CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator in the Spotlight:
Betsy Wieseman Curator and Head of the Department of Northern European Paintings, National Gallery of Art in Washington (June, 2022)

I am honored to be selected as a CODART Curator in the Spotlight. Over the course of my career, I have worked in museums representing diverse sizes, budgets, audiences, and objectives: each offered interesting challenges, opportunities to deepen my knowledge and meet new colleagues. Each contained works of art that I keep in my personal “museum”: ones which I acquired, researched, featured in an exhibition, or simply fell in love with during the time I lived with them. Since its inaugural meeting in 1998, CODART has been instrumental in enriching all aspects of my curatorial work: “CODART” is a key that opens many doors!

Betsy Wieseman in front of Rembrandt’s The MillPhoto courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Betsy Wieseman in front of Rembrandt’s The Mill
Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

I received my undergraduate and masters’ degrees in Art History from the University of Delaware, and my doctorate from Columbia University in New York. I had a succession of gifted mentors who were passionate about Netherlandish art and communicated that passion with humor and a lack of pretense.  They challenged me to venture beyond my comfort zone and to never stop questioning—invaluable advice for a subsequent career. Throughout my student years, regular trips to museums from Washington to Boston and all cities in between—and eventually, Europe—were a key factor in choosing a curatorial path: how could I be satisfied with reproductions or projected images when the actual objects, bearing traces of the maker’s hand and mind, were so compelling?

My first curatorial position was as research assistant at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, working on exhibitions of Dutch landscape painting and seventeenth-century Flemish painting. This was followed by broader curatorial responsibilities at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. Oberlin College was for many years the home of Wolfgang Stechow, the renowned scholar of Dutch art, who saw to it that many great works entered the collection, including Hendrik ter Brugghen’s haunting Saint Sebastian Tended by Irenethe first painting in my personal museum (and a part of the CODART Canon). During my years at Oberlin, I served temporarily as acting curator of modern and contemporary art, acting curator of Asian art, and acting director, which expanded my contextual understanding but confirmed my commitment to the art of the Low Countries.

From Oberlin, I went to the Cincinnati Art Museum as curator of European painting and sculpture; there too, I was responsible for some entrancing artworks. Key among these was Rubens’ brilliant modello for Samson and Delilah, a painting that inspired a small but beautiful loan exhibition devoted to Rubens’s oil sketches. The Cincinnati Art Museum is also home to unexpected gems, including one of the largest collections of portrait miniatures in the United States.

My next position was at the home of Rubens’s exceptionally bold finished painting of Samson and Delilah: The National Gallery in London, where I began as Curator of Dutch Paintings 1600–1800 in 2006. A few years later I assumed responsibility for Flemish paintings 1600–1800 as well. Working with that historic collection, and with such brilliant colleagues, was inspiring, exhilarating, and usually humbling. I am particularly proud of having worked on Late Rembrandt, an exhibition organized by The National Gallery in partnership with the Rijksmuseum.  Closely studying some of Rembrandt’s most iconic and deeply felt paintings, drawings, and prints was an overwhelming experience: not just the all-consuming work of organizing a loan exhibition of that scale, but reckoning with the profound emotional impact of these objects.  I was regularly moved to tears as these priceless treasures were unpacked from their crates and reverently placed on gallery walls.

Rembrandt (1606-1669), A Woman Bathing in a Stream (Hendrickje Stoffels?), 1654The National Gallery, London

Rembrandt (1606-1669), A Woman Bathing in a Stream (Hendrickje Stoffels?), 1654
The National Gallery, London

Also at The National Gallery, I had the chance to work closely with conservators and scientists and spent many happy hours in the attics of the National Gallery studying paintings and discussing nuances of treatment and analysis.  I learned that no matter how well-studied a collection is, how diligently and thoroughly researched by past curators, constant advances in technology mean there are always discoveries to be made. For example, only in 2007 was it possible to make a full X-radiograph of Rembrandt’s monumental equestrian portrait of the Amsterdam merchant Frederik Rihel, which revealed the presence of an entirely different composition (a horizontally-oriented scene of a man standing in a landscape) beneath the painting now visible. If I had to select just two works from The National Gallery for my personal museum, they would be Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream and Peter Paul Rubens’ A Lion Hunt: both sublime examples of those artists’ facility with the brush.

In 2017, I left The National Gallery to become the Paul J. and Edith Ingalls Vignos Jr. Curator of European Painting and Sculpture 1500–1800 at the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Having spent the previous decade focused on Dutch and Flemish paintings of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I now had a far larger remit. Many of the exhibitions and projects I became involved in were rooted in Netherlandish art but reached well beyond: particularly rewarding was an exhibition dedicated to the Valois tapestries, commissioned by Catherine de’Medici in about 1576 and now part of the Uffizi collections. It gave me the opportunity to work closely with CODART colleagues who are specialized in this fascinating field, and to appreciate the painstaking work of the textile conservators who revive these precious hangings.

The Cleveland Museum of Art is fortunate in having generous acquisition funds at its disposal, and during my brief tenure I was able to add some wonderful Northern paintings to the collection, by Dirck van Baburen, Jacob Hulsdonck, Johann König and Pieter van Slingelandt. For my personal museum, though, I would select Maerten van Heemskerck’s powerful Portrait of Machtelt Sluys.

Currently, I am Curator and Head of the Department of Northern European Paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  Just a few short months after I started in late 2019, museums around the world shut their doors as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.  As a result, getting acclimated, meeting colleagues, familiarizing myself with the collection, and initiating new projects has been an unusually protracted process. But I have a fabulous collection to work with, thanks to generous founders and nearly forty years of assiduous collection-building by my predecessor, Arthur Wheelock.

Founded in 1941, the National Gallery of Art was modeled on its counterpart in London, with a strong emphasis on art in the western European tradition. In Dutch and Flemish art specifically, the founding gifts of Andrew W. Mellon and father and son collectors P.A.B. and Joseph Widener skewed towards impressively-scaled paintings by artists that, to them, represented the finest achievement of Dutch naturalism, including multiple examples by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Meindert Hobbema, Aelbert Cuyp, and Johannes Vermeer. Of Flemish artists, the elegant portraits of Anthony van Dyck were prized more highly than Rubens’s impassioned histories. Much has changed since then and the Gallery now has a more representative collection of about 380 Northern European paintings: 110 Netherlandish, French, and German from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; and 269 paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (165 Dutch, 82 Flemish, and a few German, Scandinavian or “other”). Thanks to generous donors, we continue to add to the collection.  One new acquisition is a vibrant and engaging merry company by Dirck Hals; another favorite is a delicate flower still life by Clara Peeters. Both were featured in a recent exhibition that showcased the 27 paintings purchased for the Gallery by The Lee and Juliet Folger Fund over the past 25 years.

There is still work to be done to diversify the collection: adding works by women artists is a top priority (currently the Gallery has just two in our area, the other being Judith Leyster’s marvelously assured Self Portrait), as is a more comprehensive representation of the people, places, and topics of concern that brought this small corner of Europe to global prominence in the early modern period.

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Girl with the Red Hat, ca. 1669National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), Girl with the Red Hat, ca. 1669
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

One issue currently confronting the National Gallery of Art is how to interpret and contextualize the objects in our care for 21st century audiences, who may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the traditions and customs they represent. Conversations with IDFA (Inclusivity in Dutch and Flemish Art) and CODART colleagues are of enormous help as we develop interpretive tools that are appropriate and effective for a large, national collection.  I look forward to making the National Gallery of Art a place where visitors from around the corner and around the globe feel welcome to learn and explore, and—no matter their personal background, or the passage of hundreds of years—can feel a personal connection to the creative achievements of Dutch, Flemish, German and Netherlandish artists. Although I still have the opportunity to work with these paintings every day, from the National Gallery of Art I would choose Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers Surrounded by Insects and a Snail and Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat for my personal museum. Although one never needs an excuse to include a painting by Vermeer on a list of favorites, this one particularly intrigues. Over the past two years, a team of National Gallery of Art curators, conservators, and imaging scientists have conducted research into Gallery’s paintings by and attributed to Vermeer. The results of that fascinating work will be featured in a display at the Gallery later this year. I look forward to welcoming CODART friends and colleagues in Washington!

Betsy Wieseman is Curator and Head of the Department of Northern European Paintings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. She has been a member of CODART since 1998.