CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator in the Spotlight:
Ariane van Suchtelen Curator, Mauritshuis in The Hague (June, 2023)

To celebrate CODART’s 25th anniversary, this year the Curator in the Spotlight section will feature members that have been involved with CODART since the very beginning.

I had been working as a curator at the Mauritshuis for three years, when I witnessed the founding of CODART in 1998, during the first CODART congress in the Golden Room of our museum. I was enthusiastic about this exciting initiative, which I could see had immense potential, and I naturally joined the new organization straight away. However, I must confess that in that early pioneering period I rather lost sight of CODART: it would be many years before I would become a regular attendee at the congresses and other events. Today, CODART has become so embedded in the curator’s world that we cannot imagine our profession without it. It is incredibly valuable to be part of the vast network of museum curators that CODART has gradually built up, enabling us to forge ties with so many colleagues worldwide.

Ariane van SuchtelenPhoto: Ivo Hoekstra

Ariane van Suchtelen
Photo: Ivo Hoekstra

I studied art history in Groningen, concluding my studies with an internship at the Rijksmuseum under the supervision of Wouter Kloek. It was then that I started helping with the organization of the major exhibition on Northern Netherlandish art from 1580 to 1620 that would be titled Dawn of the Golden Age (1993). That internship, which was extended to a year, was my first introduction to museum work and I was immediately smitten. Being in direct contact with works of art has always been very important to me and so I decided that a museum was where I belonged.

After completing my master’s degree, I obtained a position as a graduate intern at the J. Paul Getty Museum, which was then still based in Malibu. There I conducted research on the museum’s collection of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, about which some work could still be done. On my return to the Netherlands, I went back to the Rijksmuseum to continue work on Dawn of the Golden Age – this time as a salaried researcher. That exhibition was a monumental undertaking, carried out by a team of curators drawn from different departments collaborating under Wouter’s inspiring leadership. Looking back on it, the uniqueness of that show was brought home to me even more vividly – an exhibition of a scale and scope rarely seen anymore today. I was given the opportunity to participate fully in every aspect of the work – the best imaginable learning experience. I particularly recall with poignant affection the inspirational partnership with the late, sadly missed, Ger Luijten: together we edited the exhibition catalogue.

I started work as a curator at the Mauritshuis in the summer of 1995, as the successor to Edwin Buijsen – who would return to the museum as Head of Collections in 2008. The stars were certainly aligned for me in my new post. I immediately had the privilege of working on the major Vermeer exhibition that we were organizing jointly with The National Gallery of Art in Washington (1995-1996), a collaboration between Arthur Wheelock and Frits Duparc, director of the Mauritshuis. My responsibilities at the Mauritshuis included the installation and interpretation of the exhibition, for which I produced a documentary exhibition on Vermeer, among other things. With just twenty-three paintings, the exhibition itself may not have been very large, but for the museum it was a project of unprecedented scale and impact.

The first exhibition I curated myself for the museum was Art on Wings: Celebrating the Reunification of a Triptych by Gerard David (1997), a small show displaying (fragments of) diptychs and triptychs from the fifteen and sixteenth centuries. In my subsequent career at the Mauritshuis, the many exhibitions in which I was involved were variously thematic and monographic in nature. I love both types: thematic shows because they provide an opportunity to take a wider view of art history and to suggest connections on a grander scale, and monographic shows in which one can zoom in on all the aspects of a single master’s oeuvre. For me, one of the most appealing aspects of the curator’s work is that it enables me to actually bring artworks together in exhibitions and through them to tell a story to the public. Such is the quality of our museum’s collection that other institutions are happy to work with us – I am always moved by this experience.

Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712), View of Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, 1670Mauritshuis, The Hague

Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712), View of Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, 1670
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Over the years, I curated several thematic exhibitions, on subjects such as seventeenth-century Dutch winter landscapes (2001-2002), Dutch cityscapes (with The National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008-2009), Antwerp art cabinet paintings (with the Rubens House, Antwerp, 2009–2010) and Dutch self-portraits (2015). A more recent show, Fleeting: Scents in Color (2021) focused on smell and art in the seventeenth century. For this exhibition, we had eight different scents produced, which visitors could smell as they viewed specific artworks. The visitors’ favorite turned out to be the smell of the canal accompanying a cityscape by Jan van der Heyden. The last thematic exhibition I compiled as curator – In Full Bloom (2022) – was about the Dutch and Flemish flower still lifes origins in botany. The exhibition presented a good opportunity to highlight the important role played by women artists in this genre – an approach that aligned well with today’s interest in rediscovering the role of women in art history.

Fleeting: Scents in Color, 2021

Fleeting: Scents in Color, 2021

Besides these thematic shows, the Mauritshuis also has a long tradition of monographic exhibitions, in which it can always draw on its own rich collection. One of the finest exhibitions from my early years at the museum was Hans Holbein (2003), with drawings and paintings by the master, including his Darmstadt Madonna as the jewel in the crown. In addition, I was a member of a team that worked on an exhibition of Rembrandt’s self-portraits: Rembrandt by Himself (with the National Gallery, London, 1999–2000). Later came a small exhibition of restored paintings by Rembrandt from the Mauritshuis (2006), for which I collaborated with Epco Runia, with whom I had once studied in Groningen, and who was now my colleague in The Hague. In the years that followed, the exhibitions I curated included one on Carel Fabritius (with Staatliches Museum, Schwerin, 2004), the brainchild of Frits Duparc. I collaborated with Anne Woollett of the Getty Museum on Rubens & Brueghel: A Working Friendship (2006-2007), which focused on the fascinating working relationship between the two Flemish masters. Jan Steen is one of the artists I have studied in depth, culminating in two exhibitions: Jan Steen in the Mauritshuis (2011) and Jan Steen’s Histories (2015), a retrospective of his history paintings. The most recent show in this series is Nicolaes Maes (with the National Gallery, London, 2019–2020). I am currently working on an exhibition highlighting Roelant Savery, prompted by the acquisition of two paintings by this artist (spring 2024).

Exhibitions are very interesting, fun, and exciting – they generate a buzz in the museum and in the outside world. In practice, they take up much of my time as a curator. Still, working on the museum’s own collection is at least as important. In the end, that is what it is all about – I think all CODART colleagues will agree. Researching our own collection and making it accessible to the public is at the heart of our activities and serves as the basis of our exhibition program.

The collection of the Mauritshuis is gradually being published in a series of thematic collection catalogues. The first volume, on history painting, is entitled Intimacies and Intrigues (1993), and was written by Ben Broos. I co-authored Portraits in the Mauritshuis (2004) and Genre Paintings in the Mauritshuis (2016), the former with Ben Broos (sadly deceased in 2019), and the latter with Quentin Buvelot, my colleague since my earliest days at the Mauritshuis. Technical research on paintings has always been an indispensable part of the collection catalogues, conducted by the museum’s skilled conservators. We are currently working on the next volume in the series, which will deal with the museum’s still lifes.

One of the highlights of my career was in 2020, when we succeeded in purchasing the pendant portrait of Bartholomäus Bruyn’s Portrait of Elisabeth Bellinghausen, the whereabouts of which had long been unknown. Twenty years earlier, during my research for the portrait catalogue, I had rediscovered this pendant and reconstructed the story of the original diptych. All we had at the time of the pendant portrait of Elisabeth’s fiancé, Jakob Omphalius, was a black and white photograph. For years, I had hoped to come across the missing portrait, and in 2020 it was finally tracked down. The Mauritshuis purchased the portrait, and man and wife were thus reunited after a long separation. For the project View the Mauritshuis with Your Ears, the band The Kik composed a fantastic ballad to commemorate the couple’s reunion.

Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (1493-1555), Portrait of Jakob Omphalius and Elisabeth Bellinghausen, 1538-1539Mauritshuis, The Hague

Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder (1493-1555), Portrait of Jakob Omphalius and Elisabeth Bellinghausen, 1538-1539
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Working as a curator at the Mauritshuis is never boring and provides endless scope for an art historian like myself – someone who loves making exhibitions and always wants to be in direct contact with works of art. Curators tend to be rather attached to their surroundings, wedded to their own collection, always working on an exhibition or with another exciting project on the horizon. That means you can suddenly find that you have been working for the same institution for a great many years. So, it was a golden opportunity for me to be seconded to the Frans Hals Museum in 2014-2015, as curator of Old Masters. In the fourteen months I worked there, I was able to create two small exhibitions, one focusing on the major restoration project of Hals’s regent portraits and the other on Jan van Scorel in Haarlem, following the completed restoration of Scorel’s The Baptism of Christ.

I have often mused with fellow curators about how enjoyable it would be if we could swap positions from time to time, if such transfers back and forth were more frequent. Working in different surroundings for a while is refreshing and inspiring. Who knows – perhaps CODART could play a role in encouraging such mutual exchanges between museum curators. I realize I am in a privileged position to be able to indulge in such reveries. Decades ago, when I arrived in Groningen to study art history, a lecturer told our class of freshmen on our first introduction day that we were all embarking on a course of study that would lead to unemployment. Fortunately, that was not my fate – nor that of many of my fellow students. For me, being a curator is to have the most wonderful profession in the world.

Ariane van Suchtelen is a curator at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. She has been a member of CODART since 1998.