Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker is a history-haunted exhibition and the material survivor of decades of tragedy and injustice … but it doesn’t seem to know it. Goudstikker, a Jewish art collector and dealer from Amsterdam, lost his life in 1940 while fleeing with his family from the German invasion of the Netherlands (see sidebar), and his heirs struggled for the next 66 years to wrest his extraordinary collection of (mostly) 17th-century Dutch Old Masters from first the Nazis, then the Dutch government. But the glowing display at the McNay remains miraculously un-depressing. Goudstikker’s collection behaves more like an extravaganza than an elegy; it showcases the bravura and talent of many gifted painters, while bearing witness to the power of one extraordinary pair of eyes.
Lyle W. Williams is the McNay’s Curator of Prints and Drawings and the author of From Goya to Johns: Fifty Master Prints from the McNay Art Museum (2004), but word on the street is that he also knows Golden Age Dutch painting, a time period and genre little-represented in San Antonio. Hoping he’d school me, I asked Williams to accompany me on a sneak-peek tour of Reclaimed last Friday, while the McNay’s adept team of installers affixed panels of wall text and finishing touches to the exhibition. Williams proved both knowledgeable and impassioned.
“`Dutch painting` is my first love,” Williams says, and no wonder: He spent summers there in the ’80s and early ’90s, and has family in Holland. “Several of these pieces I’ve seen in other museums. It was exciting to see them uncrated, like seeing old friends.”
I had questions aplenty. In researching the collection, I read several times that Goudstikker “enlarged the Dutch art market,” a somewhat-confusing notion given that the bulk of Reclaimed consists of Dutch and Flemish painting of the 17th century. Isn’t that a pretty narrow focus? I asked.
“In Holland, up until the 20th century, Dutch people have collected Dutch art. They were fairly chauvinistic in their tastes,” Williams says. “Even today, when you go to the Old Master collection at the Rijksmuseum `in Amsterdam` or the Mauritshuis in the Hague, they’re still mostly Dutch collections. What `Goudstikker` was doing in the ’20s … well, on his business card, it says “Old Pictures of All Periods,” so he was trying to be a little bit more open. In his gallery he also showed Italian pictures and French pictures, things not traditionally collected by the Dutch.”
And just as he expanded the collecting repertoire for collectors in the Netherlands, Goudstikker also acted as ambassador of Dutch art to the world. “His gallery was a mecca for not just Dutch collectors, but for American collectors … there are a number of pictures at the National Gallery, for instance, that at one point or another, passed through his hands, most famously a Vermeer.”
Williams allows that in his opinion, “the best pieces `in Goudstikker’s collection` are the Dutch ones.” He leads me over to “Ferryboat with Cattle on the River Vecht near Nyenrode,” a 1649 landscape by Salomon Jacobsz van Ruysdael. Williams remarks on this watery landscape painting as microcosm, framing it as an encapsulation of the 17th-century Dutch aesthetic: A delicate color palette is touched with moody atmospheric light, “it’s always about water and the sky.” An “emphatically low horizon line” reinforces that much of Holland is under sea level, “the land literally ‘reclaimed’ from water … with water as a constant element — not just the North Sea, but rivers and canals which were used as highways.” Also typical is the “wonderful diagonal” of the descending height of trees on the river’s shore, “which leads you into the composition, and contrasts beautifully with the strong horizontality of the land.” It’s a perfect example of an old axiom, Williams says: “God created the Earth, but Dutchmen created Holland.”
Next, a pair of paintings by Paulus Moreelse, “Portrait of Philips Ram” and “Portrait of Anna Strick,” illustrate a sense of the Dutch recreating themselves, post-Protestant Reformation. The subjects, while wearing the garb of the wealthy, pose in front of austere backdrops — sans chubby angels, gleaming thoroughbreds, and all the fancy appurtenances of Italian, French, and Spanish portraits of the period. Also, while each portrait bears “some sort of family crest, still the hereditary aristocracy by this time was not nearly as important as the rising merchant class,” whose mercantile wealth “made the explosion of art in the 17th-century possible,” and whose upward mobility and austere spirituality colored the art of the period,” Williams says.
“`Dutch artists and their audiences` were very aware of the symbology of art. There were ‘emblem books’ … which explained, for example, that a snuffed-out candle represented the brevity of earthly life, or that a drooping blossom represented both a vanitas `i.e., caution against the sin of vanity` and a memento mori `i.e., a reminder of the inevitability of death` … there’s a whole language of symbols.”
Jan Steen’s colossal, operatic, and gorgeous “The Sacrifice of Iphigenia,” in contrast, features a seeming cast of thousands, everybody toga-ed and in high dudgeon, with gasping maidens, stalwart spaniels, and a whole tumped-over basket of those doomed blooms. Williams laughs: “There’s a phrase in Dutch … which translates to ‘like a Jan Steen,’ denoting this kind of extravagant, dramatic scene.”
Ironically, the net effect of the artworks in Reclaimed — despite the sad story of the collection’s history — is eclectic, expansive, and surprisingly lively; the show gives the viewer a joyful impression of a collector with tremendous intellectual curiosity and a sense of fun.
“The more you read about him, you realize he was a real bon vivant,” Williams says. “Someone who was interested in a number of things, not just art, but architecture and music, just a very cultured individual who was extremely knowledgable, and who wanted his gallery to reflect this very catholic taste. And he had an incredible eye … this exhibit demonstrates that the role of art dealers in art history is truly incalculable. It’s not just artists making artworks, but these artworks have to be recognized by art dealers and curators, and placed in collections `and` in institutions, to be seen by the following generations.”
On a more prosaic, Bexar County note, Williams is excited for San Antonians and South Texans to see Dutch Old Masters in person. “We don’t have a lot of Dutch art down here,” he muses. “With these paintings, it’s important to see them in person, to see how the paint was applied, which doesn’t translate well to photographs.” He adds, “It’s important for contemporary artists to see what came before, to experience a sense of context.”
Plus, he jokes, “The docents are all learning Dutch, so that’s good.” •
Please note: An extra admission charge of $5 applies during Reclaimed: Paintings from the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker. There is no charge for general admission on Thursday nights and on the first Sunday of the month. At these times, visitors pay only the extra admission charge for entrance to Reclaimed.