Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 15, 2021
Esmée Quodbach, ed. America and the Art of Flanders: Collecting Paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, and Their Circles The Frick Collection Studies in the History of Art Collecting in America, vol. 5. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020. 248 pp.; 92 color ills.; 6 b/w ills. Cloth $69.95 (9780271086088)

The last two decades have witnessed a steady increase of interest in the history of taste and collecting, in America and beyond. This trend is reflected in, but also stimulated by, the recent establishment of three important book series: Studies in the History of Collecting & Art Markets (Brill) and the Histories of Material Culture and Collecting, 1700–1950 (Routledge), both initiated in 2016, and the Frick Collection Studies in the History of Art Collecting in America (Penn State University Press), initiated in 2014. All three initiatives attest to the interdisciplinary nature of the research field, combining the methods of art, cultural, social, and economic history with a strong emphasis on material culture studies. While the Brill and Routledge series are strongly rooted in academic and theoretical explorations of the intersection between objects, markets, and consumers, often with considerable emphasis on dealers’ strategies and economic mechanisms, the Frick series is characterized by a close collaboration between (art and cultural) historians and museum curators, with a focus on the formation and functioning of private and public collections. This approach comes as no surprise, given the fact that the latter series has been conceived by the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Collection, housed in the former home of collector Henry C. Frick in New York City. The center was established in 2007 as a research institute of the Frick Art Reference Library. It offers a wide range of scholarly activities and has a publication program in which the dialogue between museums and academia takes an important position.

The book America and the Art of Flanders: Collecting Paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, and Their Circles emerged from a conference held at the Center for the History of Collecting and appeared as the fifth volume in the Frick Collection Studies in the History of Art Collecting in America series. (Earlier volumes focused on seventeenth-century Dutch art, Italian Renaissance art, Italian Baroque art, and Latin American art.) Edited by Esmée Quodbach, former assistant director and editor-in-chief of the Center for the History of Collecting, the twelve essays in this lavishly illustrated book offer a vast overview of the reception of seventeenth-century Flemish art in America from the early 1800s to the present day. Given the international importance of Flanders’s artistic heritage, the fate of Flemish art in America is a surprisingly understudied topic, with the last in-depth study dating from 1992 (Walter A. Liedtke, “Flemish Painting in America: An Historical Sketch,” in Guy C. Bauman and Walter A. Liedtke, eds., Flemish Paintings in America, Fonds Mercator, 1992, 11–28). Quodbach’s book (like the series’ other volumes) distinguishes itself by its broad scope and its synthetic, comparative examination of a number of carefully selected case studies of private collections and public museums. Its original focus on the collection of one specific artistic school offers a rich picture of the motivations, practices, and aims of collectors who bought Flemish art. Provided with an extensive bibliography and index, the publication moreover serves as a valuable resource for further research on the subject.

Within the series, America and the Art of Flanders is closely linked to the first volume, Holland’s Golden Age in America: Collecting the Art of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals, likewise edited by Quodbach (Penn State University Press, 2014). Both are similarly structured in three sections, and many individuals who featured prominently in the volume on seventeenth-century Dutch art reappear as collectors and promoters of Flemish painting (such as Robert Gilmor Jr., John G. Johnson, and Wilhelm R. Valentiner), thereby underlining important parallels in the reception history of the two schools in America. In fact, as Arthur K. Wheelock notes in his introduction to America and the Art of Flanders, while the chronology of collecting Dutch and Flemish art in America certainly overlaps, they represent distinctive collecting trends; as he emphasizes, “the narrative for Flemish paintings is remarkably different” (2). Accordingly, the complex relationship that American collectors had with Flemish art is a recurrent theme in the volume. In their contributions, Wheelock, Lance Humphries, and Margaret Laster explain that early nineteenth-century American collectors enthusiastically embraced Dutch art in all its breadth, mainly due to its supposed naturalism and lack of pretention, as well as its association with republican sensibilities and Protestant convictions. In contrast, Flemish art was mainly conceived in terms of its conservative, traditionalist, and Roman Catholic connotations, thus representing precisely what America’s first Puritan settlers had left behind in the Old World. When early American collectors purchased works of Flemish art, Laster argues, they were motivated by an interest in individual works or artists rather than by general appreciation of the Flemish school (38).

This collecting trend becomes apparent when considering the reception of Anthony van Dyck, who enjoyed much popularity among American collectors. Van Dyck’s special position, however, was not due to his Flemish origin. Rather, the artist’s popularity was strongly related to his international importance and his association with British portrait traditions. The essays by Adam Eaker and Alexandra Libby discuss how Van Dyck was particularly loved among Gilded Age collectors for his cosmopolitan and aristocratic allure. His portraits were in especially high demand among figures such as Frick and Peter A. B. Widener as they provided their owners with an air of pedigree and helped them “build up their surrogate family tree” (134).

American collectors’ ambivalent relationship with Flemish art is perhaps best understood in their attitude to the work of Peter Paul Rubens, discussed in the essays by Wheelock, Quodbach, and Marjorie E. Wieseman. As is repeatedly pointed out in the volume, many American critics and collectors considered Rubens “too Catholic” and “too connected to the grand courts of Europe”; they found his manner “too facile” and the women in his paintings “too fat” (4, 95, 144). Furthermore, the full appreciation of Rubens’s oeuvre was for a long time complicated by the inaccessibility of serious scholarly literature and the lack of authentic paintings as opposed to the profusion of workshop pieces, copies, and repetitions, as well as the then still poor understanding of the master’s workshop practices. As Louisa Wood Ruby shows in her essay, similar issues also influenced the reception of different members of the Bruegel family.

Interestingly, as Wieseman points out, as the first public museums emerged in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the possession of at least one major painting by Rubens was considered imperative for these institutions. As a result, there was an increased demand for the master’s large-scale religious, mythological, and allegorical scenes. This increase in collecting activity also benefited from the changing tax laws around 1900, most importantly the passing of the Dingley Act in 1897 (which encouraged philanthropy) and the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909 (which eliminated duties on artworks imported to the United States). At the same time, private collectors were still relatively uninterested in Rubens’s work, indicating significant differences between private and public collecting trends. The private collector John G. Johnson was an important exception to this rule, as Quodbach elaborates in her essay. Johnson had a particular preference for Rubens’s small-scale oil sketches, displaying “a taste that was surely ahead of his time” (95). From the 1920s onward, the changing fate of Rubens was also supported by the advent of a new type of connoisseur-adviser. In their essays, Dennis P. Weller, George S. Keyes, and Wieseman demonstrate how personalities such as Wilhelm R. Valentiner and Julius Held not only “provided a viable alternative” to the imposing dealers of the Gilded Age (102) but also fostered the growing taste for Rubens and helped to extend the number of his works in public as well as private collections. And yet, Wieseman shows that even in the 1990s some critics considered it “awfully hard to really love” Rubens’s art, indicating that “American audiences may never be fully won over to [the master’s] lusty exuberance” (157).

One last important aspect discussed in the essays by Ronni Baer, Libby, and Anne T. Woollett is how US collections of Flemish art, formerly limited mainly to the work of Van Dyck, Rubens, and David Teniers the Younger, have slowly expanded and broadened, especially since the 1970s. Thanks to shifting tastes and expanding scholarship, American museums are creating more representative collections that increasingly succeed in providing an overview of the breadth of seventeenth-century Flemish painting and the diversity of its artists, genres, styles, and subject matters.

America and the Art of Flanders provides a thorough evaluation of the different forces that shaped collectors’ taste for Flemish art in the United States, thereby furthering our understanding of the diverse processes and mechanisms that constitute the creation of collections, both public and private. As such, the volume is a milestone in the systematic study of collecting and taste in America, as well as an important contribution to the history of collecting as an expanding research field explored from the academic as well as museum perspective.

Ulrike Müller
Researcher at Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, and Postdoctoral Fellow at Antwerp University, Centre for Urban History