Fin-de-siècle Art Collecting

Yet another exhibition awaited us during our recent visit to Florence and the Villa Bardini.

Édouard André belonged to a French-Protestant banking family. He devoted his considerable fortune to buying works of art exhibiting them in his new purpose-built mansion built in 1869 by the architect Henri Parent, and completed in 1875.

Édouard married Nélie Jacquemart a fashionable portrait artist (its is her self-portrait which is shown above) who had painted his portrait ten years earlier. The couple would make a trip to Italy every year both for sightseeing and for buying Italian art, thus creating one of the finest collections of that country’s art in France. On Edouard’s death, Nélie began travelling to the Orient and added a fine collection of Far eastern art to the collection. Following the instructions in her husband’s will she donated the mansion and its wonderful collections to the Institut de France to be established as a museum, the musée Jaquemart-Andre, which opened its doors for the first time to the public in 1913.

Who should have helped the Jaquemarts in getting their magnificent Italian art collection together? None other than Roberto Bardini himself, who saw a great chance in these customers. There were a few hiccups, however. Nélie, not completely trusting Bardini (or Italians in general) had every painting they considered buying from him vetted by a Parisian committee of art experts and this, at first ,caused a few tensions since Bardini expected his verdicts to be trusted completely. We now know that Nélie was quite right to have supported “her” committee since Bardini, himself, often fabricated attributions and even “compiled” “originals” from fragments of different pieces!

However, the resulting assemblage is to be admired by everyone who has visited the museum in Paris. The visitors to it still do not include us, unfortunately. But certainly they will on our next trip to Paris where we have already admired another great collector-museum of the city, the musée Nissim de Camondo.

Our chance to see some of Jaquemart’s treasures, however, came recently when we visited the Villa Bardini. I’ve already written about the two other exhibitions we saw there: the Capucci foundation collection and the Annigoni museum but our prime target was to see the selection of the works of art Jaquemart had bought from Bardini in an exhibition which lasts until next year.

There are only around forty paintings on display and some of them, frankly are very much in the “style of”, “school of “and “from the workshop of” variety. There are quasi-Botticellis and quasi-other painters. Among the display however is a wonderful genuine Botticelli and a faded, though very impressive, Mantegna.

There is also yet another version of Paolo Uccello’s “Saint George and the Dragon” which represents, according to prof. Fascetti, whose book on the subject I translated, an allegory of the Florentine republic victorious against the Visconti serpent. The background, however, is different again from the version Fascetti’ was referring to and which now hangs in London’s National Gallery. The two versions can be seen here – the NG’s version on the left:

At the time the Jaquemarts formed their collection there was still not much interest in Italian primitives – their time would come in the following century so the assortment mainly concentrates on renaissance paintings.

The exhibition is interesting primarily because of the light it reveals on the Jaquemart-Bardini relationship. Such relationships could hardly exist today. The prices of old masters have risen sky-high and could only be afforded by far eastern magnates and Arab sheiks or those who can finance a successful arts theft. Just today, for example, we hear that a Francis Bacon triptych has sold for 142 million dollars making it the most expensive painting ever sold!

Talking of which it will be fascinating to see what happens to the hundreds of seminal and long-thought-lost modern paintings condemned as degenerate by Herr Hitler and his henchmen, and recently found in a dilapidated Munich apartment…

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