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Curator in the spotlight

Walter Liedtke, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

About Walter Liedtke (1945 - 2015)

Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has been responsible for the museum’s approximately 228 Dutch paintings and 100 Flemish paintings (ca. 1600-1800) since 1980. Over the next few years he plans to catalogue the collection’s Spanish pictures of the 16th-19th centuries. His catalogue of Flemish paintings in the museum was published in 1984 and his exhaustive (1083 pp.) catalogue of the Dutch pictures was published in 2007. He has also organized a number of major exhibitions, the most recent of which include Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1995-96); Vermeer and the Delft School (2001); and The Age of Rembrandt (the 2007 exhibition of all the museum’s Dutch paintings). This autumn (8 September-29 November 2009) his small exhibition, Vermeer’s Masterpiece The Milkmaid, commemorates the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s sail from Amsterdam to Manhattan (on behalf of the VOC).

Liedtke earned his B.A. at Rutgers, his M.A. at Brown, and his doctorate at the Courtauld Institute, University of London. He planned a teaching career but after four years at Ohio State (1975-79) received a Mellon Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum. During that year Sir John Pope-Hennessy offered him his current position. The Met encourages its scholars to flourish in their fields as well as to fulfill their obligations to the institution. In addition to various Met publications Liedtke has written about fifty articles and several books, including Architectural Painting in Delft (1982); The Royal Horse and Rider: Painting, Sculpture and Horsemanship 1500-1800 (1989); Flemish Paintings in America (with Guy Bauman; 1982); A View of Delft: Vermeer and his Contemporaries (2000); and Vermeer: The Complete Paintings (2008). Liedtke was named Knight in the Order of Leopold by King Albert II of Belgium (1993), and Officer in the Order of Orange-Nassau by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (2007).

Curators of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum.
From left to right: Keith Christiansen, Katharine Baetjer, Everett Fahy (just retired as chairman), Walter Liedtke and Andrea Bayer (absent: Maryan Ainsworth)

Walter Liedtke on the Metropolitan Museum

As a curator, what I like most about the Met is that there are about 105 of us in 17 departments, in addition to numerous research assistants, conservators and scientists (in five conservation departments), educators, librarians, editors, and many other specialists. As a consequence, the curator is able to focus on his or her areas of expertise. Among the next most pleasant aspects of working at the Met are, of course, the objects (the best Dutch, Flemish, and Netherlandish collections outside Europe) and the public. A large number of our visitors are knowledgeable New Yorkers or foreign visitors with the Met first on their list of things to see. This “demographic” allows the Met to offer sophisticated exhibitions, scholarly catalogues, and labels addressed (exclusively by curators) to readers who already know something. This perhaps somewhat elitist approach has not turned viewers away. Vermeer and the Delft School, for example, had 555,000 visitors in 2001, more than any other art exhibition of that year in the world.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Young woman with a water pitcher, ca. 1662
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

When asked what may favorite painting in the Met might be, I sometimes explain that historians don’t think that way and then answer frankly that it depends on my frame of mind. The two main alternatives are Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer and Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher. The Delft painting was bought in Paris in 1887 by Henry Marquand, the museum’s president, as part of an intended donation (he gave a collection of 37 major works in 1889). It was the first of 13 genuine Vermeers to enter American collections during a 30 year period. The Met now has five Vermeers, the Frick Collection three, and a "Friend" of my department owns one which is currently on loan here.

As for Aristotle, it is the most important of (in my view) 20 Rembrandt paintings in the collection, which are complemented by an equal number of 17th-century pictures in the “Style of Rembrandt” and many works securely attributed to Bol, Dou, Van den Eeckhout, Flinck, et al. There is no need to consider the Aristotle in this column since it is discussed in 26 pages of the Dutch catalogue (2007), which incidentally has a long preface on the nature of the collection and 99 artists’ biographies.

This raises a final point about my position: the objects - every aspect of them - define the job. Whatever the curator’s main interests might be it is his or her responsibility to deal with each work’s maker, style, meaning, condition, previous owners, literature, display, and so on. CODART members will understand that while some scholars would find such diverse subjects distracting, they are liberating in a great museum.

Rembrandt (1606/07-1669), Aristotle with a bust of Homer, 1653
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Walter Liedtke's CODART page