Masters of Mobility


1.1 Documenting the Mobility of Artists: from Gerson to RKDartists&

The starting point for the Gerson Digital program was the aforementioned influential publication by Horst Gerson. It considers the dispersal and reception of Dutch painting in just about every European country.1 Gerson dealt with international mobility in a broad sense, exploring the movements of artists (migration, travel, transport), objects (export, collecting) and ideas (transfer of styles and subjects).2 The aim of Gerson Digital was and is to produce a fully revised, critically annotated and illustrated open access digital publication, and to stimulate and publish new research.3 A secondary, much wider aim is to enrich and deepen the art-historical information on the international context of Dutch and Flemish art of the early modern period in the databases of the RKD. The data from the corpus of travelling and migrating artists in the RKD database, collected in the context of Gerson Digital, constitute a solid basis for computational research.

Horst Gerson (1907-1978) was a key figure in the history of the RKD.4 Born in Berlin, he studied 17th-century Dutch painting in Vienna, Berlin and Göttingen. From 1934 on, Gerson worked at the RKD in The Hague and in 1940, just before the outbreak of the Second World War in the Netherlands, he became a Dutch citizen.5 From 1954 until 1966 he was director of the RKD. Gerson went down in history mainly as an authority on the work of Rembrandt, whose standard reference of 1968 served as a starting point for the Rembrandt Research Project.6 However, one could argue that the above-mentioned Ausbreitung of 1942 was more groundbreaking. It was the first publication documenting Dutch art and artists in an transnational context, even including its world-wide aspect.

The geographic method Gerson used to analyse and present his research or ‘documentary overview’,7 has been out of fashion for a long time. When he wrote his book, many art historians, particularly the German ones, focused on ‘geographic art history’ (Kunstgeographie), in search of national characteristics of style.8 With the word Ausbreitung (expansion) they chiefly meant the spatial dispersal of style, trying, at the same time, to demonstrate the superiority of the art of some nations above others. In this sense the term has an invasive connotation. Gerson, however, used the concept in an empirical sense, as the physical dispersal of art: artists on the move, art on the move, international commissions of artworks, import and export of artworks, provenance history. Curiously enough, the word ‘Ausbreitung’ does not appear once in the body of the text, but only in the title of his book.

Place, geography and mobility are highly relevant for research on cultural exchange. In his article in this publication, Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann elaborates on Gerson’s place as a forerunner of contemporary interests, referring among others to the subjects of two issues of the Netherlands Yearbook for History of Art, Art and migration: Netherlandish artists on the move, 1400-1750 (2013) and Netherlandish art in its global context (2016).9 Interests of (art)historical researchers are often triggered by similarities with present-day issues. Immigration seems to have been a topic in Gerson’s mind too, being a Jewish immigrant himself. Striking in Gerson’s seminal work is his ‘democratic’ attention to the broad community of artists, instead of primarily to the well-known ones. The fact that he named all travelling and migrating artists he could retrieve from the available literature makes his publication useful as a source of information and starting point for further research.

Before his early death in 1978 - Gerson died after a car crash – he was working on a revised edition of the Ausbreitung, which, obviously, never got finished.10 However, almost nothing of his documentation for this new edition of the 1942 publication has survived.11 Nevertheless, it was Horst Gerson who laid the foundation of the RKD’s research into the relation between Dutch and foreign art, which led, for instance, to the compilation of a vast documentation collection on foreign art.12 Furthermore, his geographical approach in documenting ‘masters on the move’ is adopted in the structure of the databases of the RKD, in particular RKDartists& and RKDimages.

The creation of RKDartists& dates back to the pre-internet times of the late 1980s, when the RKD decided to build a database and thesaurus of artists’ names as an index to the various collections of the RKD: visual documentation, an archive, a library and press documentation on Netherlandish art in an international context. Later on, artists without known works were included too, primarily to indicate family and master-pupil relations. RKDartists& has a broad scope: it contains biographical information on Dutch and foreign artists and artisans from the Middle Ages to the present day. The artists are painters, draughtsmen, printmakers, cartographers, sculptors, tapestry weavers, embroiders, gold and silversmiths, architects and photographers. The &sign indicates that also art dealers, art collectors, art historians and restorers are included in the database. The total number of artists& is now 246,885; 43.5% of them are painters.13 This high amount of painters can be explained by the traditional emphasis on documenting painting (and drawing, to a lesser degree) since the RKD’s foundation in 1932.14 The thesaurus function of RKDartists& is comparable to the ULAN (Union list of Artists’ Names), developed by the Getty Research Institute, also in the 1980s.15 Both databases are available as a web service to improve access to online information on art and material culture.

From the very start, places of activity and depicted places were included in the layout of the information, and later on also places where artworks originated. At the symposium Masters of Mobilty a new tool in RKD Explore was launched: RKD Maps. Each artist’s profile in RKDartists& shows his or her mobility on a map, from birth until death [3].The same applies for the route of artworks from their creation until -- if applicable -- their arrival in the most recent (museum) collection in RKDimages. A year later the second phase of RKD Maps was launched, a free tool to visualize the geographical distribution of multiple selections in maps of your choice, also historical ones. These tools and features facilitate ‘Gerson-like’ research in a 21st-century fashion [4].


Horst Gerson (1907-1978)




The mobility of Matthäus Merian II (1621-1687) in RKDartists&


Mobility abroad of Dutch, Flemish, German, French and Italian artists until 1800
Source: RKDartists&, reference date February 2019


1 Gerson 1942/1983; Van Leeuwen 2013.

2 Compare Larsen/Urry/Axhausen 2016. Gerson however did not address the subject of social mobility.

3 So far, five volumes have appeared: on Poland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Silesia and Italy (Gerson/Van Leeuwen/Tylicki et al. 2013/2014; Gerson/Van Leeuwen/Roding et al. 2015; Gerson/Van Leeuwen et al. 2017-2018; Gerson/Van Leeuwen et al. 2018); Gerson/Van Leeuwen/Van der Sman 2019). This publication is the 6th volume.

4 On Gerson and the RKD: Ekkart 2008.

5 On Gerson’s situation and the historical circumstances, see Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann’s contribution (§ 2).

6 Bredius/Gerson 1968. Gerson in his turn revised the catalogue raisonné by Abraham Bredius. The archive of the Foundation of the Rembrandt Research Project is kept at the RKD and served as a starting point for the Rembrandt Database.

7 Gerson’s assignment for the Teyler’s Society was to produce ‘a study of the expansion of 17th-century Dutch painting, specifically a documented overview of the influence that the art of painting of that time exerted with respect to subject matter, conception, composition, style, colour and technique on those of other countries’ (Gerson 1942/1983, p. 1). In this context the following questions needed to be addressed: 1. residence of foreign painters in Holland, 2. residence of Dutch painters abroad, 3. the export of Dutch painting to other countries by way of agents or the art trade (Gerson 1942/1983, p. 3).

8 DaCosta Kaufmann 2004, esp. p. 61-62 and 68-71.

9 Scholten/Woodall et al. 2014, Weststeijn et al. 2016.

10 Grasman 2008.

11 In the introduction of his Ausbreitung he speaks of ‘den Inhalt einer Karthothek von rund 5,000 Blättern’ (the content of about 5,000 index cards) (Gerson 1942/1983, p. 2).

12 In terms of size, the Foreign Art department of the RKD takes up half of its visual documentation. As a sort of ‘follow up’ of Gerson’s publication, former curator Hans Kraan published Dromen van Holland (Dreaming of Holland) in 2002 about foreign artists who were fascinated by Holland and Dutch art, and visited and painted the country in the 19th century (Kraan 2002).

13 Reference date: February 2019.

14 On the history of the RKD:

15 However, the RKD does revise the spelling of names on the basis of research signatures on artworks and archival documents.

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