The collections of the leading art historian, which he recently donated to the Hauts-de-Seine département for the future Musée du Grand Siècle in Saint-Cloud, remain as secret as they are astonishing. But the collector now lifts a corner of the veil...
Pierre Rosenberg in the study of his Paris home
© Suzanne Nagy
When he speaks in the first person singular, Pierre Rosenberg evokes "the phenomenon of collecting: that 'unpunished vice' as French writer Valery Larbaud described reading," with nonchalant humility. For the Louvre's honorary president and CEO has been collecting since his earliest childhood, and although he no longer owns his collection of bird feathers, he still has his marbles, and stamps at his home in Rue de Vaugirard, Paris. There were also collections he rapidly abandoned, like his stuffed birds. "When I joined the Louvre, collecting was frowned on, but it soon became clear that this didn't hold water." And he cites a long list of curators who donated to French museums, like Michel Laclotte, his predecessor at the head of the Louvre, his younger colleagues Jacques Foucart, Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée, Jean-Pierre Cuzin and his friend Antoine Schnapper, who taught at Paris IV University. "I often tell the story of a large pastel by Carrier-Belleuse Jacques that Foucart bought at Drouot. But he couldn't afford to pay for its transport, so he carried this naked woman all across Paris on his back. Obviously, a lot of people found this very amusing." On the contrary, dismissing critics who point to a possible conflict of interest between the posts they hold and the museums they serve, Pierre Rosenberg is sad that—to his knowledge—few young curators have taken this path, when they possess so much competence and taste, and could sense what might be in vogue in the coming years.
"I believe that collecting is a need for any art historian. You can make mistakes, and I certainly made a few—meaning that you might lose some money or put your faith in a painter who turns out not to be the artist you hoped. So there is a financial risk and even a little aesthetic risk. But collecting brings you into direct contact with works. I think it's enriching for curators to go hunting for acquisitions at Drouot or in flea markets. It makes them humble, because works in a museum are of a completely different quality and importance. The way curators feel towards works in their care and the way collectors feel towards works they own are totally different, and complementary." While he has been examining Pierre-Jean Mariette's collection of drawings for the past ten years, the man who specializes in Nicolas Poussin, Antoine Watteau and Jean Siméon Chardin has never measured the works that belong to him, never researched any of his drawings, and never kept a record of his acquisitions—with the possible exception of Bartolomeo Passarotti's extravagant Merry Company, which he bought many years ago. "But it's basically the same story. Works of art have survived and must be saved."
"Drouot is a Vice"
While half of the 680 paintings and 3,500 drawings he has gifted to the Hauts-de-Seine département (for its Musée du Grand Siècle, due to open in Saint-Cloud in 2025) were probably unearthed at the Hôtel Drouot, he discovered many of them during his peregrinations in the provinces, flea markets and fairs. This is true of his Lamentation of the Dead Christ by Simon Vouet, which he spotted at the scrap metal fair which—like the ham fair—used to be held each year in the spring and fall, stretching from République to Bastille. "In the past, when you traveled around, you visited museums, of course, and the churches that were all open then; you stopped off at the good local restaurant and visited antique dealers—who are all gone, now. I made some excellent finds in these cities, including a fairly major drawing by Guerchin I found in Semur-en-Auxois."
He feels same nostalgia for the flea market of Saint-Ouen, where he would run into figures like singer Charles Aznavour or Boris Vian's brother, a musical instrument dealer who used to comb the stalls there. "What bothered me was the fact that it was open to professionals on Fridays. As I worked at the Louvre, it was unthinkable to visit it that day. When I turned up on Saturday, I had the unpleasant feeling that the dealers had already been through. But on Sunday afternoons at the flea market, you can always find something really interesting that no-one has spotted." It is not uncommon to come across the man in the red scarf in the aisles of the Paul Bert Serpette market on Saturday mornings between 8:30 and 9:00. He is also often seen at the Hôtel Drouot. "Drouot is a vice. You develop habits there, even if, with the arrival of the Internet and the subsequent disruption, there is no longer that phenomenon of surprise that once made it so captivating."
Though Rosenberg's great regret is that he does not own a painting or even a letter by Poussin, whom he considers the greatest French painter of all time, the Hauts-de-Seine département is now the happy owner of five drawings by Claude Lorrain—on top of three drawings by Poussin, nonetheless. A pretty paradox, showing that the art historian and the collector do not always overlap. In the little room in front of his study, or in his dining room, the 17th century he celebrates is that of Lubin Baugin and Jacques Stella, not necessarily that of the more famous artists to whom he devoted his research as head of the Louvre's Paintings Department. This is the 17th century of history painters with a predilection for religious subjects; the 17th century of Charles Dauphin, Nicolas Chaperon, Sébastien Bourdon, Jacques Blanchard, Philippe de Champaigne, Laurent de La Hyre, Eustache Le Sueur, Jean Tassel, Claude Vignon, and otherwise Gaspard Duguet and Poussin.
Pretending to forget his drawings by Il Baroccio, the Carracci family, Palma il Giovane and Tintoretto, Rosenberg more readily talks about his 17th-century French drawings. Some (though very few) hang on his walls, including portraits on vellum of Richelieu and Louis XIII by Henri Bellange, a landscape by Jacques Callot and an Assumption of the Virgin by La Hyre: gifts from his friends when he retired from the Louvre. Others crop up in his discussions with young researchers who come to see him, in a monograph or during preparations for exhibition projects, like Bon and Louis de Boullogne, Jean-Baptiste and Philippe de Champaigne, the various Coypels, Jean Daret, Michel Dorigny, Charles Errard, Charles de La Fosse, Charles Le Brun, Charles Mellin, Nicolas de Plattemontagne, and the Stellas, uncle and niece.
Chardin: "the Great Man of the 18th Century".
Pierre Rosenberg's 18th century is perhaps the easiest area to pinpoint. "The great man of the 18th century, for me—the one I know best and whom I loved as an art historian—is of course Chardin. I have an early painting of his: a fire screen with a monkey, a dog and a cat in a kitchen, which I found in a small Parisian auction with no expert. Talking of love, I should also mention Watteau..." He has several drawings by the master, including a female figure, engraved by François Boucher, which was a present from his wife.
On the walls in Rue de Vaugirard, we find "the 18th century of the 18th century"—the Boullognes, the Coypels, Jean Restout, Carle Van Loo—, that of the Goncourt brothers, with Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Nicolas Lancret, and the 18th century of Pierre Rosenberg: Nicolas Guy Brenet, Michel François Dandré-Bardon, Claude Guy Hallé, Louis Joseph Le Lorrain and others. His knowledge of fashions in art, his curiosity and his keen eye have led him to give new luster to names long forgotten, due to the changing tastes of art lovers and collectors and the vagaries of trends. And as it happens, they include artists where the collector has a head's start on the art historian: Pierre Subleyras, possibly—"I don't know what order it came about in"—, Julien de Parme, even if everything was triggered by the publication of his correspondence in 1984, and Louis Cretey, an enigmatic 17th-century painter from Lyon he defends tooth and nail.
As regards drawings, he collects Jean-Robert Ango, Nicolas Bertin, Edme Bouchardon, Boucher, Dandré-Bardon, Jacques-Louis David, Jean-Baptiste Deshays, Louis Jacques Durameau, Charles Eisen, Fragonard, Louis Galloche, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, the Lagrenées, Jean-Baptiste Mallet, Nicolas André Monsiau, Charles-Joseph Natoire, Jean-Baptiste Oudry, Restout, Hubert Robert, Jean-Joseph Taillasson, the de Troys and François André Vincent. Importantly, there is also Gabriel de Saint-Aubin—a "truly endearing figure" to whom he devoted, in collaboration with other admirers of the artist, an exhibition at the Frick Collection and the Louvre in 2007-2008—and Vivant Denon, to whom he paid tribute at the Louvre in 1999. He also owns a dozen of his sketches. And then there are the paintings and drawings of Paul Ponce Antoine Robert, aka Robert de Séry. If Rosenberg has one regret in his career, it is that he has not had time to study the creator of the striking Étude de femme of 1722, now in the Palais des Beaux-arts in Lille. "Maybe once I have finished writing the catalogue raisonné of Poussin's painted corpus..." Foreign artists are also well represented, like Jean-Etienne Liotard, Rosalba Carriera, Johann Heinrich Füssli and Johan Tobias Sergel. "I bought artists who rarely feature in French public collections. I would have liked to find a Caspar David Friedrich; I have a Runge I like, and a large drawing by John Flaxman."
"My 19th century is focused more on Ingres' pupils than Delacroix's. We always talk about Flandrin, but there are many excellent artists whose studio contents were once sold before my eyes at Drouot. I bought a few works, because it was easy. I would have liked to have a painting by Ingres, of course. I'm lacking a Chassériau, though I have a few of his drawings. If we go further on in the 19th century, I don't have any Impressionist paintings, but several minor drawings by Manet, Degas, Gauguin and others". He seems to forget works like his Bélisaire by Jean-François Peyron, his Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, including La Mort de Poussin, his Turpin de Crissé, his magnificent portrait of a woman by Joseph-Désiré Court, his Apothéose de monseigneur Darboy by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, his pieces by Thomas Couture, his sketch for the Panthéon by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes and his Léon Bonnat.
At the Hôtel Drouot, decades before Paris gallery owner Mathieu Néouze, Rosenberg also discovered lesser masters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who make up a significant part of the collection he has just donated. "I can mention André Devambez and Simon Bussy, who have resurfaced, but there are others for whom this has not happened. This is true of Miserabilist Joseph Rossi, who came to a tragic end, and Julien Duvocelle. I recently missed buying a magnificent portrait of a man by him." But his mysterious drawers of drawings nonetheless contain works by Pierre Bonnard, Jean Cocteau, Camille Corot, Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, André Derain, Othon Friesz, Henri Matisse, Jean-François Millet and Jacques Villon.
The Glass Bestiary
About twenty years ago, after deciding to spend one week each month in Venice, Pierre Rosenberg started buying glass animals from the 1920s and 1930s: "I just had to collect... In a rather nice little restaurant, I saw several glass animals standing on a table, including one I liked: a fish. I asked its price and it cost less than the meal. So I thought 'that's crazy,' and I bought it. That was the beginning. It was by an artist who didn't make a great career, but who started out very promisingly. At the same time, I saw a basset hound in the window of a leading Venice glass dealer. I said to myself, 'my mother-in-law likes bassets: I'll give it to her.' I went in and the price seemed exorbitant. I thought a lot about it and I ended up buying it for myself. This basset by Napoleone Martinuzzi has become a kind of glass animal Mona Lisa. Today, it's a rarity."
But here again, the collector is infuriated by the vagaries of the market. "The problem is quite simple. There are hardly any glass animals left. On the other hand, I already have a lot of them; I've become a more demanding customer, in a way. For instance, I have a series of whales on my dining room table in Venice. We don't know who made them: they were pieces that were commonly found in the past and I would like to get a few more. But I can't find any. Gone." In the spring of 2021, several of them will be among the 700 glass animals from the Pierre Rosenberg collection loaned to the Stanze del Vetro in Venice, for the exhibition entitled "L'Arca di Vetro" (The Glass Ark).
When the Musée de Saint-Cloud opens in 2025, the 45,000 books in his library, his documentation, his paintings and his drawings will be leaving Rue de Vaugirard: hence the need to now create new groups "to re-furnish it". This September, he bought ten-odd drawings at the International Rare Book Fair, and a little earlier a portrait of an old woman by Hyacinthe Rigaud, which he is lending to the retrospective on the artist at the Palace of Versailles, as well as a modest but authentic preparatory sketch by Edgar Degas for the Portrait de Mlle Fiocre now in the Brooklyn Museum. Yes: it's definitely a vice...