Widener had created his vast wealth via a history as a robber baron - originally from trams and trains and later from US Steel, the American Tobacco Company and Standard Oil. By the end of the century, he needed to polish up his image. And Lynnewood Hall was the place to do that polishing.
Lynnewood Hall, near Philadelphia
Roadside Americana and Modern Ruins has great information. Built from Indiana limestone, Lynnewood Hall was huge. In addition to a large and very special art gallery, the 110-room estate also included a ballroom that replicated Louis XIV’s taste in 1700. So elaborate and grand was Lynnewood Hall, PAB Widener’s other son and heir Joseph called it The Last of the American Versailles.
Lynnewood Hall, library and art space
Rembrandt, The Mill, c1647
With the rock solid advice of Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson in the next eight years of life remaining to him, Widener assembled one of the finest collections in the world. M. Knoedler and Co. sold him A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son c1626 in 1909. In 1911 he acquired a genuine and absolutely beautiful Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance c1663, also from M Knoedler.
Lord Lansdowne sold Rembrandt’s stunning landscape The Mill c1647 to the Wideners in 1911. The Small Cowper Madonna by Raphael was trumpeted in the New York Times of Feb 1914, as “the most valuable picture ever brought to this country which has been sold by Duveen Brothers of this city to PAB Widener of Philadelphia for a price said to exceed $700,000”. The paintings were classical, refined, full of learning. Presumably they made Lynnewood Hall and its family classical and refined as well.
Vermeer, Woman With a Balance c1663
Time Magazine (24/10/1932) described a Widener party, specifically mentioning the art treasures on the walls, floors and shelves. “There were 300 guests at Lynnewood Hall one day last week, more than could be seated in the dining room with its dark red French tapestries and the majestic bust of the great Prince de Conde. The ballroom, with its Louis XV and XVI furniture, its Chinese vases, its four crystal chandeliers, was filled with tables. Joseph Early Widener, master of the Hall, was having a large party.” And “the guests at Lynnewood Hall last week included not just a dozen or so millionaires, but at least 100 of the country's richest men.” Display, it would seem, was all-important.
So what happened to the Widener treasure trove? PAB Widener died too early to see the National Gallery which was being planned for Washington DC in 1938, but he certainly knew that his collections should eventually end up in a centre of national importance. In 1939 Joseph, himself a patron of the National Gallery, did agree to donate most of his family’s collection to the Washington gallery at the request of President Roosevelt. The Widener gift consisted of 600 objects: paintings dating to the Italian Renaissance, drawings, sculpture, furniture and a great deal of specialist porcelain. The President announced the Widener gift at a dinner in 1941 in front of thousands of special guests, including Joseph Widener.
Of course Lynnewood Hall wasn’t the only source of art objects that eventually ended up in the National Gallery of Art. Andrew Mellon donated his art collection to the nation. The Mellon pieces were all beautiful, but most beautiful of all were 21 masterpieces from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Samuel H Kress donated 375 Italian paintings and 18 works of sculpture, all of world class.
Van Dyck, Genoese Noblewoman and Son, 1626