Museums and Private Collectors (Business of Art, 3)

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a couple dozen essays on the history of painting for, a subscription service that provided online supplementary materials for high-school students. The site’s owners have given me permission to publish the essays (copyright © 2001 Beyond Books) on my website. This essay (lightly edited) is the third of five in the section on the business of art. Click “Business of Art” in the Obsessions cloud at lower right to see all that have been published.

Why go to a museum?

Assuming you like paintings and want to see more of them, why should you see the paintings themselves rather than reproductions?

The answer, trite as it seems, is that no matter how good a reproduction is, it’s never the same as the original. The best way to test this is to go to a museum, pick a painting in its collection, and then compare the original to a photo on your smartphone, or an image on a postcard. The colors will be different. If it’s an oil painting, the original will have a glow that can’t be captured in the reproduction, because oils let the light filter through the layers of paint in a particular way. The surface texture of a painting is lost in a photograph, which means you’ll miss Rembrandt’s raised brushstrokes and Vernet’s polished finish.

I took the two photos below at sharp angles and with glare so you can see the texture of the brushstrokes – but no museum would publish such photos!

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653. Vernet, Thorvaldsen, 1833 or later. Both at Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photos copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

And, of course, there’s the size. Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa is 23 feet wide; Raphael’s Alba Madonna is three feet in diameter. On a smartphone screen or a 3 x 5″ postcard, they’re the same size.

Comparative sizes. Gericault, Raft of the Medusa, 1819-1819; at the Louvre (image: Wikipedia). Raphael, Alba Madonna, ca. 1510; image from the National Gallery, Washington.

So yes: it is much better to see the actual work.

The advent of museums

From ancient times until the 18th century, sculpture was often on public display, but painting was not. One rare exception was the Pinakotheke, a gallery of paintings on the Athenian Acropolis that was open to the public. We haven’t a clue what it looked like.

In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, frescoes by the leading artists of the time,  including Giotto and Masaccio, were on view in churches for whoever cared to visit.

Frescoes by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, ca. 1305. Image: Wikipedia / José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

The great public museums, with wide selections of paintings on all subjects, logically arranged – the Louvre, the Prado, the British Museum and others – are a product of the eighteenth-century mind. That is, they were established during the Enlightenment, when it was assumed that the world was understandable, that man was good and could become better, and that education (in the history of painting as in anything else) was a desirable aim.

Take the Louvre, for example. Some of the earliest paintings in the collection date back to the time of Francis I (ruled 1515-1547), Leonardo’s last patron, who took possession of all the paintings owned by Leonardo at his death – among them the Mona Lisa. For nearly two centuries, these and other paintings collected by the French monarchs were enjoyed only by royalty and high-ranking courtiers. After Louis XIV moved the royal residence to Versailles in 1674, the old palace of the Louvre, in the heart of Paris, was given over to the French Academy of Fine Arts. The Academy used it for exhibitions of members’ works and for artists’ studios. After 1750, some of the paintings in the royal collections were put on display in a long gallery in the Louvre, which became a model for galleries in many other museums.

Hubert Robert, The Grande Galerie at the Louvre, ca. 1795. Louvre, Paris. Image: Web Gallery of Art

After the French Revolution, those in charge of the Louvre became concerned with educating the public. They organized paintings in the collection by nationality and date. The massive plunder brought back by Napoleon from his campaigns throughout Europe, the Near East, and Northern Africa spurred comparative studies between paintings of different cultures.

During the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, museum collections became more comprehensive, expanding to include the art of Asia, Africa and the Americas. Rather than waiting for bequests, curators began to purchase items that would complement museum holdings or would fill noticeable gaps.

Arts of Native Americans at the Metropolitan Museum. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

Back in the 1970s, the Treasures of Tutankhamun tour drew more than eight million visitors to the Metropolitan Museum. Today it’s common for museums to arrange such blockbuster exhibitions as a way to increase attendance. A major exhibition of van Gogh or Vermeer takes years to organize, with curators visiting other museums, bargaining for the right to borrow certain works, and arranging for the paintings to arrive safely at their destination.

Private collections

In the Renaissance, any gentleman with aspirations to culture formed a collection of paintings, sculpture, and objets d’art.

Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve), ca. 1532. National Gallery, London. Image: Wikipedia

The idea that cultured men should collect fine art has continued to modern times. One of the best modern collections was formed by Henry Clay Frick (d. 1919), a great industrialist with superb taste in art. From the 1880s to 1910s, he managed to purchase works by dozens of important painters, from Duccio and van Eyck through Rembrandt and Velázquez, and on to Goya, Turner and Degas. The Frick Collection in New York, displayed in Frick’s former mansion, is of higher quality per square inch of canvas than the Metropolitan Museum, although it has far fewer works.

Atrium of the Frick Collection, New York. Image: Joyofmuseums / Wikipedia

Art as investment

With more and more great paintings permanently at home in museums, it has become increasingly difficult to form a first-rate collection of “Old Master” paintings such as Frick’s, although it is still possible to form good collections of nineteenth- and twentieth-century works. The collection formed by Dr. Albert C. Barnes (d. 1951), which forms the basis of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, is a good example.

More and more, however, those who can afford to pay millions of dollars for a painting do it not because they adore a particular work, but because they believe it will appreciate in value and earn a good return on their initial investment. That’s risky business. Paintings are not liquid assets, nor is the price they fetch predictable. A sale at auction can bring devastatingly low or breathtakingly high prices. Sale at a gallery can take months or years. (See this post on how art has been bought and sold through the ages.)


  • Making the Mummies Dance, by Thomas Hoving, describes his years at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including his decade as director (1967-1977). Hoving brought the King Tut tour to the Met and acquired such notable works as the Temple of Dendur and Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja.
  • For more in this series, click “Business of Art” in the Obsessions tag cloud.
  • Want more art like this delivered weekly to your inbox? Members of my free Sunday Recommendations list (email receive three art-related suggestions every week: check out my favorites from last year’s recommendations. For more goodies, check out my Patreon page.
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