The Norton Museum's "Reclaimed" Recounts an Epic Art-World Adventure

The background for one of the several fine shows now at the Norton Museum is the remarkable story of a world-class Dutch art dealer whose huge collection was looted by Nazis in World War II. If you like a little history mixed in with your art, not to mention international intrigue, it doesn't get much richer.

The story behind "Reclaimed: Paintings From the Collection of Jacques Goudstikker" has a bittersweet ending. What happened along the way is the stuff of a (good) Hollywood movie, complete with romance and glamour, wealth and fame, adventure and tragedy. We pick up the tale in progress, in 1897, when Jacques Goudstikker was born into a prosperous family of Dutch art dealers. He joined the family business in 1919, when he was just 22.

By all accounts a brilliant businessman, Goudstikker brought a more international emphasis to the gallery. Within a year, he took shows to the continent, and a couple of years later, he ventured to America. He concentrated on cultivating relationships with museums and collectors at home and abroad, soon becoming one of the top dealers in Amsterdam. And he did it all with tremendous flair, hosting extravagant events at the gallery and his country homes.

Showstopper View of the Palazzo Ducale.
Showstopper View of the Palazzo Ducale.
Adriaenssen's Still Life With Oysters.
Adriaenssen's Still Life With Oysters.

The Goudstikker collection grew to include works from a variety of eras and styles, although the focus was on northern European baroque painting. The dealer also mounted what at the time was the largest exhibition of Italian art ever assembled in Holland, and he put together the first major exhibition of the work of Peter Paul Rubens. Thanks to Goudstikker's connections, his sales ended up in major institutions: Holland's Rijksmuseum and Mauritshuis museums, the National Gallery in London, New York's Metropolitan Museum, and the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Rubens is conspicuously absent from the Norton's show, unfortunately. Among the consolations is a wonderful painting from just after Rubens' time, Jan van Goyen's Winter Landscape With Skaters and an Inn (1641). The show is strong on landscapes in general, with other standouts including Jan Mostaert's grand Landscape With an Episode From the Conquest of America, from the first half of the 16th Century; Jan Wellens de Cock's Temptation of Saint Anthony (circa 1520); and Salomon van Ruysdael's View of the Dunes Near Zandvoort (1662). A showstopper in any lineup would be the View of the Palazzo Ducale by a late-18th-century follower of Canaletto's, with its astonishing curved perspective. All these and more are featured in the lavish, obsessively detailed exhibition catalog.

As we know all too well, the landscape of Europe was tilting toward confrontation in the 1930s. Goudstikker was Jewish, and he saw the writing on the wall as Europe became enveloped in the second world war of his lifetime. In a 1937 poem, he wrote, "Despite all the joy, despite the sunshine, there is a note of anxiety, a fear of the imminent storm." As the Third Reich flexed its muscle, he braced for a turbulent future, sending paintings to England, transferring funds to New York, designating a representative to take over his business.

And here's where twists worthy of Hollywood begin to accumulate. The visas Goudstikker had gotten for himself and his family expired the day before they were to depart Holland. His designated business rep dropped dead of a heart attack. The Goudstikkers managed to book passage on a ship bound for England that survived a Nazi attack only to find its Jewish passengers turned away in Dover because they lacked proper papers. In a final brutal irony, Goudstikker fell through an open hatch aboard the ship one night and died, at age 42. Sailing Vessels in a Thunderstorm, an oil painting by Jacob van Ruisdael from the 17th Century, takes on a special poignancy in light of what Goudstikker underwent at sea.

The story doesn't end there. Hermann Göring, second in command in the Third Reich, collected art. After the invasion of Amsterdam, he forced a sale of Goudstikker's inventory to himself at a huge discount, then took what he wanted. What he took includes sensuous and irresistible works such as Floris van Schooten's Still Life With Cheeses, Candlestick, and Smoker's Accessories and Alexander Adriaenssen's Still Life With Oysters.

Although some of the looted paintings were returned to the Dutch after the war, they ended up in national collections, not with the Goudstikker heirs. Ultimately, some 200 of Goudstikker's 1,400 paintings were restituted to his family in 2006. Thus the current exhibition, which includes 40 paintings and related memorabilia, became possible.

Although "Reclaimed" features only a fraction of the restituted art, it's enough to gauge the enormity of the original collection and its significance. From landscapes to altarpieces to portraits, Goudstikker had an uncanny sense of his trade, and his untimely death was a devastating loss to the art world of his time.

What's even more irresistible, however, is the saga of how these paintings came to us: great story, great characters, great art.

 
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