Calling the Tune: patrons, donors and dealers in paintings 2

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Large Bathers (1884-87), oil on canvas, 117.9 x 170.9 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

This is the second of two articles introducing a new series in which I’m going to look at the vital relationship between painters and their patrons, donors, dealers and others involved in the purchase of paintings, and how that has affected what has been painted. The first article looked at some examples from the Renaissance, a period for which patronage has been most studied, but patronage didn’t end there by any means.

Galerie Médicis, Richelieu wing, Palais du Louvre, París. Image by Matt Biddulph (Flickr), via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1621, Peter Paul Rubens was commissioned to tell the story of Marie de’ Medici in a panegyric to celebrate her achievements first as the wife of King Henry IV of France, following her marriage in 1600, then as the Regent of France following Henry’s assassination in 1610. These paintings were to adorn her Luxembourg Palace in Paris for the wedding of Marie’s daughter, Henrietta Maria, to King Charles I of England in 1625. It was a colossal task, and an extraordinary achievement by Rubens and his workshop.

Rubens shows Marie’s birth, education, and her marriage by proxy to Henry IV. They later meet, she has a son, who was to become King Louis XIII, and Henry consigns her the Regency before he goes off to war. He is then crowned in the Basilica of Saint-Denis in Paris. Although history has judged King Henry IV (Henry Navarre) to be one of France’s better monarchs, religious fanaticism was his undoing. Several attempts had already been made on his life, and on the day after his queen’s coronation ceremony, 14 May 1610, he was stabbed to death in his coach by a Catholic fanatic.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Apotheosis of Henry IV and Homage to Marie de’ Medici (Marie de’ Medici Cycle) (c 1622-25), oil on canvas, 394 x 727 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens doesn’t depict real scenes from history, but shows them in allegorical terms, using figures from classical mythology mixed with those from reality. Instead of painting a scene of Henry’s assassination, he made The Apotheosis of Henry IV and Homage to Marie de’ Medici, one of three landscape-format canvases in the series.

The left side of the painting shows the assassinated king being welcomed into heaven as a victor by the gods Jupiter and Saturn. Jupiter, as king of the Olympian gods, is Henry’s divine counterpart; Saturn, holding a sickle in his right hand, marks the end of Henry’s earthly existence. Below them is Bellona, an ancient Roman goddess of war, who is stripped of her armour and appears tormented.

On the right side, Marie is seated on her throne as Regent, wearing black widow’s weeds, as the personification of France kneels in homage and presents her with an orb of office. Behind the Regent, at the far right, is Minerva bearing her Aegis, the shield emblazoned with the image of Medusa’s head. Also present are Prudence and Divine Providence, and her court are paying tribute from below.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Marie de’ Medici, Queen of France, 1575-1642 (1622), oil on canvas, 130 × 112 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

When Marie de’ Medici, Queen of France, 1575-1642 (1622) became Regent, she had next to no experience or even interest in politics or government. She has since been characterised as “stubborn and of limited intellect” who was under the influence of her maid.

She was desperate to form a strong alliance with Habsburg Spain, which she felt would lead to more permanent peace within Europe. It was she who appointed Armand Jean de Plessis to her councils: he later became Cardinal Richelieu, whose name is given to the wing of the Louvre in which Rubens’ series is exhibited.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Council of the Gods (Marie de’ Medici Cycle) (c 1622-25), oil on canvas, 394 × 727 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens very tactfully shows Marie’s planning in the form of The Council of the Gods, one of the most complex paintings in the series, which remains hard to interpret.

In the foreground centre are Athena (helmeted and in armour, with her Aegis) and Apollo (with his bow). They are chasing off the figures at the lower right, consisting of Discord, Hate, Fury, and Envy. In the upper right, Jupiter debates with a group of gods and goddesses, including Saturn (with his scythe), Diana, Neptune, and a woman wearing green over black mourning dress, who can only be Marie, but is holding Mercury’s caduceus. Other figures recognised include Pluto, Pan, Flora, Hebe, Venus, Mars, and Juno.

Whatever divine advice Marie may or may not have received, she decided that the best way to secure peace was through marriage. Not one wedding, but two: Anne of Austria to her son Louis XIII of France, and his younger sister Princess Élisabeth to the future king of Spain, Philip IV. And the rest is told in remaining paintings in this series which is now the Louvre in Paris.

When Rubens and his workshop were occupied with that commission, Diego Velázquez was appointed a Painter Royal to King Philip IV, setting him on the course to greatness. Over the following years, he developed a close relationship with his royal patron, who used to drop into Velázquez’s studio to talk with him.

Diego Velázquez (1599–1660), Las Meninas (The Maids of Honour, Velázquez and the Royal Family) (c 1656-57) [119], oil on canvas, 318 x 276 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.
This culminated in Velázquez’s greatest painting, Las Meninas (c 1656-57), which is a faithful group portrait of his patron and his family in a room in the Alcázar Palace.

Just over a decade before Velázquez painted that, Rembrandt completed his famous commission The Night Watch, or The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq (1642), which shows all the members of that group who paid for it.

By the nineteenth century, the business of art was changing. Although right through that century many painters relied, at least in part, on patrons, this period saw the rise of the art dealer, men like Paul Durand-Ruel, and the influence of the critic, like John Ruskin, whose opinions were decisive during the middle of the century in Britain.

John Brett (1831–1902), Val d’Aosta (1858), oil on canvas, 87.6 x 68 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John Brett was an aspiring Pre-Raphaelite landscape specialist, who in 1858 started to paint this magnificent view of Val d’Aosta in front of the motif. Working in fine detail and painting from life, he followed the principles laid down by Ruskin. This proved so demanding that the artist brought the painting back to England for completion during the late autumn of that year. He considered it finished by Christmas, and it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859.

Ruskin’s Academy Notes on the finished painting, when it was exhibited in 1859, begin with enthusiastic praise, before Ruskin starts to find fault:
A notable picture truly; a possession of much within a few feet square. Yet not, in the strong, essential meaning of the word, a noble picture. It has a strange fault, considering the school to which it belongs — it seems to me to be wholly emotionless. I cannot find from it that the painter loved, or feared, anything in all that wonderful piece of the world.
(John Ruskin, Academy Notes, 1859, in Cook ET & Wedderburn A (eds) The Works of John Ruskin, vol 14, pp 234-8.)

Brett was eventually forced to abandon the full Pre-Raphaelite approach to landscape painting, as prescribed by Ruskin, and is now largely forgotten.

The French Impressionists liked to portray themselves as being independent of the Salon and the art establishment, but were just as reliant on patrons and dealers as any other artists of the time. There were only three significant exceptions: Gustave Caillebotte was sufficiently affluent as to not have any motive for selling his paintings, indeed he acted as patron by buying the works of other Impressionists. During the early part of Edgar Degas’ career, he too was wealthy enough not to worry about sales, but after the death of his father in 1874, he had to make his living from his art. For Paul Cézanne the situation was reversed, and it was only with the death of his father in 1886 that Cézanne became independent of income from the sale of his paintings.

An example of the importance of dealers and critics is the new style of figurative painting which Renoir introduced in his Large Bathers in 1887.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919), The Large Bathers (1884-87), oil on canvas, 117.9 x 170.9 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

Renoir intended this to be the first of his new style, which he derived from his studies of Old Masters, including Raphael, Rubens and Titian, and Ingres. Despite three years of work on this canvas, this painting was savaged by the critics and Renoir was put under pressure from dealers like Durand-Ruel to abandon this change. He did, and flourished as a result.

Dealers didn’t completely replace patrons: Alfred Sisley’s close friendship with his patron, the operatic baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure not only helped pay the artist’s bills, but took him to Britain in 1874, where he perfected the style which was to last for the rest of his career. Faure was an avid collector of Impressionist paintings: he owned 67 works by Édouard Manet, 62 by Claude Monet, and others by Degas, Sisley and Pissarro.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), La Casa de Misia Sert (The House of Misia Sert) (1906), tempera on canvas, 38 x 46 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The Athenaeum.

The new generation of patrons brought not only wealth but distinctive tastes and aesthetics, and prove muses and even – for some – lovers.

Pierre Bonnard dedicated his painting of La Casa de Misia Sert (The House of Misia Sert) (1906) to the former Misia Natanson, muse, close friend, and patron.

Misia Godebska (1872-1950) had first married Thadée Natanson, who published La Revue Blanche. She met Alfred Edwards, who founded and owned the leading Paris newspaper Le Matin, through Natanson’s business dealings, and in 1903 became Edwards’ mistress. Edwards offered Natanson the capital that the latter needed, on condition that Misia was released to marry Edwards.

Misia married Alfred Edwards in 1905, and settled into a lavish apartment overlooking the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Edwards perhaps inevitably proved unfaithful, and the couple divorced in 1909. She then married the Spanish painter José-Maria Sert in 1920 – which proved to be another tumultuous relationship, ending in divorce in 1927.

Misia’s portrait was painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Vallotton, Vuillard and Bonnard, and Maurice Ravel dedicated two pieces of music to her. By the time of her death in 1950, she had been a muse and patron to countless painters, writers, composers, and ballet dancers, including Sergei Diaghilev, whose funeral she paid for.

The only nineteenth century painter who seems to have had such a favourable relationship with their dealer was Vincent van Gogh, whose main dealer was of course his younger brother Theo.

I hope that you will join me to discover a side of art which people seem too ashamed about to consider in public.