Mostly, drawings are in housed in museum collections, but if you live in a city like Turin, with its Biblioteca Reale; or Milan, with its Biblioteca Ambrosiana; you know that rich collections of drawings are also found in libraries. Paper is the common denominator and it’s worth remembering that drawings were kept in albums before they were put in mats and solander boxes.
The Biblioteca Nacional de España, which is celebrating its 300 anniversary, has made available a wonderful database of their collections. They have about 3,500 drawings online. The work of digitizing the collection began in 2008 and this month it launched the new interface. There are many ways to search. I filtered for drawings from between 1550 and 1600, and useful subcategories of drawings in pen, preparatory drawings, mythological drawings, drawings in albums, drawings of flowers, and many others appeared on the left of the screen. The images that appear are high resolution and can be magnified.
Among its riches is the Madrid Codex of Leonardo. It is full of drawings of pulleys, cogs, wheels–the stuff of industrial design–but of unimaginable fascination. There are places in the codex where the drawings are labeled with a + sign, where if you click on it, a short animation of the machine’s action appears.
A friend recently let me know that The Hague’s RKD, the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie or Netherlands Institute for Art History, has a research service where you can send an image of an artwork and they will look for comparative material. Their archive of photographs is immense. Erik Löffler, a curator at the RKD, has kindly answered some of my questions about the service and the RKD in general.
LV: Is it right that only a small percentage of the RKD’s images are in the online database? Is it the eventual aim to have everything online? Has Google approached places like the RKD offering their digitization services?
Erik Löffler: At this moment we have some 200.000 images online, out of ca. 7 Million. Until recently a total digitization seemed impossible, but things change, I notice that the subject is being discussed as a serious option now. We also started digtizing other useful sources, like the Hofstede de Groot Index Cards (comparable with the Getty Provenance index, 1.1 Million cards).
Erik Löffler at a free Art Evaluation Session
LV: How hard is it to index the collection and find the right keywords? How do you deal with different languages?
Erik Löffler: We use ICONCLASS which is in English and freely available for everyone; for fine tuning we also have our own keyword list. The interface for our databases (soon to be substituted by a more up-to-date version) is in Dutch and English; soon most of the content will also be available in English.
LV: What is your typical day like?
Erik Löffler: We often work on special projects: 19th Century atelier scenes, female artists, historical interior decorations. I am currently working on some 2000 new records in our databases: art collectors (of whom 258 American: from George Abrams to John Wrenn). We also write for specific exhibitions, and receive visitors at our premises: Dutch and foreign dealers, researchers and museum professionals; curators from the MET or the Hermitage are among our regular clients. We get some 6000 visitors a year (and 200.000 databse users). On a weekly basis we also check new publications and add literature to our database records, especially concerning Dutch and Flemish artists, foreigners who worked in the Netherlands and foreign artists who were influenced by ‘our’ painters.
LV: Can you speak about the RKD research services? Where do the requests for research come from? How many might there be in a month? Do you confer with other curators? How many people are there in your department?
Erik Löffler: I have more than one hundred colleagues; we may get between fifty and eighty requests a month. There are curators for Early Netherlandish Painting, 17th C. Landscapes, Still Lifes, 18th C., several for the 19th C., ‘Foreign Art’, Portraits, Topography, etc. I am specialised in Dutch and Flemish OMD.
LV: I expect you receive a lot of Rembrandt and Rembrandt school works to research. Any great discoveries there?
Erik Löffler: I must say we get less and less framed Rembrandt calendar pages… Prints are usually late impressions (or early reproductions), but last year we had a great Jan Victors painting, from a French castle (people drive to us from Belgium, France and Germany on these days). But at our free Art Evaluations Sessions we always do nice discoveries in minor masters; still to be seen on our home page is a watercolor by George Hendrik Breitner which showed up at one of these days.
LV: What are the fees for the service? And, the fees for scans and photographs?
Erik Löffler: Our prices can be found here. But a ‘quick look’ is free, and we always ask your permission before starting a paid research.
Reading Room at the RKD
LV: What’s with that fabulous ceiling?
Erik Löffler: The ceiling in the reading room, that’s after the Counts of Holland engravings by Cornelis Visscher II. As you may guess under these huge staring eyes non one would dare to maltreat our books and pictures…
LV: I see that there’s a site dedicated to The Rembrandt Database, which is in its early stages, and has 12 paintings and close to 2,000 written documents relating to those pictures. To start, the project will focus on paintings, then drawings that relate to paintings, and then drawings that are not connected to pictures. Any ideas when this will be?
Erik Löffler: To the Rembrandt Database we will first add more paintings, it would be great if in the end all known Rembrandt drawings could be included as well… The project is very important with a.o. money from Mellon.’
LV: You grew up partly in Italy?
Erik Löffler: As I grew up in Italy and speak Italian but also French, Spanish and German, and read Russian, my colleagues tend to put through to my phone everyone who speaks some ununderstandable language; especially Italians, French and Spaniards feel safer when they can speak their own language, so they tend to contact me. Even if I am not the specialist they need at least I understand their complaints about food and weather…. As a matter of fact the RKD has an important network function, no matter which museum you need to contact, there is always a colleague who knows someone there, and if not there is CODART which (as not everyone knows) is housed at the RKD!
LV: In an email you mentioned the writer Couperus.
Erik Löffler: I am myself also board member at the Louis Couperus Museum; he was a Dutch decadentist writer. It is of course useful for the RKD to have someone in the local museum world.