On 8 January 2008, Martin Feldstein (1939-2019) made a stark prediction: the United States was facing a recession. Eight months later, Lehman Brothers collapsed spectacularly, triggering a financial crash that swept across the globe.
Fiscal planners would have been wise to listen — Feldstein was a distinguished Harvard professor who had chaired President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers as well as mentoring a director of the National Economic Council, a chief economist of the World Bank and U.S. Treasury secretary, and a Nobel Prize winner.
One man did hear him: Barack Obama. In 2009, the incumbent President asked Feldstein to help him plan a way out of the crisis.
‘There’s no doubt that Feldstein helped to shape policy responses to some of the most important financial events of the past 40 years,’ says John Hawley, a specialist in Christie’s Old Masters department. ‘But he also amassed one of America’s great private collections of Dutch Golden Age art.’
On 15 October Christie’s in New York is organising a dedicated sale of 33 works from that collection, with low estimates ranging from $4,000 to $300,000.
Art and economics
Feldstein was born in New York in 1939. Known as Marty to his friends, he studied at Harvard before completing a doctorate at Oxford, where he became one of the first economists to analyse data using a computer.
In 1967 he returned to Harvard, where he spent 20 years teaching the university’s popular Economics 10a course and penned more than 300 research papers. He and his wife Kathleen became part of a small, close-knit circle of fellow Harvard alumni, all of whom were passionate about the art of the Dutch Golden Age.
Feldstein took advice on his collecting journey from Peter Sutton, a curator at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts between 1985 and 1994, and the author of Masters of 17th-Century Dutch Landscape Painting. The two became good friends.
‘Marty was an extremely nice man, which is rare in such accomplished people,’ recalls Sutton. ‘He pursued Dutch landscapes with an avid focus. One of his first purchases was a landscape by Jan Josefsz. van Goyen, which set the tone for what followed.’
‘Marty enjoyed living with his pictures. It satisfied something essential in his life’ — curator and author Peter Sutton
In fact, Feldstein’s taste was so focused that the majority of his collection can be dated to a 15-year window: 1625-1640. ‘That was the period of the so-called Early Realist and Tonalist Dutch landscape painters, such as van Goyen, Salomon van Ruysdael and Pieter de Molijn,’ explains Sutton.
These artists ushered in a new, refined taste in Dutch art. ‘They created elegantly arranged, sparse landscapes in earthy tones, with a loose, painterly approach,’ says Hawley. ‘They represent the understated confidence of a country rapidly ascending to become the world’s economic power.’
Put simply, these pictures were made for the new middle class that had emerged with Holland’s rapid industrialisation, dominance of world trade and invention of the stock market — at the peak of Amsterdam’s power in the 17th century, the city is thought to have been home to more professional painters than any other European country.
So was Feldstein drawn to this window of European art because of the gilded economy that sustained it?
‘I don’t think it was a principle of his collecting,’ says Sutton. ‘Dutch art was simply a personal taste, and Marty enjoyed living with his pictures. It satisfied something essential in his life.’
Feldstein enjoyed sharing his pictures with others, too, and would happily lend them to the MFA and Harvard’s Fogg Museum. Since his death in 2019, several of his pictures have been secured for the permanent collections of both the MFA and The Frick Collection in New York.
Of the works on sale at Christie’s, Hawley singles out an oval by Jan Steen, above. ‘Steen’s gift for wry humour is heartily felt in this early work,’ he says.
‘Much like contemporary scenes of quack doctors, the female pamphleteer and her accomplices seem to be swindling the unsuspecting crowd of their hard-earned money. The crisp atmosphere, with its luminous, billowy clouds, is indebted to the work of van Goyen — which is hardly surprising, considering Steen married the master’s daughter.’
Another work noted by the specialist is Rembrandt’s etching The Landscape with the Cow — which, despite being just 10 x 13 centimetres in size, is filled with lofty space.
‘The impression in the Feldstein Collection has long been regarded as a particularly fine example of this print,’ says Hawley. ‘Marty acquired it on the advice of Clifford Ackley, the curator of prints and drawings at the MFA.’
Further highlights include an early seascape by Jan Porcellis (‘it’s a jumping-off point for naturalist marine paintings, and a rare picture by an artist only represented in three American public collections’), as well as the landscape pictured at the top of this feature by van Ruisdael — the most important Dutch landscapist of the 17th century.
‘Without Ruisdael there would have been no Constable, no Gainsborough and no Turner,’ says Hawley.
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The Martin Feldstein Collection: Dutch Art in the Golden Age will be on view between 10 and 14 October at Christie’s in New York, as part of Classic Week Fall 2020, ahead of its sale on 15 October.