Late in 1995, National Gallery of Art curator Arthur K. Wheelock was looking forward to unveiling the exhibit of his career. Johannes Vermeer brought together 22 of the enigmatic Dutch genius’s 35 known paintings. Three centuries had passed since the last time so many Vermeers could be seen in one place.
“That was something nobody ever thought would be possible,” Wheelock, curator of northern baroque paintings, says from his office in the Gallery’s East Building, with a view of the Capitol Dome. “You couldn’t get the loans.” And yet, after eight years of negotiations with museums and private collectors throughout the U.S. and Europe, he was about to make it happen. It would be the apex of a career that began when he’d penned his dissertation on Vermeer more than 20 years earlier.
The show opened on Nov. 12. Two days later, it closed with the rest of the Gallery, a victim of the budget impasse between President Clinton and Congress that shut down the government for six days that month, and 10 more the next. Though Wheelock couldn’t have planned it and wouldn’t have wanted to, the presence of so many masterpieces in Washington behind shuttered doors helped the show pierce the national consciousness beyond just aesthetes and art lovers.
“This exhibition became part of the whole national dialogue about value,” Wheelock says. “What does this country value? It had, to me, a surprising impact on the broader political realm, in that much of the discussion at that point was about how government didn’t do anything positive. Suddenly it became clear that government did some amazing things. The Vermeer show was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Two things, the Grand Canyon being closed and that show, became lightning rods of discussion about how good things could come from government funding. The Vermeer show helped to change that dialogue enormously.”
Johannes Vermeer couldn’t extend in Washington: It was due to open at the Mauritshuis — the Dutch Royal picture gallery — on March 1. Acting quickly, the NGA secured private money to reopen only the Vermeer show during the second shutdown. In January, record-breaking snowfall buried Washington, at a cost of three more exhibition days.
“People started lining up at four in the morning, in the snow,” Wheelock remembers. “By the end of the show, the first person in line was there at 9 o’clock at night. The line went all the way around the West Building. Then you got into the gallery, and it was quiet a church. One of the reasons the line was so long was that nobody wanted to leave. They just wanted to be there.”
Wheelock knows the feeling.
An energetic 66, he’s been an NGA constant for more than 35 years. Not that he looks it: NGA design chief Mark Leithauser calls him “the Gallery jock.” He’s completed 10 triathlons, and he’s competing in the 1.7 mile “Save the Bay” swim in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay next Saturday.
“Arthur is a shark moving through the water,” says Leithauser, who’s known him since the early 70s. “One damn show after another.”Indeed, Wheelock has staged more than 30 exhibitions of Dutch art at the Gallery. He’s made a reputation for reintroducing the public to worthy 17th century artists whose names have not remained familiar as Rembrandt or Vermeer have — Jan Lievens, Abraham de Verwer, Adriaen Coorte — while contributing new insights into the era’s big guns.
Franklin Kelly, the NGA’s senior curator of British and American painting, has known Wheelock for 29 years. Wheelock’s exhibit Gods, Saints, and Heroes: Dutch Painting in the Age of Rembrandt opened in November 1980, a few months after Kelly arrived at the Gallery.
“I remember seeing that and thinking that it was a very creative way of thinking through a subject — the major masters — that had been well-worked on,” Kelly says. “But this brought in lots of new people to me.”
In other words, things have gone more or less to plan.
Wheelock came to the Gallery as a 30-year-old scholar eager to make his mark on an institution then barely older than he was. Growing up in Uxbridge, Mass., he painted, like his mother. Together they frequented the Worcester Art Museum. At Williams College, he petitioned out of freshman English to take Art History, “part of the core curriculum at Williams,” he says. “There was nothing effete about it.”
His senior year, he had class with visiting Harvard professor Jakob Rosenberg. Rosenberg was semi-retired, but Seymour Slive, with whom Rosenberg had co-authored Dutch Painting, 1600-1800, was at Harvard. So that’s where Wheelock went. There he won a David E. Finley Fellowship: two years of study abroad followed by a year in Washington. Wheelock moved his young family to The Netherlands (where youngest of his three children, now 39, was born) to write his dissertation, finally arriving at the Gallery in 1973.
His timing couldn’t have been better.
“It was an amazing opportunity; one of these things that will never happen again,” he recalls. “Conservation had just started here. None of the paintings had been cleaned.” There were no lights in the oak-paneled Dutch galleries, and after three centuries the paintings were mostly brown, so as the sun set in the afternoons, they would grow murky, then invisible. They were metaphorically in the dark, too.
“Nobody had done any research,” Wheelock recalls. “Basically it was a collection of collections,” reflecting the makeup of the Andrew Mellon and Joseph Widener bequests that comprised the Gallery’s initial inventory. “There was a period taste from 1893 to the end of the 1930s,” when the donors had been active. Artists not deemed important then, or simply not to Mellon or Widener’s taste, were absent.
Wheelock befriended A. B. deVries, a Holocaust survivor and former Mauritshuis director. DeVries had come to advise the Gallery on policy and acquisitions. Like Wheelock, he’d written his dissertation on Vermeer. And like Wheelock, he found himself with a lot of time on his hands.
The two Vermeer scholars decided to fill their days with hands-on scholarship. They removed Vermeers from their frames and examined them under microscopes in the Gallery’s laboratory. They visited Vermeers in other collections. Next they embarked upon a separate but similarly rigorous inquiry into the Gallery’s Rembrandt’s, bringing in ultraviolet lights to reveal where the paintings had been cut, painted over, or otherwise altered.
When his fellowship ended in April 1974, Wheelock took a post as an assistant professor at the University of Maryland. The following year, he was appointed curator of Dutch and Flemish Painting at the Gallery, where he has worked ever since, while continuing to teach at UMD.
The attribution of the 20 Rembrandts whose origins Wheelock had investigated would remain controversial to this day . The Dutch government embarked upon its own examination of Rembrandt attributions in 1969, the tricenntenial of the artist’s death. Wheelock got the Gallery going on a parallel, independent research project, sometimes producing findings at odds with the mainstream. For example, he’s long defended 1648/9’s The Mill as a genuine Rembrandt. Once “rejected almost universally,” Wheelock says, his view has now largely prevailed.
While he still counts the Vermeer exhibit and the Rembrandt controversy as the two richest chapters of his career, the last 10 months have found him on a tear. He’s opened two major exhibits, Jan Lievens and Pride of Place: Dutch Cityscapes in the Golden Age. His current Judith Leyster show runs through Nov. 29. He’s also updating of the NGA’s catalogue of 17th century Dutch art, last published in 1995.
Meanwhile, a series of high-profile acquisitions spearheaded by Wheelock have deepened the Gallery’s holdings. In January, it purchased Hendrick ter Brugghen’s 1624 Bagpipe Player in Profile, at auction for just over $10 million, fulfilling his long-held ambition to snag a prime specimen of the Utrecht Caravaggisti — 17th century Dutch followers of the Italian master Caravaggio.
Last year, he acquired Abraham de Verwer’s stunning View of Hoorn, undervalued because of the artist’s modest reputation. But reputation, shmeputation. Wheelock knows a masterpiece when he sees one.
That sums up his approach to his job: The world class scholar and historian is an art lover first, which means a painting’s emotional impact ultimately matters more to him than the signature it bears.
“What’s still exciting is revisiting these works and seeing how you keep responding to them in new ways,” he says. “A painting may be the same entity it was a year ago, but you’ve changed. Your emotional response changes.”
Animated, he continues. “Add those up, and it’s a richer relationship you have with that work of art.”