"From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Sept. 22, 1998-Jan. 3, 1999, at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
Over the past decade, the Metropolitan Museum has slowly turned away from facile crowd-pleasing blockbusters in favor of exhibitions drawn from its permanent collections. Following the success of "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt" in 1995, Met director Philippe de Montebello thought a sequel was in order.
The result is "Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," co-curated by Met paintings curator Keith Christiansen and Netherlandish scholar Maryan Ainsworth, who is also senior research fellow in the Met's paintings conservation department. As the most recent catalogue of the Met's early Flemish collection was published in 1947, a reassessment is long overdue.
What's the big deal about the Met temporarily rearranging what it already owns? For one thing, it must be said that seldom has so rich a collection been so disjointedly displayed. Normally, the Flemish pictures are widely scattered. Thanks to restrictive bequest covenants, paintings from the Robert Lehman collection as well as the Jack and Belle Linsky pictures reside in "boutique" galleries on opposite ends of the lower floor. The permanent Flemish galleries upstairs (painted a lethal pale tan) are merely an extended corridor leading to the more spacious Rubens and Van Dyck rooms. And Robert Campin's Merode Triptych is far uptown at the Cloisters.
Now, at last gathered together in spacious, dramatically lit galleries, the strengths -- and weaknesses -- of the Met's collection have never been more apparent.
The Jan van Eyck Crucifixion/Last Judgment Diptych (bought from the Hermitage in 1933) with its brutal contrasts between leering mob and grieving saints on the left and with the rather prim majesty of heaven and festering nightmare of hell on the right, has never been so carefully lit, nor as riveting. The same could be said about the Hans Memling companion portraits of the shifty manager of the Medici bank in Bruges, Tommaso Portinari and his wife Maria Baroncelli.
Equally impressive in heightened surroundings are the great Penitence of St. Jerome Triptych by Joachim Patinir and the great Petrus Christus from the Lehman collection known as St Eligius in his Shop. Since the removal of the "saint's" halo some years ago (a later addition) it has been suggested that this is not a devotional picture at all but rather a genre portrait of the highest rarity.
New Yorkers have had a surprisingly long appreciation for the Netherlandish "primitives." Several fine examples, including works by Jan Gossaert and Albrecht Bouts, were exhibited in the 1850s in Thomas J. Bryan's "Gallery of Christian Art" (transferred to the New-York Historical Society in 1867 and eviscerated a few years ago in a bulk auction at Sotheby's).
Another group of Netherlandish works was part of the Metropolitan's first bulk purchase of paintings in 1871. Among these paintings were a devotional diptych from the Bouts workshop and an Adoration of the Magi by the completely fictitious "Gerard van der Meire," pictures omitted -- inexplicably -- from the present show.
But the real fashion for early Netherlandish painting only took hold with New York collectors after the landmark "Les Primitifs Flamands" exhibition held in Bruges in 1902. Such collectors -- and future Met benefactors -- as Benjamin Altman, Michael Friedsam and Jules Bache were particularly fond of the works of the two Bruges masters Hans Memling and Gerard David. As a consequence, the museum's collection is extraordinarily rich in their works - with 13 pictures by Memling and his studio and 17 by David.
Although Memling's reputation has been undergoing a revival of sorts, I remain unconvinced of his greatness as a religious painter. His figures tend towards a dull-witted blandness of expression that can be numbing , as I found at the Bruges Memling retrospective of 1994. His true genius is as a portraitist, splendidly exemplified in the aforementioned portraits of Tomasso Portinari and his wife, as well as in the Lehman Portrait of an (anonymous) Florentine Gentleman and the sensitively rendered Old Man, here reunited with his wife on loan from the Houston Museum.
Though ours is an age which celebrates the individual artistic temperament, it was not uncommon for a 15th-century Flemish master to completely sublimate his personal style to the demands of a patron or the market -- popular religious images were replicated for decades in disconcertingly exact fashion. This can be seen in the Met's Christ Appearing to His Mother, long considered its finest work by Rogier van der Weyden. Through the refinements of infrared reflectography (used for examining underdrawings) and dendrochronology (which can determine a panel's age and felling date), Ainsworth has revealed that it is rather a brilliant copy. Painted 30 years after Rogier's death for Queen Isabella the Catholic of Spain, the picture is based on Rogier's original (now in Berlin), which itself was painted for her father, Juan II.
Similar tests have downgraded the Met's Adoration by Hieronymous Bosch (now considered a late imitation from around 1550 ) and a Madonna once attributed to Petrus Christus that is now considered a latter work from around 1490. The cherished stereotype of the isolated master diligently at work in his studio has been superseded. Indeed, by the end of the 15th century, many Flemish artists headed workshops akin to an assembly line, cranking out devotional pictures for the export market, often utilizing outside artists for specific parts of pictures. The prolific Antwerp master Joos van Cleve used the services of an unknown landscape specialist to fill in the backgrounds of his pictures, as in, for instance, the Crucifixion triptych and a Seated Madonna here.
A number of panels long in storage have been cleaned and restored with striking results, notably a monumental Christ Crowned With Thorns with the Weeping Virgin by the Bruges master Adriaen Isenbrandt and a Last Judgment by Joos van Cleve, featuring a Raphaelesque Christ presiding over a skittish army of white and pink nudes.
One of the Met's greatest treasures, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Harvesters, was long in need of attention for its warped, misaligned panels and dulled gray synthetic varnish, which completely disturbed the illusion of the far-reaching vista and smothered the color. Following expert panel treatment by the Met's George Bisacca, a sensitive cleaning by Hubert von Sonnenburg and with a complimentary ebonized frame replacing the gallery-gold one, the picture looks better than it has in decades. Now Harvesters is strikingly modern with its sea of glowing wheat and hazy sky with a newly revealed harvest moon in the upper left corner.
The Met's collection is augmented by relevant additions. Companion portraits by Massys and Memling have been temporarily reunited as have triptychs by Gerard David and his school, most wistfully with the unique Wooded Landscapes from the Mauritshuis, originally on the versos of the wings of the Bache Adoration triptych and detached and sold in the 1930s.
Further rounding out the exhibition's treatment of the period are related tapestries, sculptures, printed books, illuminated manuscripts, drawings and several mind-bogglingly intricate boxwood carvings, creating a rich ambiance that unfortunately is unlikely to be maintained once the exhibition closes. The territories of each curatorial department at the Met are jealously guarded, and rival curators are loath to permanently subordinate the works in their care.
Are there flaws? A handful of worthy pictures have been inexplicably left in storage -- along with a few battered ruins -- and several important artists are poorly represented, notably the Italianate masters Jan Gossaert and Martin Van Heemskerk.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.