A milestone in art history scholarship was laid down a quarter-century ago with the founding of the Journal of the History of Collections, and incrementally our gaps of knowledge of provenance and collectors have been filled in. Recently, entire exhibitions have provided insights into both collectors and collections; a memorable instance was the 2009 Munich show on Kurfürst Johann Wilhelm von der Pfalz and his early eighteenth-century Düsseldorf Residenz, organized by Reinhold Baumstark.
Now our knowledge of Central Europe collectors is enriched by this series of essays by Inrid Ciulisová in her new book. Ciulisová, senior research fellow at the Slovak Institute of Art History in Bratislava, will already be known to many HNA members, not least for her scholarly publication of the Netherlandish painting collection in Slovak museums (2006). Some of her subjects are celebrated already: Count János Pálffy of Hungary (though fine earlier research on him is largely inaccessible in Hungarian); and Count Antoine Seilern of Vienna and London, whose bequest of his Princes’ Gate Collection enriched both the Courtauld Institute and the British Museum. Others are studied from new angles. Extant paintings that she discusses are illustrated in color.
Ciuslisová’s essays begin in Bratislava with Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen (1738-1822) and eighteenth-century issues of “taste.” Of course, his unsurpassed drawings collection became the Albertina in Vienna, so is long familiar, but most were acquired after Albert left Hungary. Instead, the author focuses on his Bratislava Castle interiors and wider range of collecting. In similar fashion, Count Pálffy and his Bojnice Castle in the second half of the nineteenth century became a major founder of the Budapest Szépmüvészeti Museum collection of today. Ciuslisová quotes from his will (pp. 61f.) to note how he bequeathed 178 paintings “to bring these objects of fine art home and so help my homeland, which is so poorly endowed with such items.”
Much the same generosity characterized Count Seilern’s bequest, but he also maintained close association with such renowned Viennese scholars (several of them transplanted with him to London during the Nazi occupation) as Johannes Wilde, Ludwig Burchard, and Fritz Grossmann, as well as Oskar Kokoschka, whose contemporary works formed a major facet of his collection. Seilern’s great passion for Rubens sketches and drawings now are a major resource of London, but his rigorous catalogue of his own collection is a lasting contribution to scholarship. One powerful recollection of the present reviewer is seeing those old master works on the walls of his London townhouse, along with the Kokoschkas and big game trophy heads on the staircase and to hear the count himself recounting their significance.
Perhaps the most poignant of essay, however (reminiscent of Edmund de Waal’s family history, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, 2012) is Ciulisová’s account of a lesser collection, now dispersed, that of Baron Karl Kuffner (1847-1924), a Jewish patrician whose sugar fortune underwrote his artworks in a Sládkovicovo mansion. His son’s life was disrupted by the Nazi occupation, and the collections were shipped first to Switzerland and later to the US, where they were auctioned (most found homes in American museums). Works remaining behind were nationalized to join the new Slovak National Gallery in 1948.
This kind of wider social history provides useful background to Ciulisová’s tales of her case studies, both familiar and unfamiliar. Her book thus provides its own new chapter – in clear, idiomatic English – in the growing literature on histories of collections.
University of Pennsylvania