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by Paul Jeromack
"The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art," Sept. 18, 2007-Jan. 6, 2008, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028

The Metropolitan Museum of Artís collection of 17th-century Dutch pictures is widely considered to be the finest outside of Europe, and it is hard to argue with that evaluation. Among the 229 pictures in the collection are 20 Rembrandts, 11 Frans Halses and a remarkable five Vermeers, in addition to multiple masterpieces by Aelbert Cuyp, Gerard Terborch and Salomon van Ruysdael. It is therefore somewhat astonishing that until now the Met has never published a catalogue of its extensive Dutch holdings.

The long-awaited, definitive two-volume 1,083-page catalogue written by Metís curator of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, Walter Liedtke, has just been issued by the museum ($135 for members, $150 for others), accompanied by an unprecedented exhibition titled "The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Unlike many museum catalogues, the book is compulsively readable and well-researched, written with an uncommon flair and a refreshingly caustic wit. All the paintings are illustrated in color (some for the first time) and the biographies of the artists are extensive. Among museum collection catalogues, Liedtkeís work sets a high standard that will be a daunting challenge for other curators to match, let alone surpass.

The exhibition is divided into two parts, one devoted to the museumís most notable Dutch pictures, the other, a densely hung "study collection" of minor and unattributed works deserving of future reference, and in some cases, cleaning. Unlike most art-historical surveys of Dutch pictures, in which the works are arranged by date of execution, the exhibition here is most unusually organized by date of acquisition, making it a most illuminating and invaluable examination of American taste.

The show is a revelation in many ways. The Metís Dutch collection has long been hobbled by both insufficient gallery space and the segregation of the major bequests of Benjamin Altman (1913), Robert Lehman (1975) and Jack and Belle Linsky (1982), which scatter their treasures in egocentric galleries sited widely apart and all over the museum. Happily, the restrictions have been (temporarily) lifted, and masterpieces long on permanent view have been augmented with other pictures resurrected from the storerooms that have not been seen in generations. Only now can a proper assessment be made.

After a magnificent "Fanfare for Donors" in the first gallery, where masterpieces by Rembrandt, Hobbema and Cuyp hang beneath their donor surnames, which include Marquand, Vanderbilt, Havemeyer, Harkness and Altman, one enters the salon of the museumís very first acquisitions of Dutch pictures, part of the Ď"1871 Purchase." The 174 pictures in that acquisition (of which 64 paintings, 23 of them Dutch, remain in the collection today) were bought in Europe by the Metís first president, John Taylor Johnson, and vice-president William T. Blodgett from the French dealer Leon Gauchez and Belgian dealer Etienne LeRoy.

The Dutch pictures include View of Haarlem and the Haarlemmer Meer Jan Van Goyen and a Marine and Drawing the Eel by Salomon van Ruysdael -- still the finest examples by the artists in the collection -- yet the majority of paintings exemplify a distinctive mid-19th-century taste ignored by later generations of Met donors. Here are sunny Italianate landscapes by Johannes Lingelbach and Nicolaes Berchem, a history painting by Rembrandt pupil Jan Victors, finely finished male portraits of exceptional quality by Bartolomeaus van der Helst, Adrian de Vries and Leiden "fijnschilder" Pieter van Slingeland, a rare kitchen interior by Willem Kalf and a tiny Jan Davidsz. de Heem still-life of grapes, oysters and a wine glass.

Most notable are two exuberant large floral still lives painted a century apart by Jacob Vosmaer (ca. 1613) and Margerta Haverman (1716), both rare (only seven paintings by Vosmaer survive, while the Haverman is her only known picture) and surprisingly the only floral still lives in the Metís Dutch collection.

Yet for over a century, the most popular picture in the 1871 Purchase (as well one of the best-loved old masters in the Metís collection) was Malle Babbe (The Witch of Haarlem), a canvas of a laughing old woman with an owl on her shoulder, bought as a Frans Hals (an artist only re-appreciated 30 years of so before 1871) and praised by Henry James as "a masterpiece of inelegant vigor."

Reattributed since the late Ď70s as an old copy of a lost Hals original (says Liedtke, "the picture is superficially impressive for its bold execution, but it lacks Halsí sense of form and interest in actual observation."), it has been in storage for the past 30 years, yet it is of unusually good quality with a raw vigor that nearly pops off the wall, and though not an authentic Hals, is rather deserving of being on regular exhibition. An accepted Hals painting of the same subject is held by the Gemšldegalerie in Berlin.

The next notable infusion of Dutch pictures came in 1889 and 1891 in a donation by the museumís second president, railroad magnate Henry G. Marquand. Of unusually high quality overall, Marquandís gifts were a string of firsts for the Met, including its initial three authentic Hals (including what is still its finest male portrait by the artist), its best GabriŽl Metsu (A Musical Party), its first Rembrandt and non-Rembrandt (both rather worn male portraits) and, most notably, the limpid and luminous Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, the first and greatest of the Metís five painting by Johannes Vermeer (reportedly bought by Marquand in Paris for $800).

Until 1903, the Met had to rely solely on donations to build its Old Master collection, but all this was changed when the museum received a surprise $5-million bequest from the reclusive railroad magnate Jacob S. Rogers expressly for the acquisition of books and works of art. While Italian paintings were the first priority of paintings curator Roger Fry, he did make a number of mostly uninspired Dutch purchases, the exception being a Kitchen Scene bought in 1906 as a Jan Steen (for the rather high sum of $17,000) and only correctly reattributed to Pieter Wtewael (son of the better known Joachim) since the early 1980s.

A cheerfully vulgar and erotic canvas depicting a vegetarianís nightmare of dead game, eggs and raw meat (including a graphically skinned and beautifully painted calvesí head) with a grinning, buxom maid and leering duck-offering peasant with more than produce on their minds, it is one of the revelations of the exhibition (though hung too high), having not been on view for many decades. It is much deserving of being in the permanent gallery hang.

Unfortunately, few other such oddball purchases were made, and even worse was the Metís hesitation in purchasing Rembrandtís great late Self-Portrait with a Staff (for ca. $150,000), despite Fryís urging. Snapped up for nearly twice the price by Henry Clay Frick, the painting remains one of the glories of the Frick Collection down the street. Had the Met bought it, the picture would still -- a century later -- be the greatest Rembrandt in the museum collection.

Shortly afterwards, the Met stopped buying Dutch pictures altogether, and the 1912 purchase of a monumental Jan Davidz. de Heem banquet-table still-life would be the museumís last acquisition of a Dutch painting till 1949.

The next donation of Dutch and other old masters to come to the Met arrived in 1913 with the bequest of the department store millionaire Benjamin Altman. Still the finest group of Dutch pictures to come to the Met in a single gift, the Altman pictures are hung in a long, cinnabar-red gallery and have never looked to better advantage since they were displayed in Altmanís mansion. In addition to masterpieces by Hobbema (Entrance to a Village), Vermeer (A Maid Asleep), Aelbert Cuyp (Young Herdsman With Cows) Gerrit Dou (Self-portrait) and Niclaes Maes (a Girl Peeling Apples) are three remarkable genre paintings by Frans Hals: A Lute Player, the popular Jonker Ramp and his Sweetheart (though more plausibly interpreted by Liedtke and other scolars as "The Prodigal Son in the Brothel") and most audacious of all, Shrovetide Revellers.

A cheerfully raucous, in-your-face party scene dominated by the mainstays of Dutch vaudeville theater -- "Hans Wurst," noted for roaringly brandishing big sausages at his fellow players, and "Pekelharing," who makes an internationally known obscene gesture that was only revealed by a later cleaning at the Met -- Halsí Shrovetide Revellers centers on a laughing, rouged boy in drag, wearing red beads, a trollopís flashy embroidered dress and blonde wig. Bought by Altman in 1907 from a little-known New York dealer, Hess and Company, for $89,102, it is a Hals even too raw for most American collectors of the time, though it was reportedly hotly sought after by Wilhelm von Bode for the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin.

But the glories of the Altman bequest are its six Rembrandts, including the so-called Man with a Magnifying Glass and Woman with a Pink (conclusively identified by Liedtke as the auctioneer Pieter Haring and his wife Elisabeth Delft), a late Self-Portrait and the beautiful Toilet of Bathsheba. Still the only figural "subject" painting by Rembrandt at the Met, it was one of Altmanís last purchases before his death in 1913, bought via Duveen in June of that year from the famous Steengracht sale in Paris for a then-astounding $213,621.50.

Unfortunately, the Altman bequest included seven non-Rembrandts once considered autograph masterworks and now assigned to various followers and minor pupils, notably the once-beloved Old Woman Cutting Her Nails (now tentatively assigned by Liedtke to Abraham van Dijk) and the dreary Pilate Washing His Hands (which kinda-sorta-might be a very early Aert de Gelder, though if so it would be his worst painting).

The 1920s brought the Met smaller bequests and gifts, notably of great Rembrandts: the majestic Noble Slav, the Portrait of Herman Doomer and the Titianesque Flora, in addition to the Metís third Vermeer, Woman Playing a Lute.

The Metís most interesting bequest of Dutch (and other) pictures came in 1931 with the estate of Michael Friedsam, a business partner of Benjamin Altman. Unlike his big-spending mentor, Friedsam liked bargains and often bought pictures that were not of mainstream American taste, notably the Metís least-popular paintings by Rembrandt (the cheerfully alert and armored Bellona) and Vermeer (the extraordinary Allegory of the Catholic Faith, whose catalogue references is a cavalcade of critical derision and loathing) and its finest Aelbert Cuyp, the group equestrian portrait of Cornelis and Michiel Pompe van Meerdervoort.

One single donation of the time deserves particular mention: Gerard de Lairesseís sunny and exuberant Apollo and Aurora, painted for Amsterdam burgomaster Nicolaes Pancras in 1671, placed as a chimneypiece in his new townhouse (and brilliantly installed by Liedtke in the Met exhibition above a faux-fireplace). It was given to the museum by Manuel E. and Ellen G. Rionda of Alpine, N.J., in 1943. Bought by a member of the donorís family around 1900, it represents the sophisticated international classicism of late-17th-century Dutch painting that was despised by the majority of scholars and ignored by collectors until very recently, and it spent most of its time at the Met in deep storage.

Miraculously not deacessioned during one of the periodic painting department purges of the 1950s and Ď60s, the Lairesse is one of the revelations of the exhibition, a donation now seen as uncommonly advanced for its time and making one want to know more about is mysterious donors (who, to my knowledge, did not give anything else to the Met).

More typical Dutch pictures followed in 1949 with the collection of the banker Jules Bache. With its great Rembrandt Portrait of Floris Soop and Curiosity, a sumptuously painted genre scene by Gerard ter Borch of a letter-writer spied upon by her nosy younger sister, the Bache pictures (Dutch or not) represent the apogee of conservative American Old Master taste, which would only admit the greatest artists into an art baronís private Pantheon.

This approach was not without its pitfalls. As every great collection of Dutch pictures included a Vermeer, Bache decided that he had to have one as well, paying $134,800 in 1928 for A Young Woman Reading, which was downgraded almost immediately after coming to the Met as a modern fake.

Yet Bacheís most extraordinary Dutch picture did not come to the Met. It was a secret masterwork, kept hidden in a fake book that held a small genre panel by Job Berckheyde. When the panel was lifted like a curtain, underneath was a perfectly preserved jewel-like mannerist painting on copper by Joachim Wtewael depicting Mars and Venus vigorously copulating while the goddessí husband Vulcan throws a magic net over them, much to the delight of the other gods. Possessing a cheerfully graphic eroticism unexhibitable in museums for the next 40 years or more, it was quietly sold at auction by the Bache estate in 1943 with its binding and Berkheyde cover for $10,000, resurfacing only in 1983 when it was bought by the J. Paul Getty Museum for just under $400,000.

Around this time, the Met rather belatedly began to be aware that its esteemed collection of Dutch pictures was not as complete as it should be, and some steps were taken to help rectify that circumstance. The effort began with the purchase in 1949 of a small but powerful vanitas still-life of a skull on a book with a smoldering oil lamp by Pieter Claesz. A lush Italianate still life of game by Jan Weenix followed the next year, but the next two still lifes purchased (in 1954), a Willem Kalf tabletop Still Life with Fruit, Glassware and a Wan-li Bowl and a forest-floor Still life of a Poppy, Insects and Reptiles by Otto Marseus van Scrieck, were mediocre examples in compromised condition.

Alas, the Met never purchased any great floral pieces by Hollandís greatest practitioners, including Ambrosius Bosschaert, Balthasar van der Aast, Jan Davidsz de Heem or Jan van Huysum, and their absence is still a huge gap in the Dutch collection. Perhaps Theodore Rousseau, Jr., the Metís curator of paintings at the time, thought these were just decorative accents rather than serious pictures.

But in 1956, Rousseau made a rather atypically brilliant and astute purchase of the powerful, almost barbarically archaic Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John by Hendrick ter Brugghen, an artist whose greatness and importance had only been comprehended a few years before. Probably painted for a secret Catholic chapel in Utrecht, it was discovered earlier that year in a small church in South Hackney, London, by a dealer who paid £75 for it, who then flipped it at a Sothebyís sale, donating a percentage of the £15,000 proceeds to charity.

With the St. Sebastian Tended by Irene in Oberlin, Terbruggenís Crucifixion with the Virgin and St. John is the greatest painting by the artist in America, yet is still the Metís only example of Dutch Caravaggism, since the museum lacks any paintings by Gerard von Honthorst and Dirck van Baburen.

After the Bache collection, the Met continued to receive smaller gifts and bequests of Dutch pictures over the next 58 years. One of the most important came from the de Vegvar family in 1964, two beautiful views of the Huis ten Bosch in the Hague by Jan van der Heyden, and one of the finest and curious cabinet portraits by Thomas de Keyser, the so-called Musician and His Daughter.

Other important gifts were the uncommonly touching Abraham dismissing Hager and Ishmael by the teenaged Nicholas Maes, donated to the museum by Mrs. Edward Brayton in 1971 (and one of the earliest Old Master paintings of quality to enter an American collection, purchased by a Rhode Island ancestor of the donor in 1811); the droll Disillusioned Medea by Paulus Bor (the only picture by this rare Dutch classicist in America), donated by art dealer Ben Heller in 1972; Rembrandtís Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse (the artist who painted the aforementioned Apollo and Aurora); and the Metís finest genre painting by Pieter de Hooch, which arrived with the Robert Lehman collection in 1975.

Among the treasures donated by the Jack and Belle Linsky foundation in 1982 is the Metís finest Jan Steen (and one of his finest pictures in an American collection), The Dissolute Household. Tthough a moralizing picture warning against human excesses and messes of all sorts -- centering around the chortling artist himself, his gaudily dressed but slatternly wife and very agreeable maid -- it seems more intent on cheerfully celebrating the dissipation it purports to condemn.

In 2005 came the Rita and Frits Marcus collection with a lovely winter landscape by the rare Christoffel van der Burgh and a much-needed Ď"monochrome" still-life of Oysters, a Silver Tazza and Glassware by Willem Claesz. Heda. But above them all is the magical head of a young woman with a veil, the Metís fifth and presumably final Vermeer, donated in 1979 by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, the museumís most important and generous post-war benefactors.

But for most people, the Metís single most spectacular acquisition of any Dutch picture will remain the headline-making, record-setting $2 million-plus purchase of Rembrandtís Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (alternatively identified by Liedtke as Albertus Magnus) at the Mrs. Alfred W. Erikson sale at Parke-Bernet in 1961. The only Dutch painting bought by the museum that decade, it was very much a trophy purchase, not unlike the far more important Velasquez Juan de Pareja acquisition of ten years later.

Though it is heretical to say so, the historically important Aristotle has never been among my favorite pictures, either by the artist or at the Met, and I canít help but wonder if the millions spent for that painting would not have been better served for the sort of Rembrandt unrepresented in the collection, which still lacks a great history or religious painting or landscape, or better yet, for Dutch pictures that would have filled all the still-remaining gaps in the collection.

In addition to those previously mentioned, the Met is still without several essential artists and pictures essential to a great Dutch collection. It has no winter landscape by Hendrick Avercamp, no low-life genre paintings by either Adriaen nor Isaac van Ostade, no church interior by Sanraedam or architectural vistas by the Berkheydes, no animal paintings by Paulus Potter or Adrien van de Veldes, no great Nicolaes Berchem or other Dutch Italianates like Adam Pynacker, Jan Both, Karel du Jardin or even the prolific Cornelis van Poelenbergh. †

In the early 1970s, Met curator (and subsequently Getty director) John Walsh made an excellent attempt to rectify the situation with astute purchases in 1971 of Philips Wouwermanís Landscape with a Man and Woman on Horseback and in 1972 of Abraham Blomaertsí Moses Striking the Rock, Godfried Schalkenís moonlit Death of Procris and the first known Dutch vanitas still-life by Jacques de Gheyn the Elder, a supremely arresting panel of a skull in a niche below a quivering, reflective giant soap bubble.

In more recent times, the Metís European paintings department has been solidly focused on Italian and French pictures, with the result that purchases of needed Dutch paintings have been alarmingly few. Since 1980, only six Dutch pictures have been bought: excellent landscapes by Phillipps Koninck (acquired in 1980) and an unusually fine Brazilian Landscape by Frans Post (1981); an unrivalled masterpiece by Bartholomaus Breenbergh of The Preaching of St. John the Baptist (1991); Samuel van Hoogstratenís classical The Angelís Annunciation of the Death of the Virgin (1992); the jewel-like Mannerist tour-de-force on copper by Joachim Wtewael of The Golden Age (1993); and an excellent Emannuel de Witte Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft (2001).

It is hoped that even more similar purchases and gifts will be made in the wake of "The Age of Rembrandt" that will enrich the Metropolitanís remarkable collection.

PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.