Oud Holland

Review of: ‘America and the art of Flanders’ (2020)

August 2022

Esmée Quodbach (ed.), America and the art of Flanders: Collecting paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and their circles, University Park [Penn State University Press], 2020

This is the fifth, and one of the last volumes of studies on art collecting in America to come from the Frick’s ‘Center for the History of Collecting’. Dedicated to Flemish art in America, this volume is the result of a symposium held at the Frick Collection during 2016. It brings together 11 essays by renowned scholars devoted to the enthusiasm shown over the past 200 years by American collectors for the art of Rubens (1577-1640), Van Dyck (1599-1641) and their circle. This early interest dates back to 1786; only ten years after the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence, a collection of ‘capital and well chosenʼ Old Master paintings, among which works of Flemish painters, were auctioned by a certain Viner Van Zandt, at Corre's Tavern, in New York (p. 63).

The book is beautifully designed and illustrated, and has a solid hardcover in a luxurious cloth binding. It offers a wide-ranging excursion into the plots and motifs, as well as the tastes, of American collectors in Flemish paintings. It begins after an introduction by the editor Esmée Quodbach with an introductory essay by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr, who is an internationally renowned specialist in early modern Netherlandish art. Moreover, as former curator of Northern Baroque Painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, he almost doubled the collection of Flemish art. Wheelock's readable text is rich with facts and offers a wide-ranging overview, as Walter Liedtke last did in 1992 with his introduction to the volume Flemish paintings in America.1

The rest of the book is divided into sections, the first of which brings together four essays that, following the title, focus on 'The early years: The formation of America's taste for Flemish painting'. It begins with an essay by Lance Humphries on Robert Gilmor, Jr. (1774–1848), a Baltimore merchant who is often regarded as America's first great collector of Old Master paintings. Margaret R. Laster subsequently writes about Luman Reed (1785–1836) and Thomas Jefferson Bryan (1800-1870), two other pioneers among American Old Master collectors. With Adam Eaker's contribution, the focus changes, for he does not devote himself to individual collector personalities – but to the early American reception of Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641). Van Dyck's elegant paintings, which had already influenced the collectors and fashions of eighteenth-century England, also found favour in nineteenth-century America. Eaker's essay is followed by an article by Louisa Wood Ruby, devoted to the interest of American collectors in the American enthusiasm for the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the dynasty he founded. With the works by van Dyck, Bruegel and his successors, which reached America only at the beginning of the twentieth century, the reader already had entered the era to which the second section of the book is dedicated: 'The gilded age and beyond', from about 1871 until the years after the First World War.

Cover of America and the art of Flanders: Collecting paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and their circles.

Left: The Meeting of David and Abigail, c. 1630, oil on panel, 44.7x66.3 cm., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1997.57.8.

Middle Anthony van Dyck, Agostino Spinola, Count of Tassarolo, c. 1623-1627, oil on canvas, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1927.393.

Right Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The wedding dance, 1566, oil on panel, 119.4x157.5 cm., Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan, 30.374.

The first contribution here is by Roni Baer, who looks at collecting and collectors in Boston between the 1870s to the Second World War. Esmée Quodbach discusses the paintings collected by John Graver Johnson (1841–1917). He was a prominent Philadelphia lawyer whose collection formed the core of the Flemish masterpieces of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, after he bequeathed his more than 1,200 paintings to the city of Philadelphia in 1917. Johnson was advised in his acquisitions by the German art historian Wilhelm Valentiner (1880-1958), whose role in the American art market and for American collectors is examined in the following essay by Dennis P. Weller. Weller impressively describes the role that art historians such as Valentiner, A. Everett ‘Chick’ Austin (1900-1957) and Julius Held (1905-2002) played as advisors and tastemakers for collectors of Flemish art. This section concludes with George S. Keyesʼs accounts of the collections of Flemish art in the Midwest, where in Detroit, through the collecting efforts of newspaper publisher James E. Scripps (1835-1906), the first work by Rubens in America that is still considered autograph was on view in 1889, namely The meeting of David and Abigail, of about 1630 (fig. 1), acquired by James E. Scripps.

The third and last part of the book, 'The dissemination of Flemish art across America', directs the attention to the twentieth and twenty-first century. Alexandra Libby writes about the genesis of the collection of Flemish paintings at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. The starting point for this important collection were the gifts of Andrew Mellon (1855-1937), the founder of the gallery, and Joseph E. Widener (1871–1943), whose collections consisted almost exclusively of paintings by Rubens and Van Dyck, who were considered to be the two most outstanding exponents of seventeenth-century Flemish art. Rubens is also the subject of the contribution by Marjorie B. Wieseman. Until today, Rubens has been synonymous with the terms Flemish. It is therefore not surprising that no name appears more often in this book and no other artist takes up nearly three pages in the very well-done index (pp. 221–223). Wieseman thoroughly examines the history of collecting Rubens’ paintings. She also mentions the role of Wilhelm Valentiner (1880–1958), which has already been mentioned by Dennis Weller. Unfortunately, however, there is no reference in either article or in the bibliography to the fact that the German-born Valentiner had already published his first article on Rubens's works in America in 1912.2

In 1946, Valentiner published an article in The art quarterly in which he listed 142 works by Rubens in America, which is also not mentioned.3 His sometimes more than generous attributions were corrected only a year later by a book by Jan-Albert Goris (1899–1984) and Julius S. Held (1905–2002), who listed a total of 127 works attributed to Rubens (96 paintings and 31 drawings) and also catalogued 107 questionable attributions (90 paintings and 17 drawings).4 Both publications were critically evaluated in 1952 by Erik Larsen in his Rubens monograph.5 It is regrettable that this book with its complete catalogue of Rubens' works in America, just like Valentine's early essay, is missing from the bibliography of the otherwise ambitious volume reviewed here. What remains is a precise insight into the history of individual collections. This includes the last essay in the volume, in which Anne Woollett looks at Flemish paintings in Southern California. Among the most important holdings, besides those at the Norton Simon Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are those of the J. Paul Getty Museum, where Woollett works as curator. She demonstrates that the Californian oil magnate J. Paul Getty (1892–1976) had a particular fondness for Rubens, which still guides the acquisition policy today.

A survey work cannot claim to tell all the stories and much must inevitably be left out. It is, therefore, less meant as a criticism, than as an invitation to continue researching if I had wished to have met collectors of the twentiy-first century on the pages of this book, in addition to the institutions, such as Maida and George Abrams or J. Tomilson Hill, who has assembled an impressive collection of Flemish masterpieces with knowledge and tact.6 But the inclusion of other collectors' personalities would perhaps have gone beyond the scope, for the enthusiasm for Flemish art is still alive in the American art market and among the country's collectors. But this collection of essays is also recommended, to them. For whoever is interested in Flemish painting will read this book with enthusiasm and add it to their bookshelf despite the bibliographical shortcomings as a reference work. The essays collected in this volume provide a vast overview of the history of collecting Flemish paintings in the United States and will stimulate further research

Nils Büttner
Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Stuttgart

1 W. A. Liedtke, ‘Flemish painting in America: An historical sketch’, in G. C. Bauman and W.A. Liedtke (eds.), Flemish painting in America. A survey of early Netherlandish and Flemish paintings in the public collections of North America (Flandria extra muros), Antwerp 1992, pp. 11-28.
2 W. R. Valentiner, ‘Gemälde des Rubens in Amerika’, Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst 23, 1912, pp. 181-187.
3 W. R. Valentiner, ‘Rubens’ paintings in America’, The art quarterly 9 (1946), pp. 153-168.
4 J. A. Goris and J. S. Held, Rubens in America, Antwerp 1947. See, also the review: O. Benesch, ‘J.-A. Goris and J.S. Held, Rubens in America (New York, 1947)’, Kunstchronik 7 (1954), p. 77.
5 E. Larsen, P. P. Rubens. With a Complete Catalogue of his Works in America, Antwerp 1952.
6 https://www.christies.com/features/J-Tomilson-Hill-9591-1.aspx.
Cite as: ‘America and the art of Flanders: Collecting paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and their circles’, Oud Holland Reviews, August 2022.