The Museum of Fine Arts has received two collections of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish art, a vast trove of 113 paintings that catapults its Dutch collection to among the country’s very finest and represents one of the most important gifts in its 140-year history.
The donation, which includes masterpieces by Jan Steen and Peter Paul Rubens and what some consider the finest privately held portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, comes from Boston-area collectors Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie. It’s the largest gift of European paintings ever to the MFA.
The gift includes works by 76 artists but extends well beyond paintings: The donors are also establishing a Center for Netherlandish Art at the museum, a scholarly institute that will house the Haverkamp-Begemann Library, a collection of more than 20,000 books the van Otterloos are donating to the museum.
It is an embarrassment of riches and a major coup for the MFA, which in recent years has engaged in a not-so-quiet competition with several other museums in New England and beyond to acquire the van Otterloo collection. Museum of Fine Arts director Matthew Teitelbaum said the gift, which nearly doubles the museum’s holdings of Dutch art from the Golden Age, will create a collection of extraordinary depth.
“This takes a fairly good collection and puts it in the top ranks of museums showing the works of 17th-century Netherlandish art,” said Teitelbaum. “In the end it’s about the generosity of the donors. It’s a standard of excellence that’s truly inspiring.”
The museum declined to estimate the value of the donation. “It’s between us and the IRS,” Eijk van Otterloo joked. Both couples are longtime donors to the MFA; their artworks are promised gifts that will formally enter the museum’s collection over time. To celebrate the gift, the MFA has created a special installation showcasing works from the gift, which will be on view through Jan. 15.
The van Otterloo collection, among the most celebrated in private hands, contains 85 meticulously conserved paintings. The couple has built the collection methodically over three decades, purchasing only well-regarded works by revered masters while seeking examples of each type of painting produced during the Dutch Golden Age — from genre paintings and landscapes to portraits, church interiors, flower paintings, and cityscapes.
The collection brims with works by the likes of Gerrit Dou, Frans Hals, and Aelbert Cuyp. Its pride, however, must be “Portrait of Aeltje Uylenburgh,” Rembrandt’s 1632 tour de force.
“We have said from day one that our collection was only temporarily ours, and that at one point we would give it away,” said Rose-Marie van Otterloo. “The MFA already has an important Dutch and Flemish collection, and when we look at our collection and the other donors’, it makes a beautiful, cohesive collection. We complement each other.”
The Weatherbie collection features 28 works by Dutch and Flemish masters and what Matthew Weatherbie called “minor masters [who] occasionally rose to wondrous achievements.” The couple, who also began collecting in the late 1980s, have sought works of technical and aesthetic mastery that are in sterling condition.
Among the collection’s highlights is “Coronation of the Virgin,” a voluptuous work on panel by Peter Paul Rubens in which partially sketched putti show the artist’s mind at work.
“It’s been a wonderful shared adventure for the two of us,” said Matthew Weatherbie. “We were honored and thrilled to be asked to be part of this [gift].”
The Weatherbies have kept a low profile as collectors, occasionally loaning works anonymously but never exhibiting their entire collection. The van Otterloos, by contrast, have lent their collection broadly, mounting acclaimed exhibitions at the MFA, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and the Yale University Art Gallery.
The couple has also spoken candidly about their collection’s future, noting that a number of museums were in the running to receive the works. Ultimately, they said, it came down to two: the MFA and Yale.
“The real struggle was whether you want the collection to be accessible to a lot of people, or whether you are really aiming for academic interest,” said Eijk van Otterloo. “In the end, Rose-Marie and the MFA won out. The beauty of doing this is that the MFA has committed its full interest and resources and space to make the Netherlandish institute.”
Both the van Otterloos and the Weatherbies said the MFA’s interest in establishing the Netherlandish center was a critical factor in their decision. Set to open within the museum in 2020, the center will host scholars, students, curators, and conservators in an effort to expand understanding in the field and inspire a new generation of experts.
Another important aspect was the museum’s agreement to lend the collection broadly, promising that 85 percent of the collection will be on view at any given time — either at the MFA or on loan to another museum.
“We’ve grown up and lived with these images for so long that the idea of many of them spending eternity in the basement only to emerge once in a while was not something that made us comfortable,” said Susan Weatherbie. “This will be wonderful, because it will show most of the art most of the time.”
The van Otterloos, who recently donated $5 million to the MFA to help renovate and expand its conservation lab, said the museum’s plans will ensure the collection’s future.
“I can’t think of anything better,” said Rose-Marie van Otterloo, who added that Yale, Peabody Essex, and some other New England museums would be “preferred borrowers.”
“The MFA is going to do what we did with our collection. We lent from day one, so we want them to lend our collection freely to lots of different places all over the world, and care for it the way we did.”
Both couples are longtime patrons of the museum. Eijk van Otterloo, a cofounder of the investment management firm Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co., formerly served on the museum’s board of trustees, and Rose-Marie van Otterloo, who previously worked at Merrill Lynch, has chaired the collections committee and remains an honorary trustee. Susan Weatherbie, who worked in the legal field, previously chaired the museum’s patron committee, while Matthew Weatherbie, who founded Weatherbie Capital, formerly served as board secretary and remains an honorary trustee.
The celebratory gallery installation will include works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Cuyp, and Gerrit van Honthorst.
“It’s a beyond amazing gift — it leaves me speechless,” said Ronni Baer, senior curator of paintings. “There are so many ways you can install these paintings that amplify their meaning or understand the artist’s oeuvre better.”
The donation has been a momentous experience for Susan Weatherbie, who described it as “a bit of an out-of-body experience.”
“It’s surreal,” she said. “If you’d said we’d be at this moment in our lives 15 years ago, I’d have laughed because I couldn’t have comprehended it. We probably weren’t emotionally ready.
“But there’s a time for all things that happen in one’s life, and this seems to be the right time.”
Both the Weatherbies and the van Otterloos say they plan to continue collecting, tailoring some of their purchases to serve the greater collection.
“We just bought a painting today,” said Rose-Marie van Otterloo. “Once collecting is in your blood, you can’t get out of it.”
Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.