Art of the Month Club: Arthur Wheelock
The Art of the Month Club is a regular feature of the WCMA blog. Each month we invite someone special to write about a work from our collection. Find your own favorite WCMA artwork by searching our collection database. You never know, we may invite you to be the next Art of the Month Club member. Today, please welcome Dr. Arthur Wheelock, Curator of Northern Baroque Paintings, National Gallery of Art; Professor of Art History at the University of Maryland; and Williams College Class of 1965.
Like many Williams undergraduates, I only learned that a field called “art history” existed after I arrived in Williamstown in the fall of 1961. Although I had always enjoyed art, largely through the inspiration of my mother who was an amateur painter, I had never paid much attention to artistic traditions, beyond the art of Paul Cézanne, whose landscapes and still lives left an indelible impression on my own paintings. Of course, all of that changed dramatically once I took the introductory survey course and various upper level courses with Lane Faison, Whitney Stoddard and Bill Pierson. A whole world of sculpture, architecture and painting, from antiquity to contemporary, opened up to me that was visually and intellectually exciting. Faison, in particular, drew us to the collections at WCMA, of which he was the director. We used these objects in our classes and in our discussions, and, in the process, began to learn how to look. We also started to understand the character and meaning of these works and what they could tell us of the societies in which they were made.
Dutch art, I must say, was not a very important part of the overarching experiences that we gained from these great teachers. However, in my senior year, Williams invited as the Clark Professor the great Rembrandt scholar Jacob Rosenberg, who had left Germany before the war and had just retired from Harvard University. At Williams, Rosenberg not only taught a course on Dutch and Flemish painting but also a remarkable seminar on drawings in the collection of the Clark Art Institute. I am forever grateful that I had the great privilege to learn from this gentle man, who was one of the great connoisseurs of his generation. He had a wonderful, poetic way of expressing himself in front of works of art that have provided me with insights fundamental to my understanding of Dutch art. Thus, much like Faison, Stoddard and Pierson, he taught us the joy of looking at art and reflecting on its beauty, meaning, and emotional power.
So, it was with this interest in the seventeenth-century Netherlands gained from Jacob Rosenberg that I first stopped to look at two Dutch portraits at WCMA, when I was wandering through its galleries. These pendant portraits, which had only recently been donated to the college, made a huge impact on me since they were so different from other works in the collection. The dignified gentleman, with imposing millstone ruff, and his attractive wife, in an equally, if not even more imposing ruff, both look out at the viewer with engaging, but modest smiles. They are each dressed in severe black, although her outfit is enlivened with a stomacher (elaborate embroidered attire worn over the front of a dress) that is decorated with gold trim. He stands with arm akimbo, a pose that fills the space and thus asserts his authority, while she rests her hand on a chair to reveal her wedding ring on her right forefinger. In her left hand, she holds expensive old-trimmed gloves, which were undoubtedly wedding gifts from her husband.
The artist of these impressive portraits, which are dated 1630, was Wybrand de Geest (1592-1660). The name meant nothing to me. Only years later did I discover that he was, in fact, a very prominent regional master who lived most of his life in Leeuwarden, where he worked for the Friesen court of the House of Orange. De Geest is known for painting in a very conservative manner, which he would maintain throughout his artistic career, but, in 1630, his style was at the height of fashion. Interestingly, he seemed little affected by the innovations that Rembrandt brought to the Dutch portraiture traditions in the 1630s even though he was married to Hendrickje Uylenburgh, who was a cousin of Saskia Uylenburgh, Rembrandt’s wife. We do not know the names of this attractive couple, but the dignified presence of these sitters, and the warmth that they evoke even in their severe and formal poses, have retained their powerful impact on me over the years.
—Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr.
Left: Wybrand Simonsz de Geest the Elder (Dutch, 1592-1660), Portrait of a Man, 1630, oil on canvas. Gift of Prentis Cobb Hale, Jr. Right: Wybrand Simonsz de Geest the Elder (Dutch, 1592-1660), Portrait of a Woman, 1630, oil on canvas. Gift of Prentis Cobb Hale, Jr.