The art of collecting art
The five sons of Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812) would have seen the gold and silver antiques of the 16th and 17th century which their father traded. Perhaps then they learned to appreciate the fine detail and line of a work of art. Just a generation later their children - Lionel (1808-1879) in London and Mayer Carl (1820-1886) in Frankfurt among others - would be avid collectors of these ‘schatzkammer’ pieces. Mayer Carl amassed no less than 5,000 pieces. And almost exactly a hundred years after Nathan Mayer left Frankfurt for England, Adolphe von Rothschild, of the Viennese branch, left to the Louvre in Paris one of the finest collections of gold and silver religious works of the Middle Ages and Renaissance ever amassed.
In between there had of course come wealth of a kind rarely before amassed with such speed and in such volume. The Rothschilds were, for at least a time in the late 19th century, without a shadow of a doubt the richest family in the world, and this wealth enabled them to collect the finest works to grace their splendid houses. With his purchase of The Milkmaid by the French 18th century artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze, James set himself on a course of collecting which was to grow with his wealth, fuelled not only by a desire to show himself the equal in taste and possessions of any of the French aristocracy but by a genuine interest.
In several respect James set the mood and the pace. It was for the artists of 18th century France that the Rothschilds, from their bases in London, Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt and Naples clamoured - for the paintings, the furniture and the porcelain - in particular the product of the French Royal porcelain factory at Sèvres. Add to this the Flemish and Dutch old masters of the 17th century and, later, the 18th century English portraitists like Gainsborough and Romney and ‘le goût Rothschild’ developed, a taste remarkably consistent across the several branches of the family in their different European countries of adoption.
James also set the trend in his use of agents for negotiating purchases - the most artistically knowledgeable and the most ‘in the know’ - just like the business agents who acted as their network of eyes and ears throughout the globe. Armed with these skills, the Rothschilds swept the European markets, usually spurning the saleroom in favour of the private deal, often buying up not single paintings but whole collections - no less than 82 Old Masters in one deal in 1878 by Lionel in London. The following year, at his death, he left to his three sons a collecting taste which they all followed - and, by way of a start, a collection of 743 works of art.
Where are they now? Much was given, with a sweep of generosity conceived on the same scale, to museums and galleries. In England, Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839-1898) of Waddesdon gave to the British Museum the Waddesdon Bequest, his spectacular collection of gold and silver artworks. In France, Baron Edmond (1845-1934), in between his tireless work to found Jewish colonies in Palestine, had found time to collect 40,000 prints and 6,000 drawings which he gave to the Louvre in 1936. His brother Alphonse (1827-1905) had already bought up over 2,000 works of contemporary French painting and sculpture and given them to over 150 museums, often to form the core of their collections. Much also was dispersed by death and inheritance out of the family. A new generation of collectors among the American magnates snapped them up and now many grace the collections of America’s major galleries. Some, of course, disappeared during the tumults of the war years.
There are still, nevertheless, visitable places - Waddesdon in England and the Villa Ile de France on Cap Ferrat in southern France - where le goût Rothschild can still be appreciated, reminders of a passion which seized a family and thus enriched the world.
Collections of the family