I’ve attended hundreds of museum press previews over the past four decades, but the ones I relished most were those where Walter Liedtke was our erudite, entertainingly witty host. The Metropolitan Museum’s great European paintings curator, 69, a renowned expert in Dutch and Flemish painting and decipherer of all the period references and cultural connotations therein, perished Tuesday, at the height of his intellectual powers. He was one of the five train passengers killed in a horrific Metro-North crash in Valhalla, NY.
For me and many, many others, it was a shocking loss.
Liedtke was that rare, wonderful combination of brilliance, integrity and approachability. I could call him directly (bypassing usual bureaucratic channels) and he’d amiably expound at length on any subject related to his deep expertise. He was a teacher as much as a scholar: I’d come away from our conversations feeling smarter thanks to his tutelage.
He repeatedly impressed me as strongly principled: When Rembrandt expert Ernst van de Wetering “discovered” in storage at the Met what he believed to be a self-portrait by that master, Liedtke flatly turned down the invitation to upgrade the painting from “Style of,” convinced that the attractive attribution was unwarranted.
He delighted in defying conventional wisdom and had fun elucidating the sexually suggestive subtexts in such works as Vermeer‘s “The Milkmaid” and Frans Hals‘ “Merrymakers at Shrovetide,” whose central character, while decked out as a “Flemish floozy,” was more likely (in Walter’s view) to be a cross-dressing man, given the size of “her” bull neck.
While ready with a quip, Liedtke became dead serious about defending the integrity of museums. In the audience of a symposium I attended about the then endangered Detroit Institute of Arts, Liedtke feelingly declared that “the curators in my department would resign if the Metropolitan Museum placed a single bid [for any of the DIA’s works]. There is no institutional market for those works of art!”
I last saw Walter exactly three months before his untimely death, at the Nov. 3 press preview for the Met’s El Greco in New York exhibition, which closed last Sunday.
Now you too can see him, one last time: