Abraham Bredius’ notebooks: a newly disclosed source for research

Irene Meyjes

The annotations by the famous art historian Abraham Bredius (1855-1946) constitute an indispensable and valuable source for researchers of seventeenth-century Dutch masters. At the beginning of 2019, his notes on painters and cities, encompassing approximately half of the eight-metre-long Bredius archive, were digitised. In preparation for this, an inventory was made of the archive that Bredius bequeathed to the RKD after his death.1 In addition to thousands of annotations, this archive contains manuscripts, correspondence, and a number of seventeenth-century documents.

The researcher and his annotations
At the age of 21, Bredius made a grand tour through Italy under the auspices of his wealthy father. It proved to be a life-changing experience; he was utterly captivated by the classical temples as well as by St Peter’s Basilica and the Renaissance palaces. He quickly learned Italian and joined circles of art experts, including August Fischer from Breslau, who encouraged him to become an art historian.2 The rhetorical question Wilhelm Bode, ‘Direktorialassistent’ (assistant to the director) in the Gemäldegalerie of the Königlichen Museen zu Berlin, posed to Bredius in 1878, put him on the right track: ‘Shouldn’t you in first place study your own old Dutch art and introduce some order and structure in this chaos?’3

Back in the Netherlands, Bredius found himself in a country which, at the time of King William III, had little interest in art and cultural heritage. According to Victor de Stuers, ‘To characterise the condition in which the monuments of art and history find themselves in this country, the word wretched is certainly most apt.’4 In this cultural wasteland, Bredius was one of the first in the Netherlands to conduct research on Dutch artists of the Golden Age.5 With unbridled energy and perseverance he combed city and regional archives for genealogical and other biographical data. He sifted through estate inventories, baptism, marriage, and burial registers in search of details about painters.6 He copied signatures in notarial deeds on tracing paper, so that he could compare them with those on paintings and thus verify attributions.7 Bredius cranked out articles about his finds, including (from 1886 until his death in 1946) in the section ‘Archiefsprokkelingen’ (Archive gleanings) in Oud Holland.8 He safeguarded his annotations as though they were treasures: ‘In his study one sees in a corner an oak cupboard [...] a disguised safe [...] Heaps of them are piled up there’ [1].9


Notes and manuscript by Abraham Bredius for ‘Archiefsprokkelingen’ about Cornelis Jansz van Ceulen
The Hague, RKD, Abraham Bredius Archive (0380), inv. no. 880

‘Travel, travel [...] having eyes to see ...’10
About 95% of the Bredius Archive at the RKD consists of his annotations, the result of his activities researching primary sources. The fact that Bredius also looked closely at paintings, developing a connoisseur’s eye, is clear from a special category of notes. These are 46 small notebooks with comments from the period 1879-1904, when he was assistant director of the Nederlands Museum van Geschiedenis en Kunst (1880-1888) and as director of the Mauritshuis (1889-1909). They are tangible proof of his motto: ‘You see, a museum director must travel! Take many, many journeys. He needs to know the museums, to be on good terms with the art dealers, but above all [...] to carefully examine the unexplored territory: the private collections! [...] you have to be clever then – making your move at the right moment in order to obtain a representative painting. [...] And then not to be too frugal.’11 In addition to the books in the archive, during the inventory it emerged that a number of notebooks were still in the Mauritshuis. In 1991, when the Bredius, Rembrandt and the Mauritshuis!!! exhibition was being organised, they were given to the museum by the son of art dealer J.H.J. Mellaart, who knew Bredius well.12 The Mauritshuis has now kindly donated these eleven booklets from the years 1879-1902 to the RKD.

The notebooks reveal that Bredius made annotations, face to face with the works of art, while on the go. Typical are the spontaneous descriptions in (coloured) pencil and in rapid handwriting: ‘a beautiful bit of landscape,’ ‘the most excellent piece [...] and wonderfully tenderly done,’ ‘painted as a Delft Vermeer,’ ‘with broad, thick strokes [...] a gloriously melancholy and woeful expression.’13 Sometimes he made a sketch of a painting, or copied a coat of arms or a signature. He usually gave the year in the front, but rarely wrote the date in full. The fact that some notebooks bear the monogram ‘K.W.’ with a date in a different handwriting indicates a later processing of the notes by an (as yet unidentified) employee.

In the years that he used these notebooks, Bredius travelled to London and Paris almost annually. His first such pocket notebook of a visit to London dates from 1881; the first Paris book from 1888. In London he often visited the most important museums, namely the British Museum, the South Kensington Museum and the Royal Academy. Names of art dealers such as P. & D. Colnaghi and Charles W. Dowdeswell recur regularly. Among the private collections Bredius visited and took notes on were those of Thomas Humphry Ward, George Salting, Henry Joseph Pfungst, Lord Ellesmere, the Duke of Wellington and The Wallace Collection. In Paris he frequented collectors such as George Edouard Warneck and Maurice Kann, as well as the art dealers Charles Sedelmeyer and the firm of F. Kleinberger, from whom he bought Carel FabritiusGoldfinch in 1896.14 In Berlin he routinely visited Wilhelm Bode and the city’s museums. From his Berlin notes it emerges that Bredius also had access to museum depots and had met the important restorer Alois Hauser, whom he commissioned to restore paintings in the Mauritshuis’ collection.15 Bredius’ notebooks are also full of entries on various collections scattered throughout numerous German cities, as well as in Vienna, and in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Collections in Poland, Galicia and Russia
Bredius made an exceptional trip to Eastern Europe in 1897, with St Petersburg as his final destination. In his travel journal, dated Moscow, 3 June 1897, he noted that he had already seen seven unknown Rembrandts, even before having arrived in St Petersburg!16 In Poland he visited collections in Warsaw and in the Zamoyska Palace near Lublin. Next he studied collections in Cracow and Lemberg in Galicia, where Dzikóv Castle of Count Zdzislaw Tarnowski, and Podhorce Castle of Prince Sanguszkov, stadholder of Galicia, who owned five hundred paintings, were also located. On his way to St Petersburg, Bredius visited Kiev and Moscow.17 One of the highlights of this trip, as emerges from his enthusiastic words, was his visit – after obtaining the necessary introductions – to the aforementioned Dzikóv Castle. Wilhelm Bode had told Bredius that there was a possible Rembrandt there, although the painting was also said to be by one his pupils. Accordingly, Bredius’ expectations were not particularly high. However, in his notebook he wrote: ‘The piece attributed to Rembrandt – rider on horseback (from the coll. of King Stanislaw Poniatowsky) [is] delightfully genuine!!’ Bredius described the painting on three subsequent pages, with a sketch of the rider’s face, and concluded ‘everything [is] wonderfully broadly painted’ [2].18 His account expresses his ‘Fingerspitzengefühl,’ intuition, allowing him to recognise a genuine Rembrandt at a glance: ‘There the painting hung! One look at the whole, an investigation of only a few seconds into the technique were all that was necessary to instantly convince me that one of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces had been hanging here in this remote place for almost 100 years! [...] All my attempts to acquire it for Holland were in vain. [...] However, perhaps we will see it at an exhibition of Rembrandt’s paintings in Amsterdam in 1898: this has all but been promised to me.’19 And, indeed, undoubtedly through Bredius’ mediation, the following year The Polish Rider was shown in the large Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum [3].20


From Abraham Bredius’ notebook of 1897, description of The Polish Rider by Rembrandt in the collection of Count Tarnowski Dzikóv Castle in Galicia
The Hague, RKD, Abraham Bredius Archive (0380), inv. no. 1060

The Polish Rider c. 1655
oil on canvas 116,8 x 134,9 cm
New York City, The Frick Collection, inv./cat. no 1910.1.98

Sideroff and Rembrandt
Once in St Petersburg, Bredius made another spectacular find. During his visits to the (then Imperial) Hermitage he discovered ‘a real Rembrandt, the beautiful old lady, under the eyes of the directors.’ He saw this small panel in the quarters of the restorer Sideroff, who lived in the Hermitage and had permission to trade in paintings.21 Bredius bought Praying Woman (c. 1660), but over the years he began to doubt whether it was ‘a Rembrandt’ and from 1912 attributed it to his pupil Carel Fabritius.22 Bredius visited Sideroff several times, where he saw works by Pieter Mulier, Gerard de Lairesse, Gijsbert de Hondecoeter, Herman Saftleven, Joachim Wtewael, Philips Wouwerman, and David Teniers, among others. Incidentally, it turns out that Bredius was not very fond of Sideroff’s restoration work: ‘2 delightful late portraits by Rembrandt, date illegible ... have recently been entirely relined. Disgracefully maltreated by Sideroff and his hacks.’ Bredius also wrote that they should both be sent to restorer Hauser in Berlin, as should a painting by Is[aak] van Ostade that was ‘seriously compromised.’23 The same notebook also contains annotations about and sketches of works from the collection of Sergei Alexandrović Stroganoff, including Rembrandt’s Son Titus in a Monk’s Habit by Rembrandt [5] and a Portrait of Peter Paul Rubens and his Son [6].24

Bredius’ trip to Russia took place while he was director of the Mauritshuis, hence any correspondence with collectors from Poland and Russia can be found in that museum’s archive. The archive of the RKD, however, does contain a diary (c. 1913) written by Pyotr Semenov-Tyan-Shansky describing the works by Dutch and Flemish masters he owned. Bredius visited the Semenov collection, incorporated in the Hermitage, on 9 and 27 August 1897.25 In that diary, Semenov also recorded his recent acquisitions (via art dealer Frederik Muller & Co) and praised Bredius for his recent purchase of a painting by Salomon van Ruysdael.26 The only letter from a Russian collector in the archive dates from 1912 and is from Paul Delaroff, whose collection Bredius had visited in 1897. In 1908 and 1909, loans from the Delaroff collection were on display in the Mauritshuis and Museum de Lakenhal. In Delaroffs letter, referred to above, he sent Bredius a photograph (unfortunately now missing) of a painting that he suspected was an early Rembrandt. Pending Bredius’ judgement, he could acquire it inexpensively for the museum in Leiden.27

The archive that Bredius bequeathed to the RKD is a reflection of his decades of archival research and his expertise in the field of seventeenth-century Dutch masters. Bredius steadily built up his international network, which included leading art dealers, and had the right connections to gain access to the most prominent collectors: from industrialists and bankers to counts and princes. His close ties with museum directors and art dealers also enabled him to obtain important loans from foreign collections for the Mauritshuis and other Dutch museums or to buy interesting works. His notebooks, in particular, bear witness to the many trips he made to study foreign collections, whereby his knowledge and expertise continued to evolve. These notes provide a lively picture of countless interesting (private) collections and the art trade, and certainly warrants further research. After stepping down as director of the Mauritshuis in 1909, Bredius continued to work energetically as a researcher, author, collector, expert and patron. He published his Rembrandt schilderijen. 630 afbeeldingen at the age of eighty. According to Bredius’ preface, Rembrandt’s life and work had become the wonderful main goal of his own life.28


From Abraham Bredius’ notebook of 1897, detail of sketches of paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens in the collection of Count Sergej Alexandrović Stroganoff in St Petersburg
The Hague, Abraham Bredius Archive (0380), inv. no. 1058

Rembrandt’s Son Titus in a Monk’s Habit 1660
oil on canvas 79,5 x 67,7 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv./cat. no. SK-A-3138

Anonymous (Southern Netherlands) after Peter Paul Rubens
Portrait of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and his Son after 1623
oil on canvas 129 x 109 cm
St Petersburg, Hermitage, inv./cat. no 7728


1 The Hague, RKD ̶ Netherlands Institute for Art History, Abraham Bredius Archive (0380) (AAB). The inventory will be published in RKDarchives within the not too distant future. For the bequest and supplemental gifts, see RKD Annual Reports 1944-1945, p. 4; 1946, pp. 4-5; 1953, p. 4. More archival documents were bought at an auction in 1992, and two bequests were made. See also, J. Kosten, ‘“New” archival notes by Dr Abraham Bredius,’ RKD Bulletin (2015) no. 2, pp. 3-8. For a biography of Bredius, see Barnouw-de Ranitz, ‘Abraham Bredius, een biografie’ in: Museum Bredius. Catalogus van de schilderijen en tekeningen, Zwolle 1991 (3rd ed.), pp. 12-27.

2 J. Gram, ‘Dr. Abraham Bredius’, offprint in Het Leeskabinet, [place unknown] February 1899, pp. 6-8. In his first publication (in De Nederlandsche Spectator, January 1879), Bredius described his trip with Fischer.

3 Ibid., p. 9. For correspondence with Bode from 1884 and 1900-1913, see RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1129.

4 V. de Stuers, ‘Holland op zijn smalst’ in: De Gids November 1873, pp. 320-403.

5 R.E.O. Ekkart, ‘Grondleggers van het kunsthistorisch apparaat’ in: P. Hecht, A. Hoogenboom and C. Stolwijk (ed.), Kunstgeschiedenis in Nederland. Negen opstellen, Amsterdam 1998, pp. 9-24. Ekkart called Frederik Obreen the first art historical researcher.

6 M. Spliethoff, J. Hoogsteder, and R. Soetenhorst, ‘In de voetsporen van Abraham Bredius’ in: The Hoogsteder Journal, (2001) no. 8, p. 7. Bredius learned palaeography in order to be able to read old handwriting. RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1008: it emerges from Bredius’ manuscript that he only sporadically came across estate inventories.

7 C. Harms Tiepen, Interviews met merkwaardige personen van onzen tijd. Dr. A. Bredius over schilderijen-onderzoek en museumbeheer, Amsterdam 1913, p. 37: ‘… through a comparison of the signatures … determined that a canvas, always attributed to Frans Hals, was by Harmen Hals.’

8 See Dr. Abraham Bredius 1855-1925. Album hem aangeboden op 18 april 1925. Amsterdam 1925, pp. 47-69, for a survey of Bredius’ publications. For his publications from 1925, see M. de Boer and J. Leistra, Bredius, Rembrandt en het Mauritshuis!!!, exhib. cat., The Hague (Mauritshuis) 1991, pp. 112-114.

9 Gram 1899 (note 2), p. 13.

10 Harms Tiepen 1913 (note 7), p. 35.

11 Ibid., pp. 43-44. The travel journals and diaries mentioned in Dr. Abraham Bredius 1855-1925 (note 8), p. 19, are not part of the archival material at the RKD, nor are his sketchbooks mentioned in Gram 1899 (note 2), p. 8.

12 Correspondence with J.H.J. Mellaart of 1918-1919 and 1922-1924 are in the RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1113. For the bequest of the notebooks, see M. de Boer, ‘Reisaantekeningen van Bredius cadeau’ in: Mauritshuis Nieuwsbrief (1991) no. 4, p. 6.

13 RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1055.

14 De Boer and Leistra 1991 (note 8), p. 42. RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1054. Curiously, Bredius did not include The Goldfinch in his notebook of 1896.

15 RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1056. For Hauser, see De Boer and Leistra 1991 (note 8), pp. 21, 34, 50.

16 A. Bredius, ‘Onbekende Rembrandts in Polen, Galicië en Rusland’ in: De Nederlandsche Spectator (1897) no. 25, pp. 1-9.

17 Ibid., p. 7. Notebooks of Bredius’ sojourn in Moscow are missing, but from his travel journal it emerges that he saw two Rembrandts – both heavily retouched – in the Roumiantsov Museum.

18 RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1060.

19 Bredius 1897 (note 16), p. 4.

20 Rembrandt. Schilderijen bijeengebracht er gelegenheid van de inhuldiging van Hare Majesteit Koningin Wilhelmina, exhib. cat. Amsterdam (Stedelijk Museum) 1898, cat. no. 94 (of 123): Portrait of a Polish Rider in the Costume of the Regiment of Lysowsky, in a Landscape. Henry Clay Frick bought the painting in 1910; The Frick Collection, New York, inv. no. 1910.1.98.

21 Gram 1899 (note 2), p. 12. For Sideroff, see RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1058.

22 The current attribution reads: ‘circle of Rembrandt’; since 1946 in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. no. 610.

23 RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1058. ‘Both to Hauser’ and ‘tell [them] to send Rembr. to Hauser,’ Bredius noted.

24 Rembrandt, Rembrandt’s Son Titus in a Monk ‘s Habit (1660); in the Rijksmuseum since 1933, inv. no. SK-A-3138. Anonymous (Southern Netherlands), Portrait of Peter Paul Rubens and his Son: in the Hermitage since 1932, inv. no. 7728.

25 RKD, AAB, inv. no. 1060 en 1061. See, I. Sokolova, Russian passion for Dutch painting of the Golden Age. The collection of Pyotr Semenov and the art market in St Peterburg, 1860-1910, Leiden/Boston 2015, p. 1. After the Liechtenstein Gallery in Vienna, this was the richest European private collection of Dutch and Flemish art with 617 original works.

26 Ibid., inv. no. 1003. See De Boer and Leistra 1991 (note 8), pp. 90-91 for Bredius’ purchase in 1911: River View with Church and Ferry by Salomon van Ruysdael; since 1946 in the Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis, The Hague, inv. no. 738.

27 Ibid., inv. nos. 1055 and 1120. For Paul Delaroff, see Sokolova 2015 (note 25), pp. 82-85.

28 A. Bredius, Rembrandt schilderijen. 630 afbeeldingen, Utrecht/Vienna, 1935. Even though many of Bredius' attributions have been superseded since the start of the Rembrandt Research Project in 1968, his publication remained the standard work for many years. See, www.rembrandtdatabase.org.

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