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Schmidt-Degener, F[rederik]

Date born:  1881

Place Born:  Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Date died:  1941

Place died:  Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Museum director; poet. Schmidt-Degener attended the Gymnasium at Rotterdam. He began studying Art History in Berlin continuing his study for four years further at the Sorbonne without completing a degree. In 1908 he became the Director of the Boymans Museum at Rotterdam. At the Boymans, he reorganized the museum and changed the installations in order to give a broader overview. As a museum reformer, he played a mayor role in the Rijkscommissie voor het Museumwezen (State Commission for Museum Affairs) set up in 1919. A museum, he insisted, was not principally a depository of art works for archivists and art historians to study, but rather a place for the public to enjoy beauty. He espoused exhibiting works of art for exhibition based upon their aesthetic merit, contending that works important primarily for study and research should be viewed separately. His appointment as Director of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum in 1921 brought the same dramatic reorganization to that museum as he had done in Rotterdam. He mixed objects of various media together in his installations, paintings with sculptures and other art objects in a manner similar to what Wilhelm von Bode (q.v.) had done in the Kaiser Friedrich Museum in Berlin. Separate departments of national history were opened in Rijksmuseum in 1930 and 1937. Schmidt Degener engaged in new acquisitions of art, including a series of Rembrandt paintings. He dedicated two exhibitions in 1932 and 1935 to the artist, who remained among his favorites. For the latter exhibition, Schmidt Degener visited the United States to borrow Rembrandt paintings. As an arbiter of taste, he was strongly attracted by artists who expressed their inner life in their works. Among Dutch artists, he preferred those who represented the early Netherlandish tradition of painting and sculpture before Italian or classical influences. He published several articles on foreign and Dutch art in De Gids, The Burlington Magazine and in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, and also wrote essays and monographs on his preferred painters: Rembrandt, Adriaen Brouwer, Frans Hals and, with the art historian H.E. van Gelder (q.v.), on Jan Steen. Schmidt Degener achieved an international reputation; the London exhibition of Dutch art at Burlington House in 1929 was mainly organized under his direction. It was this show which revealed his subjective taste. The Dutch historian and writer Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) puzzled over Schmidt Degener's scant appreciation of Vermeer. Indeed, Schmidt Degener regarded many seventeenth-century Dutch painters as minor artists because of the lack of drama in their works. His romantic view of Rembrandt as a misunderstood genius whose later works expressed the tragedy of his life, was strongly criticized in the 1960s by J.A. Emmens (q.v.). As an active and innovative museum director, however, Schmidt Degener's reputation is undisputed. His transformation of the Rijksmuseum from a “national depository of paintings” to a widely visited museum was largely his doing. Though he did not consider himself an art historian, he accepted a doctorate Honoris Causa from the University of Amsterdam in 1932. The advent of World War II made the final years of his life and career were very difficult. Just before the war he was obliged to place in safekeeping the most important paintings of his museum. In 1940 his wife died after a long illness and a year later he himself succumbed to a heart attack. MD

Home Country:  The Netherlands

Sources: Huizinga, J. “Herdenking van Frederik Schmidt Degener (10 December 1881 – 21 November 1941)” in Jaarboek der Nederlandsche Akademie van Wetenschappen. 1941-1942: 226-236; The Art Digest 16 (1941): 10; The Burlington Magazine 80 (1942): 77; Van Gelder, H.E. in Jaarboek van de Maatschappij der Nederlandsche Letterkunde te Leiden 1943-1945. Levensberichten: 207-224; Meijers, Debora J. “De democratisering van schoonheid. Plannen voor museumvernieuwingen in Nederland 1918-1921” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 28 (1977): 55-104 [with English summary]; De Jong, A.A.M. “Schmidt Degener, Frederik” in Charité J. (ed.) Biografisch woordenboek van Nederland 1. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1979: pp. 534-536; Luijten, Ger “‘De veelheid en de eelheid’: een Rijksmuseum Schmidt-Degener” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek 35 (1984): 351-429 [with English summary]; Luijten, Ger “Het Rijksmuseum als kunsthistorisch instituut” in Hecht, Peter; Stolwijk, Chris; Hoogenboom, Annemieke (eds.) Kunstgeschiedenis in Nederland. Negen opstellen. Amsterdam: Prometheus, 1998: 45-61.

Bibliography: Adriaen Brouwer et son évolution artistique. Brussels: G. van Oest, 1908; Frans Hals. Amsterdam, 1924; Rembrandt und der holländische Barock. Leipzig:  B. G. Teubner, 1928; and Van Gelder, H. E.  Quarante chefs-d'oeuvre de Jan Steen.  Paris: G. Crès, 1929; “Individualisme et tradition dans l’art hollandais” Gazette des Beaux-Arts (1935, 1): 80-93; “La Belgique et la Hollande, divergences artistiques” Gazette des Beaux-Arts (1935, 2): 1-16; “La double carrière de Rembrandt” Gazette des Beaux-Arts (1936, 1): 33-51; “L’image de la Hollande a travers son art” Gazette des Beaux-Arts (1936, 1): 163-183; Compositie-problemen in verband met Rembrandt's Schuttersoptocht.  Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsche uitgevers maatschappij, 1942; Phoenix: Vier essays: Rembrandts Vogel Phoenix; Herinnering aan Leopold; De eeuw van Flaubert; Rembrandt en Vondel. Amsterdam: J. M. Meulenhoff, 1942; Het blijvend beeld der Hollandse kunst. Verzamelde studiën en essays 1.  Amsterdam: J. M. Meulenhoff, 1949.