Friday, 27 February 2015




This week’s Person of Note highlights the incredible career of Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) curator Walter Liedtke. Sadly, Liedtke passed away on February 3rd  2015 after the Valhalla train crash in New York. His passing has sparked an outpour of tributes, with those who knew him or were admirers his work sharing stories about how he affected them. To glance through a few of the memories shared, it is obvious that Walter was very much loved.

Walter Liedtke in front of Peter Paul Rubens's Rubens, his Wife Helena Fourment and their son Frans. ca. 1635. Oil on Wood (source: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Liedtke joined the Met after receiving a post-graduate Mellon Fellowship. He then became a curator of European Paintings in 1980. For the next thirty-five years, Liedtke developed exhibitions featuring Dutch and Flemish paintings. One of his most notable exhibitions was Vermeer and the Delft School (2001), which brought together fifteen of Vermeer’s thirty-four attributed paintings.  The exhibition displayed paintings by thirty artists, in addition to a selection of tapestries, ceramics, and silverware. The scope of the objects framed Vermeer’s work in the context of seventeenth-century Holland. The exhibition was successful in attracting 555,000 visitors during its three month run and resulted in the publication of the most comprehensive catalogue survey of the arts in Delft. 

Although I never personally met Liedtke, I was a great admirer of his exhibitions and publications. As an undergraduate art history student, my first experience with a ‘real-life’ Vermeer was at the Met at Liedtke’s 2009 exhibition Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid. The exhibition celebrated the four-hundredth anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage from Amsterdam to Manhattan, bringing one of Vermeer’s most celebrated works to America for the first time since 1939. This exhibition explored aspects of international trade in the Netherlands and its affect on the Dutch Golden Age. Liedtke’s passion for Dutch and Flemish art was apparent in his exhibitions and in his writing. His fondness for the Met’s collection was noted by the Director Thomas P. Campbell. In his tribute to Liedtke, Campbell wrote, "he knew those pictures like old friends, and described them with an intimacy and spirit that was mesmerizing."

Johannes Vermeer. A Maid Asleep. 1657. Oil on Canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art (source: Wikipedia)

Outside of the Met, Liedtke and his wife Nancy raised horses at their farm in Westchester County. After the announcement of his passing the Met posted a podcast where Liedtke described his personal connection to Dutch painting. As a child, he would respond to visual patterns rather than narrative structures. He was intrigued by "the play between perception and making a picture" which may have led to his early interest in Vermeer. Liedtke described Vermeer's work as "complicated and simple, at the same time." While the pictures seem simple on the surface, his compositions were the product of careful study and observation. Liedtke believed the tranquility of Vermeer's paintings appeal to modern audiences because of the busyness in our everyday lives.

Many people who have mourned Liedtke's passing never met him, but felt connected to him through his work at the Met. He will be sorely missed, but has left an incredible legacy and lasting impact on those with whom he shared his love of art. 

If you are interested in exploring Liedtke's catalogue for Vermeer and the Delft School, it is available online through Met Publications here

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