12 April 2011

Widener's sublime art treasures in Philadelphia

Lynnewood Hall 1900 was a huge Georgian mansion in Elkins Park Pa. Thought of as the largest surviving mansion in the Philadelphia area, it was designed by society architect Horace Trumbauer for industrialist Peter AB Widener in 1897 and was completed within three years.

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

I am quite interested in the original architecture, now slightly derelict. But I am very interested in how, within one and a half generations, a newly wealthy family in the late 19th century came to own one of the most important Gilded Age (c1880-1920) private art collections assembled in the USA.

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

Many paintings were bought in PAB’s time. Jonathan Lopez wrote in Apollo that  Widener was a little naïve in the beginning of his collecting career. In particular, he had no success with the Dutch art dealer Leo Nardus. During the 1890s and early 1900s Widener purchased 93 paintings, primarily Old Masters, from Nardus who operated out of New York and Paris. Of these works, Widener suspected their authenticity and chose to keep only two – the Rembrandtesque panels Head of Saint Matthew and Head of an Aged Woman, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Widener immediately auctioned off the rest. Sadly the sale, held in Amsterdam in June 1909, did not attract the expected interest from the trade. So we can only assume that for a man of Widener’s wealth, the money generated was probably less important than the principle i.e. getting some form of recompense from Nardus.

Rembrandt, The Mill, c1647

PAB certainly wanted public acknowledgement. James Fenton in The Guardian 8/12/2007 noted that Widener had a catalogue published of his collection, as it stood in 1900. The two volumes were bound in red leather and the illustrations had been engraved in Paris. Yes it was a vanity publication of which 250 copies had been printed for distribution, but the catalogue was only intended to impress the top end of the art collecting world.

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

PAB Widener died at Lynnewood Hall at the age of 80 in 1915. With first son George and grandson Harry already dead in the unthinkably tragic Titanic sinking of 1912, Joseph became administrator of the family business and one of the richest men in the USA. Joseph Widener was passionate about all the arts himself and was an important a collector in his own right. The family apparently had a close relationship with John Singer Sargent and Augustus John, so some very fine C20th portraits were hanging in Lynnewood’s galleries and staterooms.

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

After being sold many times and finally emptied, Lynnewood Hall has been added to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia's list of most endangered historic properties. Now the home is being put on the National Register of Historic Places.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

One can only marvel at the enormous wealth required not only to build such a huge mansion, but then to furnish it in such an extravagant manner and with such works of art. It is not at all dissimilar to the purchase of Upton House by the 2nd. Lord Bearsted in the late 1920s who, as you are probably aware, established an extraordinary collection of paintings, ceramics and furniture there in the period up until the Second World War.

We suspect that the very rich of today choose to spend their money in different ways.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance
you are so right! The collecting patterns of very wealthy families on both sides of the Atlantic were similar. The only difference was that in the USA, federal income tax didn't really come in until 1913 when the 16th amendment to the constitution made it permanent.

*sigh* I wish I would have had the surplus income of a Widener and the art advice of Joseph Duveen and Bernard Berenson.

Joseph said...

Widener's taste looked to be quite traditional and conservative. Did he buy any art that was modern at the turn of the century?

Hels said...

the newspapers of the day raved about Widener's collection of works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Vermeer and El Greco. He did have some lovely French Impressionist works but they were not the paintings on which Widener based his repuation as a serious collector.

So did he collect Old Masters because he loved them and he thought they would reflect well on his scholarliness and gravitas? Or did his expert advisors suggest Old Masters because they were a fine investment, artistically and financially?

Hermes said...

Hope it is preserved. Its such a dilemma when a fabulous collector is not the sort of person you would really like to meet. But he had good advice if a little conservative - but then the newly rich tend to prefer that.

Hels said...


I am normally very unhappy when galleries, museums, theatres and concert halls are largely privately funded (as in the USA), as opposed to funded by tax payers (as in much of Europe and the British Commonwealth).

But the upside of donating precious collections to American galleries was the enormous tax rebate that the family received. Ill gotten gains for the family perhaps, but those art treasures (paintings, porcelain, furniture etc) are now safe.

Kristin H said...

What Berenson and Duveen was part of is incredible, think of having such an international business so long ago. A remarkable place! Thank you for the introduction.

Hels said...


I am so glad you picked up on the connection between PAB Widener on one hand and Berenson and Duveen on the other. They got Widener back on the right track, after his crisis with Nardus.

There is so much to say about those two experts. Have a look at Joseph Duveen: Art Dealer Extraordinaire http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2009/05/joseph-duveen-art-dealer-extraordinaire.html

Hels said...

For a very nice examination of Widener's home at Lynnewood Hall, read Nooks, Towers and Turrets. The floor plan is impressive.