Catalogue of Flemish and Dutch paintings at the Louvre

The Catalogue des peintures flamandes et hollandaises du musée du Louvre is more than just a tool for accessing 1.130 paintings [1]. This is not only a list (as is still often the case for many museum catalogues), the publication in fact provides an impressive array of entries, some of which are veritable case studies. A historical account accompanies each painting, including auction sales and the collections it was in before joining the Louvre. In the preceding edition, dating back to 1979 (yes, that long ago already !), only the last fact was mentioned. This approach immediately conveys a feeling for the often eventful life of some of these works and, in those cases where provenance is clearly established, offers a fascinating look at how they changed hands among the different owners who enjoyed them over the years as well as resulting in a quick understanding of their importance in the artist’s career and their place in art history. The abundance of material facts provided by the catalogue author, often with insights into the iconography (another welcome addition), recalls the tenacity of an investigating judge along with the attention to detail of a notary public. For instance, we refer to the panels of “Illustrious Men” for the Duke of Urbino’s studiolo, executed by Justus of Ghent or Rubens’ “Medici Gallery”. A veritable case study is available to readers, in a concise but complete manner. This is true for each of the numbers in the collection, particularly since all of the entries include a bibliography of the main publications or studies where the painting is treated, at times with a brief statement between parenthesis of the information or opinion of the author quoted. Also, a suggestion for the date is often put forward. In a few but extremely dense lines, therefore, the reader will find thorough scholarly information, the specialist’s comment and the evaluation of a fine connoisseur : all in all, an excellent presentation which we highly commend. Readers will also learn of changes in attribution occurring since 1979, reflecting how art history is a science which changes and progresses constantly, at least when practiced at dynamic institutions and in the hands of competent specialists. Tables with multiple references complete the publication, including one with persons’ names, an invaluable tool for the history of collecting.

The generosity of benefactors to the museum (and there are many of them), the effects of laws encouraging business patronage and donations, the determined acquisitions made by curators are all sure signs of the vitality of this institution. The new catalogue allows us, if we so wish, to establish a record of recent acquisitions but this is not our primary concern here. However, we point out that there has not been a new addition to match that of the magnificent Rubens, Rothschild provenance, Portrait of Hélène Fourment with a Carriage, followed by her Young Son Frans, as a Page (ill. 1), acquired in 1977 by acceptance “in lieu”, an imposing and elegant figure dressed in a rich black fabric leaving her husband’s palace in the city. This should not of course overshadow the importance of the 2006 acquisition, through the Trésors nationaux process, of Saint Mary Magdalene, “of suave virtuosity from the late 1520’s” by Quentin (or Quinten in modern usage) Metsys, also of Rothschild provenance (see news item, in French, of 16/6/06), or the fascinating and rare Saint Jerome Meditating by Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen, unknown pedigree, datable around 1525-1530, which surfaced as an anonymous work on the market in 2002, then was correctly identified by specialized dealers and acquired the following year by the museum (see news item, in French, of 2/11/03). Another significant work acquired by the museum is the large (180 x 150 cm) and brilliant Perseus Saves Andromeda (ill. 2) of 1611, by Joachim Wtewael, one of the paintings with this subject mentioned in inventories held by the artist’s heirs thus facilitating the reconstitution of the work’s history until the moment it reappeared at auction in Rouen in 1981 and its purchase by the Société des Amis du Louvre on the market in 1982.

1. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)
Portrait of Hélène
Fourment with a
Carriage, followed by her Young Son Frans,
as a Page

Oil on wood - 195 x 132 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN

2. Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638)
Perseus Saves Andromeda, 1611
Oil on canvas - 180 x 150 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN

The listing of Vermeyen and Wtewael is an example of a recurring problem in editing catalogues and repertories : the order in which the painters are presented. In a change from the 1979 edition which followed a strictly alphabetical system, the selection here is made by century, with the exception of the 15th which continues into the first decades of the 16th (notably, Vermeyen can be found at the end of the 15th century section). On the other hand, the 17th already includes Wtewael in its ranks despite the first letter which would normally place it at the end, so that in leafing through the book the reader discovers sharp chronological contrasts. For instance, the Mannerism of 16th century tradition in Saint Jerome appears immediately after a sequence (rather impressive at that, highly reflective of taste at the court of Louis XV who ordered they be placed in the king’s cabinet room) of 15 Wouwermans. True, dividing by century softens certain differences and avoids having the meditative Braque Triptych by Van der Weyden next to the prancing cavalries and clashing battles of said Wouwermans, both W’s ! We often wonder why the domain of art history refuses to adopt the much more pedagogical and satisfactory system of a simple chronological order. This obviously presents the advantage of following the course of art history over the years as it develops, much as a well-told story starts at the beginning and finishes at the end ! Some overlaps are of course unavoidable, with one artist’s career beginning before another one has finished. But, the general trend of artistic evolution is much clearer in this manner and does not subject the eye or the mind to incongruous confrontations [2].

3. Gérard Seghers (1591-1651)
Oil on canvas - 324 x 240 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN

The presentation by century of the Flemish and Dutch schools [3] illustrates the lack of balance in the Louvre collections, particularly in the case of 15th and 16th century paintings (only one modest Pieter Brueghel the Elder), despite major works by Van Eyck, Van Cleve, David, Memling and other Vermeyen, Wtewael and Metsys works mentioned earlier. The 17th century is better represented and offers several masterpieces (Rubens, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Jordaens, Van Goyen, Ruysdael, Van Ostade [4], Teniers [5], Vermeer) from the period generally known as the Golden Age for the Dutch or the Rubens Century for the Flemish. There are however, few representations of, notably, Caravaggesque painters from both the Northern and Southern Low Countries : no Theodore Rombouts, nor Abraham and Jan Janssens, no Gérard Douffet, Barburen, nor Honthorst (or at least from his “tenebrism” period). When skimming through a list of names and photographs, there is only one Matthias Stom (which joined the collections in 1794-1795) and three Gérard Seghers (including the Resurrectionill. 3, purchased in 1990), the latter duly classified as Italian-Flemish due to the Caravaggesque elements blended in with other influences. In passing, we commend the discriminating acquisition on the Belgian market in 2000 of a modello by Théodore Van Loon, in a very personal Caravaggesque vein, for the large Adoration of the Shepherds held at the church of Sainte Catherine in Brussels (which should have gone to the Musée de Bruxelles if it had paid a bit more attention !).

4. François Joseph Navez(1787-1869)
Italian Family, 1830
Oil on canvas - 103 x 132 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : Musée du Louvre

5. Henri Decaisne (1799-1852)
The Guardian Angel
Oil on canvas - 148 x 140 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN

The most patent gaps appear clearly in the 18th and 19th centuries, a section which is nonetheless “saved” by some donations (such as the charming grisaille, Children’s Bacchanal by Piat Sauvage, added in 1985, and the Holy Women, donated in 1987, which is very representative of Navez’ most beautiful period), the timely acquisitions in 1993 and 1999 of Italian Family (ill. 4) and Flood Scene, again by Navez, the return “home” in 1972 and 2006 of two very large Landscapes by Simon Denis, missing for a long period then rediscovered and restored, now accompanied since 2005 by a subtle oil on paper pochade – Mount Epoleo on the Isle of Ischia – also by Denis, a wise purchase considering the rising value on the market for this type of work. This section would definitely gain by adding the beautiful Landscape with Fountain and Various Figures by Jan Frans Van Bloemen (which returned from the château of Maison-Lafitte in 1989), listed not in the Italian school as we feared but in the 17th century section when in fact the artist died in 1749 and this work is very typical of his production after 1700. In the case of Ferdinand De Braekeleer (Rubens Painting “The Straw Hat” in a Pavilion in his Garden, export purchase in 1991), Philippe Van Brée (Mary Stuart at the Moment when She Is Taken to her Death, returned by the Musée de Tourcoing in 2001), Henri Decaisne (The Guardian Angel (ill. 5), returned by the city hall of Brie-Comte-Robert in 1971) and also Louis Gallait (Allegory of the Triumph of Art and of Good, another export purchase in 1976), all of these paintings of course constitute a fine nucleus, (re)assembled in the rather recent past (reflecting the chief curator’s continuing alertness), but they are quite alone. This can be partly explained by the division resulting in the collections when the Musée d’Orsay was created, inaugurated in 1986, excluding Belgian and Dutch artists born after 1820 from the Louvre, but most of whom were listed in the catalogue published in 1990 by Geneviève Lacambre. This event in the recent history of our museums is however not enough to account for the fact that both the 18th and 19th century Dutch and Belgian schools are poorly represented : there are no conversation pieces or other “gezellige” interior scenes by Cornelis Troost and company, no cityscapes in which the Dutch continued to excel. Unfortunately, there is no example of aerial virtuosity by Jacob de Wit nor Italian landscapes by Voogd, Teerlinck or Knip for instance. In the Belgian school, we have no innovative works by André Corneille Lens – a friend of Julien de Parme ! -, no luminous industrial scenes by Léonard Defrance [6], no severe and ambitious compositions by Mathieu Van Brée nor Joseph Paelinck (influenced by David), nor any vibrant views of Italy by the talented François Vervloet which the art market is beginning to snatch up (at last ! we might say). This is indeed a vast acquisitions program for Jacques Foucart’s successors if they wish to fill in the gaps. It can be done – in any case, this is our wish ! – by a museum such as the Louvre, of historical origin but with an encyclopedic vocation. However, we do not see how it could significantly round out its 15th century collections with examples of the other golden age in art history, that of painting in the Southern Low Countries under the Dukes of Burgundy.

Jacques Foucart, Catalogue des peintures flamandes et hollandaises du Louvre, Gallimard-Editions du Musée du Louvre, 2009, 42 p., 79€. ISBN : 9782070122172

Denis Coekelberghs, samedi 1er mai 2010


[1] As concerns 17th century Flemish painting, we should remember the catalogue for the exhibition Le siècle de Rubens dans les collections publiques françaises, written by Jacques Foucart and Jean Lacambre in 1977, with its thorough notes, as well as the appendix which is an Essai de Répertoire des tableaux flamands du XVIIe siècle dans les musées de province. This list (has it been recently updated ?) is, as one might guess, a complementary tool to the Louvre catalogue which is extremely useful.

[2] This criticism is not gratuitous. In the catalogue for the exhibition 1770-1830. Autour du Néo-classicisme en Belgique, we adopted this system of chronological presentation for the artists, as well as in the “Biographies” section of our book written with Paul Philippot e.a. on L’architecture et le sculpture baroques dans les Pays-Bas méridionaux et la principauté de Lière. An alphabetical table of course helps readers to find the artists by name.

[3] Though it merits discussion, we will not study the subject of the similarities and differences between the two schools over the centuries. We add that the catalogue includes the unclassifiable but very interesting Liège painters present in the Louvre (a small but fine group : 4 Gérard De Lairesse, 2 Bertholet Flémalle (including The Sacrifice of Iphigenia for the Hôtel Lambert), 1 Englebert Fisen).

[4] There are 16 in all !

[5] There are 38 in all !

[6] An example of this type by the artist has been acquired by Grenoble (see 2316).

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