The noble art of collecting

by Victoria James

Artists trying to earn a living before these days of government grants, international art fairs and global cultural celebrity were at the mercy of the people holding the purse strings. Teaching was (and remains) a way of getting by, but for the premodern artist, real security depended largely on catching the eye of the wealthy.

It’s possible to distinguish between the two historical roles of collector and patron of the arts, albeit the line between them is somewhat blurred today. Patronage often involved a trade-off on the part of the artist: creative freedom exchanged for material security. Patrons commissioned according to their own tastes and rejected or had reworked pieces that failed to match their expectations. Often the artist’s vision would be compromised; at worst it would be stifled altogether. (For example, conformity with official iconography was the price of approbation by the French Academy of Painting and Sculpture during the reign of Louis XIV — see the article below and The Japan Times Aug. 7.)

In contrast, the collector, rather than compelling the artist to produce to order, merely selected what he liked from among completed works. Also, unlike the patron, the collector often cast his net widely, perhaps focusing on the works of an era or a country, rather than those of an individual artist or a group. The most comprehensive collections are an invaluable record of the artistic output of an era — and are wonderfully revealing of the collectors who assembled them.

Highlights from one of the world’s very best collections of Western art, that of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, are now showing at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music till Dec. 23. This stunning selection of works is both an insight into the collecting mentality and a Who’s Who spanning more than two centuries of Western art.

At the core of the Kunsthistorisches Museum collection are paintings gathered by one man, Archduke Leopold William (1614-62), the Hapsburg governor of the Austrian Netherlands. So famous was Leopold’s art collection that it, in turn, became the subject of artworks, most notably a canvas by David Teniers the Younger, the Flemish painter who in 1651 was appointed the keeper of Leopold’s picture gallery. Teniers also made a prodigious number of copies of various works in the collection, 244 of which were engraved and published in “Theatrum Pictorium” (1660), perhaps the first pictorial “catalog” ever produced.

Leopold was especially fond of the 16th-century Italian masters. Teniers’ “Archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria in his Gallery” (1651) shows the archduke standing among his Italian collection, some of which had been acquired that very year by Teniers’ agency.

How Teniers obtained those works is a little-known but remarkable chapter in the history of Western art-collecting. The English Civil Wars (1642-51) brought a victory for the Parliamentarian forces of Oliver Cromwell and culminated with the execution, in 1649, of Charles I. The late king had been a discerning connoisseur, and the sale of his art collection had the monarchs of Europe vying for a slice. The private collections of prominent noblemen were also sold off by the rulers of the new Commonwealth, and Teniers secured for Leopold the Duke of Hamilton’s complete collection.

The pictures hanging in the gallery are clearly identifiable in Teniers’ picture and one, Giovanni Battista Moroni’s “The Orator Giovan Pietro Maffeis” (1560/65), can be seen in this exhibition.

Leopold had a discerning eye. He picked out intriguing works by lesser-known artists — among them here is a striking “Salome with the Head of John the Baptist” (1520/24) by Andrea Solario.

Most museum curators would be loath to let treasures such as the Kunsthistorische’s Italian canvases out of their hands; the Viennese curators, however, clearly felt that their loan abroad for a few months would hardly be noticed among the museum’s remaining riches.

There is Caravaggio’s atmospheric “Christ Crowned with Thorns” (1602/04), in which Jesus’ beating is overseen by the shadowy figure of a soldier wearing the ambiguous expression often seen in this troubled artist’s disquieting religious canvases. A first-rate work by a second-rate painter is the unusual “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” (1626/28) by Orazio Gentileschi — the Christ Child guzzles at his mother’s breast, a guarded, hostile expression on his face, while St. Joseph lies sprawled unconscious on a pile of sacks in the background.

Drawing the most attention in the gallery, however, were two canvases by Guiseppe Arcimboldo, one of art’s few true originators. He took naturalism — the realistic depiction of plants, vegetables, animals and the like — and twisted it into the realm of the unnatural, by arranging those objects into “portraits” that even today have lost none of their power to amuse and disturb.

If Leopold was a collector, his Hapsburg forebear the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilien II (reigned 1564-76) was a patron par excellence. When Maximilien succeeded to the throne in 1564, Arcimboldo had been in Vienna for two years in the role of portrait painter and transcriber to the court. With his patron’s instinct, the emperor put Arcimboldo to work devising processions, orchestrating weddings and other ceremonial occasions, and organizing games and tournaments — all with the aim of distracting Maximilien’s impoverished subjects from their plight.

Political patrons have always used art to shore up their regimes; the Medicis of Florence did it before Maximilien; Louis XIV did it afterward. But surely Arcimboldo’s fantastical figures are too unreal to fit into any neat political program? Perhaps not. Some scholars have detected in his clever, composite work a certain likeness to his master’s diverse realm — both are made up of disparate elements that should not sit happily alongside each other, and yet both achieved an uneasy coherence.

The whirlwind tour of the great and the good continues in further exhibition rooms: two full-length portraits by Velasquez; a still life by Jan Brueghel; Reubens’ remarkable “Head of Medusa” from which the startled viewer backs away; Van Dyck’s frank portait of the sensual young Carlo Emmanuel d’Este; Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus; a lovely Flemish interior by Peter de Hooch; a Venetian scene by Canaletto.

Patron and emperor, Maximilien understood the art of power. Collector and archduke, Leopold William felt the instinctive power of art. It is his legacy that touches us today in the collection that both men created.