Theo van de Vathorst

by Robert W. Hoge

Instituted by the American Numismatic Society in 1919, the J. Sanford Saltus Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Art of the Medal is presented periodically to recognize an individual among the United States’ and the world’s foremost medallic sculptors. It is considered to be the most prestigious such prize. This year, the Saltus Award was presented on Saturday, September 17, to the acclaimed Netherlandish artist Theo van de Vathorst. The recognition ceremony, held at 3:30 p.m., in the Society’s headquarters at 140 William Street (at Fulton Street), was followed immediately by the Society’s Stephen K. Scher Lecture—part of a series focusing upon scholarship in connection with medallic arts—presented this year by Dr. Jeffrey C. Smith, of the University of Texas.

Theo van de Vathorst in his studio.

Theo van de Vathorst is a versatile artist long recognized by his peers and other admirers as a unique talent on the international scene in medallic sculpture. Born in 1934 in Utrecht, where he has worked and made his living as an artist since 1962, van de Vathorst was trained as a sculptor at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam. There, during the postwar years, Paul Gregoire and Vincent Esser were among his teachers. In consequence of his educational experiences with them and with other teachers and students, van de Vathorst’s early work betrays his grounding in what were considered the appropriate conventions of the “Amsterdam School.” These tendencies may be observed in the “impressionistic” treatment of his surfaces, for example. (It has been said that these were the years when abstract art was in vogue, and sculptors working in the figurative tradition were scornfully termed “reactionaries.”) But the young artist was striving for a solid clarity of form, recognizing that there is no content separate from the form, and understanding that the meaning of a sculpture resides in its physical presence.

“Theater,” 1981 (ANS 2005.50.1, gift of the artist)

Van de Vathorst’s oeuvre includes portraits and medals, as well as both free-standing sculpture and large relief work, and he has enjoyed success working in each of these fields. Among the most successful of his portraits is that of an Olympic judo champion. In his aesthetic, the human body constitutes an inexhaustible source of discoveries and interpretations. And in fact, he enhances this sensation of wonder by his delight in sometimes attaching slightly “bizarre” titles to his works. This rather mischievous quality is also exemplified by some of the artist’s choices of subject matter and composition. Humor and visual puns play a vital part in his work.

In his own country, about forty of van de Vathorst’s works are to be found in public places, including bronze portraits, statues, and large reliefs. Outside of the Netherlands, he is mainly known for his medals, of which he has made more than one hundred over the course of his career. Although his work is in the figurative mode and realistic in style, his individuality of expression is always and unmistakably present.

“Foundry,” 1998

Typically, the poses and gestures of his larger figures are unemphatic; thus, they may seem to emanate from a single, flowing, natural movement. While van de Vathorst has a story to tell that cannot be expressed in words, a story of people and human sensibilities, a story expressed in the language of gesture, proportion, and presentation, he is very much aware that ultimately it is only the finished form—the outcome or denouement—that truly counts. In his words, each sculpture must be “complete in itself.”

Another strongly marked factor in van de Vathorst’s work is his personal appreciation of the variations to be found among the creations of different generations and different cultures. He feels a strong affinity with the art of many non-European societies, those of ancient Meso-America, for instance, but realizes that ultimately it is not possible fully to know, least of all to appreciate, the original significance of conceptualizations lost in time.

Theo van de Vathorst and Robert W. Hoge

Theo van de Vathorst’s love for medallic sculpture derives from his mentor Vincent Esser. It may be said that a characteristic of his work in this area is that it demonstrates a relentless quest for a direct relationship between obverse and reverse or, as van de Vathorst prefers to say it, “one side and the other.” For many years, he served as a committee member of the Dutch Art Medal Society, founded in 1925 to promote this form of art by giving annual commissions to sculptors. While it is for his work in this field that we honor him today, his accomplishments in other aspects of sculpture have also already received outstanding recognition.

Van de Vathorst’s pleasure in relief sculpture—a form that has been rather neglected in the Netherlands—is evident in his most complex work to date. Finished in 1996, the commission for the bronze entryway doors of the Dom, the cathedral in Utrecht, which had been badly damaged during the war, offered him an opportunity to combine his storytelling ability, as in his medals, with a keen love for typographical experiment. Both doors are covered, outside and inside, with reliefs of various sizes. These illustrate the theme of the Works of Mercy. In seven different languages they reproduce the Biblical text of Matthew XXV: 35-45, which enumerates the Six Works of Mercy. The seventh, nonbiblical work—burying of the dead—is also represented.

In 1997, Queen Beatrix awarded Theo van de Vathorst a knighthood in the Order of the Lion of the Netherlands. In celebration of the artist’s seventieth birthday in 2004, the Galerie de Ploegh and the Museum Flehite in Amersfoort, Holland, featured a major retrospective exhibit of his sculptural work. A book, Theo van de Vathorst: het beeld en het verhaal (“Theo van de Vathorst: Telling Sculpture”) on the artist and his work, written by art historian Louk Tilanus, of Leiden University, also appeared at this time.

“Together,” 2004