The Robert Lehman Collection
One evening in June 1914, Osbert Sitwell attended a concert in London at which Richard Strauss performed his Sonata in E-flat for piano and violin, Strauss playing the piano and Lady Speyer the violin—much as John Singer Sargent depicts her with her Stradivarius in the portrait he painted in 1907. Writing afterward about Lady Speyer and her wealthy American-born financier husband, Sir Edgar, Sitwell says that their grand mansion in Grosvenor Street
sheltered the sort of art collection that is seldom seen in England but is more common in America. Many of the items might have been chosen by a magpie who had found himself a millionaire: some were dark in tone, it is true—yet all glittered and were rich in luster. There was something in the atmosphere, too, that recalled the public rooms of an expensive liner. French staircases, German woodcarving, Augsburg plate, crystal vases from China, Persian tiles, and some of the furnishings of Marie Antoinette’s boudoir, all these were united by the taste of the owners for objects of luxury.1
What Sir Osbert apparently means by an American sort of art collection is one that displays paintings and sculpture in a luxurious setting of splendid decorative arts. He could, of course, have found much the same thing nearer home, with the Sassoons at Houghton Hall or in Park Lane, for example, or with the Camondos in Paris on the rue de Monceau. The English prototype of all such collecting is Hertford House in London, where the opulent Wallace Collection has been displayed to the public since 1900. But the American “squillionaires,” as Bernard and Mary Berenson liked to call them, were often richer and not infrequently more ostentatious—and of riveting fascination to English nobility for the heiresses they might provide as spouses. What is interesting is that Sitwell thinks of such comprehensive collections as American rather than as English or European.
Beginning with J.P. Morgan and Isabella Stewart Gardner, a lengthy succession of very wealthy nineteenth-century American “buccaneer collectors,” as Kenneth Clark once termed them—Henry Walters, Henry Clay Frick, Henry Huntington, Charles Lang Freer, Andrew Mellon, Joseph Widener, to name the most eminent—formed large collections of paintings that they then displayed in an ambiance of elegant, expensive decorative arts. There were, of course, other notable collectors—the Havemeyers, the Lewisohns, the Cone sisters, the Clark brothers, Guggenheim, Kress, Phillips, etc.—but they collected paintings almost exclusively. In the twentieth century, fewer comprehensive collections were formed, but one of the largest of all time was that of Robert Lehman, so eminent that it was given a special exhibition at the Orangerie in Paris in 1957, the only American collection ever to be afforded that honor. Lehman was probably the last of the magpie millionaires.
Such comprehensive collections may be seen as reflections of that characteristic nineteenth-century impulse to undertake impossibly large, all-embracing projects. Although there are some notable earlier precursors, such as Bayle’s Dictionnaire (1695) and Diderot’s Encyclopédie (1751), the full force of this obsessive impulse was to be felt in the nineteenth century with innumerable grandiose projects, such as (to give only a few examples) Jacques Paul Migne’s Patrologia Latina in 221 volumes or Theodor Mommsen’s Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, begun in 1853, which by now contains almost 200,000 inscriptions and has yet to reach conclusion; James Murray’s Oxford English Dictionary or Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography; the Louvre and the British Museum—each attempting to encompass and categorize dauntingly vast areas of human experience and learning. The Wagnerian idea of Gesamtkunstwerk (a synthesis of various arts in one embracing work) is an artistic offshoot of these ambitious attempts to bring everything together.
Although the great American art collectors did not have quite such overweening aspirations, they did desire to create a total ambiance—a Gesamtkunstwerk, if you will—of furnishings, decor, paintings, and sculpture in which to live. In Isabella Gardner’s case, she chose to recreate a Venetian palazzo, but the others were mostly content with something a bit less historic and histrionic. One can still see two of the best of these collections in their original settings at the Morgan Library and the Frick Collection. What Robert Lehman, a member of the Lehman Brothers banking family, managed to assemble may be the last great example of this, and if some of the objects are less than first-rate, that is no doubt because he came late, when the available supply of masterpieces had greatly diminished, and because he apparently had somewhat less money than his great predecessors or even some of his contemporaries. His collection is not at all as formidable and imposing as those of his coevals Albert Barnes, Norton Simon, and Baron Thyssen, and he was fortunate that his collecting interests did not much overlap with those of Paul Mellon or Nelson Rockefeller.
The Lehman Collection was begun by Philip Lehman, Robert Lehman’s father, around 1911, when Bobbie (as he preferred to be called) was only twenty; yet it would appear that much of what Philip bought was influenced by Bobbie’s taste. Like the other major American collectors of the day, the Lehmans were advised on purchases of paintings and drawings by Bernard Berenson, whom Bobbie knew personally and with whom he had a lengthy correspondence. When Philip retired from business in 1925, Bobbie replaced him as head of Lehman Brothers and took over as well the collection, which was kept in the family home at 7 West 54th Street. Bobbie himself lived with a succession of wives in a large apartment on Park Avenue and a house on Long Island, in both of which the post-Renaissance parts of his collection were housed.
A few years before his death in 1969, Lehman began negotiations with the Metropolitan Museum about the possibility of giving them this huge collection of some 2,600 works of art. The house on 54th Street was too small to function effectively as a museum, and several other possibilities were considered but rejected before the Metropolitan was chosen as the recipient of this treasure. Bobbie, concerned to emphasize the integrity and uniqueness of his collection and determined not to let it get lost in the general collection of the museum, specified that the collection should be “exhibited intact and in perpetuity in a manner evoking the ambiance of his ancestral home rather than that of an institutional collection.” He insisted that it should have a wing of its own, distinct from the rest of the museum. The Metropolitan was so covetous of the collection that it not only surrendered to Lehman’s imperative conditions but, as additional enticement, made him chairman of its Board of Trustees. He had wanted for some years to be president of the museum, but that post was held by Arthur Houghton, so the position of chairman was created for him in 1967, and he held it for the last two years of his life.
The circumstances of the collection’s transfer to the Metropolitan were “obscure and controversial,” as Jane Boutwell wrote in a New Yorker piece back in 1975, where she recounted verbatim some of the things Thomas Hoving, the museum’s director, had said describing his recurrent difficulties with Bobbie. Hoving subsequently wrote elsewhere, in his preface to a guide to the collection and in his autobiography, about the trying, complex negotiations involved in the gift, for which the Met built a new, domed wing designed by Kevin Roche. Preservationists objected vehemently to the new wing’s encroachment on Central Park and went to court in a failed attempt to prevent it; and when the wing was finally erected, the late Ada Louise Huxtable wrote a notorious, highly ambivalent review of it in The New York Times, a bittersweet appraisal confected of both admiration and resentful disapproval. Only five years ago, writing in anticipation of the new building in Philadelphia to house the Barnes Collection, she even more forcefully criticized the Lehman Wing as “an exercise in patronizing and self-delusory sophistry that is supposed to lull us into thinking that we are keeping a place, or an ambiance, already irretrievably lost.”
With the publication of a volume devoted to decorative arts, the monumental, fifteen-volume catalog of the Robert Lehman Collection has at last reached completion after almost thirty-five years of labor by a pantheon of eminent scholars, beginning with John Pope-Hennessy, who published the first volume, on Italian paintings, in 1987. By now, four of the volumes are, sadly, already out of print, including the important volume on Italian (mostly Venetian) eighteenth-century drawings, which also appeared in 1987. Few private collections have been honored with a catalog so complete and containing such superb, informative scholarship as this one, which is, as one of its contributors rightly claims, “unique in American museum scholarship in its scope and range.”
It was Michael Thomas, a former curator at the Met and a trustee of the Lehman Foundation, who had the felicitous idea for this undertaking and who proposed a consortium comprised of the Institute of Fine Arts (providing the scholarship), the Metropolitan Museum (providing editorial and publishing supervision), and the Lehman Foundation (providing the funds). An agreement initiating this venture was signed in August 1978, and the triumvirate of scholars who defined and supervised the project in its early years, choosing authors for the various volumes, could not have been more exalted: John Pope-Hennessy from the Metropolitan Museum, Sydney Freedberg from Harvard and the National Gallery of Art, and Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann from the Institute of Fine Arts.
Professor Haverkamp-Begemann, who is unquestionably the hero of this prolonged and laborious endeavor, has continued to serve as coordinating scholar for the entire series almost from its inception, and it is largely because of his lofty standards and scrupulous surveillance that such an impressive level of scholarship has been maintained throughout. Each item has been subjected to intensive scholarly investigation. Each entry provides a detailed description of the object and its provenance as well as a brief essay discussing its qualities and history. Each volume contains an extensive bibliography of the subject involved and a thorough index. The only equally substantial, wide-ranging catalog of this sort I know is that of the Wallace Collection.
The range of what Lehman collected is astonishing. In addition to eight volumes on paintings, drawings, and watercolors, there are also individual volumes for illuminations, majolica, glass, textiles, sculpture and metalwork, and antique frames. The final volume on decorative arts contains entries on ancient bronzes; painted enamels; European snuffboxes and ceramics; European furniture; Chinese ceramics; Islamic pottery; Chinese and Thai cast metal and Chinese stone; carpets; Japanese, Chinese, and Indian textiles; and jewelry and precious objects (including thirty-four acknowledged forgeries). Given the exceptional breadth of his collecting interests, it’s surprising only that Lehman didn’t also collect ivories, porcelain figurines, and silver. But as his curator, George Szabó, once observed, “he bought the strangest things, and he bought only what he liked.”
1 Osbert Sitwell, Great Morning! (Little, Brown, 1947), p. 273. ↩
Osbert Sitwell, Great Morning! (Little, Brown, 1947), p. 273. ↩