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Interview with Christopher D. M. Atkins, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Interview with Christopher D. M. Atkins, Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and author of The Signature Style of Frans Hals: Painting, Subjectivity, and the Market in Early Modernity (Amsterdam University Press, 2012).


Javier Berzal: What attracted you to Frans Hals [1580-1666] in the first place?

Christopher Atkins: First of all, I love the paintings of Frans Hals. More specifically, I love the way that he painted. From the moment I first saw his works in person, I was enraptured by the bold, bravura strokes of paint that punctuate his best pictures. Second, I was struck by the relative dearth of scholarship on Hals. In contrast to Rembrandt and Vermeer, which have been the subjects of innumerable recent studies, for example, there appeared to be more opportunity to engage Hals’s art in a significant way.

JB: Your book constitutes the first in-depth study of Hals in a couple of decades. What accounts for this art historical silence on such an important painter?

CA: I think that several factors contributed. Seymour Slive produced a wonderful catalogue raisonné in the early 1970s. At almost the same time, Claus Grimm published a monograph. Then, in the early 1990s both Slive and Grimm again produced dueling publications. So, on the one hand, these two specialists produced four major works between them that may have left others with the feeling that there was little else to be said. On the other, Slive and Grimm disagreed in many instances, mainly about attributions. So, they dominated the discussion and directed other discussions to terms of attributions.

I also think that Hals did not capture scholarly attention in the 1990s and early 2000s because his art did not seem to lend itself to art historical methodologies then in vogue. To over simplify, his paintings are, in my mind, inherently modern and therefore difficult to examine through post-modern lenses.

JB: In Modernist Painting, Clement Greenberg writes “The Old Masters had sensed that it was necessary to preserve what is called the integrity of the picture plane: that is, to signify the enduring presence of flatness…” It is often forgotten the subtle ways in which Greenberg traces back (and depends on) the development of modernism in early modern Europe.

CA: Absolutely. Greenberg’s formulations are firmly grounded in a long history of modernist discourse. Greenberg develops from Wölfflin who develops from formulations that date back at least as far back as the sixteenth century. Indeed, illuminating this undulating trajectory of modernist concerns as registered in responses to Frans Hals was one of the primary aims of my concluding chapter.

JB: Do you think that Hals shares a set of concerns—or “problems,” as Michael Baxandall would say—with other 17th century artists? Some of the stylistic issues you raise in your book reminded me of Velázquez. It is also interesting the connection between both painters and Manet.

CA: Hals absolutely shared concerns with other seventeenth-century artists. I have just written an essay for the exhibition catalogue Frans Hals: Eye to Eye with Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt (Frans Hals Museum 2013) that suggests that Hals and Rembrandt shared a desire to make painterly paintings – paintings that explore the very condition of being paintings. I argue, in part, that in the context of the paragone – the conceptual argument over the relative merits of painting and sculpture – Hals and Rembrandt tried to make paintings that do what only paintings can.

Velázquez also comes to mind, to be sure. In fact, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many linked Hals and Velázquez together. As far as we know, these two greats who were exact contemporaries did not know each other or each other’s paintings. They both developed, to a degree, from Rubens’ example. But, it is more correct to say, I think, that they shared aesthetic concerns that might have been instigated by Rubens’ own pictorial experimentations. That Manet looked to both Velázquez and to Hals, as did Sargent and Whistler among others, brings the matter full circle.

JB: In your book, you bridge the distance between the 17th and modern art. Can you see this interest becoming an exhibition in itself?

CA: I think that an exhibition that illuminates connections between seventeenth-century art and modern art would be a worthwhile exhibition. Books and exhibitions are related but different forms of exploration. So while I attempted to engage the matter a bit in a book, it does not preclude a related or expanded exhibition project. Exhibitions pose questions somewhat differently, make arguments differently, and often reach different audiences.

JB: As you contemplate future curatorial possibilities, are there any exhibitions you would like to develop?

CA: I have just taken up my post here at the Museum. So, I am just beginning to explore what projects I will undertake in the near future. That said, I am very much interested in initiating exhibitions that explore the legacies of early northern European paintings and the aesthetics that created them. We might, for example, do some sort of juxtaposition of seventeenth-century Dutch art and nineteenth-century French art. Amazingly, this has never been examined thoroughly in an exhibition. And, it might help balance the image forged by the Manet-Velázquez exhibition. I am also contemplating an exhibition built around our great painting of Prometheus by Rubens. It is a highlight of the collection, and one that I think has not been properly studied. In many ways, Prometheus (the painting and the myth) is at the nexus of several aesthetic dialogues percolating throughout Europe in Rubens’ lifetime. And, as an artist active in myriad locations, he was an ideal conduit for circulating and fanning many of these topics, including through his pictures.

In any event, I believe firmly that, as with modernism, issues and concerns explored by pre-modern artists reverberate through history and resonate with us today. So, probing some of these resonances is something I am keen to do. Doing so not only illuminates the impact of historical material but it might also help us understand aspects of our contemporary moment. I hope that much of my work at the Museum will push and pull these issues either through exhibitions, publications related to our permanent collection, and/or through other forms of public programming.


Click here for more information on The Signature Style of Frans Hals


Javier Berzal de Dios is a History of Art Ph.D. Candidate at the Ohio State University.


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