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February 2022

Vol. 164 / No. 1427

New galleries of Dutch and Flemish art

Reviewed by Ivan Gaskell

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston from 20th November 2021

2021 saw the opening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), of two related initiatives: the Center for Netherlandish Art (CNA), the first resource of its kind in the United States, and a suite of newly installed corridors and galleries for Dutch and Flemish art. Both were made possible through the generosity of two collector couples, Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie. They have given or promised 114 Dutch and Flemish paintings, the library of the late art-historian Egbert Haverkamp- Begemann and initial endowment funds for the CNA.

The Boston area has enjoyed a long engagement with seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish art through generations of collectors and the attention of scholars in universities and museums. In recent years the MFA has had distinguished curators in this field, among whom are Clifford J. Ackley, now emeritus; Ronni Baer, who moved to the Princeton University Art Museum in 2019; and Antien Knaap. Christopher Atkins, formerly a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, joined the MFA as the inaugural Van Otterloo-Weatherbie Director of the CNA in August 2019 and has been working in pandemic conditions to prepare the centre for its opening. It has now elegantly appointed premises for its staff, library and pre- and postdoctoral fellows. Yet can a research institute dedicated to the art of one small area of western Europe command more than specialist attention, especially at a time when many seriously question the cultural pre-eminence of Europe and its diaspora?

Atkins and his colleagues are well aware of the challenges of promoting Dutch and Flemish art in a worldwide context. The idea of a ‘Golden Age’ is dead. The Dutch are facing a reckoning for their colonial past. There is now little room for the celebration of values that appealed to many in earlier generations and that still prompt the interest of collectors: Dutch religious tolerance, which has proved to be a historical myth, and middle-class virtues expressed in secular subject-matter. The seven provinces that rebelled against Spanish rule and established a republic were a model, in part, for later republican movements. In The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1856), John Lothrop Motley evoked parallels between the emergence of the United Provinces and that of the United States. The commercial oligarchs who ruled the former could readily serve as models for the ambitions of the plutocrats who have long dominated the latter.

The United Provinces continues to be of historical interest not least because modern capitalism, with its distinctive banking and joint stock companies, took shape there earlier and more virulently than elsewhere. The idea that the merchants and investors who dominated the Dutch republic were beneficent has long since gone the way of other romantic fictions. Class conflict was a big issue in the United Provinces as the majority of the population laboured under crippling indirect taxation to pay for the emerging country’s wars. Baer explored this topic in her MFA exhibition Class Distinctions: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer in 2015–16,1 yet in the displays of the new gallery questions of class, the emergence of a nascent proletariat and the role of het grauw (the vulgar masses) receive short shrift. The titles given to paintings by Adriaen Brouwer and Cornelis Bega still include the discredited term ‘peasants’. The fact that wealth was far less widely distributed than popularly believed surfaces only occasionally in label commentaries, as when a description of a portrait by Nicolaes Maes of Helena van Heuvel (c.1680–83) states that she and her husband bought a house in Amsterdam in 1664 for 42,000 guilders, ‘140 times the annual salary of a skilled craftsman’. A grisaille painting by Adriaen van de Venne of a fictional member of het grauw, named Kalis Boud, is tucked away in a dark corner (Fig.14). He is a character from Van de Venne’s book Picture of the Laughable World (1635), which explores the underclass of Dutch society, such as the unemployed, beggars and war refugees; a copy of it is on display beneath the painting.2

A good part of the wildly unevenly distributed wealth in the new republic derived from overseas trade shading into rapacious colonialism that fed a nascent industrial capitalism. The historian Sven Beckert has dubbed this ‘war capitalism’.3 The Dutch were among its harshest exponents, notably through their overseas joint stock trading companies, the East India Company (VOC), and the West India Company (GWC). In 1619 the VOC destroyed the Javanese town of Jayakarta to build Batavia (presentday Jakarta), and two years later slaughtered thousands on the Banda Islands in pursuit of nutmeg and mace. The GWC transported thousands of captives from West Africa to the Caribbean and Dutch Brazil. The GWC continued its trade in enslaved Africans for most of the eighteenth century. A large model of the VOC ship Valkenisse (Fig.15) is a commanding presence in the largest gallery, yet rather than point to the exploitation inherent in colonial resource extraction that such intimidating vessels enabled, the text panel focuses on luxury consumption and wealth creation in the metropolis.

Admittedly, it would be no small task for the CNA project to decentre its field of study and to acknowledge the material pluralism of the parts of the world affected by the spread of the Dutch and the attendant movement of peoples and goods in the seventeenth century, in particular in an institution that strictly separates cultures from different geographical areas and where many expect the CNA to address Dutch and Flemish art in a narrow sense. Atkins and his colleagues have made a good-faith start by drawing attention to the role of African slavery in the production of Dutch wealth. Among the many works of decorative art on display is furniture. Some items include ebony – also used for picture frames – which, as a label states, was felled and processed by enslaved workers. Most ebony came from the Dutch Indian Ocean colony of Mauritius, where enslaved captives from Madagascar laboured. In a gallery section on ‘Global Commerce’, the curators relate paintings of a table laden with sugared sweetmeats by Osias Beert (Fig.16), a young woman eating sugar from a silver canister by Godfried Schalcken and a fantasy landscape of a Brazilian sugar plantation by Frans Post to the role of enslaved Africans in the production of this tropical commodity. The installation includes an informative video featuring Knaap and Mary Hicks, a historian from the University of Chicago, which follows on from a speaker programme that the CNA organised in November 2019, titled ‘Sugar in the Early Modern Atlantic World’.

Atkins and his colleagues not only face the legacy of capitalism and colonialism as well as the inevitable constraints of what is at their disposal in the museum, they also have to negotiate what one might term ‘collector values’. Many collectors have different assumptions and values from those of scholars. Collector values tend towards celebration and nostalgic attitudes that have been typical of heritage, in contradistinction to critical history. Art museums have to perform the tricky task of balancing heritage with history, and the MFA is no exception. Although in some galleries attention is paid to slavery, one corridor presents without qualification an installation called ‘Collecting Dutch and Flemish Painting: A Boston Story’. Some labels go so far as to uncritically include the donors’ own observations on the works shown. The subsections adhere to a standard set of tired tropes in the study of Dutch and Flemish art, including ‘Sumptuous Still Lifes’, ‘Copper as Canvas’ and ‘The Lure of Italy’. These topics are all compatible with collector values. They perpetuate received opinion rather than represent adventurous scholarship.

A research institute, including one in a museum, has a responsibility to challenge received opinion. If it is held captive to collector values this is unlikely to happen, whatever the wishes of its director might be. To their credit, Atkins and his colleagues have put down admirable markers of with Harvard University on a four-part online symposium in April 2021, ‘Art Museums and the Legacies of the Dutch Slave Trade: Curating Histories, Envisioning Futures’, and a collaborative project on the Dutch art market with Northeastern University. These are early days, and Atkins and his colleagues deserve the encouragement and support of scholars in museums and academia to overcome the difficulties and limitations they face. It will take great fortitude and determination on their part not to fall into the trap of rearticulating received opinion or of contributing no more than incremental gains in knowledge rather than initiating big ideas. This reviewer feels optimistic that they can achieve a great deal.

1 Reviewed by Dennis P. Weller in this Magazine, 158 (2016), pp.159–61.

2 A. van de Venne: Tafereel van de belacchende werelt, en des selfs geluckige eeuw, goed rondt, met by-gevoegde raedsel-spreucken, aen-gevvesen in de boer-agtiche eenvoudigheyt, op de Haegsche kermis, The Hague 1635.

3 S. Beckert: Empire of Cotton: A Global History, New York 2014.