When Arthur Wheelock came to the National Gallery of Art in 1973, its collection was a far cry from what it is today. Marine paintings were all but absent. There were no still lifes. Nothing from the group of Italian-influenced Dutch painters known as the Utrecht Carvaggisti.
Wheelock has spent much of his 34-year tenure as a curator filling those gaps. In the last two years, he’s scored major acquisitions of Dutch masterpieces by Salomon van Ruysdael and Hendrick ter Brugghen. Here he discusses some other favorites among the pieces he’s added to the nation’s art collection, all currently on view.
Ludolf Backhuysen, Ships in Distress off a Rocky Coast, 1667, acquired 1985.
“I saw this painting in London, and it was way up high, completely dirty, in a lousy little gold frame. Until that point, you could not acquire something unless you presented it physically to the Board of Trustees.
“This was the first time we ever bought at auction. I told [the Board], ‘This is an incredible painting in amazing condition.’ We were given not very much money, but we ended up getting it on our very last bid. It’s a huge, very dramatic painting of this stormy sea. And now Backhuysen paintings are worth so much more. His notoriety has risen, and this is one of his very best.”
Willem Claesz Heda, Banquet Piece with Mince Pie, 1635, acquired 1991.
The New York dealer offering this painting believed had been cut from its original dimensions. “The dealer had given the key to his studio to the conservator who worked upstairs, and I talked her into letting us take it out of the frame,” Wheelock chuckles. Upon inspection, he discovered it was fully intact. “That was pretty exciting. For a painting of that size and that significance by that artist, the price suddenly became very undervalued.”
Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Andres Stilte as a Standard Bearer, 1640, acquired 1998.
“Look at him. He’s so proud to show off his new duds,” says Wheelock of the eponymous Mr. Stilte, pointing out the silver lace on his raspberry colored uniform. It’s the furthest thing from camouflage, by design: The standard bearer’s job was to draw enemy fire away from the unit’s commanding officer. Only single men were eligible for this coveted but hazardous post. Verspronck made his painting in the year Stilte was married, so it was his last chance at glory.
Jacob can Walscapelle, Still Life with Fruit, 1675, acquired 2001 (not pictured).
Donors Juliet and Lee Folger “really like still lifes, and they like ones depicting fruit,” Wheelock says. On a 2001 trip to the European Fine Art Fair in Masstricht, Netherlands he found just the thing. It wasn’t exactly for sale, but once Wheelock spotted this treasure leaning unframed against the wall of a dealer’s booth, he wouldn’t be deterred. “I picked it up and said, ‘Oooh,’” Wheelock recalls. “And we started negotiating.”
A shorter version of this story appears in today’s Washington Examiner.