Monday, August 12, 2019

The Orléans Collection

 The Regent, Philippe II, duc d’Orléans
The fabled artistic collection assembled by Philippe, the second Duke of Orléans (1674-1723), exemplifies the distinction between celebrity and significance. Consisting of around 500 paintings by Italian masters and, to a lesser extent, Flemish and Dutch artists, it came to be renowned throughout 18th-century Europe as the largest and most impressive ever created by a family that was not a ruling monarchy. When a subsequent family head decided to sell it, to pay off pressing creditors and fund his political ambitions, the interest was huge. The great-grandson of the second duke, Louis-Philippe-Joseph d’Orléans (1747-93), provided a sharp contrast to his forebears. Better known to history as Philippe Égalité, he embraced the cause of the French Revolution and even opposed his cousin, Louis XVI (1774-93), although this did not prevent his own execution during the Reign of Terror. 
By then, arrangements had been set in motion. The sale took place in London in two stages, the first in 1793 and the second five years later. The Orléans collection’s vast scale, together with the economic downturn that resulted from the beginning of war between Revolutionary France and the conservative powers in 1792-93, made conventional auction sales impossible. Instead, a new device, pioneered in London in 1786, was adopted: the private contract sale. On both occasions the Orléans paintings were displayed over an extended period, and stiff admission prices were charged for those wishing to view, creating additional income for the sellers. The attraction of this new system was that it gave potential purchasers more time, and it ensured that the collection was largely sold off. 
The resulting dispersal of the paintings far and wide, and subsequent diaspora through resale, makes this volume particularly important. Intended to accompany a tercentenary exhibition last year at the Museum of Art in New Orleans—the city was named after the duke of Orléans who was regent when it was founded in 1718 in what was then French Louisiana—it provides a permanent guide to the collection and a general reference book.
Most essays adopt a conventional art-historical approach, highlighting the unusually high proportion (around a quarter) of 17th-century Italian paintings, the calculation that a fifth of the entire collection was Venetian, and the high number but relatively modest quality of works by Titian. 
While this clarifies the celebrity rightly enjoyed by the Orléans collection, it does not fully reveal its importance or the significance of the context within which it was assembled. An extended and authoritative essay by Françoise Mardrus on the duke as collector rightly emphasises Orléans’s own artistic interests. An amateur painter, he befriended the well-known painter Antoine Coypel, from whom he subsequently sought advice. Along with other contributors, Mardrus is inclined to attribute the collection’s creation to these personal interests together with the cultural patronage expected of any elite family. 
Occasionally, however, hints of deeper motives can be detected. Here, the issue of chronology—never fully confronted—is crucial. The second duke succeeded his father in 1701. Unlike many aristocratic families, the dynasty had no obvious shortage of money; on the contrary, the Orléans canal provided a secure and large-scale income. Yet the duke’s artistic and architectural activities seem to have remained relatively modest in scale until 1715, at least compared to what followed. (Read more.)

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