As we go to press, the future ownership of some important early seventeenth-century windows executed by the French-born glass-painter Jean de Caumont (1580–1659) between 1635 and 1643 for the cloisters of Park Abbey in Heverlee, near Leuven (Belgium), and now belonging to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, is in doubt [Fig. 1].
The windows show six scenes from the life of St Norbert, the founder of the Premonstratensians (the order of canons regular of Prémontré), and were given to the gallery in 1925 by the controversial copper-mining magnate and politician, Senator William A. Clark (1839–1925), as part of a much larger bequest numbering around 200 items [Fig. 2]. Earlier this year, the gallery announced that it was closing, following years of financial difficulty. Under plans unveiled recently by its Trustees, the gallery’s art collection, landmark building and design school will be taken over this autumn by the National Gallery of Art and the George Washington University respectively. According to a press statement issued on 14 May, while some artwork will be kept, ‘Works [from the Corcoran] that are not accessioned by the National Gallery will be distributed by the Corcoran to other art museums and appropriate entities with a preference given to those in the Washington, D.C., area. No work of art will be sold.’ As a result, it is not clear what will happen to the Park windows after the plans outlined above have received their expected approval from a DC superior court and the gallery formally closes to the public (which will be on or about 1 October). The windows are not currently on public display, and according to reports in the Washington Post, the Trustees may be willing to repatriate the glass to the abbey.
The history of the glass has been meticulously chronicled by the US stained-glass historian, Professor Ellen M. Shortell. The abbey was closed by the French revolutionary government in 1797, and many of its furnishings and works of art were sold. In 1828, all forty-one windows from the cloister were bought by a Brussels ship-owner and divided between his three children after his death in 1850. These collections were further dispersed in the second half of the nineteenth century, after which some found their way to America [Fig. 3]. Apart from the Clarke/Corcoran windows, panels from the same series were acquired by the J. B. Speed Museum in Louisville and the Yale University Art Gallery; the Yale panels were purchased by the city of Leuven last year and are undergoing pre-conservation study.
In recent years, a group in Belgium devoted to restoring the abbey, which was reacquired by the Premonstratensians in 1833, has been trying to recover the window glass. Three complete windows were returned to the abbey in 1971, and in 1993 two windows were purchased at Sotheby’s in New York.
Madeline H. Caviness (ed.), Stained Glass before 1700 in American Collections: Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern Seaboard States, CVMA (USA), Checklist Series, II, Studies in the History of Art, XXIII, Washington, 1987, pp. 30–31
Joost M. A. Caen, ‘The Conservation of Two Seventeenth-Century Enamelled Stained Glass Windows by Jan de Caumont in the Abbey ’t Park in Leuven, Belgium (Flanders)’, http://www.aihv.org/en/pdf/16-85.pdf (accessed June 2014)
Ellen M. Shortell, ‘Visionary Saints in the Gilded Age: the American Afterlife of the Park Abbey Glass’, in Brigitte Kurmann-Schwarz and Hartmut Scholz (eds), Transactions of the 25th International Colloquium of the Corpus Vitrearum, St. Petersburg 2010, Bern, 2012, pp. 239–52
Ellen M. Shortell, ‘A Seventeenth-Century Glazing Program with the Life of St. Norbert from the Premonstratensian abbey of Park’, MA Thesis, Tufts University, 1988
Olivier Schalm, Joost Caen and Koen Janssens, ‘Homogeneity, Composition and Deterioration of Window Glass Fragments and Paint Layers from Two Seventeenth-Century Stained Glass Windows Created by Jan de Caumont (1580-1659)’, Studies in Conservation, lv/3, (2010), pp. 216–26; an abstract is available at https://www.iiconservation.org/node/3283 (accessed June 2014)
A short video guide to Park Abbey, with external views of the cloister windows, can be found here.