter on collecting Rembrandt in Southern California reprises the author's widely-available eponymous book. She states that the Getty acquired Daniel and Cyrus Before the Idol Bel privately, but it would have been interesting to note that it was acquired a couple of years after it had failed to sell at auction - an unusual fate for an authentic Rembrandt.  

Peter C. Sutton's introductory chapter makes sweeping claims about the cultural context and significance of America's pursuit of Dutch art that seem to me tenuous. Surely the aesthetic qualities of the Dutch school are all that's needed to account for its popularity; Occam's razor is needed! He also claims that Frick acquired no still lifes or peasant paintings, but that's not true (they just didn't make it to his bequest). He also claims that Frick acquired a 'magnificently expansive Jacob van Ruisdael landscape', but the 'magnificently expansive' landscape in the Frick was acquired after his death. He owned a view of Amsterdam, which is poorly preserved and rarely displayed, and a superb waterfall landscape that his daughter donated to the Fogg Art Museum.

Peter Hecht's chapter is a defiantly off-topic (but excellent) discussion about collecting Dutch art in the Netherlands, tenuously justified because of its rivalry with the US. On the same basis, chapters could usefully have been added about collecting elsewhere, particularly in the UK and Germany, to produce a less parochial account. This is one of the most interesting chapters in the book, but again I yearned for more detail. Hecht claims that Vermeer's Milkmaid was acquired in 1907, whereas the Rijksmuseum itself claims it was 1908. The discrepancy calls for a footnote to explain. He references a newspaper article from late 1907, but it could have referred to an agreement not yet consummated. And I was surprised to learn from Quentin Buvelot that a Ruisdael that I knew well from its loan to Birmigham Museum and Art Gallery for over fifteen years, always attributed in full to Ruisdael, had been 'almost entirely unnoticed' until its sale in 2005 (p. 186). 

I've been rather critical of aspects of this book, but I enjoyed reading it and the research project is immensely promising. As these scholars' research progresses, I look forward to reading their fuller treatment of many of these topics.
Picture: Amazon
Joseph Connor and Louis A. Waldman (eds) Bernard Berenson: Formation and Heritage Harvard University Press 2014 £29.95

I was disappointed by this book, which sounded so fascinating. The trouble is that the chapter authors have their own agendas, which often have little to do with Berenson. Some are very good. Dietrich Seybold's chapter on Jean Paul Richter was interesting, but notable mainly for flagging his forthcoming book on Richter, which sounds excellent. It didn't give much insight into Berenson. Similarly the chapter on the dealer Gutekunst is notably mainly for its resurrection of Gutekunst's reputation, although most of its source material is familiar.

I liked best the chapter on Berenson and Warburg by Claudia Wedepohl, archivist at the Warburg Institute. Warburg described Berenson as an 'egocentric epicurean' (p. 168 quoting letter from Aby Warburg to Felix Warburg, 16 April 1925), which he meant as criticism but sounds like high praise to my ears! 

I also learned that Carl Brandon Strehlke and Machtelt Israels are cataloguing Berenson's paintings at I Tatti. The collection is off-limits to the public, alas. But I look forward to the catalogue. Strehlke's catalogue of Philadelphia's early Italian paintings is exemplary and I'm sure he'll do a great job on this collection, which I'd love to know better. 

I liked the chapter on Berenson and Kenneth Clark by William Mostyn-Owen, who knew them both. It includes one of my favourite passages from Clark: "We must believe that the frieze of the Parthenon, the West portal of Chartres and the ceiling of the Sistine are great works of art long before we have any idea how great they are: in fact we never shall know how great they are, but only that each time we see them we come a little closer to understanding" (in his Apologia of an Art Historian, published in the University of Edinburgh Journal vol 15 no 4 pp 232-239 1951, quoted p. 242). Mostyn-Owen over-delivers on his modestly stated objective of giving a personal perspective on this odd couple. 

Some of the other chapters relied much too heavily on well known material, but there are interesting nuggets throughout and, as with the Quodbach volume, some of the chapters represent the early stages of research that shows great promise.

No comments:

Post a Comment