Platform
Going Dutch

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 30

Platform
Going Dutch

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 30

Platform
Going Dutch

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 30

A little bit of New York has arrived in the Netherlands, thanks to an exchange between two small but beautiful art collections. Michael Prodger reports

The Mauritshuis in the Hague and the Frick Collection in New York may be separated by the small matter of 3,600 miles, but in many other ways they are cut from the same cloth. Both started life as handsome private residences: the Mauritshuis was built for Johan Maurits, Prince of Nassau-Siegen in the 17th century; the Frick meanwhile was the home of the 19th century industrialist and financier Henry Clay Frick. Both are Wunderkammer, housing collections that are relatively small (the Mauritshuis contains just over 800 paintings) but of a disproportionately high quality. It seems only appropriate then that the two institutions should have found their way to one another.

They first collaborated in 2013-2014 when, during the major restoration and expansion works that closed the Mauritshuis for two years, a selection of its paintings – including Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring and Carel Fabritius' The Goldfinch – went on tour. One of the stopping points was the Frick. The exhibition attracted 235,000 visitors during its three-month run, the usual quota for the entire year. Now the Frick is returning the favor: 36 choice pieces from its collection, ranging from Cimabue and Memling to Ingres and Constable, will be on display at the Mauritshuis until May.

Their home for the next three months is the suite of small, unadorned exhibition spaces in the gallery's new building directly beside the stately, jewel-box Mauritshuis itself. The rooms, deliberately understated and modest in scale, are meant to complement rather than mimic the original galleries and are a contrast to both the historic interiors and the Frick's late-19th-century columns-and-fountains pomp. Rather than hung by theme or in chronological order, the paintings are displayed to bring out their links and subtle correspondences, while the sculptures are placed so that they refer, thematically or in mood, to the pictures next to them.

The success of the enterprise is perhaps a reflection of the shared sensibilities of the two institutions' directors. Both Emilie Gordenker of the Mauritshuis and Ian Wardropper of the Frick were graduate students at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University and both were specialist curators at major museums before taking on their current roles – Gordenker in 2008, Wardropper in 2011. Previously Gordenker ran the early Netherlandish, Dutch and Flemish art department at the National Gallery of Scotland and Wardropper headed the Metropolitan Museum's department of European sculpture and decorative arts. For good measure, Gordenker is also half Dutch and half American.

When I speak to the dapper and measured Wardropper he stresses how "personal relations make a big difference. It's a question of building up trust. I knew Emilie a bit before and I admire her very much. She's a considerable scholar too." Sitting in her bright new office overlooking the Mauritshuis, Gordenker, a strikingly elegant figure among the museum world's fustian, is equally warm about her counterpart and indeed it was she who made the overtures: "I approached the Frick. I know it very well and did some work there when I was a student. I just figured it would be the best place to show people what we do at the Maurithuis. For me is was somehow the obvious thing to do."

That the Frick would send some of its works over to Holland in return was always the plan. "We drew up a wishlist and presented it to Ian," says Gordenker. "There was the inevitable conversation about the condition of pictures, which is not something for debate: if a painting is too delicate to travel then it is too delicate to travel – Rembrandt's portrait of Nicholaes Ruts, for example. But Ian was wonderfully generous and very willing to let us have lots of things, almost everything we asked for."

The loan was complicated by the fact that Henry Frick's will forbids the lending of any items he personally bought, so the Mauritshuis couldn't have, for example, its spectacular Giovanni Bellini or Velázquez. Almost a third of the collection, however, was acquired after Frick's death in 1919, mostly by his daughter Helen. So the Mauritshuis picked from these. "This is the first exhibition the Frick has ever sent abroad – which is kind of remarkable," says Wardropper. "When Emilie's request list came in it was interesting for us to look at our own collection and see just what we've been acquiring. It was fairly amicable in getting to a final selection."

Just as the Mauritshuis gained a considerable boost in publicity (and income) when it lent its pictures to the Frick, Wardropper is hoping for a similar effect. "We are quite well known but not as well known in Europe and not as much as some of the major museums. We have sent so many excellent works because we thought that if we were going to do this we should put our best foot forward and present ourselves as well as we could."

One of the striking things about the loan is that it includes objects, among them an extraordinary 1475 bronze angel by Jean Barbet and a glamorous terracotta bust from 1809 by Joseph Chinard of Louis-Etienne Vincent-Marniola, one of Napoleon's most youthful Conseillers d' Etat. The Mauritshuis, as the repository for the Dutch Royal collection bequeathed by William V, consists solely of paintings – the vast majority Dutch. The result, says Gordenker, is that "having the Frick pieces here makes you look at your own works in a different way – new hangings, new lighting for the pictures perhaps. But it also makes us think about what our collection would be like if we had more objects rather than just paintings."

Wardropper concurs: "There's no question that seeing our works in the Mauritshuis makes one think of them in a different way. In New York, for example, Gainsborough's portrait of Grace Elliott hangs surrounded by a lot of blockbuster Gainsboroughs, so people tend to ignore her – even I do. But there I could really focus on her."

There are other benefits too, says Gordenker. "The reciprocal loan gave us a chance to show things that don't often get seen in this country. Our collection runs to 1800 but the Frick loans extend it into the 19th century and back into the 13th." At the moment the Frick's The Flagellation of Christ, by Cimabue, circa 1280, and Ingres's cerulean portrait of the Comtesse d'Haussonville of 1845, are the only examples of these artists work to be found in the Netherlands.

The Ingres is also the Frick's poster girl and I wondered if she would be missed in New York. "Well," says Wardropper, "the Mauritshuis sent us their Vermeer poster girl [Girl with a Pearl Earring] so a certain amount of reciprocity is only fair. I haven't heard any complaints yet – she's only been missing for a short time – and we have a lot of other things to look at. It is nice to see her in a European context too. People will discover other of our masterpieces while she's away."

Although Gordenker is a Van Dyck specialist, the Ingres has its hooks in her too: "She fascinates everybody, despite her strange right arm, which creates that wonderful sinuous line." And what about other favorites? "The one that stops people in their tracks is the Constable [The White Horse of 1819, one of his 'six-footers']. It's a fantastic painting. We've hung it next to a Jacob Van Ruisdael which has been specially cleaned for the exhibition. It means a lot to people here who can see how Constable leaned so much on his Dutch predecessors." Indeed on the same wall are also two Constable cloud studies and a Venetian view by Francesco Guardi. "All of Europe's skies on one wall. It's a wonderful sight," says Wardropper.

Gordenker is clearly delighted with the way things have worked out. The Frick pieces comprise the first fine art show in the Mauritshuis's new exhibition space. "At some point," says Gordenker, "if you are doing your job well as a curator, things just gel. It all fell into place. You know 'Yes, this is going to work.'"

Wardropper is no less pleased: "I particularly appreciate the way they chose a group of objects that reflects the range of the Frick's collections. We are a very idiosyncratic institution – we don't show things by school or media. And they made an effort to reflect that." Are there, I wonder, more collaborations to come between them? "The phrase 'sister institutions' has been over used," says Wardropper, "but we're both quite small with relatively lean staffing and we both aspire to excellence. We're used to the problems of small museums . . . so I'd love to do more collaborations. We haven't kicked around any specific ideas yet but we'd love to do more because the collaboration has been so fruitful and easy."

Gordenker agrees, citing the Frick's scholarship as another reason to keep things going: "I want to put the Mauritshuis on the map as a scholarly institution. We have proportionately more experts than any other collection in the Netherlands. It keeps you on your toes. I have to stay on top of things otherwise my curators won't take me seriously." She notes particularly that, "like the Frick, we really focus on the human side of the exhibition experience".

What is clear is that these transatlantic artistic house-swaps have not just brought both directors a great deal of satisfaction, but have set them thinking along new lines. Perhaps various other works in the two collections should pack a bag and be ready to go travelling.

Michael Prodger is senior research fellow in History of Art at the University of Buckingham.

The Frick Collection - Art Treasures from New York, until 10 May.
Mauritshuis, Plein 29, 2511 CS Den Haag, Netherlands.

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