The art of learning
“A transformative gift” of art from Drs. Alfred and Isabel Bader, Queen’s supporters extraordinaire, has raised the Agnes Etherington Art Centre’s already superb collection to a whole new level of excellence – one that will provide exciting learning opportunities for students and faculty alike.
The generous, long-term gift of art to Queen’s University by Dr. Alfred Bader, Sc’45, Arts’46, MSc’47, LLD’86, and Dr. Isabel Bader, LLD’07 – which comprises, at its centre, a splendid collection of magnificent European Old Masters paintings – has been both prodigious and ongoing.
Principal Daniel Woolf announced on April 21 that the Baders have given the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (AEAC or “Agnes” as the gallery is affectionately known) an additional 68 paintings from their superlative collection of Dutch and Flemish Baroque art, enriching the collection of more than 130 works of art already given to Queen’s since 1967.
The 68 newly arrived paintings by 49 artists span a century – from 1610-1710 – and constitute what AEAC Director Jan Allen, Artsci’87, BFA’90, MA’92, characterizes as a “transformative gift”. Two of those works are by Rembrandt’s friend and chief rival, the child-prodigy painter Jan Lievens (1607-1674), who, though historically eclipsed by his better-known compatriot, is now regarded by art historians as a great master in his own right.
Thanks to the Bader gift, the AEAC now possesses one of the largest collections of European art in Canada that serves as an important locus for the study of art history. As Ms. Allen explains, “We’re very excited to have the opportunity to work with such an amazing collection, and eager to share it with our immediate community and with students, researchers and audiences around the globe.”
One of the recently acquired paintings, Self-portrait as St. John the Evangelist (c.1655) by one of Rembrandt’s most gifted pupils Willem Drost (1633-1659), is an utterly brilliant and splendid work. Drost’s inescapably engaging gaze as he stares back at the viewer is a revelation in our understanding of what portraiture can do. The painting is clearly a highlight of the Bader Collection.
Two more of the newly donated paintings are Biblical scenes – the Baders are especially interested in Biblical subject matter in painting – by Aert de Gelder (1645-1727), one of Rembrandt’s later and passionately loyal pupils. The highlights go on and on. All of the collection is like this – intimate, compelling, unforgettable.
In 1995, Dr. Bader published Adventures of a Chemist Collector, which is the first book in his two-volume autobiography. The word “chemist” in the title refers to his chosen profession, and “collector” indicates the equal importance in his life of his passionate pursuit of fine painting. In this entertaining book, Dr. Bader writes that his “close connection with Queen’s University began in 1967 when Frances (Bailey) Smith, BA’56 [then-curator], asked me whether I would consider donating a painting to the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. I was pleased to be asked,” he writes, “and felt that Queen’s would be a good home for the Salvator Mundi that had belonged to my grandfather.”
Since that time, the saga of Dr. Bader’s unfailing, lifelong support of Queen’s has been a stirring one. His dedication to the university dates back to November 1941. Then-Registrar Jean Royce, BA’30, LLD’68, permitted the 17-year-old Jewish refugee from Vienna to enroll at Queen’s late in the autumn term after he was turned down by two other universities. Dr. Bader would go on over the ensuing decades to show his gratitude by bestowing upon his first alma mater most of his superb art collection – famously rich in splendid 17th century Dutch paintings, in Rembrandts, and in works by artists he influenced and, more particularly, by his followers.
Over time the Bader Collection came to support the university’s PhD program in art history, which was established in 1994. Art history students can examine the works as well as draw on the expertise of the Chair in Northern Baroque Art and the Chair in Southern Baroque Art, both endowed by the Baders.
It was his affection and respect for art historian David McTavish, Dr. Bader says, that drew him even closer to the university. “When David McTavish began teaching art history [at Queen’s] in 1973,” Alfred Bader notes in his book, “I realized his competence and real love of the Old Masters, and my ties with art and art history at Queen’s strengthened.”
After a sojourn at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Dr. McTavish returned to Queen’s in 1989 as head of the Department of Art, and he laboured diligently and successfully to establish the PhD program within it. Dr. Bader has pointed out that for him, the PhD program at Queen’s was “the more important goal [as opposed, for the moment, to the immediate expansion of the AEAC],” because together with the good Art Conservation program, a strong Canadian collection, and the Old Masters, he and his wife had already given to the university, it would establish the Queen’s Art History and Art Conservation programs as the best in Canada. That is certainly what they have become.
David de Witt, MA’93, PhD’00, the Bader Curator of European Art at the AEAC, points out that “Queen’s is one of a few universities in the world that gives students the chance to examine such high-quality original works in a campus setting supported by conservators and specialists in Baroque art.” Dr. de Witt, who was appointed to his position in 2001, recently completed the not-inconsiderable task of producing two magnificent catalogues of the Bader Collection. The first volume, The Bader Collection: Dutch and Flemish Paintings, was published by the AEAC in 2008. The companion volume, The Bader Collection: European Paintings, was published earlier this year.
The Baders’ generosity to Queen’s has continued unabated for almost half a century. In 1992, the couple gave Queen’s six million pounds for the purchase of Herstmonceux Castle in East Sussex, a vast, 140-room property that is now home of the Bader International Study Centre. In 2000, the Bader family including Dr. Bader’s sons, David and Daniel, generously supported the AEAC’s major renovation and expansion program. Right now, the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Oslo-based architect Craig Dykers of the firm Snøhetta, is nearing completion on the Lake Ontario waterfront, just southwest of the Queen’s campus.
Ms. Allen stresses that the importance of the Bader Collection lies not only in its strength as an aggregate of exquisite and historically important paintings and a fount of scholarly enterprise, but also as a powerful pedagogical tool.
As Dr. de Witt puts it in The Bader Collection: European Paintings, “Besides serving as research problems, original works of art in the academic setting also offer students a valuable opportunity to build their visual knowledge based on direct experience of the physical object rather than on the unifying train of reproductions presented in lectures and books and on computer screens.”
Ms. Allen concurs. “There’s a great deal to be learned, with a collection like this, about the relations among artists, about the artistic currents that, historically, were the ‘glue’ of the social and economic world out of which these artists came. When you spend time with them, the paintings come to life,” she says.
While the paintings enhance the learning experience for art history students, the collection also provides opportunities for other students across campus. Professors in education, engineering and applied science, and health sciences use the gallery’s paintings to augment their teaching and encourage their students in new ways of understanding.
“Students will be able to see how the works are alike and how they are different. Each of these paintings can become an avenue to even bigger concerns. People are already using the collection in ways that couldn’t have been predicted.”
- Jan Allen, AEAC Director
This will be satisfying news to Dr. Bader. He once stated quite clearly and charmingly in the introduction to Telling Images, a 1988 exhibition that showcased a gift of 17 paintings he gave to the AEAC, that “in the field of art, so many collectors and particularly museums are often influenced in their purchases by the name of the artist rather than the beauty of the work involved…[Isabel and I] have always tried to buy on quality only, preferring unattributed paintings in the hope that in time art historians will discover the artist.”
It is this aura of aesthetic mystery and the imminence of scholarly discovery and revelation which makes the Bader Collection both an aesthetic joy and, at the same time, the quintessential teaching tool. Of course, the Rembrandts in the collection will always be a big draw, but it’s the works of lesser-known artists of this period that will invite the close and rewarding attention of scholars and gallery goers alike.
And all of this is the result, as Dr. de Witt has written in the second volume of his Bader Collection catalogue, “of one man’s long love affair with art.”
For more information, please visit the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.