Arthur Ross Gallery interview with curator Lara Yeager-Crasselt

July 8, 2021

Our summer intern, Alice Zhao, interviewed Lara Yeager-Crasselt, curator at the Leiden Collection, to talk about her current show An Inner World and its multifaceted significance to the discourse on Seventeenth Century Dutch Art, to the gallery, and to our current moment. Lara Yeager-Crasselt curated the show in collaboration with Heather Moqtaderi, the assistant director of the Arthur Ross Gallery.

Q: How did you come to select the paintings in this exhibition and how did your original ideas or vision evolve as you began the curating process?

A: I had first curated an earlier iteration of An Inner World back in 2017 for the Clark Art Institute. At that point I was working at the Clark and not at The Leiden Collection where I am now, but I was really looking to do a small loan show with works from The Leiden Collection and works that were available at the Clark at the time. This would turn out to be Gerrit Dou’s Girl at a Window, currently on view in the exhibition at the Arthur Ross Gallery. I knew that the show was going to be for a small focus gallery within the Clark’s permanent collection, and so big paintings or those that were filled with boisterous figures and themes, didn’t feel like the right fit to me.

Something that I have always loved about Dutch art is the sense of quiet and reflection that you have while looking at it. There is a sense that you are alone with the artwork when you’re looking at these scenes of an individual figure or scenes of everyday life. You really get pulled into the paintings, wondering not only what was going on, but what the artist was thinking. As I began to pull ideas together around works from the Clark and The Leiden Collection, these particular paintings formed my concept of  “an inner world”.

Why did artists depict scenes in which not much seems to happen?  These works invite viewers to consider quiet moments and to convey the stillness of both the mind and body. That was how the theme took shape for the Clark exhibition, and later I expanded it at the Arthur Ross Gallery with my co-curator Heather Moqtaderi. It was a great opportunity to return to the theme of the exhibition and consider what other works from The Leiden Collection relate to “an inner world” and allow us to explore it in different ways. An important aspect of the Ross Gallery exhibition was to introduce a section on candlelight and artificial illumination. In addition to the paintings, nine rare books were added to the show as well.

Q: Has the interpretation of the paintings and texts in this exhibition gone through any changes in recent years?

A: That is really a good question. Yes they have, and I think that is a reflection of how the scholarship itself has changed. For example, many 17th-century paintings of genre scenes were traditionally interpreted in a symbolic way, which means by looking at each of the different paintings, you could almost add up the different elements depicted in them into a greater moralizing message, which is still true to a certain extent. Dominicus van Tol’s Boy with a Mouse Trap by Candlelight is a good instance of that kind of interpretation. I think what has happened in recent years, and even the last couple of decades, is that there is a stronger interest in the cultural, intellectual, and political context of how and when these works were created.Moving away from primarily considering the iconographic meanings of these works, to considering, for instance, what was happening in the city of Leiden in this period? What kinds of intellectual and social contexts were artists and patrons responding to, interested in, or motivated by? One important development in the scholarship on paintings by Gerrit Dou and his contemporaries has been to look at the art market and the economic contexts in which they worked. This has come through with Dou’s use of the niche motif, where we see those figures leaning out of the windowsill; recent scholars have discussed the motif as a way to be savvy in the marketplace, as a kind of branding. You see Dou’s pupils doing the same thing.

I think it is more robust how we can understand these works now through many different lenses and frameworks, versus where scholarship was decades ago. I think that it is all for the better.  Since the theme of this exhibition is broad, it can be considered in different ways. I hope that when visitors go to see the show, they can explore and think about these works not just from one point of view, but from many.

Q: Since you noted the changes in scholarship of Dutch paintings in this exhibition, have you witnessed changes to the curatorial practice of 17th-century Dutch art during your time as an art historian and curator?

A: The moment we are in right now is, I think, a moment of great change in the field of Dutch art. Other contexts of the Dutch 17th century that have been overlooked, or have not been part of the canon and curatorial narrative, are now being considered more deeply and inclusively. What I mean is that we refer to this period as the Dutch Golden Age; as a period of great prosperity, wealth, and an incredible outpouring of art and creativity. This is true, but what is happening now, both in the academic and museum worlds is a kind of reckoning with the other side of this story. That is to understand that the wealth and the prosperity at that time was also the result of Dutch colonial enterprises. The Dutch East and West Indies, for example, also had a dark side to it – the exploitation of peoples. So recognizing and including that history of exploitation and colonialism in exhibitions is happening now more broadly. I think curators and scholars are talking about this much more openly and recognizing the importance of acknowledging this aspect of the Dutch 17th century. And I think we will see this continue to develop and become an important part of how we understand this period going forward. This a positive change for exhibitions and scholars.

Q: Are there any unresolved questions or puzzles about the work in this exhibition? 

A: That is a good, tough question. I mean, the short answer is yes. There is always more to explore and learn about these works. For example, for Gabriel Metsu’s painting of Woman Reading a Book by a Window, some of the ideas explored in the show and in the catalog essays are new ideas and perspectives that expand the scholarship of this work of art. With Metsu’s painting, scholars have tended to think more traditionally about where this work fit into the artist’s career, the subject matter it depicts, and the significance of that iconography. By including Woman Reading a Book by a Window in this show, I raised the question of women as intellectuals in 17th-century Leiden. What were they learning? Were they learning? The very acquisition of knowledge and education for women is the thesis of the dissertation on view in the exhibition written by Anna Maria van Schurman, the first Dutch woman to attend university. I really encourage visitors to make these connections and to consider what women’s lives were like then. The male artist was elevating the idea of knowledge as an allegory in this work. Yet I would like to also think that Metsu knew of Anna Maria van Schurman and other women who were being educated in this period, that he was bringing that all to bear on this painting. Extremely large, this painting by Metsu is a major work. Who was it painted for? Where was it intended to be hung? Another painting that requires more research is Pieter van Slingelandt’s Portrait of a Man, which has never been exhibited publicly. Surely there is more research to be done.  One day could we possibly identify the sitter? These are questions for scholars and others to investigate further.

Q: From your perspective, how is An Inner World relevant to the world we live in today?

A: I think that the show can be experienced and thought of in many different ways, based on people’s own personal experiences. As an art historian, I love to share the history of art objects, which have survived for 400 years. Why do they matter to us today? Why should we care about them? I think if we treat them as objects that have had lives of their own, that have had great meaning and significance to the artists and the Dutch people of the 17th century, we have the opportunity to consider aspects of their culture, identity, spirituality and secular lives in new ways.

Because we’ve been living through this global pandemic, we have all retreated into our own inner worlds and we haven’t had as much social interaction. Because we have not been out and about, we have had more time to reflect on ourselves, our lives, the changes around us, and how things are different. I think the stillness and quiet of an inner world is something we all can relate to now.

I think we could all do a little better if we stopped every once in a while and thought about what we are doing and why. For me, it is very meaningful and beautiful to stop, and actually just look at what is going on around you. Even just looking out the window, stopping and watching things, and paying attention to the people and places and things around you, I think it can make you more of a reflective person, and maybe a more caring and thoughtful person. I think the exhibition, An Inner World, asks you to stop, look closely, and pause to think about connections between the paintings and the books, and the world around you. Those are ideas that are relevant, no matter if you’re in the 17th century or in our own century. I think there is a strong connection that that can be made between now and then.

Q: That is beautiful. I remember you mentioned encoded motifs of life and death in these paintings during your virtual tour of the exhibition, and I think that that vulnerability of life has also really touched us in the past year too.

A: Yes, exactly. That’s a really good point. Seventeenth-century Dutch artists and people were very aware of the fragility of life and these so-called vanitas motifs. You are right. We have a heightened sense of the fragility of life now because of the pandemic.

Q: What do you hope for Penn students to take away from this exhibition?

A: So many different things. I’m really thrilled to be able to share these paintings with students. I think these objects, which were so meticulously and carefully made and cared for and prized for so long, raise complex ideas and questions that we can all ask ourselves. I hope that it is a joyful, fun experience to be in the gallery, spending time with the rare books and with the paintings, and to make those associations between them. As Penn students, you are in a special moment in your lives, and you are all in your own inner worlds, right? As students, you are part of this larger university community, and you are able to learn and think every day, which is so wonderful to have the chance to see these works and learn more about these ideas. I hope it inspires people to learn more, to visit museums, and to carry that interest after university. Maybe students will have that spark “oh, I want to look at that painting again”.