Remembering Walter Liedtke

A longtime curator and scholar, he helped to shape our understanding of Dutch and Flemish art.

Among the victims of the Metro-North accident earlier this month was Walter Liedtke, who had been a curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for thirty-five years. In that time, Liedtke authored and contributed to numerous books and articles and curated many major exhibitions, including Vermeer and the Delft School, which was the most popular show in the world in 2001. He was, according to Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the Met, “one of the most distinguished scholars of Dutch and Flemish painting in the world.”

Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt van Rijn. “To me,” said Liedtke, “this is one of the monuments of Western culture.” See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2dCeTPDEKY
Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt van Rijn. “To me,” said Liedtke, “this is one of the monuments of Western culture.” See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2dCeTPDEKY

Even the most cursory reading of Liedtke’s essays reveals his depth of scholarship and determination to reconsider conventional wisdom. In a Metropolitan Museum Bulletin from 1985, a copy of which has been in my possession for the last thirty years, Liedtke assessed the life and work of Anthony van Dyck. Liedtke challenged the traditional scholarship that characterized the artist as “willful, nervous, highstrung, or hypersensitive”. “One wonders,” he posits, “how much of this is romantic elaboration.” Liedtke’s approach was long on thoughtful observation and scrupulous study.

Inherently skeptical of romantic interpretation, one can sense Liedtke’s discomfort with the long-accepted claim that van Dyck was already a master with his own pupils at the age of sixteen. “This supposition,” he wrote, “seemed to support the view that the young man was a sort of Mozart with the brush.” Believing it unlikely that the artist’s prodigal skills emerged fully formed in adolescence, Liedtke noted recent research which concluded that van Dyck was a pupil and assistant to Rubens until he was twenty-one.

In his 2011 catalogue Frans Hals: Style and Substance, Liedtke opened with a healthy distrust of the notion, perpetuated by generations of art historians, that Hals was a dissolute personality, whose character was nearly from the outset linked to his supposed “low-life themes.” Difficulties in identifying the inspiration for Hals’ style have been taken to indicate a lack of traditional background and are seen as evidence of natural genius. Liedtke would have none of it: “What is often found in the early works of great masters like Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Hals is the eager pursuit of so many artistic ideas that identifying particular ‘sources’ tends to miss the point, which is the acquirement of pictorial literacy.”

This same spirit of intellectual discernment informed his studies of Rembrandt. In the catalogue for the Met’s 1995 exhibition Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt, Liedtke observed that overzealous attribution to Rembrandt had at the turn of the twentieth century accounted for roughly 600 paintings, a number now cut in half. The reattribution of Rembrandt’s work has been due, in part, to an increased willingness to give credit to his contemporaries, especially to pupils when they were most heavily influenced by the master:

Labels change and opinions change, but pictures remain the same (although conservators would qualify this remark). The painting once thought to be by Rembrandt and now recognized as by one of his pupils is a tribute to the master as teacher, to the actual artist, and to the culture that sustained not only the career of Rembrandt but also the careers of some forty artists who occasionally produced works in his style. One need hardly be a rabid revisionist to appreciate the pleasure of discovering a painting by Flinck, Fabritius, or another associate of Rembrandt in the permanent collection of a museum that hopes to present a balanced view of Dutch art.

If the fever had once been to assign as many paintings as possible to Rembrandt, Liedtke’s interest was an overview of the culture from which Rembrandt emerged. “It may not be essential, in a broad view,” he wrote, “to know whether a picture was painted by Fabritius or Flinck, or even by Rembrandt or Bol, but it is important to realize that Rembrandt’s achievement was part of a larger social phenomenon.”

The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer. Liedtke wrote, “In The Milkmaid, tactile and optical sensations coexist: nowhere else in Vermeer's oeuvre does one find such a sculptural figure and such seemingly tangible objects, and yet the future painter of luminous interiors has already arrived.” See http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/milk/hd_milk.htm
The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer. Liedtke wrote, “In The Milkmaid, tactile and optical sensations coexist: nowhere else in Vermeer’s oeuvre does one find such a sculptural figure and such seemingly tangible objects, and yet the future painter of luminous interiors has already arrived.” See http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/milk/hd_milk.htm

For Liedtke, it was imperative to humanize rather than deify artists. Reviewing the catalogue for Vermeer and the Delft School in 2001, art historian Sanford Schwartz wrote:

There’s a pleasing art-worldishness about Liedtke’s Vermeer. He’s not the empyrean figure whose every picture has a “moral” value, as some have seen him, and Liedtke’s way of presenting great, innovative art as the product of a slow process of absorbing countless precedents, and of being crucially dependent on a community of like-minded connoisseurs and patrons, injects a needed realism into the sometimes nearly hagiographic writing about Vermeer.

And yet, it would be a mistake to suggest that Liedtke was merely leveling the field, elevating second-tier painters at the expense of the masters. When he felt Vermeer’s genius was unfairly called into question, he contested the theory that the artist was dependent on the use of mechanical aids. “I don’t oppose the notion that Vermeer in some way responded to the camera obscura, but I do oppose drastic devaluations of the role of art.”

Great artists reveal extraordinary truths in everyday experience, compelling us to see what we’d otherwise pass by; great art historians accomplish the same thing when they animate our understanding of art and artists. In his appreciation for “the role of art,” Walter Liedtke was an art historian par excellence.

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