Throughout time, there have always been those few individuals that were gifted with an exceptional eye for art, able to spot genius potential in its infancy. They are the collectors that not only supported the arts but fostered new talent and had a significant impact on the art market of their time. Today, their collections contain some of the most significant artworks of modern history.
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel
Dorothy and Herbert Vogel are basically art collecting legends. Both working as civil servants with a modest income, they managed to amass what has been called one of the most important post-1960s art collections in the United States, consisting of more than 4.782 objects of mostly of minimalist and conceptual art. They had an excellent eye and were often bold in their choices, purchasing art that was unpopular at first but later became worth millions. To celebrate their engagement, for example, they bought a ceramic piece by Pablo Picasso. A piece called Crushed Car Parts by American sculptor John Chamberlain was their first post-wedding acquisition.
The couple used Dorothy's income to cover their living expenses and instead of eating in restaurants or traveling, they used Herb's income, which peaked at $23,000 annually, to buy art. They didn't buy for investment purposes, but only chose pieces they personally liked and could carry home on the subway or in a taxi. They bought directly from the artists and often paid in installments. Once, they received a collage from environmental artist Christo in exchange for cat-sitting. Initially, they stored their increasingly big collection in closets and under the bed, in their rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side until 1992 when they transferred the entire collection to the National Gallery of Art.
Peggy Guggenheim, the niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was an early 20th century socialite and bohemian who became one of the most the most dedicated patrons of the art of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Guggenheim had close relationships with many avant-garde artists. Marcel Duchamp, for example, introduced her to the art world and many artists in Paris, and taught her about contemporary art.
In August 1939, Guggenheim left for Paris to negotiate loans of artworks for her first exhibition. In her luggage was a list drawn up by Herbert Read for this occasion. Shortly after her departure, the Second World War broke out, which forced her to abandon the original plan. She then
..decided now to buy paintings by all the painters who were on Herbert Read's list. Having plenty of time and all the museum's funds at my disposal, I put myself on a regime to buy one picture a day.
When finished, she had acquired 10 Picassos, 40 Ernsts, eight Mirós, 4 Magrittes, 4 Ferrens, 3 Man Rays, 3 Dalís, one Klee, one Wolfgang Paalen and one Chagall, among others.
She completely broke the norm of the early 1940s high art scene known as “a small gentleman’s club”. After several less and more successful attempts to open her own gallery and museum she bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice in 1949 and presented her collection to the public. Eventually, she donated the entire collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which in 1980 opened the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
At the beginning of the 20th century, it was difficult for artists with unconventional ideas to exhibit and sell their work in the United States. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who was born into the prominent Vanderbilt family, recognized this struggle and quickly became one of the leading patrons of American art by purchasing and exhibiting art from living American artists whose works were often disregarded by traditional academies. She also pursued a career in art herself, studying under Auguste Rodin to become one of the most prominent sculptors of the 1890s.
In 1907, Whitney turned her New York studio into an art gallery. Her collection of about 600 artworks would later form the backbone of the Whitney Museum, one of the foremost collections of 20th century American art that includes artists such as Peggy Bacon, George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Mabel Dwight, Edward Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Reginald Marsh, and John Sloan.
Helene Kröller-Müller was one of the first European women to put together a major art collection. Born into a rich German industrialist family and married to Dutch shipping and mining tycoon Anton Kröller, she was one of the wealthiest women in the Netherlands at the time and an avid art collector. As one of the first to recognize the genius of Vincent van Gogh, she amassed over 90 van Gogh paintings and 185 drawings, one of the world's largest collections, second only to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. She also collected works by modern artists, such as Picasso, Georges Braque, Jean Metzinger, Albert Gleizes, Fernand Léger, Diego Rivera, Juan Gris, Piet Mondrian, Gino Severini, Joseph Csaky, Auguste Herbin, Georges Valmier, María Blanchard, Léopold Survage, Georges Seurat and Tobeen.
Her dream was to have a museum house, where she could share her love of modern art with others. In 1938, the Kröller-Müller Museum, located in the east of the Netherlands, in the middle of the national park de Hoge Veluwe, opened its doors to the public. Today, the museum is still one of Europe’s most impressive sculpture gardens and private collections of 20th century art.
Gertrude and Leo Stein
Gertrude and Leo Stein were the quintessential Americans in Paris during the Belle Époque. Gertrude, a writer, moved to Paris in 1903, following her brother Leo, who had moved there to study art. Their home in Paris soon became one of the most famous Paris salons.
Both siblings had great intuition when it came to art, and they would often buy new works right out of the studios of avant-garde artists, recognizing the importance of artists such as Matisse and Cézanne very early on. In 1905, they purchased Woman in a Hat from Matisse for 500 francs, the equivalent then of about $100. The purchase helped establish them as serious collectors, and it did still more for Matisse, who had yet to find generous patrons and desperately needed the money. Over the next few years, he would come to rely on them for financial and moral support. It was at the Steins’ that Matisse first came face to face with Pablo Picasso, who they had befriended as well and who Gertrude even posed for. The two would embark upon a most fruitful rivalry.
Their Saturday evening salons introduced visitors to the most revolutionary and radical developments in art. They collected works by, among others, Renoir, Delacroix, Degas, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Gauguin. The Steins had a considerable influence on the careers of the artists they showcased in their salons and steered the development of art market demand.
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Sources: Wikipedia, Smithsonian Magazine, Artdex, Artland, Stichting het Nationala Park de Hoge Veluwe, Peggy Guggenheim Collection