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An Astonishing Record of a Vast Collection

In an essay describing this collection, the late Theodore Rousseau, curator of paintings at the Metropolitan, wrote in 1963, six years before Bobbie’s death:

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Robert Lehman Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art
Petrus Christus: A Goldsmith in His Shop, 1449
The Lehman Collection has been made by a man who does not limit his choice to one kind of object, who does not try to complete a set or to prove or teach anything, but acquires only what appeals to his sense of quality, regardless of what the object is. His collection is therefore unique in its quality as well as in its size. Nothing like it has been brought together in America during the twentieth century…. Each object was chosen because something peculiar or individual about it appealed to the collector. Robert Lehman’s interests in art have no limits.

The most distinguished section of the collection is that of Italian paintings and drawings from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Although most of the very greatest Renaissance artists are unrepresented, there is a ravishing little Annunciation by Botticelli, one of the smallest pictures he ever painted, which Robert Lehman bought for his father’s sixty-fifth birthday, an unforgettable drawing of a walking bear by Leonardo da Vinci, a tranquil, early Madonna and child by Bellini, two fine Simone Martinis, eleven pictures by the incomparable Giovanni di Paolo, including his well-known Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise—see page 33—(which I like to imagine, perhaps fancifully, may have had some influence on Paul Signac’s 1890 portrait of Félix Fénéon), and a marvelous sunset landscape with Saint Anthony Abbot, which was formerly attributed to Sassetta, is given in the catalog to the Osservanza Master, and is now thought perhaps to be by Sano di Pietro.

In addition, there is probably the largest collection of Sienese fondi d’oro (thirteenth- and fourteenth-century paintings with gold backgrounds) outside of Siena. The drawings include, in addition to the Leonardo bear, a superb pencil and ink study for an equestrian statue by Pollaiuolo, two important drawings from the circle of Giovanni Bellini and his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna, some memorable drawings by Canaletto and by Francesco and Giacomo Guardi, and a large number of drawings by Giambattista Tiepolo and his son Giandomenico, including an engaging series by Giandomenico depicting the escapades of Punchinello.

The outstanding paintings from farther north in Europe include an intriguing Petrus Christus of A Goldsmith in His Shop, a tender Goya portrait of the Condesa de Altamira and her daughter, a monumental El Greco of Saint Jerome, a portrait of young Margaret of Austria by the Maître de Moulins, important paintings by Memling, Holbein, and the Cranachs, and a disturbing Rembrandt of a fellow artist and theorist disfigured by hereditary syphilis, which only a very courageous collector would have bought. The greatest painting in the collection is the elegant, classical portrait of the Princesse de Broglie by Ingres, which Bobbie Lehman described in a letter to Berenson as “probably the most beautiful picture we have.” The northern drawings include a Dürer self-portrait, seven Rembrandts, and a large number of Dutch, French, and English items, including a very curious, surrealistic, mid-fifteenth-century drawing from the Netherlands depicting “Men Shoveling Chairs,” which is meant to illustrate a Dutch pun.

There are unanticipated treasures in these fifteen volumes, such as the fascinating account of forgeries of Renaissance jewelry by Charles Truman in Volume XV and Richard Brettell’s extensive introduction to Volume IX, where he explains much about Bobbie Lehman’s taste, his habits of acquisition, his interest in modern art, and his aversion to abstract expressionism.

Unexpectedly, the volume on antique frames (XIII) is one of the most accomplished and most engrossing. Its author, Timothy Newbery, is sufficiently knowledgeable about the early history of this inchoate subject to have perfected its taxonomy,2 and as an accomplished frame-maker himself, he has uncommon insights into the subtle details of this practical art form. He, along with George Bisacca and Laurence Kanter, mounted the groundbreaking exhibition of Italian Renaissance frames at the Metropolitan in 1990.

The Lehman collection of Italian majolica pottery, with its high glazes and rich decoration, has been called the finest and most comprehensive private collection in the United States (the major other collections are in France, Germany, Russia, and, most especially, Italy and England). The catalog (Volume X), by the brilliant young scholar Jörg Rasmussen, who unfortunately died at the age of forty-one just before its publication, is one of the most outstanding of the fifteen volumes, displaying enviable expertise, astuteness, sensitivity, and humane scholarship.

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Robert Lehman Collection/Metropolitan Museum of Art
Aquamanile in the Form of Aristotle and Phyllis; southern Netherlands, late fourteenth or early fifteenth century

Several of the volumes contain collections that are only rarely displayed in the galleries, most notably Volumes IV and XII. Volume IV, Illuminations, contains, among other rarities, a fascinating depiction of the buildings of medieval Paris by Jean Fouquet in “The Right Hand of God Protecting the Faithful Against the Demons,” an exquisite little “Last Judgment” inside a capital letter C by Lorenzo Monaco, and a memorable portrait of San Bernardino of Siena preaching by Francesco di Giorgio. Volume XII, European Sculpture and Metalwork, contains the various bronzes that are on display throughout the galleries, including two very rare sixteenth-century perfume burners and a celebrated collection of aquamanilia (small ewers with animal or human shapes), among which is the Aristotle and Phyllis that so amuses puzzled tourists. But of equal importance, it also contains more than one hundred medals and plaquettes from Pisanello onward that are usually not exhibited, including one of my favorites—the medallion by Matteo dei Pasti with the lovely portrait of Isotta degli Atti, Sigismondo Malatesta’s wife, “pulchra aspectu,” as Ezra Pound describes her in Canto IX.3

I have to confess little enthusiasm for many of the numerous twentieth-century paintings. They include an admired portrait of two girls at the piano by Renoir, a questionable Gauguin, an austere Cézanne landscape of trees near the Jas de Bouffan, some Crosses and Signacs, and a large Balthus much esteemed by those who like Balthus. But overall, the Impressionist pictures for the most part seem to me pallid, the Nabi pictures by Vuillard and Bonnard charming but slight, and the Fauve pictures not fauve enough. A telling example is Lehman’s Derain of the Thames: it’s very good, but not nearly as spectacular as the Derain with much the same view in David Rockefeller’s collection. There are too many Kees van Dongens for my taste, a bizarre Dalí copy of Vermeer, and some mediocre Matisses. Of all these pictures, my personal favorites are the two little wooden cigar-box tops painted by Seurat, a golden one of a mower and the other, one of the several studies for La Grande Jatte.

3.

The American collection that most resembles the Lehman is no doubt the Frick, which opened forty years earlier, in 1935; both have similarities to the even earlier Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan (1881) and the Marquess of Hertford’s Wallace Collection in London (1900). A comparison between the Frick Collection and the Lehman Collection is telling. Unlike the Lehman, the Frick is a collection of almost nothing but masterpieces. There are many fewer objects in toto than in the Lehman Collection, but the paintings, bronzes, and examples of decorative art are all of superlative quality. And they are displayed in their original setting, the house that they were purchased to embellish, rather than in a feigned replica. There is an essential, pervasive elegance at the Frick mansion that is inevitably lacking in the Lehman museum galleries. As Kenneth Clark has observed, “works bought with love and installed in harmonious surroundings retain, in some mysterious way, a touching quality which they inevitably lose in a public gallery.”

Aware of this, Bobbie Lehman and his trustees tried to replicate seven of the rooms of the house on 54th Street in the Metropolitan galleries, hanging the walls with velvets, using some of the house’s sofas, Savonarola chairs, tables, cassoni, sconces, and chandeliers, and even reproducing part of one of the stairways that led up from the ground floor. But the result has been more meretricious than successful, lacking any real sense of a domicile; the stairway to nowhere has fortunately been removed, but the strained effort to reproduce the feeling of a residence rather than a gallery has, among other things, resulted in the most illegible labels I’ve encountered anywhere. I can’t imagine that anyone ever feels he is inside a home, as one does at the Frick or in parts of the Morgan Library, and the works of art would surely be more useful and meaningful if they were displayed, as the Annenberg Collection is, near related works in the museum galleries. But that, of course, would be contrary to Bobbie Lehman’s express intentions, which the Metropolitan accepted.

In comparison with the Frick Collection, the Lehman Collection, larger, more diffuse, and coming at the end of a lengthy tradition of such American collections, seems somehow analogous to those fin-de-race proper Bostonians who were so eloquently skewered by Elizabeth Hardwick years ago.4 Like them, when compared to the Frick, the Lehman Collection seems a bit less robust, somewhat etiolated, slightly feckless, its energies rather dissipated. Yet despite all that, the contents of the galleries remain a remarkable achievement of one man’s taste, dedication, and persistence, and the masterpieces in this collection, as Kenneth Clark noted, “leave one breathless.”

Like the collection itself, its impressive catalog may well be the last of its kind—and there aren’t, as I’ve said, very many of its kind to begin with. In this era of revolutionary technological innovation, online catalogs are bound more and more to replace such endeavors, and one can only wonder about the future of the printed catalog. The great advantage of an online catalog is that attributions, provenance, technical investigations, conservation work, exhibitions, and bibliography can all be regularly updated in perpetuity.

However, perpetual aggiornamento brings with it losses as well. At least for someone of my generation, the handsome volumes of the Lehman Collection have an enduring stability and nobility that any online catalog, essentially mutable and transient, lacks. What is more, these volumes tell you important things about the time in which they were written, the point of view of the author, and the way in which a work of art was perceived at a certain moment in history; an online catalog may or may not give you that information, and authorial voices, which are one of the aspects of the Lehman catalog that make it so special, may well be lost.

The technical gains provided by modern technology are staggering. I’m told that it’s now possible to go to the Metropolitan Museum, stand in front of a painting, point your iPad or iPhone at it, click on it, and the image will be recognized, and you’ll immediately be connected to the museum website with all the pertinent information about the painting, including a note indicating what new contribution the author makes. As catalogs have become increasingly ponderous, in every sense of the word, almost no one walks through an exhibition carrying one: for the museum visitor, they have become as antiquated and burdensome as an ear trumpet. Acoustiguides are far more manageable and convenient, but the information they provide is limited and spotty. This new possibility with an iPad may be promising indeed.5

Meanwhile, as more and more technological innovations are produced, the fifteen volumes of the Robert Lehman Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art will continue to occupy a significant space on the shelves of libraries throughout the world, where scholars will continue to consult them for many years to come. The collection, however it may be displayed in the future, will continue to impress visitors as an accomplishment that no doubt will come to seem more and more astonishing as years pass. In its own sphere, this admirable catalog is just as impressive an achievement as the collection itself—paradoxically, perhaps even more so.

  1. 2

    Timothy J. Newbery, “Towards an Agreed Nomenclature for Italian Picture Frames,” International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, Vol. 4 (1985). 

  2. 3

    Pound thought he was quoting a quattrocento chronicle by someone called Alessandro di Rimini, which he found in Charles Yriarte’s late-nineteenth-century book on Sigismondo Malatesta. But the chronicle is, in fact, a seventeenth-century forgery. See Lawrence S. Rainey, Ezra Pound and the Monument of Culture (University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 173ff. 

  3. 4

    “Boston,” Encounter, November 1959, and “Boston: The Lost Ideal,” Harper’s, December 1959. 

  4. 5

    I am much indebted to Keith Christiansen for telling me about this new development in technology and for generously discussing with me various aspects of the Lehman Collection. 

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