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About Horst Gerson


Horst Gerson, who is honored in the Horst Gerson Lectures, was a distinguished German-Dutch art historian specialized in Dutch and Flemish art of the seventeenth century. He was born in Berlin in 1907 as the son of a physician in an assimilated Jewish family. Gerson studied art history in Vienna and Berlin and acquired further art-historical experience working for the gallery of his mother’s brother, the art historian and art dealer Karl Lilienfeld (1885-1966).

In 1928 Gerson came to The Hague, where he worked as an assistant to Cornelis Hofstede de Groot (1863-1930), which Lilienfeld had done before him. Gerson’s doctoral dissertation, on the landscape painter Philips Koninck, was submitted successfully to the university of Göttingen in 1932. With the advent of the Nazis and their anti-Jewish measures, Gerson moved back to The Hague, where he took an appointment at the Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie (RKD; Netherlands Institute for Art History), the creation of Hofstede de Groot. In 1935 he assisted Abraham Bredius (1855-1946) in compiling his catalogue of the paintings of Rembrandt. That was the first of Gerson’s important contributions to Rembrandt studies, which included the discovery that a painting in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon of The Stoning of St. Stephen was the earliest surviving painting by the master.

Thanks to his marriage to a non-Jewish German woman, Ilse Nehrkorn, in 1935, Gerson was not directly affected by the persecution of the Jews during the German occupation of the Netherlands, from 1940 to 1945. Because he acquired Dutch citizenship only days before the invasion, he was not drafted into German military service. He was able to continue working in the war years, and in 1942 published a book of lasting importance, Ausbreitung und Nachwirkung der holländischen Malerei des 17. Jahrhunderts (The spread and impact of Dutch seventeenth-century painting). Seventy years after its appearance, the book was taken up by the RKD for an expanded, fully illustrated, English-language online version, Gerson Digital .

From 1954 to 1965 Gerson served as director of the RKD. One of his achievements there was the institution of a summer school for young art historians and museum curators from abroad. The program was especially meaningful for colleagues from behind the Iron Curtain, for whom the summer school presented a rare opportunity to travel to the west and partake in professional discussions with fellow specialists in Dutch and Flemish art.

In addition to his writings as a specialist and his advice to collectors and museums, Gerson never neglected what he saw as his duty to share his knowledge with the general public as well. He wrote popular books on the great Dutch masters and in 1960 co-authored the Pelican History of Art volume The Art and Architecture of Belgium, 1600-1800. As one of the editors of Kindlers Malerei Lexikon (Zürich, 1964-1971), to which he contributed entries of his own, Gerson reached the art-loving public of the German-speaking world.

In 1965 Gerson accepted the chair of art history at the University of Groningen, which he occupied for ten years. As head of the Institute for Art History, he labored incessantly to stimulate interest in art history, to expand the international contacts of his department, and to enlarge the possibilities for Groningen staff and students for work in the field. He made a lasting impression on the university not only through his authority as a connoisseur and his impressive network, but also for his down-to-earthness, irreverent sense of humor and his personal touch in pedagogical and departmental affairs. During his tenure in Groningen, he wrote Rembrandt Paintings, which appeared in four languages, and he brought out a new, completely revised edition of Abraham Bredius’s 1935 catalogue of the paintings of Rembrandt. He adopted more critical standards for the attribution of paintings to Rembrandt than had previously been applied, in this way paving the way for the Rembrandt Research Project.


The many plans which he took with him into retirement were broken off by his sudden death in 1978, at the age of 71. One experience of later life that touched him was a working visit to Jerusalem, where the Israel Museum asked him to order photographs and research notes on Dutch and Flemish painting it had acquired from European sources. As he worked through the material, an eerie feeling took hold of him when he recognized his own handwriting and realized that he was studying notes that he himself had drafted for Karl Lilienfeld half a century earlier. This incident dramatizes the intense and personal way in which Gerson’s life was tied in with the art of the seventeenth century and the history of the twentieth.

Gerson was survived by his widow Ilse, who lived to the age of 106, until 2015, and two of their three children, Flip and Hans. Their daughter Suzanne died in 2000.

Horst Gerson’s successor as head of the Department of Art History at the University of Groningen, Henk van Os, perpetuated Gerson’s ambitions to keep the department in the forefront of the international academic community and to reach out to the general public. In honor of Gerson, he established a bi-annual series of lectures bearing his name by prominent art historians from abroad. The lectures are formal university events. They are organized by the Horst Gerson Lectures Foundation, whose chairman is always the current head of Gerson’s department at the University of Groningen. Following Gerson’s retirement, this dignity was filled by Henk van Os, Jeroen Stumpel, Henk van Veen and from 2015 on Ann-Sophie Lehmann.


Last modified:10 January 2024 11.32 a.m.