CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator in the Spotlight:
Liesbeth M. Helmus Senior Curator of Old Masters, Centraal Museum in Utrecht (October, 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.

Although I grew up in a family that took an interest in art and culture, I certainly did not feel that it was my calling to be a curator when I was young. I was always fascinated by language, so I initially enrolled in a degree course on Dutch language and literature. Everything changed, however, in the summer of 1980. I went on a three-week tour of southern Italy, led by two art historians. That tour opened up a new world for me: the austere, imposing temples of Paestum, the colossus in Agrigento, buried in sand, the mosaics in Monreale, the city of Naples, and of course Rome, the center of Pictura. I was so enthralled by what I saw and heard that on my return I decided to study art history instead of Dutch. After finishing my studies at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, I spent several years working at the University of Amsterdam. In 1996 – just two years before the founding of CODART – I was appointed curator of Old Master art at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht.

Guided tour by Liesbeth Helmus during the opening of Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe with HM King Willem-Alexander, 15 December 2018, Centraal Museum, Utrecht

Guided tour by Liesbeth Helmus during the opening of Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe with HM King Willem-Alexander, 15 December 2018, Centraal Museum, Utrecht
Photo: Jan-Kees Steenman

The Centraal Museum is the oldest municipal museum in the Netherlands. It stands within the canals encircling the old city center. It inhabits a complex of connected buildings dating from different periods. Although they stand around a central courtyard, visitors constantly get lost – since the signage, for all the improvements, is still hard to follow. The museum’s history can be traced back to 1838. It was then that the burgomaster opened an exhibition space in the attic of the city hall, in which to display objects that bore some relationship to the city’s history. Since then, the museum has grown into one of the ten largest art centers in the Netherlands, with a collection of some 60,000 objects, divided into seven sections: Old Masters, Modern art, contemporary art, fashion, the applied arts, the Dick Bruna collection, and objects belonging to the history of the city of Utrecht. The Rietveld Schröder House (UNESCO World Heritage site) and the Miffy Museum are also part of the Centraal Museum. There is a total staff of around 150, assisted by numerous volunteers, with a management consisting of two directors. The seven curators are overseen by the artistic director.

The Old Masters collection that comes under my responsibility contains all the art objects created by artists born before 1850. It has about a thousand paintings, some 800 sculptures, and around 750 works on paper. All were made by artists who either came from Utrecht or lived and/or worked in Utrecht for many years. Also in this collection are topographical representations of Utrecht, portraits of local figures, and images of local historical events. The sculpture collection consists largely of Late Medieval and Renaissance stone sculptures from the city. The collection of pipe clay figurines is the largest and most important of its kind in the Netherlands, and the drawings and prints include a hundred major images from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as well as a rich collection of work by artists who worked in Utrecht in the nineteenth century.

Liesbeth Helmus at CODART TWINTIG in Warsaw, 21-23 May 2017Photo: Lidewij de Koekkoek

Liesbeth Helmus at CODART TWINTIG in Warsaw, 21-23 May 2017
Photo: Lidewij de Koekkoek

Until the Reformation, Utrecht was the most powerful city in the Northern Netherlands. It played a key role, with Jan van Scorel, in the development of sixteenth-century painting. As the birthplace of artistic development and a hub where diverse styles and themes came to fruition, Utrecht was pivotal in pioneering the art of the early decades of the seventeenth century. Local artists made a vital contribution to art history, and influenced Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Frans Hals. Rome featured prominently for artists from Jan van Scorel to the Caravaggisti and the Italianates. This was a factor that I found particularly appealing, given my own fascination with Rome and Italian art in general.

In the first few years after my appointment, my main task was conducting research for the collection catalogue on paintings before 1850. Under my direction, the project was carried out by a team of art historians over a three-year period, with the results being published in 1999 under the auspices of the Centraal Museum. In the second volume color reproductions of the seventy-five most beautiful and interesting paintings in postcard format were reproduced, and I provided each one with an explanatory caption. It was an ideal beginning to my museum career. The painting collection has served as the point of departure for each of the exhibitions I have organized, whether independently or in collaboration with others, over the past twenty-five years. Of the forty or so exhibitions, from large to small, I would like to single out five that are particularly close to my heart.

The Madonnas of Jan van Scorel 1495-1562: Serial Production of a Cherished Motif was on view in 2000. I organized this project, together with J.R.J. van Asperen de Boer and Molly Faries, in response to the purchase of Scorel’s Madonna and Child from 1527-1530. Research shows that this painting – a composition previously known only from copies – was unmistakably by Scorel’s own hand. It was restored and supplied with a new frame, just as Scorel’s Madonna with Wild Roses, a picture that the museum purchased in 1958. The close collaboration with the two professors, from whom I learned so much, led in 2011 to the publication of the voluminous, scholarly Catalogue of Paintings 1363-1600: Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

Dirck van Baburen (1595 - 1624), Granida en Daifilo, 1623Collectie Centraal Museum, Utrecht (met steun van het Mondriaan Fonds, de Verenging Rembrandt, het Rodi de Valk Fonds van het Prins Bernard Cultuurfonds, het K.F. Hein Fonds en het Elise Matilde Fonds) © Centraal Museum Utrecht / Adriaan van Dam

Dirck van Baburen (1595 – 1624), Granida and Daifilo, 1623
Centraal Museum, Utrecht (with support of the Mondrian Fund, Rembrandt Association, Rodi de Valk Fund of the Prince Bernhard Culture Fund, K.F. Hein Fonds and Elise Matilde Fonds) © Centraal Museum Utrecht / Adriaan van Dam

That same year we put on the exhibition Pieter Saenredam: The Utrecht Work. In the summer and autumn of 1636, Saenredam spent an uninterrupted period of twenty weeks working in Utrecht. Since he always dated his work meticulously, we can follow his activity in the city to within a radius of ten minutes’ walk. He used the drawings and preparatory studies for the paintings he made in subsequent years. Virtually all his Utrecht drawings and paintings were on display in the exhibition, as well as models of the churches he depicted. Both the exhibition and the publication were designed by the celebrated graphic designer and professor Wim Crouwel. The show travelled to The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles in 2002. Six years later, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid invited me to organize, as guest curator, Saenredam: The West Façade of the Mariakerk, Utrecht, as part of the series Contexts of the Permanent Collection. This invitation, which I saw as a great privilege, led to a warm friendship with our colleagues in the Spanish capital.

Meanwhile, I was spending as much time as possible on my PhD dissertation. I had begun this research project before my appointment as curator, and finally completed and defended it at the University of Amsterdam in 2010. It was entitled Schilderen in opdracht: Noord-Nederlandse contracten voor altaarstukken 1485-1570 (Painting on Commission: Northern Netherlandish contracts for altarpieces, 1485-1570).

Pleasure and Piety: The Art of Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), the first monograph exhibition on this important artist, toured to two locations in the United States in 2015 and 2016 – The National Gallery of Art in Washington and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston – after it was shown at the Centraal Museum. I still have wonderful memories of my close, edifying collaboration for that project with Arthur Wheelock, James Clifton, and Anne Lowenthal. One of the works on copper that was shown there was Banquet of the Gods, from ca. 1600-1603. The acquisition of this piece at Sotheby’s New York in 2019 fulfilled a long-cherished wish on the part of the museum. Made possible by generous donations from numerous funds, this was the most expensive purchase ever made by the Centraal Museum.

Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 15 December 2018 - 24 March 2019

Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 15 December 2018 – 24 March 2019
Photo: Ernst Moritz

My most ambitious exhibition, Utrecht, Caravaggio and Europe was a collaborative venture with Bernd Ebert of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. The paintings by the three Utrecht Caravaggisti Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick ter Brugghen, and Gerard van Honthorst were thematically grouped with those by the other European followers of Caravaggio who had spent time in Rome. Whatever the undoubted similarities between their paintings, betraying Caravaggio’s influence, it was clear that the purpose of each of these artists was ultimately to develop a distinctive, personal style. We were fortunate in being sent many remarkable loans for this exhibition, such as Gerard van Honthorst’s altarpiece depicting the beheading of John the Baptist from the Santa Maria della Scala in Rome. Most sensationally, we were able to display Caravaggio’s Deposition – viewed by his contemporaries as his most beautiful painting – which was sent to Utrecht from the Vatican Museums. It was flanked by paintings by Baburen and Nicolas Tournier, who had both drawn inspiration from this masterpiece. This was a phenomenal show, and it attracted the highest visitor numbers in the history of the Centraal Museum.

The Bentvueghels. A notorious Art Society in Rome 1620-1720, Centraal Museum, Utrecht, 11 February 2023 – 4 June 2023
Photo: Mike Bink

The Bentvueghels: A Notorious Art Society in Rome 1620-1720 was my most recent exhibition – shown in 2023. The artists from the Netherlands who lived and worked in Rome from 1620 onward tended to stick together. They shared homes, supported each other, and above all had endless fun. The exhibition was a cheerful, surprising project full of amusing anecdotes and interesting work, much of which was little known. Visitors gave it a high grade in their feedback: 8 out of 10. This matters a great deal, since it is ultimately for the public that we produce our exhibitions. That success can certainly be attributed in part to Marcel Schmalgemeijer, the designer, who created a wonderfully Italian atmosphere in the galleries.

Perhaps the best thing about our profession is that it is based on our shared, passionate love for the art we study, our irrepressible curiosity about its background and why something looks the way it does. That expresses itself partly in research and the creation of exhibitions, and also in the endless quest for objects that will fit perfectly in the collection and that can help to tell the stories even better. A great example of the many acquisitions we have been able to secure over the past twenty-five years is the purchase in 2020 of the painting by Dirck van Baburen, in which the Utrecht nobleman Pieter van Hardenbroek depicted himself in 1623 together with the woman he loved, Agnes van Henxelaer, as Granida and Daifilo. It is a true Utrecht love story.

Every exhibition and every purchase is ultimately the result of collaboration with colleagues. That is such an enjoyable part of this job ­– in a museum, you are never working alone. In the past ten years, I have also served on the management team, deliberating in depth on the future of the Centraal Museum, about matters of policy and our audiences, about the changing expectations that society, which itself never stands still, has of cultural institutions. My advice is: listen to the youngest generation and respond accordingly.

Liesbeth M. Helmus is Senior Curator of Old Masters at the Centraal Museum in Utrecht. She has been a member of CODART since 1998.