Gerson Digital : Germany I


Introduction - Rieke van Leeuwen, Thomas Fusenig and Juliette Roding

The Hague, October 2017; updated in September 2018

Gerson’s publication Dispersal and After-Effect of Dutch Painting of the 17th Century (in translation) was a price-winning submission to a competition issued in 1937 by the Teylers Tweede Genootschap (Teyler’s Second Society) in Haarlem. The assignment was to deliver ‘a study of the expansion of 17th-century Dutch painting’, specifically ‘a documented overview of the influence that the art of painting of that time exerted with respect to subject matter, conception, composition, style, color and technique on those of other countries.1 The study had to deal with the migration of artists from and to the Netherlands as well as with the export of Dutch painting to other European countries and continents.

The chapter on Germany is the largest part of Gerson’s book, which is not surprising, as Germany is the largest neighbouring country of the Netherlands, with a history of strong economic, political and religious mutual relations. Furthermore, Gerson himself was a German until 1940 (the year he was naturalized a Dutchman) and had a thorough knowledge of art collections in Germany. His chapter on Germany could have been a comprehensive book on its own. He divided the text in two parts: one part on the dispersal (Ausbreitung) of Dutch art in Germany, comprising the 17th and early 18th century, and the other on the after-effect (Nachwirkung) of Dutch art of the Golden Age on German painting in the period from about 1720 until the late 19th century, in relation to the history of collecting Dutch art in Germany. For practical reasons we decided to save the text on Nachwirkung for a separate project (to be published in October 2018) and to concentrate on contemporary cultural transfer and exchange in the long 17th century, which already is a large subject on its own.


Geography of Art
The method Gerson used to document the Dutch and German ‘masters on the move’ as well as their works, was geographical.2 Since Gerson wrote his study in the 1930s and published it in 1942, one might wonder which Germany he actually described. It is the Germany of 31 August 1939, the day before Germany invaded Poland. This means that Austria, Bohemia and Silesia were included in Gerson’s Germany. Since he dealt with these regions in one section in his text, we decided in 2017 to leave these areas out as well, in order to reach an area that is  ̶̶  more or less  ̶  the Germany of today.3 In September 2018, however, our work had progressed to far that we could add this section. The historical-cultural realtionships between these parts of the Holy Roman Empire were so strong, that it is totally justifiable to present these areas as a coherent whole. To systematically document the activity of Dutch artists in the German lands and the 'Germans' who worked under the influence of Dutch art, Gerson divided the area into six regions, which he discussed, so to speak, from top left to bottom right. The first region is Northern Germany, which is by far the most important and comprehensive section, since the cultural exchange with Holland was the strongest in this area. The next area is the Rhineland, followed by Central Germany, the Main area, Southern Germany and the last section, Austria, Bohemia and Silesia.

The geographical method does have advantages: one gains insight in who is working where at a certain time, which provides indications of possible direct exchanges between artists. On the other hand, the geographical approach also leads to a rather scattered picture, as the artists in question usually did not stay for a long time in the same town or at the same court. It often occurs that we re-encounter them someplace else, not only in other places in Germany or the Netherlands, but also in England, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Italy or France – or even outside Europe.


The region of Germany. Austria, Bohemia and Silesia, as discussed by Horst Gerson.

Nevertheless, Gerson’s geographical method lives on in the structure of the RKD databases, which was developed from the early 1990s on. From the very start, places of activity were entered in the database RKDartists, creating the basis for the possibility to search geographically, a structure that  ̶  many years later   ̶  was adopted in the valuable database Ecartico of the University of Amsterdam.4 From 2004 onward, all lists of geographical denominations in the various RKD databases were put together, cleaned up, restructured and, eventually , provided with coordinates. A few years ago the RKD also started to document the places where artworks were created, an exercise that needs to be carried out with great caution. All this hard work has been made visible in a new tool in RKD Explore, which was launched on 8 October 2017, jointly with Gerson Digital : Germany I. Each artist’s profile shows his or her mobility in a map, from birth until death. The same applies for the route of artworks from their creation until  ̶  if applicable   ̶   their arrival in the most recent (museum) collection, that is, if these data are available. For the Gerson Digital : Germany&  project, the places of activity of all related artists and artists-dealers have been recorded in detail.

Images for Gerson Digital : Germany, Austria and Bohemia
An important goal of the RKD project was not only to annotate and update Gerson’s study, but also to fully illustrate it with images from the database, making the artworks accessible online at the same time, provided with detailed art-historical information. I nformation and images of the relevant artworks were not always easy to find in Germany or elsewhere, neither online, nor in the art-historical literature.5 Many museums, in particular municipal museums, do not have scientific catalogues and many of the relevant artists, even important ones, have not been treated in oeuvre catalogues. Still, there is a lot going on in the field of cultural heritage in Germany. New museum buildings arise, while  older ones are renewed and reopened; new catalogues are being published and/or put online. But the backlog in the maintenance, presentation and accessibility of cultural heritage, caused by the second World War and by the neglect of the former German Democratic Republic, has not been overcome yet. Although this was to be expected, the extent of it took us by surprise.

For this project many travels in Germany were made to collect information in museums, castles, town halls and churches and to find partners and contributors to our project.6 Several museums delivered free images for our database and shared collection information, others gave their curators time to deliver a paper at the symposium Masters of Mobility. Cultural Exchange between the Netherlands and Germany in the long 17th Century on 8-9 October 2017, which the RKD organized in collaboration with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Leiden University. This symposium aimed to deepen the subjects Horst Gerson touched upon, or which were left untreated by him, because they fell out of the scope as determined by the Teylers Tweede Genootschap (Teyler’s Second Society). Gerson himself was very conscious of the broader context of his research, to which he often referred shortly, pointing to the limitations of the assignment of Teylers Tweede Genootschap (Teyler’s Second Society) at the same time.7 The papers presented at the Masters of Mobility symposium will be published digitally by the RKD in 2019, as a follow-up of the publication Gerson Digital : Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Silesia (I).

An army of artists
It goes without saying that the result of Gerson’s survey  ̶  and ours in his footsteps  ̶  has a strong documentary character, encompassing information on more than  2,000 artists and collectors in his German chapters only. Many of the artists’ names in this publication are not familiar to many art historians. However, the fact that almost all of these mobile masters were also actors in large, international networks, has raised interest in them in current art history. Gerson’s publication forms a solid starting point to track down networks that deserve to be researched further. Their oeuvres, on the other hand, still have been studied little; they pose attribution problems, as mobile masters are usually rather versatile and characterized by a flexible style and technique. Nonetheless, many of the artworks involved belong to European museum collections, sometimes under wrong names. In our opinion it is the knowledge of the broad range of art history that leads to a higher level of connoisseurship, which is very much needed, for instance in cultural heritage institutions. Gerson expressed the hope that his survey would stimulate other art historians to do further research. We fully endorse this statement. 


1 Gerson 1942/1983, p. 1. On the subject of the competition, compare the imperialistic concept of the series: Opera del Genio Italiano all’Estero, commissioned by Mussolini in  1932. Braudel 1991.

2 On the working method of Gerson: Van Leeuwen in Gerson/Van Leeuwen/Tylicki et al. 2013/2014, § 2. What is not discussed here, is that Gerson followed the prevailing ideas of the 1930s on cultural geography. This methodical preconception of cultural geography as ‘national Kunstwollen’  was incorporated into the influential running bibliography of German art history: Schiftum ... vol. 1- (compare also the entries of the numerous contributions to the International art historical congress at Stockholm 1933). DaCosta Kaufmann 2004. An article by DaCosta Kaufmann on the subject related to Gerson will be included in Masters of Mobility. Cultural Exchange between the Netherlands and Germany in the long 17th Century (to be published in 2018).

3 Tacke 1998, p. 63.

4 The data of the University of Amsterdam and RKDartists& are interlinked.

5 As Gerson's 'Ausbreitung' only contains a very limited amount of illustrations, Gerson referred to Georg Biermann's publication on the Baroque in Germany of 1914 (Biermann 1914; see Gerson 1942/1983, p. 209, note 1). Starting point for our searches was the websites and The information on it is helpful, but still limited. German loco-historical literature frequently contains relevant information, but is internationally poorly accessible.

6 For our list of partners: Colophon.

7 Especially in his introduction (Gerson 1942/1983, p. 1-6).

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