Books and articles about collectors and collecting have now been popular for nearly a century and a half—the vogue seems to have started during the second Empire and to have gathered pace over the next few decades—but, with only a few exceptions, their contribution to history, and even to art history, has been negligible. This seems an ungrateful response to a literary genre that has provided generations of readers with unrivaled offerings of nostalgia, sycophancy, and amateur psychology—not to mention some very enjoyable anecdotes, and the often great importance of art collections themselves: but it would surely be hard to contest.

Moreover, as Antoine Schnapper emphasizes in his important and fascinating study of collecting in France during the seventeenth century, even the most scholarly research has usually been seriously flawed because those engaged in it have scoured inventories and other valuable sources only in order to track down works of art and artefacts (such as pictures by well-known painters and important medals) that were of interest to them. Those “curiosities” which were once prized so highly, but which by the nineteenth century had come to seem merely childish, were either neglected or treated in passing with bewildered condescension.

The reappraisal of the subject that has taken place during the last decade or so has been stimulated first by the willingness to study collections with respect to their values in their own times rather than to those that prevailed later. In this respect the history of collecting has followed the example of historical writing in many other fields. The readiness to do so is clearly laudable and often rewarding—but it is not always convincing. For example, attempts to connect just about every aspect of the Wunderkammern of the Middle Ages to a fairly rigid set of medieval beliefs and conventions about the nature of the universe have surely been exaggerated, however great an improvement they are no those theories which used to see such accumulations as being merely haphazard and frivolous. Similarly, the fact that European sovereigns in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries delighted in showing off their wealth and power in the most ostentatious manner does not necessarily imply—as has sometimes been suggested—that their art collections were assembled and appreciated only with this purpose in mind.

Elizabeth Launay’s excellent account of the Goncourt brothers as collectors of drawings, which is accompanied by a very thorough catalog of their collection, shows how valuable studies of a traditional kind can still be when informed by real judgment and scholarship. To read it in conjunction with some of the other books noted here is particularly rewarding because it was the Goncourt brothers who did more than anyone else (except, perhaps, Balzac’s fictional Cousin Pons) to establish an image of the collector so powerful that it has often been looked upon as a norm: the collector, that is, as a man of limited resources but extreme sensibility, who spends his life obsessively searching in junk shops for works of art whose quality has not yet been generally recognized; and who then finds in his discoveries a refuge from the world, the hope of immortality, and some consolation for the coldness of his heart.

Launay quotes tellingly from the brothers Goncourt—especially the “widowed” and lonely Edmond—to this effect, but it is perhaps a group of drawings and watercolors by Daumier that can most poignantly evoke for us the existence of this kind of “amateur”—ugly, old, shriveled, he and his colleagues and rivals gaze intently at their treasures, shivering perhaps as they desperately try to conjure up from them a few rays of invigorating warmth.

At the other extreme to the Goncourt brothers in most peoples’ estimate of the typical collector has been the man of unlimited resources and nonexistent sensibility, flattered and cheated by international dealers whose packing cases of expensive masterpieces and equally expensive forgeries he grabs with flamboyant greed. This impression (much cherished in Europe) is largely based on vaguely remembered stories about American tycoons of the turn of the century, of whom the most characteristic was William Randolph Hearst: and it is one that Louis Auchincloss sets out to modify, rather than to demolish, in an agreeable, slight, and very well illustrated essay on J.P. Morgan, which he has significantly subtitled The Financier as Collector. “I think,” writes Auchincloss, “that the image he would have most liked to be remembered by is that of the massive and formidable old man, hunched over his game of solitaire in the great library gleaming with the treasures of the Renaissance”—suddenly we seem very close to the notion of the amateur created for us by the Goncourts and Daumier; but the sentence ends with words which take us into a very different realm: “while from the antechamber the nervous captains of industry, summoned to avert the Panic of 1907, came in, one by one each, to propose his plan for saving the banks.”


Most recent studies of collecting have, however, abandoned case histories of this sort and have instead tried to set the practice within a very much wider perspective than any that can be provided by the individual victim—or hero. Two books, as far removed from each other as can be imagined, provide examples of new and rewarding approaches. In The Rare Art Traditions (1982) the late Joseph Alsop ranged over the whole of human history in order to demonstrate that the incidence of collecting has been a most unusual one, confined to a few civilizations, and that it has invariably been accompanied by such “linked phenomena” as the development of connoisseurship and the writing of art history. And although Krzysztof Pomian’s emphasis in Collectors and Curiosities (which has only recently been translated from the French) is ostensibly narrow one—confined to Paris and Venice primarily during the eighteenth century—in fact he establishes so convincingly that the collecting of different classes of object in even the most limited number of different places during the most limited time span can have the broadest significance that it would clearly be possible to adapt his conclusions to many other situations. Compared to Alsop’s book, with the gossip, the digressions, and the personal touches that characterized its tone (rather than its essential content), Pomian’s is austere—there are no illustrations, for instance, and in at least one chapter this is seriously regrettable1 But it reads well, is wholly free of jargon, and it has rightly been very much admired and recognized as an important and highly influential contribution to the history and theoretical implications of collecting.

“A set of natural of artificial objects, kept temporarily or permanently out of the economic circuit, afforded special protection in enclosed places adapted specifically for that purpose and put on display.” Pomian’s definition of a collection defies tradition by appearing to do away with the collector. For Schnapper this refusal to take any account of the collector’s motives is unsatisfactory on two counts. On the one hand, it blurs rather than clarifies the central issues by failing to acknowledge that the purposes for which objects have been accumulated have sometimes differed so radically from each other that any attempt to use the same term to embrace such varied consequences can only distort our understanding of them. On the other, it draws too sharp a distinction between those objects which appear to constitute a collection (kept “in enclosed places adapted specifically for that purpose”) and those whose primary intention would appear to be decorative.

Other objections to Pomian’s definition are also possible—William Grampp, to judge from the title of his book, Pricing the Priceless, and the tenor of its arguments, would presumably deny that anything can ever be “kept…out of the economic circuit”2—but I cannot think of any that would affect the substance of Pomian’s conclusions in any significant way. This is because he assigns to the nature of objects collected a significance fully as great as that which previous writers have given to those who collect them.

Coins and medals, plants, paintings (both by contemporaries and by masters long since dead), artefacts of every kind (extending to “orange, lemon and grapefruit wrappings”), all carry with them, into the public or private museums in which they are to be seen, a wide range of symbolic meanings. By investigating these meanings Pomian aims to illuminate both the changing nature of those societies which have valued such objects and the historical implications of the very process of admiring and accumulating them. Thus the collector, far from being a quaint or marginal figure, can provide us with essential clues about the past.

In a number of his essays—his book consists of reprinted essays originally published over nearly a decade—Pomian explores specific cases in order to test his general theory. He does so most effectively by starting with some utterly simple and straightforward fact (which can, however, only be established by the most painstaking research, whose reliability we have to take for granted) and then exploring its implications in increasing width and depth until, stage by stage, we are gradually brought to realize how much light is being thrown on the whole nature of cultural change. His arguments are brief, swift-moving, and tightly controlled. To compress them still further necessarily involves distortion, but the risk has to be taken if at least some indication of his method is to be given here. Thus the aridly named but subtle “Medals/Shells = Erudition/Philosophy” takes as its point of departure a brief statistical observation to the effect that a sharp decline in the vogue for collecting medals becomes apparent in Paris after about 1750, whereas the popularity of objects of natural history, such as shells and minerals, develops rapidly at about the same period. After showing that this trend appears to be confirmed by literary evidence derived from journals, letters, and sale catalogs, Pomian then analyzes (with a concise sophistication most unusual in studies of this kind) the changes in social composition between collectors active in the first and second halves of the eighteenth century. In view of the fact that the proportion of financiers and members of the bourgeoisie tended to increase at the expense of that of lawyers, scholars, the clergy, and antiquarians, it would seem natural to draw the conclusion that this change in the nature of the public could of itself be enough to explain the change in taste which Pomian has noted.


In fact, however, this turns out not to be the case, for closer analysis shows that the diminishing interest in medals is also to be found among the apparently more “conservative” and learned social groups which had dominated the field of collecting in the earlier part of the century. Or, rather, it is to be found among certain individuals in those groups—collectors, that is, who become increasingly dismayed by the sway, even the tyranny, of erudition over aesthetic pleasure. Ridiculed for seeking in medals “only the beauties of ancient engraving,” rather than the quasi-historical information which could come from interpreting inscriptions and relating them to textual sources, art lovers turned to other antiquities, such as gems and sculpture, which carried a much less heavy load of learning.

Thus a split developed in traditional patterns of collecting, and courtiers especially (who had in any case always dominated the market for pictures) chose what would have been considered the easier option. But once again, Pomian insists, things are not as straightforward as they seem: an informed appreciation of art can be just as tyrannical as a devotion to erudition, and the philosophes viciously attacked the new breed of collectors for their arrogance and their lust for social prestige, and, above all, for their ambition to direct the course of modern art (an ambition, incidentally, which was fully shared by the philosophes themselves). Only one form of collecting escaped censure: that which confined itself to natural history. The fashion for this had first emerged among a scholarly elite—encouraged in part by its relative cheapness—but it quickly spread to courtiers and the rich in general. In this way “curiosity” (whose many negative connotations are examined by Pomian in other essays also)3 at last found itself allied both to the aristocracy of wealth and power which dominated the ancien régime and also to those critical spirits which were gradually undermining its authority.

This crude summary of one essay must serve as an example of the manner in which Pomian approaches the overriding theme of the entire book: What can we learn of cultural history from attitudes to collecting and from the varying contents of collections? By closely examining one series of related controversies he has succeeded admirably in giving a new intellectual dimension to a topic which (as I indicated earlier) had for much too long been relegated to one of those scattered and isolated spheres of historical research which look to gossip and local color for their subsistence. But while his is a general approach that can—and should—be applied to other issues (as Pomian himself does in some of his other essays), it would be wholly misguided to assume that the actual conclusions he derives from the study of one, or two, civilizations can be directly relevant to all other places. Thus there is reason to believe that the collecting of botanical specimens held quite different connotations in England where, in some circles, it was derided as being particularly futile, while in others it was associated with the precocious interest in “primitive” Italian painting.

Indeed Pomian’s own conclusions naturally depend (as he himself always acknowledges) on the results of far more precise and detailed investigations of actual collections than can be made in essays such as these. From this point of view, as well as from many more, some other recent studies4—and one in particular—have a great deal to offer.

There is a tendency (as I well know) to assume that authors who disclaim the use of any particular theory are also believed to be dismissing the value of ideas in general. It would be a pity if the significance and interest of Antoine Schnapper’s Le Géant, La Licorne, et La Tulipe were not to be fully recognized just because he has from time to time yielded to the temptation of making combative swipes in defense of a strictly “positivist” art history. There are, indeed, plenty of facts (about people as well as objects) in his book, but they are facts of a most unusual kind interpreted in a fresh, thoughtful, and illuminating manner.

Some of the material discussed by him is similar to that found in Pomian, and—for all their differences of approach—the two books complement each other admirably. Schnapper is interested in precisely what were the objects most eagerly collected before the Age of Enlightenment, and he explains in each case the source of their particular appeal. For these objects too—mandragoras and tulips, bearded women, horns of unicorns, and bronze coins of the Emperor Otho—carried their own symbolic meanings, and Schnapper discusses the shifting academic and social values attached to them. However, the demarcations between ancient and modern so apparent in Pomian’s studies hardly make themselves felt in the earlier period, and Schnapper shows that the very same collectors might be equally interested in what we today would describe as art and also in “curiosities,” whether natural (in the form of exotic plants and animals) or mechanical (such as elaborate clocks); he insists, moreover, in the wake of other recent writers, that in his fundamental study of Die Kunst und Wunderkammern der Spätrenaissance of 1906 Julius von Schlosser was mistaken in proposing a clear contrast between the bizarre nature of collections in northern Europe compared to more rational attitudes prevailing in Italy.

Indeed the fascination and importance of Schnapper’s book lies in its demonstration that distinctions of this kind are particularly difficult to make in the seventeenth century, while at the same time giving us an intensely vivid picture of the milieu in which medical research and antiquarian scholarship were being developed. Neither Pomian nor Schnapper should be missed by anyone interested in the new frontiers being opened by studies of collecting.

This Issue

January 30, 1992