Paintings with “stories to tell”: growing Luxembourg’s fine arts collection

After positions at the famous Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and other fine arts institutions in Utrecht, Nijmegen and Bruges, Ruud Priem arrived at the National Museum of History and Art in Luxembourg City in 2020. Delano spoke with the curator and head of the fine arts department about the stories that works of art tell, growing the museum’s collection and his plans for future exhibitions.

It is a quiet Wednesday morning at the old masters gallery at the MNHA in Luxembourg City. Illuminated paintings in gilded frames shine in dimly lit rooms painted in rich red and dove grey. Wooden floors creak under the footsteps of the few tourists who have found their way to the museum just after opening hour at 10am.

This is the habitat of Ruud Priem, the head of the MNHA’s fine arts department and curator of its collection, its “custodian,” he says.

Priem arrived at the Luxembourg museum in June 2020, mid-pandemic. “It was a strange situation.” While he had plenty of time to get to know the MNHA, its rooms and the collection, it has only been over the last year or so that he has been able to meet colleagues at other museums, go to events and connect with Luxembourg, a second start to the role.

He had been working at the Hospitaalmuseum in Bruges–a pair of historic hospitals that serve as museums in a wider group of 14 arts venues–when a collector from Luxembourg suggested he should apply for the position at the MNHA. With the museums in Bruges undergoing reorganisation, the Dutchman felt the time was right to make a move.

“Luxembourg has an incredibly diverse and very interesting history being on the crossroads of so many regions.” The country’s people, he says, are not only open to different languages but also to experience different stories and see different works of art.

Detective work

“A museum is a place for inspiration, to be transported to the past or to think about the future, to experience beauty and artworks, and to engage in conversation.” Instead of being a mortuary filled with dead objects, museums open a window “where you can find a piece of your own history, worlds of ideas that were there in the past. It’s really up to you–and your own experience, emotions, your state of being–what you see.”

It doesn’t take intimate knowledge of the painter’s school, the time a painting was created or the places and figures within it to enjoy the artwork. There are “very different ways to enjoy artworks that are not always connected to knowledge but also to emotions,” he says.

A closer look can reveal a whole new perspective, though.

One of Priem’s favourites in the portrait room is a painting of a woman. Dressed in fine clothes, looking confidently at the viewer, she hangs on a wall between the faces of various men. The woman is Peg Woffington, a famous Irish actress of the 18th century, “the Lady Gaga of her time.”

Her portrait is the first painting by an Irish painter, James Latham, to join the museum’s collection. Priem found her at the Tefaf art fair in Maastricht. In a stroke of luck, the seller didn’t know who the sitter was, which usually means a lower price for the buyer.

Priem soon identified the unknown woman using biographies about Latham. Colleagues at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London confirmed that she is pictured wearing a theatre costume. “That was special to work to identify who she is and to have her shining here. Most of the artworks that have come to the collection in the past years have a story to tell.”

A portrait of Peg Woffington by James Latham is the first painting by an Irish painter to join the MNHA’s collection Photo: Matic Zorman / Maison Moderne

A portrait of Peg Woffington by James Latham is the first painting by an Irish painter to join the MNHA’s collection Photo: Matic Zorman / Maison Moderne

Reflecting the “history of society”

It is Priem’s responsibility to look after the museum’s collection, which is owned by the state, but also to grow it. He’s acquired around 30 works per year that he has been at the institution, looking for “interesting stories to tell” and works that “make sense to add to the existing collection here.”

He has focused on building the portraits section. This also includes a portrait of a man with a red beard, whom the curator was able to reunite with a companion piece of a women.

Browsing a collection in Nijmegen, he recognised the portrait of the man as a copy of a painting with an art dealer in London, who couldn’t verify the identity of neither the painter (Willem Key) nor the sitter (Adriaen van Leyden). The copy, however, gave important clues. Priem put two and two together and purchased the original.

“Then it turned out that there was a companion painting of the lady.” Priem traced it down to a private collection in Amsterdam and it is now on loan to the MNHA. “We were able to reunite this man and woman who had been separated for 150 years.”

The curator is in the process of finalising three major acquisitions, which he hopes to present at the museum later this year.

“It’s incredibly competitive,” he says of the art market. Priem is hoping to acquire more works by female artists as well as works portraying more diverse figures, “so that we do not only have white middle-aged men with nice collars in golden frames, but people from different cultures–a more diverse collection that better reflects the history of society. But that is a field in which all museums at the moment are collecting.”

But also in other areas, the curator is leaving his mark, for example re-arranging the old masters gallery not by schools–French, Spanish or Dutch–but by theme, so visitors will find groups of biblical scenes, landscapes, still lifes and portraits, contextualising the pieces in a different manner.

He hopes this will allow visitors to become art historians themselves, compare the different techniques, find the similarities and differences between the various traditions of painting. The curator has also been working to replace loans with works owned by the museum. “We are not collecting for the depot.”

Planning ahead

The Inspired by Steichen exhibition currently on show–putting photography by Edward Steichen in dialogue with contemporary works by Erwin Olaf and Hans Op de Beeck–was the first that Priem conceptualised for the museum that wasn’t already underway when he started his role in 2020.

A follow-up show together with a contemporary photographer is in the works, and an existing exhibition on a female 19th century photographer could also land at the MNHA. “There are quite a few ideas.”

To coincide with the Luga horticultural show in 2025, Priem is planning an immersive exhibition of landscape paintings. He’s working with a designer on cardboard cut-out trees to set the scene, is thinking of using scent and also an interactive element where the public can send in their photos to provide another look at the composition of the paintings, their history and how nature has changed or perhaps stayed the same.

He is also working on a concept for an exhibition on Renaissance portraits, looking at how art innovated during this time. “We have a few really interesting works in our own collection from this period.” He envisions the project as a collaboration with other institutions and as a travelling exhibition. “That’s something that would involve three to five years’ preparation.”

And the museum will finally be re-opening eight rooms on the fourth floor that have been closed for refurbishment for the past three years, where modern and contemporary art will be on display. Finding a “sensible arrangement” for this display “is as much work as producing a major exhibition,” says Priem. “It’s going to be an interesting second half of the year.”

As for anyone who thinks they have exhausted what Luxembourg’s museums have to offer, Priem recommends the Simeonstift city museum in Trier, which on its top floor hosts “one of the best presentations of costume history I have seen in any museum.” It includes a range of items, from 1,300-year-old Coptic tunics to local folk costume. “I think it even rivals the costume department at the Rijksmuseum or other major museums. It’s really high quality.”