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Gerson, Horst

    Image Credit: University of Groningen

    Full Name: Gerson, Horst

    Other Names:

    • Horst Karl Gerson

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1907

    Date Died: 1978

    Place Born: Berlin, Germany

    Place Died: Groningen, Netherlands

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): Dutch (culture or style) and painting (visual works)


    Rembrandt scholar and authority on Netherlandish art, Director, Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie and professor of art history at Groning University. Gerson’s father was a medical doctor in Berlin. His mother, Gertrud Lilienfeld (d. 1943), was the sister of art historian Karl Lilienfeld. After initially studying the history of art in Vienna and Berlin, Gerson settled in The Hague in 1928 as an assistant to Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, who his uncle had also assisted. He chose the scholars at the university in Göttingen, the phenomenological esthetics of Moritz Geiger (1880-1937) and the art history of Georg Vitzthum von Eckstädt, Wolfgang Stechow and Nikolaus Bernard Leon Pevsner to complete his doctorate. Vitzthum supervised his dissertation in 1932 on the Dutch landscape painter Philips Koninck. Gerson and Hans-D. Gronau were among Vitzthum’s best students. Because of the increasing discrimination against Jews in Germany, he returned to The Hague. There, in the same year, 1932, he began his career at the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, an institution founded by his former mentor, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, who had died in 1930. He married Ilse Nehrkorn in 1935. His dissertation was published in 1936. He received his Netherlandish citizenship just before the German invasion in 1940. At the Rijksbureau, he worked first under Hans Schneider, then J. G. van Gelder and A. B. de Vries. His work assisting the difficult Abraham Bredius with his Rembrandt catalogue raisonné, developed in him a critical and independent eye, separating the paintings of Rembrandt from those which were incorrectly attributed to the master, and resulting in a life-long interest in the investigation and documentation of the Rembrandt-oeuvre. In 1942 he published his important book, Ausbreitung und Nachwirkung der holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts,1942. Beginning in 1951, he published the first of three survey books of Netherlandish painting (Hals, Rembrandt and Vermeer, and van Gogh) in a ten-year stretch. In 1954 he assumed the directorship of the Rijksbureau. Gerson also had a great admiration for Flemish painting. He especially enjoyed the Flemish section at the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie, evident from his contribution to the Pelican History of Art (series) volume, which he co-authored with E. H. ter Kuile, The Art and Architecture in Belgium in 1960. In this period he acted as one of the co-editors of Kindlers Malerei Lexicon, also contributing a number of articles. In 1965 he was succeeded at the Rijksbureau by Sturla Gudlaugsson. From 1965 to 1975, Gerson lectured as professor in History of Art at the University of Groningen, succeeding Henk Schulte Nordholt. The following year he added to his duties the Head of the Art-Historical Institute. His 1966 inaugural lecture, “De taal van de kunsthistorikus,” (The Art Historian’s Language) criticized Johan Huizinga as a cultural historian unwilling to see art history as a stand-alone discipline. He validated Huizinga’s belief that art history writing was undermined by “guiding principles” or the imposition of overarching theories. His long research into autograph Rembrandt works culminated in his 1968 Rembrandt Paintings as well as a daring (and contested) revision of Bredius’ Rembrandt-catalogue (1969), which reduced the works of the master from 639 to 419, or even fewer. He returned to the topic of Huizinga in 1972 for the lectures “Johan Huizinga und die Kunstgeschichte” (Huizinga and art history), whose work he overall supported and admired. Gerson resigned in 1975 in order to revise his Ausbreitung book. However, he died suddenly at age 71 without completing it. A Horst Gerson lecture series was established in his memory at the University of Groningen. Gerson was at heart a connoisseur-style scholar–learned from his mentor Cornelis Hofstede de Groot–but one who blended an appreciation of documents, iconography, Geistesgeschichte and the Warburg Institute’s conceptual-style art history into a cohesive method. Like any synthesizer, he attracted critics from all sides. Max J. Friedländer a connoisseur of a generation before, paid Gerson the back-handed compliment by quipping that of all the people he rejected, Gerson was the least aggregious (“Von allen die verneinen, ist mir der Gerson noch am wenigsten zur Last”). If an older generation found him too willing to reject attributions, a younger generation found him not vigorous enough (van Gelder). The main goal of his teaching was to familiarize his students with the evaluation of style and the esthetic value of works of art (K. G. Boon). In his obituary, J. G. van Gelder noted tactfully that his ideas on connoisseurship did not allow for teamwork.

    Selected Bibliography

    [complete bibliography:] De Vries, L. “Lijst van publikaties van H.K. Gerson.” Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek/Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art 23 (1972) Bussum: Fibula Van Dishoeck, 1972, pp. 513-520; Philips Koninck. Ein Beitrag zur Erforschung der Holländischen Malerei des XVII. Jahrhunderts. Berlin, 1936; Ausbreitung und Nachwirkung der holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts. Haarlem: 1942; De Nederlandse Schilderkunst. vol. I. Van Geertgen tot Frans Hals. De schoonheid van ons land, 8. Amsterdam: Contact, 1951; De Nederlandse Schilderkunst. vol. II. Het tijdperk van Rembrandt en Vermeer. De schoonheid van ons land, 11. Amsterdam: Contact, 1953; De Nederlandse Schilderkunst. vol. III, Voor en na Van Gogh. De schoonheid van ons land, 17. Amsterdam: Contact, 1961; and Ter Kuile E. H. Art and Architecture in Belgium 1600-1800. The Pelican History of Art. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1960; De taal van de kunsthistoricus: rede aan de Rijksuniversiteit te Groningen. Groningen: J. B. Wolters, 1966; Rembrandt Paintings. New York, 1968; De Schilderijen van Rembrandt, Amsterdam, 1969; Rembrandt et son œuvre. Amsterdam, 1968; revised, A. Bredius, Rembrandt. The Complete Edition of the Paintings. London: Phaidon, 1969.


    Bazin, Germain. Histoire de l’histoire de l’art; de Vasari à nos jours. Paris: Albin Michel, 1986 p. 388; Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 1: 190-194; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1999: 112-114; [Festschrift] Opgedragen aan Prof. Dr. H. Gerson. Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek/Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art 23 (1972). Edited by H.W. van Os and others. Bussum: Fibula Van Dishoeck, 1972; Grasman, Edward. Gerson in Groningen: een portret van Horst Gerson, kunstkenner en hoogleraar kunstgeschiedenis (1907-1978). Hilversum: Verloren, 2007; [obituaries:] Boon, K. G. “Horst Karl Gerson (2 maart 1907-10 juni 1978)” in Jaarboek van de Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen (1978). Amsterdam-Oxford-New York: B.V. Noord-Hollandse Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1979: 163-172; “Horst Gerson (1907-1978), in memoriam” Oud Holland 92, 4 (1978): 225-226;Van Gelder, J. G. “Horst Gerson (1907-78)” Burlington Magazine 120 November (1978): 756-759.

    Contributors: Lee Sorensen and Monique Daniels


    Lee Sorensen and Monique Daniels. "Gerson, Horst." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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