Don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of the Dutch sculptor Willem van Tetrode (circa 1525-1580), whose work is the subject of what might be described as belated debut at the Frick collection-belated, that is, by nearly half a millennium. Almost nobody has seen Tetrode’s work or even heard of it for a very long time, and back then it would likely have been under the Italian name Tetrode acquired while working in Italy: Guglielmo Fiammingo.
Tetrode is unknown in this country. So, for that matter, is virtually all Dutch Renaissance sculpture, of which there does not appear to have been an abundance, in any case. Our museums are well-stocked with the great masterpieces of Dutch painting-most of them from the 17th century-but even at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which I’ve visited many times since the 1990’s, I cannot recall seeing a sculpture by Tetrode or any other Dutch Renaissance sculptor. (It may be, of course, that I was so concentrated on the paintings that I didn’t bother to look at the sculpture.) Come to think of it, I don’t recall hearing the term “Dutch Renaissance” before reading the announcement of the current exhibition.
But there’s nothing particularly Dutch about Tetrode’s bronze figures, which are faithfully based on the Italian Renaissance conventions; his sculpture is essentially Italian in style, spirit and subject matter. Tetrode spent more than half of his career in Italy, and it was there-mainly in Florence and Rome-that he created the bulk of his sculptural oeuvre . Not surprisingly, he favors the standard classical subjects of the period: Venus, Apollo, Mercury, Jupiter, Hercules, Mars, sundry warriors (some on horseback) and portraits of the Roman emperor-there’s even a Christ. But all of this sculpture is on a small scale. We’re told that Tetrode’s major work (two altars in his native Delft) were destroyed in a wave of iconoclastic violence in 1573.
Would it be unkind to suggest that the Dutch Renaissance, such as it was, was something of a backwater? Perhaps. The Frick exhibition, in any case, does leave one with the impression that Tetrode was a “school of” minor master. Insofar as it can be said to have a distinctive aesthetic profile, it’s less the profile of a personality than the profile of a period. To this period style, Tetrode brought a well-trained technical competence, a modest charm and an eagerness to please. To his consistently heroic subjects, he brought a less than heroic talent. It’s the kind of work that makes one eager to revisit one’s favorites among the Old Masters.
To me, anyway, the accompanying catalog was a good deal more fascinating than the exhibition itself. Scrupulous-almost to a fault-in its detailed account of the many things that cannot firmly be established about Tetrode’s life and work, it nonetheless makes a determined attempt to retrace the course of his artistic development. But this often turns out to be a story with a fragmentary beginning, a problematic ending and a middle riddled with lacunae.
In the foreword, it’s promptly acknowledged that while “The Netherlands did spawn a few sculptors of international importance” in Tetrode’s lifetime, “their names have disappeared into obscurity and their work into anonymity.” Citing Tetrode as “a typical example,” the text tells us what is known about his professional itinerary: His long sojourn in Italy and his proximity to the major sculptors of his day brought him great fame under his Italian name, Guglielmo Fiammingo. Writers like Vasari and Lomazzo praised his work. Yet, partly because he returned to the north, his reputation soon waned in Italy, as it did in his native country after his death in 1580. Significantly, Vasari’s Dutch counterpart Carel van Mander makes no mention of the sculptor in his Schilder-boeck .
Then the catalog fast-forwards to 1939, when Gugliemo Fiammingo is identified as Willem van Tetrode from Delft. In the principal essay, the Rijksmuseum’s Frits Scholten valiantly attempts to provide us with a biographical outline of the artist, but this, too, is often discouraging. At some time between the age of 12 and 15 (around 1535), he was apprenticed to a master, but we don’t know what profession the young Willem studied or from whom he received his instruction, writes Mr. Scholten. Was sculpture involved in this instruction? Mr. Scholten is clearly doubtful, writing that there were few opportunities for this in Delft: The city didn’t have a special reputation in this field, and so on. Our interest brightens when we learn that Tetrode may have studied or worked with Benvenuto Cellini, but this account, too, is littered with sentences like: “One of the Dutchmen alluded to was probably Willem van Tetrode.” Indeed, the word “probably” and similar expressions of uncertainty are too frequently employed in the catalog to inspire confidence. We are clearly destined not to know very much about Tetrode even after this prodigious labor of research-and the sculpture itself doesn’t make us particularly eager to know more.
The Willem van Tetrode exhibition remains on view at the Frick collection, 1 East 70th Street, through Sept. 7.