CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

L’art du dessin, de Bruegel à Rembrandt: florilège de la collection Maida & George Abrams, Boston

Brueghel to Rembrandt: Dutch and Flemish drawings from the Maida and George Abrams collection Exhibition: 10 October - 8 December 2002


William Robinson.

From the museum website

CAMBRIDGE, MA, January 13, 2003 -An exhibition of more than 100 drawings from the Maida and George Abrams Collection will open at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum on March 22, 2003, and will remain on view through July 6, 2003. Developed over more than 40 years, the collection includes Dutch and Flemish drawings and is the foremost group of 17th-century Dutch drawings in private hands. The exhibition will highlight works recently acquired by the Abramses and will allow visitors to examine many important drawings that have seldom been on public display.

Bruegel to Rembrandt will feature the Abramses’ most significant acquisitions in the past decade, including works by Rembrandt van Rijn, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hendrick Avercamp, Jan van Goyen, Joachim Wtewael, and Cornelis van Haarlem. The exhibition will also showcase a rare group of watercolors depicting plants and animals, including a work by a preeminent naturalist. Through their connoisseurship and acquisition of these watercolors, Maida and George Abrams helped establish this genre as a collecting area. Revealing the depth of the collection, two-thirds of Bruegel to Rembrandt will consist of important works not included in the 1991-92 exhibition 17th-Century Dutch Drawings: A Selection from the Maida and George Abrams Collection, also organized by the Harvard University Art Museums.

The late Maida Abrams – who passed away in May 2002 – and George Abrams established a dynamic relationship with the Harvard University Art Museums that has lasted since the 1960s. Like Paul Sachs, the influential leader of the Fogg Art Museum (assistant director 1915-24 and associate director 1924-44), the Abramses opened their home to students and scholars and engaged individuals in discussions about works of art in their collection. The Abramses have developed an especially strong relationship with exhibition curator William W. Robinson, who has worked closely with the couple for 25 years. In sharing their knowledge, experiences, and collection, the Abramses have supported the development of scholars and curators in the arts community and have helped build the collection of Dutch drawings at Harvard. The Abramses have given approximately 200 works to the Art Museums in recognition of the institution’s leading role as a teaching and research museum. Sixteen of the drawings included in Bruegel to Rembrandt are among the 110 drawings given to the Fogg Art Museum in 1999 by the Abramses.

“Maida and George Abrams have been strong supporters of the Harvard University Art Museums’ tradition of connoisseurship as the foundation for learning about and enjoying works of art,” said Marjorie Cohn, acting director of the Art Museums. “Through their sustained commitment to the arts community, their ongoing gifts of works of art, and their role in developing exhibitions, Maida and George have encouraged generations of students to explore firsthand the rich field of Dutch drawings.”

Bruegel to Rembrandt is organized by the Harvard University Art Museums and is curated by William W. Robinson, Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings. The exhibition was presented at the British Museum in London during the summer of 2002 and at the Fondation Custodia, Institut Néerlandais in Paris, in the fall of 2002. The Fogg Art Museum is the only U.S. venue on the exhibition’s international tour.

“Maida and George Abrams have given me an invaluable gift-an education in the field of Dutch and Flemish old master drawings beyond what I could have received in any university or museum,” said William W. Robinson. “Their support of the Art Museums has helped perpetuate the Harvard tradition of scholarship in the fields of Dutch art and old master drawings. The Abramses were inspired by the founders of this tradition-Paul Sachs, Agnes Mongan, Jakob Rosenberg, and Seymour Slive-and future generations will benefit from their generosity and will extend and shape the legacy of this great resource the Abramses built.”

Landscape Drawings

Bruegel to Rembrandt will be organized around the strengths of the Abrams Collection. The first section of the exhibition will consist of works by landscapists from Pieter Bruegel the Elder and his Flemish followers Hans Bol and Paul Bril to the pioneers of the genre in the northern Netherlands including Claes Jansz, Visscher, Hendrick Avercamp, Esaias van de Velde, Cornelis Vroom, Jan van Goyen, and Pieter de Molyn. Among the most significant works in this group is Wooded Landscape with a Distant View toward the Sea (1554) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This work was unrecorded prior to a 1991 sale, where it passed as a signed drawing by Jan Brueghel the Elder, son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder; it was then acquired by Maida and George Abrams in 1992 as the work of an unidentified 16th-century Flemish artist. It remained anonymous until early 1994, when scholar Hans Mielke, working from a photograph and later, on his deathbed, from the original, recognized the hand of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and affirmed the inscription of the artist’s name as his authentic signature. Of the 61 surviving drawings by this painter, this is one of only two on blue, presumably Venetian paper, and is the unique example with white gouache highlights. Wooded Landscape with a Distant View toward the Sea was among the 110 works given to the Fogg Art Museum by Maida and George Abrams in 1999.

Among other landscape drawings to be included in the exhibition are two works by Cornelis Vroom – River Landscape (c. 1622-23) and Landscape with a Road and a Fence (1631). River Landscape is one of the artist’s earliest known drawings. A mere 25 of his drawings have survived, and only three are in private hands. That the Abramses own two of these underscores the depth of their collection.

Figural Drawings

A strong selection of figural works created from the 1590s through the 1620s will follow the landscape drawings. This second group includes biblical subjects, portraits, studies of models, and scenes of daily life by Hendrick Goltzius, Jacques de Gheyn II, Abraham Bloemaert, Roelandt Savery, Willem Buytewech, and others.

This section will include The Truce (1612), a technically flawless and impeccably preserved drawing by Joachim Wtewael that belongs to his renowned suite of drawings known as The Netherlandish History. The Truce, the only dated work in the suite, has never been exhibited publicly and is part of a group of drawings in a collection that George tracked for years, keeping in touch with multiple generations of the same family.

Rembrandt and Pupils

Drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils and followers will form the third section of the exhibition. Among the most significant works in this group are A Farm on the Amsteldijk (c. 1650-52), which was one of the 27 Rembrandt landscape drawings acquired in 1723 by the 2nd Duke of Devonshire and preserved at Chatsworth until the 1980s. The seamless provenance and exceptional quality of these drawings make them the most important extant group of Rembrandt landscapes. Twelve of them, including A Farm on the Amsteldijk and Houses on the Schinkelweg (c. 1652) were dispersed at auction in 1984 and 1987 from the Chatsworth estate.

Landscapists and Marine Artists, and Figure and Genre Drawings

The next major group will feature landscapists and marine artists from the 1640s through 1700. Works by Roelant Roghman, Jacob van Ruisdael, Anthonie Waterloo, Isaac de Moucheron, Reinier Zeeman, and Willem van Velde the Younger will be included in Bruegel to Rembrandt. One fine example is Roghman’s Develstein Castle (1647), part of the artist’s series documenting Dutch country houses. These topographically accurate records of historic Dutch houses, many of which no longer exist, are of important documentary value.

This section will present a significant group of figure and genre drawings from the same period, including works of peasant subjects by Haarlem artists, Adriaen and Isack van Ostade, Cornelis Bega, and Cornelis Dusart. Cornelis Saftleven’s Standing Drinker (1636) exemplifies the ingenious technique and pungent characterizations that distinguish the finest of Saftleven’s signed and dated figure drawings.

Watercolors: Art & Science

Watercolors by masters who specialized in natural history illustration-including exceptional examples by Johannes Bronkhorst, Maria Sibylla Merian, and her stepfather Jacob Marrel – will also be among the special sections of the exhibition. One of these works-Two East Indian Birds, by Johannes Bronkhorst (1648-1727)-features a long-billed spider-hunter and a Buru paradise-kingfisher found only on Buru Island and not described by scientists until 1790 and 1825, respectively, making Bronkhorst’s drawings significant milestones in the taxonomic history of the species. In April 2002, exhibition curator Robinson sent a reproduction of the watercolor to Douglas Causey, senior vertebrate biologist at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Causey identified the bird as the paradise-kingfisher and called it the most accurate illustration of a bird by an artist that he had even seen and better than those found in a modern field guide. This discovery illustrates how art can concurrently serve as a reference tool and resource for interdisciplinary research and as a source of aesthetic pleasure.

This section of the exhibition also includes Flowers (c. 1705) by Maria Sibylla Merian, a naturalist, artist, teacher, publisher, and merchant dealing in paints and preserved specimens. This work is a rare surviving example by Merian of a sheet of studies that could be incorporated into formally composed watercolors.


The Bruegel to Rembrandt exhibition is complemented by a 300-page catalogue. It features entries by William W. Robinson on all exhibited drawings, a reflective essay by George Abrams, and an essay about the collection of Dutch drawings abroad by Martin Royalton-Kisch, senior curator in the department of prints and drawings at the British Museum.

The catalogue is published by the Harvard University Art Museums and distributed by Yale University Press.
ISBN 0-300-09347-0 (hardbound).
ISBN 1-89177-124-8 (paperbound).

Other venues

London, British Museum (Jun 13 – Sep 22, 2002).
Cambridge (MA), Fogg Art Museum (Mar 22 – Jul 6, 2003).