At a time when 17th-century Dutch paintings and drawings have become among the most expensive Old Masters, and when even attractive works by minor masters are out of the price range of most American museums, the bequest of Frits and Rita Markus to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is most welcome. An astute financial advisor who was consulted by his fellow collectors Werner Kamarsky and Sidney J. Van Der Bergh, Frits Markus had been courted by several American museums and art dealers over the years hoping to snare his small but fine collection. He was eventually won over to the Metropolitan, whose world-famous collection of Dutch art was not without some surprising gaps -- gaps that the Markus bequest of eight pictures and 22 drawings goes a long way towards eradicating.
Though the Met's collection of Dutch landscape paintings is exceptionally strong, it inexplicably lacked an important skating picture, particularly one by the genre’s most famous specialist, Hendrick Avercamp. The Markus Townscape with Skaters of ca. 1610 was always regarded as the artist's earliest known depiction of skaters (and is plate 1 in C. J. Welcker's classic 1933 monograph on the artist), yet Walter Liedtke, the Met's curator of Dutch paintings, believes it to be a far rarer work by the Middleburg painter Christoffel van der Berghe.
So, while the Met still lacks a painting by Avercamp, at least it now has a superb skating picture (which will enjoy continued popularity in both the Met's galleries and as an inevitable Christmas card), while Avercamp is indeed represented in the bequest with a fine watercolor of a Winter Landscape with a Hunter and His Dog.
Still-life painting has long been a weak link in the Met's Dutch collection, so the Markus previously unpublished monochrome "banketje" by William Claesz Heda of ca. 1635 is of particular importance to the collection -- the artist’s delight in rendering reflections is given full play in the soft sheen of the overturned silver tazza, the pewter tray with oysters and the greenish surface of the fragile roemers (goblets), one intact and as a reminder of the brevity of life, one toppled and broken.
Other pictures include a pair of small, exquisitely finished companion portraits of a Man with a Nautilus Shell and a Woman Holding a Balance by the Amsterdam master Thomas de Keyser and an excellent oil sketch of a Head of a Young Woman Wearing a Red Necklace that was long attributed to Rembrandt, but has been more recently assigned to a succession of his pupils Carel Fabritius, Samuel van Hoogstraten and (most convincingly) Nicholaes Maes.
As welcome as the Markus paintings are, the drawings are of even greater significance.
Netherlandish drawings were of little interest to the Met's first curator of drawings, Jacob Bean, but are a priority for his successor George Goldner, who convinced the late Mrs. Markus to establish a special acquisition fund for them several years ago. Though the Rita and Frits Markus Fund has been put to excellent use, the Markus drawings themselves are even more impressive.
Pride of place belongs to a superlative large black chalk and watercolor View of Calcar on the Lower Rhine near Cleves by Aelbert Cuyp, the most significant of his rare panoramic landscapes left in private hands (the last example to surface, a less fine View of Dordrecht, sold for $2.8 million at Christie’s New York in 2001). Other notable landscape drawings include a rare early-17th-century pen-and-watercolor of a Village Fair by the Master of the Hermitage Sketchbook and delicate finished pen drawing of a Castle Along the River by Jacob Savery.
Shipping subjects of boats at sea are represented by examples by Jan Porcellis, Simon de Vlieger and four excellent pen-and-wash sheets by William Van De Velde the Younger while the genre subjects include a fine pen and wash Interior with Peasants by Adriaen van Ostade and a droll finished watercolor by Ostade's pupil Cornelius Dusart of two peasants gorging themselves at a table. Though 18th-century Dutch art was mostly neglected by American collectors, the Markus bequest features an exceptionally fine finished watercolor of Soldiers in a Guardroom by Cornelius Troost.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.