Frits Lugt’s distant future

Edward Grasman

Every visitor to the RKD walks past a plaque commemorating the three founders of this institution. One of them is Frits Lugt [1]. He lived from 1884 to 1970 and garnered fame as a connoisseur and an art collector, for the sake of which he assembled an enormous, ever-growing collection of books, sales catalogues, and reproductions. He was a founder of what later became the RKD when, in the early 1930s, he accommodated this collection there. During the four decades of this institution’s existence that Lugt himself experienced, he continued to supply it with books, sales catalogues, and reproductions. This article explores Lugt’s motives for these initiatives, which contributed so much to the RKD’s formation and reputation.

Jan van Gelder, director of the RKD during the Second World War and for a short time thereafter, concluded his biography of Lugt in 1970 with the speculation that the latter had only granted his wife To Klever and Rembrandt access to the deepest part of his soul.1 This may be the reason Van Gelder did not even try to explain why Lugt decided as early as 1930, many years before his death, to donate or give on loan his holdings to the Dutch State. Equally little elucidation is provided by Heijbroek’s biography, which circumvents any characterisation of Lugt regarding his motives for this action. Nevertheless, I think that Heijbroek offers building blocks which, in combination with documents from the RKD archive, can be used to venture in this direction. For example, he quotes from a letter by Lugt that seems significant in this context. It is dated 23 February 1922 and was written from Florence to the architect Dirk Slothouwer.2

The missive was prompted by Lugt and his wife’s visit to Casa Horne in Florence, which houses the art collections of Herbert Horne. Shortly before his death in 1916, Horne had had the city palace restored to its Renaissance state. Casa Horne opened its doors in 1921, five years later and only one year before the Lugts’ visit, during which time its collection had remained unchanged. According to Lugt’s 1922 commentary, it was apparent to him and his wife that Horne’s collection had come to a sad standstill: ‘Having wistfully witnessed all of this, we – as our art and book collection in Maartensdijk grows into a cohesive entity – sometimes wonder whether we have a reasonable obligation to ensure that the collection is preserved in this way in the distant future [author’s italics]. No, in this form, however well intentioned, it is preserved and buried, rather than living on ... Making his collection permanently available to the general public sounds so wonderful. But if at the same time it loses much of its vitality and warmth? What, then, is the outcome? … It is a thorny question, the answer to which will increasingly occupy us.’3


Paul Mathey
Portrait of Frits Lugt c. 1923
pencil on paper , 290 x 245 mm
Paris, Fondation Custodia

Heijbroek quotes this letter without comment, but Hennus, who in 1950 had written a profile of Lugt and cited the same letter, linked it to the establishment of the Fondation Custodia.4 In 1922, this institution was still a quarter of a century away from its inception, thus in the distant future. It seems to me, however, that the 1930 donation sprang from the same desire, namely to ensure that what had been collected with such effort and care would not lie dormant.

Donations to the Dutch State
On 7 April 1926, Hofstede de Groot donated his scholarly estate to the Dutch State, on the condition that it would be made accessible for art historical research and maintained and continued in the same way. Management of his collection had to be entrusted to an art historian specialised in Dutch painting.5 When Hofstede de Groot died unexpectedly on 14 April 1930, the Dutch State, which had accepted the donation on 8 July 1926, was suddenly faced with the problem of what to do with it. Lugt seems to have seen this donation as an excellent opportunity to offer his collection a future as well. He must have assumed that by merging his collection with that of Hofstede de Groot, he would be able to benefit from the government’s obligation to ensure that Hofstede de Groot’s documentation was updated. However, it took some time before Lugt determined which part of his collection he would transfer to the Dutch State and how he would do this.

Set up in 1929 and chaired by Robert Fruin, the Iconographic Documentation Committee had been tasked with figuring out how Hofstede de Groot’s estate could be put to the best possible use. Fruin’s report of 31 May 1930 called for the establishment of a central documentation centre in which, in addition to Hofstede de Groot’s collection, a number of other collections would also be accommodated. The Committee’s proposals included ‘F. Lugt’s unique collection of catalogues and notes on graphic art.’6 It seems likely that these catalogues refer to the collection of 20,000 sales catalogues that Lugt would donate to the Dutch State in 1931. However, if the rapporteur was well informed, in May 1930 Lugt must have thought only of the donation of his notes on graphic art and not of the reproductive material that he would give on loan in 1931 and donate a year later, nor of the library, which he would also give on loan in 1931.7

The report stated that the art historian Hans Schneider was who Hofstede de Groot had in mind to manage his estate. It seems obvious to assume that it was Schneider’s profile that was sketched in the committee’s report, in which the future manager is typified as follows: ‘The leader of the documentation bureau ought to feel like the servant spirit that collects and processes the material, so that the men of practice and science can take advantage of it.’8

Lugt joined forces with those who did not want Hofstede de Groot’s donation to be accommodated in the Rijksmuseum. His argument was probably the same as that forwarded in 1941 by Van Gelder against relocating the RKD to Amsterdam. Van Gelder feared that the RKD would face the same future as the documentation of both Frederik Muller and Moes, which had been donated to the Rijksmuseum, and ever since then had remained there untouched.9 They therefore constituted two dead elements, exactly what Lugt wanted to avoid with the transfer of his collection.

During the period in which Lugt and his wife began to express worries about their collection to Slothouwer, in 1922, they were already aware of the problem of its future accommodation, but not yet working on a solution. On the contrary, it was precisely in those years that Slothouwer was building a modern rustic country house for the couple, behind the massive residence at Rustenhoven in Maartensdijk that To Klever’s father had bought three years earlier, in 1919 [2].10 Between 1926 and 1927, the Lugt couple expanded their mansion even further, to make room for their ever-growing art collection. Nevertheless, Lugt already felt the need to make it public. From 1925, for example, he regularly lent works to exhibitions, regardless of any scepticism he may have had about the light-hearted way in which they were organised.11

Move from Maartensdijk
From a letter Lugt wrote to Schneider 8 September 1931 it appears that already in November 1930, barely three years after the expansions of their mansion, his wife and he had begun planning to leave Maartensdijk. From the same letter it emerges that Schneider had already been informed of this intention.12 This may well have happened on 23 March 1931 during a meeting at the Ministry of Education, Arts and Science (OKW) about a central documentation centre to which not only Lugt and Schneider, but also Eeltjo van Beresteyn – the third person portrayed in the aforementioned plaque besides Hofstede de Groot and Lugt – had been invited.13 The intention to leave Maartensdijk, however, kept being postponed, according to Lugt, ‘for the sake of my parents-in-law.’ The reason for this must have been their unstable marriage. In the 1920s, Klever had lived in Rustenhoven, while his wife stayed mainly in Glion. In the course of 1931, he too rarely visited Maartensdijk, as he was mostly in Vienna accompanied by his new partner Martha Schmidt. In the absence of her father, Lugt’s wife and their children temporarily moved into the old house in Maartensdijk, with Lugt’s father and his second wife Maria as trusted guests. The divorce of To’s parents became final at the end of October 1931, but evidently the Lugts had already decided a year earlier to leave Rustenhoven.14

In his letter of 8 September 1931 to Schneider, Lugt stated that the plan to move had become so concrete that accommodations for his library might have to be found as soon as possible. The letter expresses his disappointment with the government’s actions. Lugt was no longer well disposed about what he himself had offered previously: the donation of his collection of sales catalogues and reproductions. What could he have expected from the government? Suitable housing for the collections? Evidently the issue was resolved sixteen days later, because Lugt decided to donate his sales catalogues and reproductions and also immediately give his library on loan.15 The latter had been announced previously in his letter of 8 September: ‘But rather than leaving the books packed up for a long time, I would prefer to see them become useful, and that would be best done under your management, in connection with Hofstede de Groot’s bequest.’16


D.F. Slothouwer
Landhuis, Aanlegsteeg 4, Maartendijk

On 28 September 1931, the Ministry of OKW informed Lugt that it gratefully accepted both the donation and the loan and promised to cooperate in accommodating his collection of drawings and prints, which would be temporarily housed in safes in The Hague.17 This proved temporary indeed; a more eager government could have made an effort to preserve the collection permanently for the nation. Since the Louvre, with which Lugt had entered into negotiations, was apparently also not forthcoming, he finally decided to establish the Fondation Custodia in 1947.

Preparations for Lugt’s move to The Hague commenced in mid-October 1931. Thereafter, his family never again lived together for any period of time. Their youngest daughter moved with them, but from then on contact with the three oldest still living children occurred mainly during holidays. In February 1932 the Lugt couple even deregistered from the Netherlands.18 Probably Lugt’s move from Maartensdijk was at least partly motivated by the government’s interference with Hofstede de Groot’s estate and that he was reconciled to the far-reaching consequences this decision would have for his family life.

The death of Huib Lugt
Lugt can hardly be called a family man [3]. During the period that the family lived in Maartensdijk, until October 1931, his children saw him on weekdays only at dinner and contrary to the family’s wishes he would sometimes travel for his work for weeks on end. However, he does seem to have had a special bond with his youngest son Huib, who suffered from what was later diagnosed as muscular dystrophy. In September 1928, outside school holidays, father and son spent about ten days in Wolfheze, hoping that a stay in nature would do the boy good. At the end of 1929 they made a notable entrance into the Utrecht theatre when Lugt carried his son – then no longer able to walk himself – over his shoulder.19

At the beginning of 1931 Huib contracted measles. His condition made him highly susceptible, and he died on 18 January, a week after his seventeenth birthday. At the funeral Lugt spoke, according to his father’s diary, ‘moving yet uplifting words, expressing gratitude for the short custody of their child, one to which they owe so much because of what they learned from him in the constant care that he required; a wonderful task, incidentally, fulfilled with joy. In apt words he sketched,’ Lugt’s father continued, ‘the mission that had apparently been imposed on Huib in his brief existence; a mission that was fulfilled, so that his parents could now relinquish him to a higher destination in full peace.’20 Is there any doubt that at least this son also had access to Lugt’s deepest soul?

The family fell apart nine months after Huib’s death. Apparently he had been the glue that held the family together. The Lugt couple had decided to move even before his death, but with the cessation of Huib’s care, the implementation of these plans gained momentum. The RKD owes its origins in part to this ever so radical course of events for the Lugt family.


The Lugt family on 20 March 1926, with Huib in a wheelchair


1 J.G. van Gelder, ‘Frits Lugt,’ The Burlington Magazine 112 (1970), pp. 762-763.

2 J.F. Heijbroek, Frits Lugt 1884-1970. Leven voor de kunst. Biografie, Bussum/Paris 2010, pp. 151-153.

3 Ibid.

4 M.F. Hennus, ‘Frits Lugt. Kunstvorser – kunstkeurder – kunstgaarder,’ Maandblad voor Beeldende Kunsten 26 (1950), pp. 109-114 and 130-131

5 Correspondence between Cornelis Hofstede de Groot and the Minister of Education, Art, and Science (OKW), dated 9 April and 8 July 1926, The Hague, RKD ̶ Netherlands Institute for Art History, RKD Archive 1932-1975 (0328) (RKD 1932-1975), inv. no. 159, cover A 1932.

6 R. Fruin, on behalf of the Netherlands Committee for Iconographic Documentation, Rapport Commissie Fruin, dated 31 May 1930, ibid.

7 Correspondence between F. Lugt and H. Schneider, dated 8 Sept. 1931, 10 Sept. 1931, 13 Sept. 1931, 10 July 1932 and 12 July 1932; correspondence between H. Schneider and the Minister of OKW, dated 24 Sept. 1931 and 13 Oct. 1931; correspondence between F. Lugt and the Minister of OKW, dated. 28 Sept. 1931, 13 Oct. 1931, 2 Dec. 1932, 9 Dec. 1932, and 14 Dec. 1932; letter from the Minister of OKW to the Minister of Finances, dated 28 Sept. 1931, ibid.

8 Rapport Commissie Fruin (note 6).

9 J.G. van Gelder, undated writings [from 1941], subject: relocation Rijksbureau, RKD 1932-1975, inv. no. 163, cover A 1941.

10 Heijbroek 2010 (note 2), p. 188.

11 Ibid., p. 202.

12 Correspondence between F. Lugt and H. Schneider, dated 8 Sept. 1931, RKD 1932-1975, inv. no. 159, cover A 1932.

13 Letter from the Minister of OKW to H. Schneider, dated 23 March 1931, ibid.

14 Heijbroek 2010 (note 2), p. 225.

15 Letter from F. Lugt to the Minister of OKW, dated 24 Sept. 1931, RKD, RKD 1932-1975, inv. no. 159, cover A 1932.

16 Letter from F. Lugt to H. Schneider, dated 8 Sept. 1931, ibid.

17 Letter from the Minister of OKW to F. Lugt, dated 28 Sept. 1931, ibid.

18 Heijbroek 2010 (note 2), p. 232

19 Ibid., p. 219.

20 Ibid., p. 224.

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