Art Restoration in the Early-Twentieth Century: Carel de Wild’s Transitional Role

  • Posted on Feb 20, 2018 by

Through my research as a Frick Art Reference Library intern, I was taken by the correspondence between Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) and Carel de Wild (1870–1922), a restorer and art dealer who advised the former. Poised at an exciting, transitional moment in the history of conservation and collecting, the story of de Wild reveals the shifting role of the early twentieth-century restorer.

After focusing on painting at the Royal Academy of Art, The Hague, de Wild studied restoration at museums in Vienna and Berlin through the sponsorship of Adelheid Emma Wilhelmina Theresia of Waldeck and Pyrmont (1858–1934), Queen Dowager of the Netherlands. He ran a successful restoration studio in The Hague near the Mauritshuis and worked for Goupil & Cie in Paris, France, before departing for the United States in 1911 (Van Duijn and Te Marvelde, 818). De Wild worked at M. Knoedler and Co. in New York City as a restorer, and assisted with art acquisitions and appraisals (Riefstahl, 1). At that time, America experienced a massive influx of European paintings. The change in environment from Europe to North America required specialized attention related to the artworks' conservation (Holler and Klose-Ulmann, 92). Accordingly, de Wild’s experience as a restorer and art advisor kept him busy. He formed relationships with well-known art collectors such as J.P. Morgan (1837–1913), Joseph E. Widener (1871–1943), and Frick, who purportedly “always followed [de Wild’s] advice.” (Riefstahl, 2; Bridge, 16 Feb. 1920).

Haverman, Hendrik Johannes. A portrait of the painter Carel de Wild. Christie's, Amsterdam. Artnet.com. Web. 26 Jul 2017.
Haverman, Hendrik Johannes. A portrait of the painter Carel de Wild. Christie's, Amsterdam. Artnet.com. Web. 26 Jul 2017.

Though research is no replacement for acquaintance, studying the letters of de Wild, I could not help but begin forming an impression of his character. Writing after the death of de Wild, the Medievalist scholar Rudolf Meyer Riefstahl (1880–1936) described his “simplicity…integrity through knowledge…[and] personal grace and charm” (Riefstahl, 2). While this sentiment is echoed in other accounts of de Wild’s life, it is also true that his strong opinions occasionally ruffled some feathers.

In 1917, Frick was urged by Abraham Bredius (1855–1946), an art historian and Rembrandt specialist as well as a former de Wild mentor, to remove the painting Old Woman with a Book, attributed at the time to Rembrandt (1606–1669) from his collection. Though Bredius had endorsed the work as a Rembrandt to its previous owner, Jules Porgés (1839–1921), he later changed his positon, telling Frick that it was likely by Rembrandt’s pupil Carel van der Pluym (1625–1672), if not a modern forgery. In so saying, he cast doubt on the qualifications of de Wild as an art advisor, since he had examined the work fully before approving Frick’s purchase. De Wild responded with a scathing five-page letter that denounces Bredius’s entire approach to art. He writes:

[No one] has studied paintings more devotedly than you have. But, you have never studied the medium itself, paint…It is my firm conviction that knowledge of this kind is indispensable…A profound student would never have told the world that [the painting] was a wonderful work by Rembrandt, to turn around and exclaim some years afterward –“no, this is never a Rembrandt, it seems not to be old even, it may be a spurious picture.” (Carel de Wild, 6 Feb. 1917)

From this, I gather that the main difference between Bredius and de Wild was one of methodology. De Wild prioritized studying the material of a painting, while Bredius favored stylistic assessments, which, as de Wild furiously notes, are subject to change. Today, neither perspective seems wholly off base. According to technical examination conducted by de Wild, who was an early proponent of pigment analysis, Old Woman with a Book must have dated back to the time of Rembrandt (de Wild, 6 Feb. 1917). On the other hand, perhaps thanks to Bredius, the painting is no longer displayed as a Rembrandt. 

The back-and-forth between the two men demonstrates the changing function of the restorer during this historical moment, while also indicating the tension between materiality and style that was of pivotal importance at the time. Although officially, his professional duties lay in the technical task of refurbishing art objects, de Wild writes here in an almost connoisseur-like capacity, providing his own assessment of the painting based on his experience with Rembrandt’s technique. For this reason, it is apparent to me that de Wild’s value to Frick consisted not only in his technical skills, but in his general knowledge of art, and the network of art experts to which he had access. The fact that de Wild was able to go head to head with a renowned historian like Bredius in such a manner is itself significant, and speaks to a level of international notoriety that served him well in his career. Coupled with other materials in the archive, this letter gives an impression of the twentieth-century restorer as one eager to engage with the art world at large, and to thoroughly evaluate the artworks he encountered, instead of just repairing them.

 Wild, de, Carel. Letter to Henry Clay Frick. 16 November 1916. Art Collecting Files of Henry Clay Frick, Series I: Purchases. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives, New York, NY.
Wild, de, Carel. Letter to Henry Clay Frick. 16 November 1916. Art Collecting Files of Henry Clay Frick, Series I: Purchases. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives, New York, NY. 

On the other hand, though de Wild was arguably as much of an advisor as he was a technician, his strident advocacy of a materials-based attitude towards both restoration and art history strikes me as especially telling. His insistence that art professionals were responsible for being familiar with the physical materials of the artworks they analyzed was evidently not the norm at the time, given Bredius’s swift dismissal of it. One could contend that de Wild’s empirical method of art analysis proved predictive of later trends, given the current prevalence of the scientific examination of art.  

For those interested in de Wild, I have written a Wikipedia entry about him and his family, a group of art professionals who were likewise progressive in their roles.

Ingrid Kottke, Intern, Frick Art Reference Library


Works Cited

Bridge, John Howard. Letter to H.C. McEldowney. 16 February 1920. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives, New York, NY. 

Holler, Manfred J., and Barbara Klose-Ullmann. “Art Goes America.” Journal of Economic Issues, vol. 44, no. 1, 2010, pp. 89–112.

Riefstahl, R. M. Household Furniture, Important Paintings & Objects of Art: From the Estate of the Late Carel F. L. de Wild, Expert on paintings and Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. New York: Electronic Reproduction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2014: Anderson Galleries, Inc. 1924.

Van Duijn, Esther; Te Marvelde, Mireille. "The Art of Conservation VII: Hopman and De Wild: The historical importance of two Dutch families of restorers". Burlington Magazine, vol. 158, no. 1363, 2016, pp. 812–823.

Wild, de, Carel. Letter to Abraham Bredius. 6 February 1917. Art Collecting Files of Henry Clay Frick, Series I: Purchases. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives, New York, NY. 


Banner image: Wild, de, Carel. Detail. Letter to Henry Clay Frick. 16 November 1916. Art Collecting Files of Henry Clay Frick, Series I: Purchases. The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives, New York, NY. 

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