Walter Liedtke dies in tragic train crash

February 8th, 2015

Walter Liedtke, Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and renowned Vermeer expert, died in the train incident outside New York on the evening of February 3. Walter was returning to his home in Bedford Hills, where he lived with his wife, Nancy. As was his habit, he was riding the front “quiet car,” in which he found the tranquility necessary for writing and reading. Five other people died in the accident.

Walter conjugated culture, curiosity, passion and rigor in whatever he wrote and in all the exhibitions he curated, whether it be the monumental Vermeer and the Delft School or the intimately scaled Vermeer’s Masterpiece: ‘The Milkmaid’. The catalogue of the former remains a fundamental contribution to the proper contextualization of the artist. His monograph (Vermeer: The Complete Paintings) constitutes a finely nuanced reading of the artist’s unique accomplishments in the light of modern Vermeer scholarship. But Walter’s interest in things Vermeer was wide and varied enough to comprise a computerized analysis of the weave of the artist’s canvases. 

Walter’s energy, brilliance and organizational capacity allowed him to publish extensively and curate a number of key exhibitions at the Metropolitan.

His most important exhibitions include:
Vermeer: il secolo d’oro dell’arte olandese (September 2012-January 2013), Rembrandt at Work: The Great Portrait from Kenwood House (April-May 2012), Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid (September-November 2009), The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (September 2007-January 2008) and Vermeer and the Delft School (June-September 2001). The latter brought in over 500,000 visitors to the Metropolitan.

His most important publications include:
Vermeer: The Complete Paintings (2008), Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2001), Vermeer and the Delft School (1995), Rembrandt/not Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Aspects of Connoisseurship (1992) and Flemish Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1982).

remembering Walter:

Walter Liedtke, Curator at Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dies at 69
—Randy Kennedy \>

Walter Liedtke: A Reflection and Appreciation
—Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

Walter Liedtke, Our Friend and Distinguished Colleague
—Thomas P. Campbell

The young Walter Liedtke
—Garry Schwartz

How I knew Walter
—Jonathan Janson

I first met Walter thanks to a Vermeer Newsletter in which among other things I had announced a trip to New York. Walter immediately emailed me suggesting we see each other at the MET. This surprised me in that experience had taught me that members of major museums are not inclined to extend personal invitations to those outside the institutional setting encountered via internet. When we got together in New York, Walter was exceptionally open, frank and questioning, demonstrating an interest in the functioning and goals of my Vermeer website as well. After this visit he was always quick to reply to any question I might have.

Some years later on the occasion of a Vermeer and Dutch painting exhibition in Rome which he had curated (together with Arthur Wheelock), Walter and Nancy broke away from duties and Roman pleasures for a casual dinner at my home which turned into a Vermeer marathon. Conversation ranged from questions of attribution, art history on the internet, the organization of Italian art museums and painting technique, which Walter was keenly interested in knowing that I am a painter. Despite his daunting knowledge of Dutch painting and his austere public demeanor, Walter never once assumed the role of an authority whose opinions on Vermeer and art with a capital A are gospel. On the contrary.

Towards the end of autumn, Walter and Nancy returned to Rome. We visited the exhibition merging ourselves with the Italian crowd. Walter examined the pictures which he knew by rote as if he had never seen them before. We debated if the Young Lady Seated at the Virginal showed the charisma of a real Vermeer. To my personal reserves Walter responded that a picture does not necessarily have to please to be a Vermeer. I bade goodbye to Walter and Nancy who were swept away in a series of appointments with museum personnel and influential collectors.

In the last years we continued to have email exchanges. In the last one I received he wrote he was at the moment unable to answer by question becasue “I’ve been up since 5:00 dealing with an urgent El Greco project.”

When a friend from Seattle emailed me the day after Walter’s tragic death, I was stunned that a man who found time for everything and for everybody suddenly had no more time, but still, I am sure, many people around him.

video testimonies:
Mr. Liedtke’s Metropolitan presentation, Connections/Living with Vermeer:

Youtube video Mr. Liedtke’s discussion of Rembrandt’s Aristotle and Bust:

2 Responses to “Walter Liedtke dies in tragic train crash”

  1. Nancy Liedtke

    Walters memorial service was yesterday yet our visit with you seems more real. We both were so thrilled to find a fellow vermeer lover who expertise was beyond ours. Pls know he held your in high esteem and followed your blogs thru me. Your words brought back so many memories. Thank you
    All the best, Nancy

  2. Jonathan Janson

    Dear Nancy,
    Thank you for writing and letting me know of your and Walter’s esteem. I join those many who wrote to the Essential Vermeer to express their sadness.
    My best,

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