Artfully Done

By Micah Buis '02

Even as an undergraduate, Susan Donahue Kuretsky ’63 put Vassar’s art collection to good use. Following the 1962 acquisition of Dutch artist Daniel Vosmaer’s painting View of a Dutch Village (c. 1660) by the Vassar College Art Gallery, Kuretsky studied the painting as part of her senior independent work in the art department and crafted an essay about it that appeared in the Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies (vol. 19, 1964).

Kuretsky now holds a Ph.D. from Harvard, is the Sarah Gibson Blanding Professor of Art at Vassar, and has authored or co-authored two books, three exhibition catalogues, and numerous articles or book chapters—but her undergraduate essay still makes its way into bibliographies of Dutch art. “I think that little paper has been cited more often than any of my other publications,” Kuretsky laughed. “Hardly anybody has worked on Vosmaer, who remains a relatively unsung hero of the Delft School.”

Now, decades later, that same Vosmaer painting is one of the centerpieces of the exhibition Time and Transformation in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art, which Kuretsky is curating at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (FLLAC). The exhibition opens April 8 and runs through June 19. “The beginnings of this project go back to my earliest encounters with art history as a Vassar undergraduate,” Kuretsky said. “That Vosmaer’s painting now appears in the exhibition (and is the cover illustration of its catalogue) testifies to the profound and cumulative effect of exposure to original objects in a college art museum.”

Kuretsky’s decision to study art history at Vassar wasn’t immediate. While she did take the trademark Art 105-106 during her sophomore year and described the first lecture of her first semester in the course, given by Professor of Art Christine Mitchell Havelock, as “analogous to a religious conversion,” Kuretsky carried on as an English major through her junior year. Vassar, unbeknownst to Kuretsky, was one of the first colleges in America with an art collection—purchased and donated by Matthew Vassar under the guidance of Trustee Elias Magoon—accessible to students for teaching and learning. By the time Kuretsky arrived at Vassar, the museum included thousands of objects, covering almost the entire history of art. “I knew nothing about the collection or even that the history of art was taught as a discipline,” Kuretsky said. “I discovered an entirely new field.”

Adriaen van de Velde, Pastoral Landscape with Ruins (1664), oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago
Adriaen van de Velde, Pastoral Landscape with Ruins (1664), oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago

Adriaen van de Velde, Pastoral Landscape with Ruins (1664),
oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago

Because she “had never been especially good at memorizing or spelling, and there were rumors that one had to remember a lot of names and places—many of them in strange and unknown tongues”—Kuretsky nearly avoided taking Art 105. And even though she confessed that her “first efforts in the course were anything but dazzling,” she said she “loved it immediately” and asks herself now, “Where would I be if I hadn’t taken Art 105?”

Much of Kuretsky’s love for the study of art grew from the art department’s insistence on the study of original works. She remembers a senior seminar on Old Master drawings she took with Curtis Baer, a well-known art collector enticed to teach at Vassar by the department’s inimitable chair, Agnes Rindge Claflin. From his home in New Rochelle, New York, Baer would bring priceless seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century drawings to Vassar in his briefcase, unpacking them directly onto the table in front of the small, wide-eyed seminar group. Through experiences such as this, Kuretsky learned “the joys of communing with works on paper.” Although she had no idea that any of these works would play a part in her future activities, one of the Baer drawings, Jacob van Ruisdael’s Ruined Cottage (c. 1655, now in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York), is another of the major works in the upcoming exhibition.

Kuretsky’s graduate studies saw continued interaction with original works; the required survey course at Harvard, in which she became a teaching fellow, was structured around the extensive collections in the Fogg Art Museum. Direct study of Rembrandt’s etching St. Jerome with the Pollard Willow (1648) became the subject of an essay and publication. One of the works that helped to define her own graduate studies, this image, too, will appear in the Time and Transformation exhibition. “To my amazement, these three examples—a painting, a drawing, and a print—[have] unexpectedly emerge[d] again all these years later to become cornerstones of this project,” Kuretsky said.

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Saint Jerome with the Pollard Willow (1648), etching and drypoint, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Saint Jerome with the Pollard Willow (1648), etching and drypoint, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College
At left, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Saint Jerome with the Pollard Willow (1648), etching and drypoint, The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College

The exhibition, which includes ninety-one objects, six of which are from Vassar’s collection, has arisen not only out of Kuretsky’s own encounters with art, but also out of recent seminars she has taught at Vassar, including 300-level courses on northern European landscape, ruins in Dutch art, Rembrandt and Dürer as master printmakers, and art and science in the age of Vermeer. “There’s no question that this exhibition has come right out of the classroom,” she said. “The discussions in these courses have stimulated reflection in and beyond class meetings, proving again and again that the best way to find out about something you don’t know—or to delve more deeply into something you do know—is to try teaching it. My students have been responsive in their looking, resourceful in their research, and often startlingly original in their thinking. My appreciation of them is boundless.”

Kuretsky didn’t always think of seminars in this way. “When I began teaching, I thought seminars were places to pass on detailed information—because I had been taught that way. Gradually I discovered that a dialogue is a lot more fun than a monologue; if you take a broad universal theme, but apply it to a very focused time and place in history, interesting things happen.” In fact, Kuretsky steers clear of attempting to establish one central question or concern for her seminars because of the way that can set artificial parameters on discussion. “I like to propose a topic and see where it goes, because what I really enjoy is taking the course as well as teaching it.”

Drawing from what she loved most as a student of art history—firsthand engagement with original works—Kuretsky also attempts to structure her courses around Vassar’s art collection whenever possible. She teaches a freshman course entitled “Exploring the Sense of Sight,” based entirely on works in the FLLAC, and her seminar in northern European art this year will take up the same issues explored in the Time and Transformation exhibition—namely how Dutch artists’ pervasive interest in ruins and related motifs points to a new consciousness of time that developed during the seventeenth century, when accurate measure of time was first made possible by the invention of pendulum and spring-driven timepieces by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens. Such consciousness (often positive or celebratory, as well as moralizing, Kuretsky noted) is especially apparent in scenes that show transformations of the physical world, either through the accumulation of years or by incursions of accidental forces such as fires and floods. When students can “talk about something that they can actually look at, no longer is study an abstract, solely intellectual endeavor,” Kuretsky believes. “It becomes completely alive.” And they respond positively to her museum-based pedagogical approach. Jason Schreiber ’05, an art major working with Kuretsky on his senior project and one of eight students assisting her with various aspects of the exhibition, took her seminar on printmaking in 2003. There were no slides, and all the pieces studied came from Vassar’s art collections. Schreiber described the course as “probably the best class I’ve taken at Vassar.”

Jan van Goyen, River Landscape with the Pellecussen Gate Near Utrecht (1648), oil on panel, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Jan van Goyen, River Landscape with the Pellecussen Gate Near Utrecht (1648), oil on panel, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Jan van Goyen, River Landscape with the Pellecussen Gate Near Utrecht (1648), oil on panel, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Kuretsky also has discussed key aspects of the exhibition’s subject matter with colleagues in Vassar’s art, classics, mathematics, and philosophy departments and hopes that those who visit the exhibition “will come and make their own connections across disciplines, especially the scientists.” She anticipates interest in the exhibition will extend beyond those who specifically study art by engaging a broader audience in larger questions about the nature of time and how it relates to human experience.

Time and Transformation, the first exhibition Kuretsky has curated entirely on her own, is also the largest and most expensive for the FLLAC. With works on loan from more than 20 major American museums—including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago—the exhibition is the first at Vassar to request and receive such strong “cooperation from major public museums,” Kuretsky said. “These larger museums usually approach us [to borrow works], since we are traditionally known as a lending-rich institution, and because they have the kind of budgets that permit large loan shows like Time and Transformation on a regular basis,” said FLLAC Director James Mundy ’74. In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Kuretsky has written an introductory essay and entries for all objects, and has invited five other scholars of Dutch art to contribute essays. After its run at the FLLAC, Time and Transformation will travel to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida (August 20 – October 30, 2005), and the J. B. Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky (January 15 – March 15, 2006).

Mundy pointed out that this exhibition “really does illustrate the importance of primary research and a faculty member delving into a particular area.” While such research usually surfaces in the form of a published book or article, “in this case it yielded an exhibition,” he said. Kuretsky admitted that in many ways “a book would have been a lot easier to produce.” But because she finds the “visual quality of the representations [in the exhibition] so glorious—including the many delicate images on paper”—she believes that it is vital to provide “not just scholarly documentation, but the experience of meeting these remarkable works of art in person.”

Photo credit: Will Faller

For more information on the exhibition, visit http://fllac.vassar.edu. Kuretsky’s original student paper on Vosmaer is available in the Online Additions section of this issue.