CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator in the Spotlight:
Greta Koppel Curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings, Kadrioru Kunstimuuseum, Eesti Kunstimuuseum in Tallinn (June, 2024)

My first memories of Netherlandish art go back to childhood. There was a period when I was often at home with the flu, and I remember paging through art books to pass the time. I would choose favorite works of art, and my absolute top choice at that time was Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow (1565), a painting that fascinates me to this day. By the time I started my art history studies at the Estonian Academy of Art, I considered the Dadaist and postmodernist movements the most intriguing chapters in art history. But a study trip to the Netherlands and Belgium in the spring of 1999 brought me back to the Old Masters—to Bruegel, Brouwer, Rembrandt, and Rubens.

In 2000, the Kadriorg Art Museum was opened, and the collection of Dutch and Flemish masters of the Art Museum of Estonia (established in 1919), which had been kept in the museum depot for decades, was finally put on display. After a short internship at the museum, I decided to fully focus on Dutch and Flemish art. I wrote my BA thesis (2001) on two paintings by Adriaen van Ostade (fig. 1) in the museum’s collection, focusing on the iconography and cultural-historical context of these works.

Fig. 1. Adriaen van Ostade (1610–1685), A Quarrel (Sense of Smell), ca 1640
Art Museum of Estonia

In 2001, I was hired as a curator at the Niguliste Museum (St. Nicholas Church), which houses the Medieval and Early Modern ecclesiastical art collection of the Art Museum of Estonia. In addition to studying the Lutheran epitaphs and Netherlandish altarpieces in the museum’s collection and creating educational programs for schoolchildren, I began working with the Dutch and Flemish art collection of the Kadriorg Art Museum. My aim was to systematically work through and complete a scholarly collection catalog. Prior to this, only a few works in the collection had received research interest. This work took considerable time and effort and was finally published in 2012. It was an overly ambitious project for a young art historian with limited knowledge and experience, and without the privilege of being mentored by a senior curator.

To get the project going, my former director, Kadi Polli, decided to join CODART. We were generously given the opportunity by Gary Schwartz (former director of CODART) to present our collection, which was little known to the audience, at the CODART ZES congress in Amsterdam. This visit proved to be very fruitful, helping us connect with many experts and consult with colleagues with great expertise in the field.

The research for the collection catalog also resulted in the renewed permanent display of Dutch and Flemish masters at the museum (2010) and several exhibitions, starting with Low Sky, Wide Horizon: The Art of the Low Countries in Estonia (2004), which aimed to map the field. The international research and exhibition project Tracing Bosch & Bruegel: Four Paintings Magnified, in partnership with the National Gallery of Denmark, Glasgow University, and the Glasgow Art Gallery, and funded by the EU Culture Program, also sprang from the collection research project. This exhibition centered on the comparative study of four sixteenth-century versions of the Boschian composition Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (fig. 2), opening up the topic of art production in sixteenth-century Antwerp and introducing technical art history to a wider audience (see:

Fig. 2. Unknown Netherlandish Master, Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple, ca. 1570
Art Museum of Estonia

Over the years, organizing exhibitions has become the main task of my job. Since our museum’s collection is modest in size, collaborative exhibitions with other collections have grown in relevance. As a curator I have always found it important to put our works into dialogue and provide them with a broader context. For example, in 2009 I organized a joint exhibition, Joys of Life, with the Sinebrychoff Art Museum in Helsinki (co-curator Minerva Keltanen). In 2017, we collaborated with the Warsaw National Museum (co-curator Aleksandra Janiszewska) on the exhibition With a Curious Eye: Mannerist Painting from the National Museum in Warsaw, which brought 36 paintings from the Polish museum to Tallinn. This allowed us to offer a versatile look at this intriguing chapter of art history. In 2021, the museum held a large exhibition, From Memling to Rubens, showcasing a wide selection of masterpieces from the collection of the Phoebus Foundation. After the COVID pandemic had restricted travel and access to cultural spaces, this exhibition was a real treat for the public, offering a rich array of visual culture from rare manuscripts and books to art cabinet pieces. Working with a private foundation was certainly an enriching experience for me as a curator.

Fig. 3. Michel Sittow and his Tallinn workshop, Saint James the Great and the Virgin and Child (outer left wing of the Passion Altarpiece), ca. 1520
Art Museum of Estonia

In the past decade, I have dedicated considerable time and attention to the artist Michel Sittow (ca. 1469–1525), an internationally acclaimed portraitist who worked at various European courts but originated from Tallinn (then Reval). His oeuvre is scarce but scattered and safeguarded in museums around the world, making the task of organizing a monographic show on the artist highly challenging. To make this dream a reality, my colleagues and I benefited greatly from an advisory board that included Till-Holger Borchert, Peter van den Brink, Quentin Buvelot, and Matthias Weniger, three of whom we knew thanks to the CODART network. Through the advisory board’s contacts, the exhibition idea reached John Oliver Hand, then curator of Northern European Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. With his knowledge and experience in curating international exhibitions, we co-curated the exhibition Michel Sittow: Estonian Painter at the Courts of Renaissance Europe and co-edited the accompanying catalogue. The exhibition opened first at the NGA in January 2018 and then at the Kumu Art Museum of the Art Museum of Estonia in Tallinn in June 2018, as part of Estonia’s 100th-anniversary program.

The 2018 exhibition primarily focused on Sittow’s activities as a court artist abroad. The paintings of four saints on the outer wings of the Passion Altarpiece was the only work indicating his activities in his hometown, Tallinn, where Sittow worked as an artist-craftsman from 1506 to1514 and from 1518 until his death in late 1525. The question regarding his activities in Tallinn led to a multi-year research and exhibition project, Michel Sittow in the North? Altarpieces in Dialogue, focusing on a close comparative study of two Late Medieval altarpieces: The Passion Altarpiece in Tallinn with its paintings on the outer wings (fig. 3) and the Holy Kinship Altarpiece in Bollnäs church (Sweden), which some art historians attributed to Michel Sittow. With the support of The Church of Sweden and in collaboration with the Hälsingland Museum, it was possible to bring the altarpiece to Tallinn and exhibit the works side by side to test the attributions. In addition to exploring Sittow’s workshop, the exhibition, with loans from Helsinki and Riga, told the story of Tallinn (Reval) as a late medieval art center. The 500th anniversary of the artist’s death will be marked in 2025 with the publication of scholarly essays based on conference papers held in Tallinn last November (co-edited with Merike Kurisoo, curator of the Niguliste Museum).

Fig. 4. Studio of Maerten de Vos (?), Wedding at Cana, 1587 (?)
Art Museum of Estonia

Although I still consider Dutch and Flemish art from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries my main field of expertise and true passion, working at a museum with a small collection, a limited number of curators, and a tight exhibition program requires me to broaden my focus. Currently, I am preparing an exhibition on Bernardo Strozzi and his studio (co-curator Anna Orlando) that will open at the Kadriorg Art Museum in Spring 2025. Together with Tomi Moisio, I am also putting together an exhibition of the Serlachius Museum collection to be exhibited at the Kadriorg Art Museum in 2026. This collection contains an excellent selection of Finnish art from the early nineteenth century to the present day, as well as Old Masters, including several highly interesting paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters. Additionally, we plan to scrutinize The Wedding at Cana from our collection, which replicates (in a slightly altered version) Maerten de Vos’ painting at the Antwerp Cathedral (fig. 4). We aim to investigate its origin, provenance, and state of preservation, potentially culminating in an exhibition dedicated to this creative master, whose art influenced also the seventeenth century ecclesiastical art in Estonia.

Regarding my academic pursuits, my work in the museum has greatly influenced them. My MA thesis (2007) was based on studying the collection and dealt with various types of copies, discussing their changing function and value in (art) history. My PhD dissertation (2021), entitled Farewell to Connoisseurship? Work of Art as a Focus of Art Historical Study, emphasized the importance of multi-faceted object-based study of art and the necessity of maintaining connoisseurship skills.

I regard research as a high priority in a museum curator’s work, requiring budget, time planning, and, foremost, good collaboration with colleagues at home and abroad. Participating in CODART events has been crucial, keeping me updated with research and exhibition projects on Dutch and Flemish art worldwide, and enabling me to stay inspired and curious.

Greta Koppel is Curator of Dutch and Flemish Paintings at Kadrioru Kunstimuuseum, Eesti Kunstimuuseum in Tallinn, Estonia. She has been a member of CODART since 2003.