Monday, 8 July 2013

Frits Lugt biography reviewed

Picture: Fondation Custodia
J. F. Heijbroek Frits Lugt 1884-1970 Living for Art: A biography Thoth Bussun and Fondation Custodia Paris, 2012

Frits Lugt is my kind of guy - art collector and bibliophile, scholar and grouch. He's known for establishing the standard source on collector's marks, those little ownership stamps on old drawings that each have a Lugt number (Sir Thomas Lawrence's is Lugt 2445, Reynolds's is Lugt 2364). He built a large collection of drawings and prints, particularly Dutch and Flemish, and an unusual selection of mainly Dutch paintings.  He also collected old frames, antiquities and Asian art, and he built a magnificent library. A number of his pictures depict books, including the Heem below and a ter Borch Portrait of a Man in His Library. The Fondation Custodia in Paris that he established has published this handsomely produced biography of its benefactor.
Picture: Fondation Custodia
Lugt worked for an auction house until he inherited enough money to devote himself to collecting and to freelance scholarship. He catalogued the Dutch and Flemish drawings in the Louvre, and was an assiduous bibliographer of old auction catalogues. He spent the war years in the US, and returned to find those treasures that he'd left behind had been looted. The discussion of Lugt's partial recovery of his collection from thieving collaborators and opportunists after World War II is harrowing. The biography meticulously documents the life and work, but with Lugt I have the sense that the life was the work. 
Picture: Fondation Custodia
I suspect I'd enjoy harrumphing with Lugt. I don't always altogether agree with him, but his forthright views are often close to mine: "in my view an art historian is not worth much if he's not a connoisseur of art too. It is precisely in this regard that aptitude is of the utmost importance and the University helps the candidate barely at all" (p.318). He had no interest in honourary doctorates, and he was scathing about the corruption of those art historians who issued dodgy 'certificates of authenticity' for a fee. Lugt was cautious about lending his drawings, believing that public institutions lent their greatest treasures too freely, displayed them in light too long and lacked feeling for and understanding of their artistry - there are some juicy quotes about museum philistines, e.g. pp. 348-349.

Lugt's collection of drawings is comprehensive in Dutch and Flemish schools (especially Rembrandt and Rubens), and strong in French drawings, particularly Watteau. His collection of paintings is interesting; he went for more unusual works, like a summer scene by Avercamp, who is noted for his snowy winter landscapes, and a dead frog with flies buzzing around it by Bosschaert the younger, who is better known for versions of his father's pretty flower still lifes. His collection of Italian drawings is less comprehensive, but better than is often realised. There are plenty of first rate drawings, and areas of real strength, such as Guercino. Unfortunately it's all-but inaccessible. You can only 'see' the pictures on a one-hour guided tour, which is of no interest to me - I want to focus on the pictures I'm interested in, not those a guide chooses to point the group towards. It's apparently quite difficult to get access to the drawings, too.

Inspired by this biography I turned to the catalogues of his collection, which give further clues about his character. J. G. van Gelder wrote: "It is difficult for those who had dealings with him, which were not always the smoothest, to find a thoroughly convincing explanation of his character. To many people he appeared cold and impenetrable" (van Gelder 1977: xvi). James Byam-Shaw wrote: "I cannot say that I knew him intimately - I doubt if many people could claim that distinction - for he maintained a 'prestance presque militaire' [and] was decidedly stiff, both in appearance and manner" (Byam-Shaw 1983: xiv).
Picture: Frick
He seems to have been rather austere, but Byam-Shaw qualified his remarks by noting that he got on with Lugt. Judging by his collection he seems to have had a great fondness for nature and for animals - there are disproportionately many drawings of dogs in his collection, for example, including an excellent sheet of studies by Eeckhout (above). But that's a side of his character that's not documented, and probably rightly not speculated upon in the biography.

I question some of Heijbroek's assessments. Biagio d'Antonio's Portrait of a Young Man, which Lugt bought as a Pollaiuolo, is described as "one of the most important Renaissance paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York" (p.179), which seems overblown, fine though it is. All financial references are in guilders - even for British and American sales - which makes it difficult for non-Dutch readers to get an appreciation of magnitude. And it was irritating to have to rabbit around in the endnotes to find all sorts of key points that ought to have stayed in the main text. But these are quibbles. It's a fascinating book, well-illustrated and superbly produced. I do hope one day to see the collection for myself.

Byam-Shaw, James (1983) 'Introduction' to The Italian Drawings of the Frits Lugt Collection v.1 Paris: Institut Neerlandais  (I've taken the liberty of editing the quotation without distracting ellipses)

J.G. van Gelder (1977) 'Frits Lugt' in Rembrandt and his Century: Dutch drawings of the seventeenth century from the collection of Frits Lugt Institut Neerlandais Paris New York: Morgan Library

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