Fit for a Queen: Amsterdam’s 1898 Rembrandt exhibition

The Late Rembrandt exhibition in London and Amsterdam prompted me to reflect on the first Rembrandt exhibition held in Amsterdam in 1898. Any comparison between a pioneering exhibition held 127 years ago and a so-called “blockbuster” staged today would be pointless and unfair, but it is interesting to see where it all started, what the motivations of the organisers were and how the exhibition was received by the public. In addition, the 1898 exhibition was the point of departure for attribution debates which still continue today.

The new Queen and the new King of Painters

Thérèse Schwartze, official inaugural portrait of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898, Dutch Royal Collecion

Thérèse Schwartze, inaugural portrait of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898, Royal Palace Amsterdam

In 1898, when she would have reached the tender age of 18, Princess Wilhelmina’s inauguration as Queen of The Netherlands would take place in the capital, Amsterdam. The solemn event was to be accompanied by festivities, pageants and historic and folkloric exhibitions in the young Queen’s honour. These had been years in the planning but it was not until January 1897 that the idea for an Old Masters exhibition was launched. On the initiative of the influential Abraham Bredius, a member of Amsterdam artist society Arti and Amicitiae, and his former assistant art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, this idea was rejected in favour of an exhibition dedicated to the newly rediscovered King of Dutch Painters: Rembrandt. The 1898 exhibition would be the first ever exhibition dedicated to a single Old Master. With royal approval duly received in September 1897, exactly one year before the exhibition would open, the special exhibition committee, which included artist members of Arti et Amicitiae and honorary member art historian Wilhelm von Bode, could set to work in earnest.

Securing loans: success and disappointment

It was evident that the very few remaining Rembrandts in Dutch collections would not suffice and that foreign loans would have to be secured. Once Queen Victoria agreed to lend two Rembrandt paintings, the German Emperor and other (mostly aristocratic) collectors and institutions soon followed suit. In six months Hofstede de Groot secured the loans of 124 paintings and over 350 drawings from all over Europe, an astonishing feat.

Portrait of an old woman, perhaps Elisabeth Bas, possibly by Ferndinand Bol, c. 1640-5, Rijksmuseum

Ferdinand Bol (?), Portrait of an old woman, perhaps Elisabeth Bas, c. 1640-5, Rijksmuseum

From the start the Rijksmuseum had made its four Rembrandts, the Night Watch, the Syndics, the Jewish Bride and the fragment of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Deyman, available for the exhibition. For the public favourite, however, the Portrait of “Elisabeth Bas”, today no longer considered an autograph work, the museum’s insurance demands were so excessive that the painting could not be included. The reason for this may have been a furious letter sent to Rijksmuseum’s director Van Riemsdijk by the family that had bequeathed the painting to the Dutch State in 1880, stating unequivocally that such a loan would violate the conditions of the bequest.

Other disappointments followed: Stockholm’s Museum declined to send Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis and some drawings on the – understandable – grounds that it considered the transportation risks too high; the Scottish National Gallery simply replied that it never lent art works. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the Six family’s refusal to lend Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Six, a decision that met with criticism in the local press.

Exhibition label from the back of Rembrandt's "Diana and Actaeon", Wasserburg Anholt collection, Isselburg

Exhibition label from the back of Rembrandt’s “Diana and Actaeon”, Wasserburg Anholt collection, Isselburg

Venue: the Stedelijk Museum

The Stedelijk Museum in its opening year 1895 with the Rijksmuseum in the background, photographer Jacob Olie, City Archives Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum in its opening year 1895 with the Rijksmuseum in the background, photographer Jacob Olie, City Archives Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum, which had opened its doors to the public in 1895, had been selected as venue from the first and graciously agreed to make a number of its galleries available free of charge. That the Rijksmuseum, which had opened only ten years earlier, was not considered may have been due to public disappointment with its poor lighting conditions. Although the Stedelijk Museum had been built along the same lines (ground floor rooms with light flooding in from windows and first floor galleries lit by skylights), the size of windows, skylights and rooms were better aligned so that the Stedelijk Museum’s lighting plan was deemed more successful.

One of the rooms in the Stedelijk Museum exhibiting Rembrand drawings, 1898

Room 26 in the Stedelijk Museum exhibiting Rembrandt drawings, 1898

Paintings and drawings formed the nucleus of the first Rembrandt exhibition but it also included 400 reproductions of absent paintings which had been made available by the French publisher of Bode’s 1897 book on the artist so that Rembrandt’s painted and drawn oeuvre was represented in its entirety (according to the standards of the time). Rembrandt’s etchings would be exhibited simultaneously in the Rijksmuseum, but few people would bother to go there. Drawings were grouped according to lenders: Museum Fodor, Teylers Museum, the Dresden and Weimar collections and private collectors among whom A. von Beckerath (Berlin), John Postle Heseltine (London) and Léon Bonnat (Paris). There appears to have been no catalogue of the drawings, nor are there photographs of the display of the reproductions.

“Aesthetic hangings”

Today monograph exhibitions are organised chronologically or thematically. The Rembrandt exhibition of 1898 was organised aesthetically which involved rigid, strictly symmetrical groupings of paintings.

The "aesthetic hang" in one of the exhibition galleries, 1898

The “aesthetic hang” in room 27, 1898

In the center of each wall would be a large and preferably important painting, flanked by three, four and in a few cases even five corresponding formats, preferably in comparable frames and with the necessary thematic diversion among pairs. Three artists and Arti et Amicitiae members, among whom the painter George Breitner, were responsible for this concept which today would be unthinkable.

Room 28 of the exhibition, looking into room 27

Room 28 of the exhibition, looking into room 27

At the time, the “aesthetic hang” met with great approval. Art critic Paul Schumann, writing in the Dresdener Anzeiger (late October 1898), was delighted that the paintings

… are hung with great artistic sensibility. Everything that could distract from Rembrandt’s masterpieces has been avoided; these alone shine, happily not in chronological order but solely according to aesthetic merit so that one’s appreciation for the genius who created the works only increases.

The Night Watch light controversy

An amusing controversy accompanied the exhibition. In 1898 Rembrandt’s Night Watch was to be shown in one of the Stedelijk Museum‘s smaller ground floor rooms: the outcome of heated debates that had started as soon as the Rijksmuseum had opened its doors in 1885. In the Trippenhuis, the Rijksmuseum’s precursor, the painting had been lit from windows on its left, the same light direction Rembrandt had applied to his painting.

Cartoon on the light controversy by W. van Konijnenbelt in the Nederlandsche Spectator, 12 November 1898. Rembrandt's statue despairs as Josef Israëls (on the ground) and others battle it out

Rembrandt’s statue despairs as Josef Israëls (on the ground) and others battle it out. Nederlandsche Spectator, 1898.

From 1885 the painting was housed in the specially designed Rembrandt Gallery in the new Rijksmuseum. No longer could the painting be admired in its familiar domestic environment but instead was fixed in a monumental, immovable frame between two columns in a pompously decorated gallery hung with theatrical draperies where – even worse – it was lit by skylights. Contemporary artists in particular protested vehemently and veteran artist Josef Israëls fulminated in an 1889 newspaper that the “once so resonant and lively painting now hangs in the Rijksmuseum and is trampled to death.” Not surprisingly, the “pro side light lobby” anxiously awaited the opportunity to prove its point. On 30 August 1898 the enormous painting, newly framed and securely crated, was transported from the Rijksmuseum across Museum Square to the Stedelijk Museum. Once it had arrived at the Stedelijk Museum, the painting – not without difficulty – was hoisted through the window of Room 6.

Sketch by Jozef Israëls of the Night Watch in its room at the Stedelijk Museum, 1898

Jozef Israëls, sketch, 1898, Rijksmuseum

No images of the Night Watch in its temporary housing have survived other than a hasty sketch by Jozef Israëls, but its display with the desired lighting conditions was a resounding success with most art lovers. The Rotterdamsche Courant raved:

This room on the ground floor receives a warm sunlight coming from two windows on the side which can be darkened by curtains if desired. In addition glass curtains ensure that sunlight does not fall directly on the painted surface. The painting, in a simple rosewood frame, stands on the floor. Visitors coming from the dark front hall and entering the room find themselves immediately in the most favourable lighting conditions.

Visitor numbers

The success of an exhibition, then as now, is measured in visitor numbers. The 1898 exhibition counted on the most “civilised” part of the population which becomes clear from the exhibition poster (in French!) and the prohibitive entrance fee of 2.50 guilders. During the official run of the exhibition 43,000 people from the “better classes” visited. A three-day extension was proposed and granted so that the less affluent would be able to visit the exhibition for the much lower admission fee of 25 cents. With 8,000 additional visitors the total visitor number rose to 51,000, an average daily total of 800 “affluent” people during the first two months and 2,500 during the additional three days.

Various publications in four languages accompanied the exhibition, all with texts by Hofstede de Groot. A sober catalogue listed all paintings chronologically, but people could also subscribe to a series of forty photo-engravings which came in handsome, patterned portfolios designed by Lion Cachet. The portfolios were available in various colours, materials and price ranges; the most luxurious cost 600 guilders in 1899. With these luxury products the publishers also aimed at the American market where Rembrandt was just being discovered. In the next decades many Rembrandt paintings that had belonged to European collections were sold overseas.

A tour of the exhibition with Jan Veth

Jan Veth, self-portrait,

Jan Veth, self-portrait, 1887, Dordrechts Museum

Jan Veth (1864-1925), accomplished portraitist and art critic, published profusely on contemporary art and old masters, especially Rembrandt whose etchings he collected. Veth’s observations on the exhibition appeared in an article published on 3 October 1898. They are typical of the Dutch artistic movement of the time: emotional and hyper-individual. But Veth also had a keen eye for quality and was not easily hoodwinked when it came to attributions.

In the first room of the exhibition hung Christ and the adulterous woman from the Weber collection in Hamburg. Veth was not impressed:

It is inconceivable to me that someone should think this a Rembrandt. The signature is palpably false but how fake, too, is the coarse, lumpy old guy with monstrous hands, how fake the female head with holes torn in it, how fake the grumpy chimpanzee that has to assume the role of Christ, how fake Van Dyke [sic] and not at all Rembrandtesque the action, the entire clumsy composition. Certainly, at first sight there is something attractive in parts of the coloration, but that is all.

Christ and the adulterous woman, in 1898 given to Rembrandt

Christ and the adulterous woman, (signed “Rembrandt f. 1644”), 1898 collection Ed.F. Weber, Hamburg; 1980s deaccessioned by the Walker Art Gallery; sold at Bonhams in 2011

Veth’s comment was later confirmed by Bredius who did not include the painting in his authoritative 1935 Rembrandt catalogue.

Opposite Christ and the Adulterous Woman hung Rembrandt with Saskia at her dressing table, a then famous painting lent by Queen Victoria. “A disappointment”, Veth concluded,

… one would have expected more from this painting. Does it hang poorly in Buckingham Palace so that no one questions it? Here in strong light something tawny seems to come over it. Notwithstanding the richness of the jewelry and gown it is not at all effective. The piece from Dresden is so much better. [By the latter Veth meant Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son in the Tavern, c. 1637]

Rembrandt, a woman trying on earrings, 1654, Hermitage

Rembrandt, 1654, Hermitage

Veth was not alone in his disappointment and it can be said that Queen Victoria’s painting lost its reputation in Amsterdam. Today it is thought to be a pastiche of the Young Woman Trying on Earrings from the Hermitage St Petersburg and a lost likeness of the painter from the 1630s.

Among the other paintings Veth thought very little of was the Portrait of an Old Man with dishevelled hair: “Generally called the bellowing ox. Out of respect for the master I refuse to believe in its authenticity.”

Saul and David in the second exhibition room, on loan from the Parisian art dealer Durand-Ruel, on the other hand impressed Veth:

This masterful painting becomes more perfect the more I see it. The cunning David playing his harp with downcast eyes – and soul-sick Saul and his daring, but in its simplicity moving, gesture of wiping away a tear with the curtain – and the regal nature of that Saul … With minimal treatment the tonality could be restored and then one would enjoy the painting even more.

Abraham Bredius in 1905

Abraham Bredius in 1905

Nevertheless, some Rembrandt connoisseurs, among them Bode, doubted the painting’s authenticity. Abraham Bredius, however, shared Veth’s enthusiasm. When Hofstede de Groot promised to make 25,000 guilders available from the exhibition’s revenues, the Rembrandt Society was prepared to buy the painting on condition that one-fourth of the total sum of approximately 100,000 guilders should come from private donations and one-fourth from the State. The Ministry refused. Bredius, undeterred, and above all very wealthy, announced to the world (that is to say: to The Hague where he lived) that he would sell his horse and carriage to acquire the painting. It was not an empty threat: on 7 November 1898, three days after the exhibition finally closed, he sent the following telegram: Saul bought so not back Paris but direct to Mauritshuis The Hague deux cent mille! = Bredius. 

"Lysbeth van Rijn", 1898 Coll. Hofstede de Groot; today Groninger Museum (c. 1675)

“Lysbeth van Rijn”, 1898 Coll. Hofstede de Groot; today Groninger Museum (c. 1675)

In the same room hung the painting then known as Rembrandt’s Kitchen Maid, today attributed to Rembrandt pupil Willem Drost, which epitomised the popular view of the artist at the time: Rembrandt’s paintings mirrored his life. At the 1898 exhibition all were present: his father and mother, his brother Adriaen, his sister Lysbeth (lent by Hofstede de Groot himself!), Saskia and Titus, Hendrickje (Geertgen had not yet emerged from the archives) – and the kitchen maid. Veth saw “something tame” in the latter, “notwithstanding the clarity of light and wildness of subject”.

In one of the smaller rooms on the first floor the Man in Armour from Glasgow dominated one of the walls (“Delacroix’s dream painted by Vollon,” was Veth’s comment) with on its left the Portrait of a Boy (in 1898 owned by Earl Spencer, Althorp Park; today Norton Simon Museum) which Veth considered “a beautiful thing”.

Room 24, 1898

The sensation of the exhibition, certainly for art lovers, hung in the center of the long wall in this room: the painting then known by the impossible title Portrait of a Polish Rider in the costume of the regiment of Lysowsky in a landscape (today simply The Polish Rider), discovered in Poland by Bredius only the year before. Veth:

One look at the painting and only a few seconds of studying its technique convinced me that one of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces hung in that god-forsaken place for a hundred years. Something of the surprise in the Landscape with Tobias, the things where he [Rembrandt] seems to step out of his skin as it were. The entire composition is permeated with sonority. 

Here Veth’s critical eye momentarily let him down: the Tobias and the Angel in a Mountainous Landscape is hardly a Rembrandt and was not included in Bredius’ 1935 catalogue.

Concerning the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cloak, recently re-attributed to Rembrandt by the Rembrandt Research Project for (seemingly) no other reason than that they regard it as a study for the man in the Jewish Bride, Veth was brief. “Seen”, he noted.

The painting that had been highly praised by Rembrandt’s contemporary Constantijn Huygens, Judas returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, disappointed many, including Jan Veth: “In the conventional figures surrounding the high priest there are poorly executed areas that remind one of an old copy or of overpaintings.” He was right: the version shown in the exhibition, then owned by Baron Arthur de Schinckler, was an early copy. Only in 1939 would the version acquired by Lord Iveagh in 1874 be acknowledged as Rembrandt’s original.

What did Veth think of the Night Watch now that it finally hung in a room where it was lit from the left? His only comment was an enigmatic: “Well …”

The return of the Night Watch

Rembrandt's Night Watch photographed outside the Stedelik Museum

Rembrandt’s Night Watch photographed outside the Stedelijk Museum

On 7 November 1898 the Night Watch, having been photographed outside the Stedelijk Museum on two consecutive days, returned to the Rijksmuseum. Its return was as eagerly anticipated as its temporary home in the Stedelijk Museum had been: the detractors of the painting’s location in the Rijksmuseum were keen to compare. First on the scene was Abraham Bredius and in his reaction, published the next day, he did not mince words: “The location of Rembrandt’s masterpiece is vandalism of the highest order.” The press, amused by the controversy, contributed a tongue-in-cheek compromise: “Light from above AND from the side.”

Cartoon by G. Kerkhoff in "De Amsterdammer", 20 November 1998: "The Night Watch matter resolved - light from above AND from the side (stiff necks after the visit)

Cartoon in “De Amsterdammer”, 20 November 1998: “The Night Watch matter resolved – light from above AND from the side (stiff necks after the visit)”

Eventually the “side light lobby” won a Pyrrhic victory: Rembrandt Year 1906 saw the opening of the “Rembrandt extension” at the Rijksmuseum, a newly built exhibition space behind the Night Watch Gallery where visitors could admire the painting under the same lighting conditions it had had in the Trippenhuis and in its temporary home at the Stedelijk Museum. Twenty years later, however, a new generation thought differently and the painting was restored to its original location in the Night Watch Gallery.

The Rijksmuseum's "Rembrandt extension" in 1906

The Rijksmuseum’s “Rembrandt extension”, 1906

London and beyond

Contrary to the Late Rembrandt exhibition today, the 1898 exhibition took the reverse route. After its successful run in Amsterdam the Rembrandt exhibition traveled to London’s Royal Academy as the institution’s 30th Winter Exhibition (2 January-11 March 1899). 102 paintings were exhibited in four rooms, a fifth room was devoted to drawings. Only six paintings came from Europe’s mainland so that for the first time virtually the entire collection of Rembrandt’s paintings in the United Kingdom and Ireland were united under one roof. Such an exhibition had not been possible in The Netherlands: while the Dutch were Rembrandt’s rightful heirs, his inheritance had largely been sold abroad.

Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, image KNAW

Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, image KNAW

The attribution aftermath was fierce. At the time of the Amsterdam exhibition, criticism had been mostly verbal which had upset Hofstede de Groot, its organiser. Vexed, he stated categorically that “all exhibited paintings are authentic”, but this only fuelled the debate even more. Perhaps tragically, for Hofstede de Groot the Rembrandt of the 1898 exhibition remained the one and only Rembrandt until his death in 1930. Bredius was more flexible: of the 124 paintings shown, 29 did not make his 1935 catalogue.

As for the exhibition’s objective, to honour the new Queen of the Netherlands through its King of Painters, this had been achieved in more ways than one. In The Netherlands the popularity of the monarchy had been waning, as had Rembrandt’s reputation. The exuberant inauguration festivities in Amsterdam revived the monarchy’s popularity while the first Rembrandt exhibition established the artist’s reputation once and for all. As Hofstede de Groot concluded in his catalogue introduction:

The Dutch could have paid no nobler homage to their young Queen and her coronation, than by bringing together a collection of the masterpieces of the greatest painter to whom Holland has given birth.

Notes:

  1. The images of the exhibition are from a folio containing fourteen silver collodion photographs of the preparation and installation of the 1898 Rembrandt exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum
  2. Jan Veth’s extensive tour of the exhibition appeared in De Kroniek, no. 201, 4 (1898), pp. 335-151 under the title “Uit een geannoteerden catalogus van de Rembrandt-tentoonstelling” (From an annotated catalogue of the Rembrandt exhibition)

Gustav Rau’s troubled legacy comes to Groningen

The exhibition “Natural beauty – from Fra Angelico to Monet” at the Groninger Museum

What is it about art that brings out the worst in some people? The answer is, sadly, that its monetary value increasingly takes over from its artistic and emotional merit. On 7 December 2013 the exhibition Natural Beauty, from Fra Angelico to Monet opened at the Groninger Museum. The exhibition shows part of the collection of the excentric German millionaire Gustav Rau (1922-2002) who, over a period of four decades, built a collection consisting of 786 paintings, sculptures and artifacts spanning six centuries. Unintended by Rau who designated his collection to be sold after his death to benefit charity, the collection has been the subject of legal and even political battles for years, starting during Rau’s lifetime and continuing until today.

Two passions

Gerard Dou, The Cook, 1660-5, 29 x 23.2 cm, oil on panel, purchased 1958

Gustav Rau was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps and work for the prosperous Stuttgart family business in auto parts. At the outset of World War II he was drafted into the Wehrmacht but managed to escape to London where he was held captive as a German national. Having returned to Stuttgart after the war, he started to collect art at the age of 38, his first purchase being Gerard Dou’s small trompe l’oeil painting of a cook.

Soon after he turned forty Rau began studying medicine, specialising in tropical diseases. He had never loved the family business and had only studied economics to please his parents. At forty-eight, a year after his father died, he sold the family business for DM 400 million (USD 110 million) and found his true calling in Africa, eventually settling in Zaire (now Congo-Kinshasa), building a clinic in Ciriri where he lived in spartan conditions. Not surprisingly, his great example was Dr. Albert Schweitzer. But corruption ran rife in Zaire with in its wake appalling poverty and it was not easy to accomplish much of anything there. Perhaps art was an antidote to all this. Every few months Rau traveled to Europe where, in his ankle-high hiking boots and khakis he was a frequent and memorable sight in auction rooms.

Rau, a devout Christian, never married and died childless. It seems almost impossible to reconcile the dichotomy in the man’s character: on the one hand a passionate art collector, spending millions on priceless artworks; on the other equally passionately dedicated to alleviating suffering in a small corner of Africa. Neither was an affectation. In both, it seems, he was equally sincere. When it came to art, after having been repeatedly duped in the early years of buying, Rau selected each work personally, shunning professional advice. The economist in him made that he was rarely tempted to offer more than the price he had intended to pay. He did not focus on a single area of art or attempt an academic survey of period or theme. Each individual work triggered his personal esthetic and emotional response and each acquisition was bought for the pleasure of looking at it. Only: he did that very rarely. Everything remained stored in a duty-free warehouse in Embrach, Switzerland for decades.

If there is any unifying theme running through the collection it has to be the human face, not surprising perhaps for a great humanitarian. One feels the humanity in the characters in his collection, not only in paintings, but also in the sculptures, in the medieval depictions of the suffering Christ. But his business sense never left him: he would seldom spend more on an art work than he had originally intended.

Due to health problems (a cerebral hemmoraghe after complications from double knee surgery) and the increasing instability in the region, Rau left Ciriri forever in 1992, settling in Monaco and later returning home to Germany. Throughout Rau built his art collection to form a legacy that would ultimately benefit the Third World by diminishing misery and disease through preventative practices and the distribution of medication and food. To this aim Rau established three foundations in the 1970s and ’80s. His plan at the time was to donate his entire fortune in the Crelona Foundation which would then pay his living expenses; everything remaining after his death would go to a fourth foundation: the Rau Foundation for the Third World.

Downhill

Harmen Evertsz. van Steenwyck, Still-life, ca. 1650, 32.2×44.2 cm. Photo: Hans G. Scheib, Cologne

But in Monaco the ailing Rau had begun to medicate himself, devising a pharmacological programme for himself that proved disastrous. He was sometimes discovered roaming the streets, lost and disoriented. This raised doubts about his mental faculties and lawsuits followed to prove him incapable of running his affairs. In March 1998 a financial administrator was appointed by the Monaco court. Later that same year a Zürich lawyer and board member of one of Rau’s charitable foundations successfully petitioned the Swiss government to freeze Rau’s Swiss bank account and the art works on the grounds that his “entourage” (Rau’s personal secretary and his confidente, a graphologist) might take advantage of the ailing collector. The “entourage” appealed and legal battles in Switzerland, Monaco, Germany and Liechtenstein followed.

In 1998, with the legal battles over his competency raging, Rau took action to prove that he was not the helpless vegetable his detractors made him out to be. With the help of a former art lecturer at the Sorbonne exhibitions of his masterpieces were staged, originally intended to go to only five Japanese museums. The Swiss government permitted the art to leave the country on condition that it would return immediately but it did not: after Japan Rau sent it to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, igniting a diplomatic battle that pitted the French government against the Swiss. The exhibition then traveled to Rotterdam, Cologne, Munich and Bergamo and caused a sensation wherever it went.

An emotional and frail-looking Gustav Rau at the September 2001 press conference

Rau eventually seized control over his affairs and held a press conference in September 2001 announcing the donation of his entire collection to UNICEF Germany. “I know my material possessions are in good hands now. I entrust them to an organisation that is committed to one cause only, to which I have given my own life: helping destitute children”, an emotional Rau said. At the same time he stipulated that the core collection, some 125 paintings, should stay together for a twenty-five year period, which will end in 2026. Gustav Rau died in early January 2002. But it didn’t stop there. The legal wrangles did not only follow from doubts about Rau’s mental capacity but also from his many wills: which was actually valid? Moreover, if the court would rule that Rau had been mentally incompetent in September 2001, the donation to UNICEF Germany would become null and void.

On top of it all, Rau’s death was considered suspect. In 2003 the Stuttgart district attorney opened a homicide investigation on the suspicion that the doctor had been poisoned. Excessive doses of Parkinson medication had been found in Rau’s body that could not be justified as medication; it was further believed that Rau, greatly weakened, could not have administered these doses himself. The case was eventually dismissed but doubts remain to this day.

More legal hassles

Jean Honoré Fragonard, Portrait of François-Henri, 5th duc d’Harcourt, 81x 65cm

In spite of a 2008 German verdict deciding that Rau was competent at the time when he left his collection to UNICEF Germany and that the organisation is therefore the rightful heir, the legal wrangles only continued. It would go too far to list them all here, but the latest inquiry is being conducted by the Zürich prosecutor’s office on the basis of a complaint brought by the council of Bülach, the district where Rau had stored the collection for years, just days before a major auction at Bonhams in London of ninety-two works from the collection that included paintings by Pissarro and Fragonard. The auction, on 5 December 2013, went ahead and Fragonard’s portrait was sold for a record 17.1 million pounds ($27.9 million). The painting had been Rau’s personal favourite. The aim of the current complaint seems to be to have Rau’s collection returned to Switzerland. But there is no destination envisaged should the district council win the case which, in any case, is very doubtful. Most likely it would end up in the duty-free warehouse once again.

The district attorney of Stuttgart has just announced that he has opened a homicide investigation in relation to the death of the renowned art collector Gustav Rau , who compiled a formidable collection of art that he donated to Unicef, to whose work in Africa he dedicated the last decades of his life. The newspaper “Der Standard” from Vienna and a public Austrian television station commented that Gustav Rau could have been poisoned. Eckhard Maak, a spokesman from the district attorney’s office in the capital of Baden-Württemberg, confirmed to a reporter that there is enough suspicion that encouraged them to reopen their investigation months ago. According to him, “doctors found in his body excessive doses of a substance that would not be justified with a medication”, he declared to the online edition of “Focus”. Rau died two years ago, at 79 near Stuttgart, the auto capital of Germany, where he inherited and multiplied a massive fortune. Institutions and foundations had been fighting over Rau’s inheritance for years, even trying to prove that he was mentally incapacitated ever since he decided to work as a doctor in Africa, build a hospital in Congo, and modify his testament to donate 750 works of art to Unicef. His collection of art from the Renaissance to the XX Century includes paintings and sculptures by artists such as El Greco, Munch, Degas, Monet and Renoir. He began to collect art in 1958 attending auctions throughout the world. His collection, valued at about 500 million euros, is the second largest private collection in the world after the Thyssen Collection.

The remaining art has gradually been sold through three auction houses to benefit UNICEF Germany’s humanitarian work: Sotheby’s and Bonham’s in London and Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne. One of the works recently auctioned at Sotheby’s is an exquisite and rare early French ivory triptych with scenes from the Life of the Virgin with traces of original polychromy and gilding, dated c. 1310-20, fittingly known today as the Gustav Rau Triptych.

The question can validly be asked whether UNICEF Germany is not being compromised by all this and whether, with hindsight, they might even regret Gustav Rau’s donation. Time and time again reactions to new allegations appear on their website – it keeps their lawyers very busy. It is sad that a well-meant and generous humanitarian gift has become so encumbered.

Michael Sweerts

Readers of this blog will remember my fascination with the Flemish painter Michael Sweerts. Two works in the Rau collection to be exhibited until 2026 are by him, that is to say: one of them is in such a deplorable state that it can no longer be established if it is an autograph work or a contemporary free copy of the painting called The Schoolroom, discussed in an earlier post.

The other is an autograph work now in the exhibition in Groningen: it is one of the paintings of the Seven Acts of Mercy series. The Rijksmuseum so far owns four of the series. I hope that when the time comes, 2026, they will consider buying Harbouring the Stranger, which is every bit as mysterious and compassionate a work as the others in the series. The composition is evidently based on the iconography of the travellers on the road to Emmaus where Christ, dressed as a pilgrim, meets two of his disciples. It is the man in the middle who is of particular interest. He is staring straight at the viewer, drawing us into the scene. It is Michael Sweerts himself. About thirty at the time, his features are recognisable from, for example, his self-portrait in the Uffizi. Not only would the Rijksmuseum acquire another painting in this magnificent series, but at the same time a Sweerts self-portrait. The economist in Gustav Rau would be pleased: two for the price of one.

Note:

For a full overview of the Rau Collection (texts in German), see:

The three catagories were compiled in September 2013 and do not incorporate the sales results of the auctions held in the fall of 2013.

The most expensive tv stand in the world (2)

Years ago I read a book by Peter Watson describing the story of the life of Paolo Veronese’s painting Wisdom and Strength, painted c. 1580 in plague-ridden Venice and covers the four hundred years of the painting’s existence so far, during which it touched the private and public lives of its consecutive owners. If we look up a provenance of a painting on a museum website, in an auction catalogue or in an exhibition catalogue, it looks dry to us: a list of previous owners there to establish a work of art’s authenticity, as closely as possible to the moment when it left its creator’s studio. But the history of the fortunes and failures of the people on that list is shared by the work of art; in a similar and yet a different way. That, to me makes provenance such an interesting field of study and this is the story we now embark on as we follow the Japanese chest we left in the previous post when it was on its way to Europe from Japan, although, as we shall see, the provenance is by no means watertight.

The former VOC warehouse in Amsterdam, demolished 1890. Photo: Stadsarchief

The former VOC warehouse in Amsterdam, demolished 1890. Photo: Stadsarchief

When the chest and its companion lacquer boxes arrived in Amsterdam in the early 1640s, the market for expensive luxury items was poor due to several factors including the Thirty and Eighty Years Wars which at that time raged simultaneously. Money was tight: on September 19, 1648, the Heren XVII (the central command of the United East India Company) passed a resolution to sell their lacquer stock without delay, “in exchange for cash payment.” But it would take until January 1658 before the Japanese chest would find an owner.

Jacques-Auguste de Thou, baron de Meslay, was France’s ambassador in Amsterdam from 1651 to 1661. His covert mission, like that of Alphonso de Lopez for Cardinal de Richelieu before him, was to buy the best art possible for Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602-1661), particularly Japanese lacquers. Amsterdam, with its extensive Asian network, was the perfect place for this. De Thou wrote on 31 January 1658:

One of the best purchases he [Francis Lescot, a French merchant] made for his master was that of 1658. Lescot returned [to France] on a “battleship with beautiful objects for the Cardinal. For this acquisition, Lescot had to compete with an Amsterdam “rogue”. The purchase was most probably made at auction.

Cardinal Mazarin in His Palace, engraving by Robert Nanteuil, 1659. The auction house Rouillac suggests that the table the Cardinal is leaning on is the Rijksmuseum chest. This is difficult to say as it is covered by a cloth but the object has the correct height.

Having little by little become “as powerful as God the Father when the world began”, enjoying the revenues of twenty-seven abbacies, always ready to enrich himself by whatever means, Cardinal Mazarin had more wonderful art works in his own palace than the French king in his. In spite of the political crisis and Civil War (the Fronde), he was able to build an enormous collection that reflected his Italian origins and international connections. He was also particularly fond of Japanese lacquer: the inventory of his furniture warehouse at his death in 1661 lists 206 precious lacquer objects. This “Chinese lacquer furniture” was housed in the first floor gallery of the Palais Mazarin, today the Galerie Mazarine in the Bibliotèque National de France in Paris (see the engraving by Nanteuil above). The measurements of one of the lacquer chests given in the inventory enables us to identify the Rijksmuseum chest as No. 829; the smaller chest, today known as the Mazarin Chest in the Victoria and Albert Museum, as No. 810. Both are described as “Chinese lacquer boxes”.

Three of the seven nieces of Cardinal Mazarin: Marie-Anne (left), Olympia (center), and Hortense (right), 1660s

The next owners are a bit more problematic. It is certain that a large part of Mazarin’s lacquer chests remained in his family after his death, but it is not certain who inherited our chest. To begin with, Mazarin had seven nieces. It was either the eldest, Hortense Mancini (1646-1699), wife of Armand-Charles de la Porte de La Meilleraye, or another niece, possibly Marie-Anne Mancini (1649-1714), wife the 1st Duc de Bouillon, who inherited the chest on the death of their uncle. In his will the Cardinal had favoured Hortense and her husband but he also richly endowed each of his six other nieces, assigning to each of them 40,000 pounds worth of “furniture, jewels, rings and remaining jewelry and silverware […]” for them to divide between themselves as they saw fit. What is certain is that, upon Hortense Mancini’s death, her husband inherited, according to No. 626 of Hortense’s death inventory, “a large Chinese chest with a bridge and a Chinese woman.This description could well correspond with the so-called Mazarin Chest in the Victoria & Albert Museum. 

The V&A's

The V&A’s “Mazarin Chest”. Photo credit: V&A

In 1781, Jeanne Louise Durfort, Duchess of Rethel, Mayenne, La Meilleraye and Mazarin, died at the age of 45. The sale of her collection, the catalogue of which was published by LeBrun, was held on 10 December and the following days. At the very end of the catalogue are listed six lacquer objects, starting with No. 357 which is described as “a large wooden chest, black background with dragons in gold and trimmed with golden brass, placed on carved & gilded foot.” The description could fit our chest, but again, this is not absolutely certain. Jeanne Louise was related to Hortense, Cardinal Mazarin’s eldest niece who may have bequeathed this chest to her. She was the aunt of the last Duc de Bouillon, the next owner of our chest.

The Duc de Bouillon as a child, playing a hurdy-gurdy, with his brother, by François-Hubert Drouais, 1756

The Duc de Bouillon as a child, playing a hurdy-gurdy, with his brother, by François-Hubert Drouais, 1756

Jacques Leopold Charles Godefroy de La Tour d’ Auvergne, 7th Duc de Bouillon (1746-1802), either inherited the chest upon the death of his father (through the husband of Mazarin’s niece Marie-Anne, the 1st Duc de Bouillon) in 1792 or he may have bought it at his aunt Jeanne Louise Durfort’s sale in 1781. His taste for old Japanese lacquer is documented: in 1777, for instance, he bought the much smaller Van Diemen box which came from the collection of the Marquise de Pompadour at the Randon de Boisset sale. However, from March 1800 he was forced to pay an astronomical sum to recover his duchy which had been sequestered during the Revolution and this meant that he gradually had to sell his collections.

The Van Diemen box, so named because the name of the wife of Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in the first half of the 17th century, is carved on the inside of the lid. Photo credit: V&A

The Van Diemen box, so named because the name of the wife of Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in the first half of the 17th century, is carved on the inside of the lid. Photo credit: V&A

At one of the Duc de Bouillon collection’s sales, on 21 July 1801, a Parisian haberdasher called Darnault bought 51 lacquer items “for Mr. Beckforth” (sic). Our chest is possibly No. 6 of the invoice sent by Darnault to the Duke of Beckford the following month:

A large trunk 3 feet long by two wide and two high. The panels depict landscapes with figures and animals, mills etc., all inlaid in gold and silver embossed. The frames of said panels represent ornaments and rosettes inlaid in gold and mother-of-pearl […], all in the most perfect state of preservation.

Darnauld paid the sum of 1,280 francs for the chest. In total he spent 5,888 francs on the 51 lacquer items, suggesting that the chest described is possibly the largest item and therefore our chest.

William Beckford by George Romney, 1782

William Beckford by George Romney, 1782

William Beckford, only legitimate son of wealthy plantation owner of the same name, was the heir to an immense fortune. In 1771, when Beckford was ten years old, he inherited £1,000,000 (roughly £100 million today) and an income which his contemporaries estimated at around £100,000 per annum (equivalent to roughly £10 million). Newspapers of the period described him as “the richest commoner in England”. A passionate art collector, Gothic novelist, critic, travel writer and sometime politician, he had acquired an early taste for Japanese lacquers. A few months prior to the Duc de Bouillon sale of July 1801, Beckford wrote in a letter: “I feel I shall never be good for anything in this world but composing airs, building towers, forming gardens, collecting old japan.” The “towers” no doubt referred to Fonthill Abbey, the Gothic revival extravaganza with its extraordinary tower that was being constructed for him by architect James Wyatt at the time. Two Japanese lacquer chests are listed among Beckford’s property at Fonthill Abbey in 1812: on the east side of the Gallery stood “a large Japan chest inlaid with curious devices in pearl and silver; the bordering […] uncommonly rich”. It is thought that Beckford bought the smaller Mazarin Chest at the property sale of “Citizen Juillot” in 1802; it and other lacquer boxes are listed in the oratory at Fonthill.

Fonthill Abbey

Fonthill Abbey from John Rutter’s “Delineations of Fonthill” (1823)

Fonthill Abbey, due to Beckford’s haste in getting it finished, was badly constructed, its tower built with inappropriate materials that were inadequate to support such a massive structure. The tower collapsed twice but when it collapsed a third and final time in 1825 Beckford had already sold the property to John Farquhar, who had made a fortune selling gunpowder in India. Farquhar at once auctioned the art and furnishings in the famous Fonthill Sale of 1823. In the sale, organised by Phillips, our chest gets a rave review:

A SUPERB COFFER OF RAISED JAPAN, presumed the largest specimen known of this superior quality; the LID without and within, as also the FRONT and SIDES, are covered with representations of buildings and landscapes, of the finest raised and spangled Japan, and with animals in SOLID gold and silver. This unique specimen of Japanese art was formerly the property of CARDINAL MAZARIN, and belonged, subsequently to the DUC de BOUILLON.

At the sale, Beckford himself and his son-in-law the Duke of Hamilton were heavy purchasers, often buying items more cheaply than the original price Beckford had paid. On September 27, 1823, on the fifteenth day of sale, the chest was bought for 131 pounds and 5 shillings by a man called Swaby who probably acted as an agent for Beckford. 

The Duke of Hamilton by George Raeburn, c. 1812-23

The Duke of Hamilton by George Raeburn, c. 1812-23

Where his father-in-law William Beckford had been called the “richest commoner in England”, Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852) who married Beckford’s daughter Susan Euphemia in 1810, was called in one obituary “the proudest man in England.” He was quite a dandy and a great art collector with a great interest in Egyptian mummies that went so far that he persuaded a mummy expert to mummify him after death. He and his wife had settled in Hamilton Palace, a large country house located north-east of Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland (destroyed in 1927). Interestingly, attached to the bottom of our chest a label was found with the text William Murray Carver & Gilder To His Grace the Duke of Hamilton & Brandon 25 Buchanan Street Glasgow, Architectural Coats of Arms, Ships and Furniture Carving, leaving no doubt that the chest was, either by descent or by purchase, in Hamilton’s possession.

The chest remained in the Hamilton family until, ruined, Hamilton’s grandson William Douglas-Hamilton, 12th Duke of Hamilton, sold off the Hamilton Palace collection in 1882. The sale, arranged by Christie, Manson & Woods lasted thirteen days. Our chest is sold on the eleventh day, 10 July 1882, and is described as:

A VERY FINE OBLONG COFFER, OF OLD JAPAN LACQUER, with a large landscape, buildings, threes and a river, with a bridge and figures in the foreground, in border of birds and scrolls, animals and birds in gold and silver in relief, similar landscapes on the front and ends and inside the lid, black and gold trellis-border, with circular ornaments, inlaid with mother-o’-pearl, chased metal-gilt mounts –on carved and gilt wood stand -4ft. 6 in. by 2 ft 3 in. From the Collections of the Cardinal Mazarin, the Duc de Bouillon and Fonthill.

It was at this sale that the Victoria and Albert Museum purchased the Japanese chest today known as the Mazarin Chest. Our chest was sold to Trevor Lawrence and this gave it its – hopefully temporary – name, the Lawrence Chest.

At the Hamilton sale, Sir James John Trevor Lawrence, 2nd Baronet (1831-1913), President of the Royal Horticultural Society, philanthropist and collector, bought the chest together with other Asian art. His lacquer boxes were exhibited in 1894 at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. The beautifully printed book describing his Japanese art collection was published privately at the expense of the author in 1895. Our chest, numbered 1110, is thus described:

hitsu (a chest) Probably used as a receptacle for dresses.. Size, 4 ft. 8 in. long by 2 ft. 2 in 2 ft high. 4 in. wide, decorated on all sides with scenes in gold on black lacquer, Contained within a triple Bordering of diapers and floral design in gold and mother-of-pearl. The scenes depicts flowers gardens, building, bridges, and ornamental waters, and in Court by All which ladies and children walk and play. The chest is bound with brass and gilt angle plates, decorated hinges, and fittings, the plate surrounding the keyhole. Having an elaborate design with a panel upon a nashiji ground.

The sale of Lawrence’s estate after his death was spread over three sessions in May, November and December 1916.

From 1916 auction catalogue. Photo credit: V&A Museum

Photos from the 1916 auction catalogue. Photo credit: V&A

Our chest was offered on the third day of the first sale, 29 May 1916 and was bought by Sir Clifford Cory (1859-1941),  a Welsh colliery owner, coal exporter and Liberal Party politician. Sir Clifford Corey died in 1941 and in the middle of the turmoil of World War II his estate was sold at auction with the lacquer chest described solely as “a large Chinese chest”. And there, it appeared, the trail ended. Fraught with uncertainties and possible false leads that still need to be thoroughly researched, we were able to more or less follow the Rijksmuseum or Lawrence chest from Japan to the United Kingdom throughout the four centuries since it was created in the lacquer workshops of the Shogun court.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, as we have seen, had purchased a similar, smaller chest, also once owned by Cardinal Mazarin. Its larger counterpart had featured in the same 1882 sale, but where was it? The Museum started looking for it in earnest in the 1980s, launching an appeal in Country Life and again on their website in 2000:

How can a chest of such supreme quality and exceptional size have disappeared like this? Did it suffer at the hands of enemy action during World War II, or is it gathering dust somewhere in a proverbial attic unrecognised for what it is by its current owner? The V&A is very keen to locate the Lawrence Chest or identify who bought it from the 1941 sale as this would be of enormous benefit to our research on the Mazarin Chest.

By a quirk of fate in the 1980s the chest was actually only a few minutes walk from the museum: at the home of a Polish doctor named Zaniewsky who had bought it at the Cory auction for a pittance. He was evidently not a Country Life reader. The doctor sold the chest in 1970 to a tenant of his, a French engineer who worked for Shell Petroleum. It was he who used it as a tv stand in his South Kensington apartment for 16 years and he took the chest with him when, after his retirement, he moved to a modest little house the Loire Valley. There he used it as a bar.

After the deaths of their parents, the family of the engineer engaged the auction house Rouillac to appraise and sell the estate. On 9 June of this year the chest was offered at auction by Rouillac at  Château de Cheverny. And there, as we saw in the previous post, the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum bought it for the largest sum ever paid for a tv stand. Eventually the chest will be exhibited not, as one would expect, in the museum’s new Asiatic Pavillion but in one of the 17th century galleries. Perhaps the thought behind it is that the chest was commissioned for the Dutch VOC company as a luxury export product, but I would rather see it in the Asiatic Pavillion as a testimony to the artistic brilliance of Koami Nagashige and his workshop.

I need not think long of a name for it. Not the Lawrence chest as the V&A and auction house Rouillac have dubbed it, but I would like for it to be called Koami Chest in honour of its maker or, if it has to be a Western name, Caron Chest in honour of the adventurous and entrepreneurial François Caron we met in the previous post at the beginning of the chest’s story. After all, the chest and its companions would never have been created if it had not been for him and we would not have been able to enjoy and admire its lavish beauty today.

At the Château de Cheverny auction with, ironically, Cardinal Mazarin sternly looking on in the background. Photo: Rouillac

Note:

  • I am indebted to the French auction house Rouillac which has, in as far as possible, outlined the provenance of the chest. Where necessary I have verified or contradicted their conclusions. Should the Rijksmuseum publish their new research on the chest and its provenance and should that yield significant new insights, I will post an update on this page.