Duveen: A Life in Art

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9780375410420: Duveen: A Life in Art

Meryle Secrest, biographer of Kenneth Clark (“Riveting . . . enthralling” –Wall Street Journal) and Bernard Berenson (“A remarkable tour de force”–Sir Harold Acton), brings all her exceptional gifts to the story of Lord Duveen of Millbank. Her book is the first major biography in more than fifty years of the supreme international art dealer of the twentieth century and the first to make use of the enormous Duveen archive that spans a century and has, until recently, been kept under lock and key at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The story begins with Duveen père, a Dutch Jew immigrating to Britain in 1866, establishing a business in London, going from humble beginnings in an antiques shop to a knighthood celebrating him as one of the country’s leading art dealers. Duveen père could discern an Old Master beneath layers of discolored varnish. He perfected the chase, the subterfuges, the strategies, the double dealings. He had an uncanny ability to spot a hidden treasure. It was called “the Duveen eye.” His son, Joseph, grew up with it and learned it all–and more . . .

Secrest tells us how the young Duveen was motivated from the beginning by the thrill of discovery; how he ascended, at twenty-nine, to (de facto) head of the business; how he moved away from the firm’s emphasis on tapestries and Chinese porcelains toward the more speculative, more lucrative, more exciting business of dealing in Old Masters. We see a demand for these paintings growing in America, fueled by the new “squillionaires” just at the moment when British aristocrats with great art collections were losing their fortunes . . . how Duveen’s whole career was based on the simple observation: Europe has the art; America, the money.

Secrest shows how he sold hundreds of masterpieces by Bellini, Botticelli, Giotto, Raphael, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Watteau, Velázquez, Vermeer, and Titian, among others, by convincing such self-made Americans as Morgan, Frick, Huntington, Widener, Bache, Mellon, and Kress that ownership of great art would ennoble them, and while waving such huge sums at the already noble British owners that the art changed hands and all were happy.

We discover Duveen’s connection to Buckingham Palace: how when the Prince of Wales became Edward VII his first act was to call in Duveen Brothers as decorators (something had to be done with the lugubrious Victorian décor and ghastly tartan hangings); how Duveen supplied the tapestries and rugs for the coronation ceremonies in Westminster Abbey; and how, in 1933, he became Lord Duveen of Millbank. We learn about the controversies in which he became embroiled and about his legendary art espionage (a network of hotel employees spied on his clients to discover their tastes).

Duveen was as generous as he was acquisitive, giving away hundreds of thousands of pounds to British institutions (the Tate Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum–including rooms to house the Elgin Marbles), organizing exhibitions for young artists, writing books about British art, and playing a major role in the design of the National Gallery in Washington.

Meryle Secrest’s Duveen fascinates as it contributes to our understanding of art as commerce and our grasp of American and English taste in the grand manner.

As Andrew Mellon once said, paintings never looked as good as they did when Duveen was standing in front of them.

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About the Author:

Meryle Secrest was born and educated in Bath, England, and now lives in Washington, D.C. She has written biographies of Romaine Brooks, Bernard Berenson, Kenneth Clark, Salvador Dalí, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Stephen Sondheim, among others.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

The Chase

It is generally agreed that, of the select band of women enterprising enough to be called collectors in the nineteenth century, Lady Charlotte Schreiber won hands down. Possessed of considerable means, dauntless energy, and the zest for the chase which is the natural prerequisite for the making of great collections, Lady Charlotte knew no barriers when it came to her own quarry. These included lace, fans, and playing cards, and, above all, ceramics. She loved china with a passion in the days when hardly anyone knew enough to recognize Chelsea, Bow, Worcester, and Derby, or cared, leaving such treasures to be picked up in any old junk shop for derisory sums. The more she collected, in those halcyon days of the 1860s and 1870s, the more enthralled she became by the chase. As her son Montague Guest wrote, "She hunted high and low, through England and abroad; France, Holland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Turkey, all were ransacked; she left no stone unturned, no difficulty, discomfort, fatigue, or hardship of travel daunted her, or turned her from her purpose, and she would come back, after weeks on the Continent . . . rich with the fruits of her expeditions"

No doubt she benefited from those tips by anonymous scouts that figure so largely in such narratives. On one occasion she learned that there were some wonderful pieces of china for sale in a tiny farmhouse miles from any town or railway. In the pursuit of such hidden treasure a collector needed to be infinitely ready to conjure up any means of transportation available. There is an eyewitness account of this particular hunt, so typical of Lady Charlotte's enterprise, by someone who had also received a tip, perhaps from the same source. He, too, was hot on the trail, which involved an inordinately slow and lengthy journey by train. As this hunter neared the quarry he observed a passenger coach on a road parallel to the tracks coming toward him. The fly roared past at breakneck speed, but he managed to catch a glimpse of a certain indomitable face. He knew, before he reached his destination, that he had arrived too late.

The disappointed buyer was Joel Joseph Duveen, a man who, it must be said, was her equal in terms of energy, dash, and devil-may-care determination. It is sometimes thought that his son Joseph Duveen, the most spectacular art dealer the world has ever known, appeared in all his singularity from a back street in the Yorkshire town of Hull. This convenient fiction glides over the fact that the future Lord Duveen was in all essential respects modeled after his equally formidable father. Here was a man who, in the best Horatio Alger tradition, began from nothing, coming from nowhere, and at the end of a scintillating career, as Sir Joseph Duveen, was dining with aristocrats and on intimate terms with kings, rich, successful, and feared. To take charge of an establishment that has risen to the heights of Old Bond Street is not quite the same as having reached there in the first place; but that is another part of the story.

The riddle of Joseph Duveen starts with the story of his father, and in both men one sees characteristics that were to imprint these personalities on their age; men who, like Isambard Kingdom Brunel, for instance, but metaphorically, threw bridges across chasms and hollowed out mountains to reach their goals. An early photograph of Joel Joseph shows a wide, high-cheeked face, one ear dextrously cocked, as if awaiting the latest rumor, a fussily trimmed beard and mustache, broad, flat, pudgy hands and the insouciant air of a man who will leap up in a second and dash out of the door. The expression is alert and good-natured, optimistic; and there is something about the smile that suggests someone not only prepared to challenge authority but used to discovering, as Alice did in Wonderland, that most barriers built by custom and snobbery are nothing but packs of cards.

It is true that Joel Joseph was self-made, but to say that he came from nowhere is perhaps not quite the case. Looking down the Duveen lineage one finds generational mirrors refracting ever fainter reflections of collectors and dealers in furniture, porcelains, tapestries, and Old Master paintings. Jacques Duveen, who later took the name of Jack, wrote a valuable account of the Duveen family origins and the early life of Joel Joseph, based on conversations he had with his uncle in the years before the latter's death in 1908; he called it The Rise of the House of Duveen. Jack claimed to have traced the family pedigree back to the seventeenth-century Du Vesnes (hence, Duveen), who were related to Eberhard Jabach. This head of a family of wealthy merchant bankers was a Sephardic Jew who moved from Spain to France during one of the early persecutions. He was well enough known to have been painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck and Charles le Brun, and was a distinguished art collector, one of the principal buyers at the sale of the collection of the ill-fated Charles I (1600-1649), another exemplary patron of the arts, particularly Italian painting. Jack Duveen wrote in Art Treasures and Intrigue, "The tradition is that when [Jabach] returned from the sale he entered Paris at the head of a convoy of wagons loaded with artistic conquests, like a Roman victor at the head of a triumphal procession." Even Jabach's considerable resources were not limitless, and when he, a few years later, was obliged to sell 110 of his best paintings to Louis XIV (1638-1715), the collection formed the nucleus of what would become the Louvre. Among the most famous works were three incomparable paintings by Giorgione: Rustic Concert, Holy Family with St. Catherine, and St. Sebastian and Donor; Titian's Christ at Emmaus, Entombment, Jupiter and Antiope, and Mistress; Correggio's Antiope; and Caravaggio's Death of Mary: acknowledged masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance. All the glory that such names conjured up became synonymous with a fabulous past, and the name of Duveen, so carelessly corrupted from the aristocratic Du Vesne, a constant noble reminder of what had been lost.

During the French Revolution one of Jabach's descendants, Henoch Elkan Duveen, emigrated from Paris to Holland, where, in 1810, he took over a small iron foundry in Meppel. Joel later told A. C. R. Carter that his grandfather had been an army contractor for horses and their equipment to the King of Saxony. So the legend began that Joel had begun life as a blacksmith's apprentice, and in fact he is listed as such in the Meppel registry, according to a Dutch chronicler of the Duveen family. Joel's father, Joseph Henoch Duveen (Henoch Elkan's son), was more than a blacksmith, however. The same account notes that he was a manufacturer of stoves and heaters, specializing in iron safes fitted with secret locks. A smithy was attached to the foundry and Joel claimed to have learned how to make horseshoes as part of a lengthy apprenticeship while being groomed for a future in manufacturing. Starting them young and making them proficient in every aspect of the business became one of his maxims when the time came to train his own sons.

One of Henoch Elkan's cousins, Levy Joseph-the names are confusing, since they recur down through the generations, with hardly any alteration-also fled from France during the same period and somehow assumed the surname of Hangjas, no one knows quite how. He established a branch of the family which carried on the tradition of trading in antiques, setting himself up in business in The Hague. The two branches remained in contact, and there was more than one intermarriage between first cousins. One male member of the Hangjas branch even assumed the name of Duveen when he married one of the Duveen girls.

Managing an ironworks would seem something of a departure from the inherited family passion, but even that had a precedent. Jack Duveen wrote that his grandfather Jacob Levy Hangjas, Levy Joseph's son, dealt in old metals as well as running a wholesale business in antiques and had a warehouse and wharf on the river Spaarne for the dismantling of steamships. Joel's father had also dealt in antiques before he took over the ironworks and passed that business on to one of his daughters, a girl who married the Ridder (Chevalier) van Esso, or Essoo. To give a business to a girl was unusual in those days. Girls were more often moved around like pawns in the game of tightening family connections or consolidating spheres of influence, a game at which art dealers excelled, like minor principalities. None played it better than the Duveens, the Hangjas branch in particular. Several Hangjas girls married leading art dealers of the day: De Maan, Van Schaak, and a man named Levy Fresco, said to have owned the gallery that served as the model for Dickens's novel The Old Curiosity Shop. By such prudent methods intricate chains of association were forged that could have satisfying consequences.

Joel Joseph Duveen, born in Meppel on April 30, 1843, was named for the great-great-great-grandfather who was descended on the female line from Eberhard Jabach. No doubt that significant point was impressed on him at an early age, and if he showed any talent for the antique business, there was no shortage of teachers. Jack Duveen relates that Joel was indeed a willing pupil under the tutelage of his aunt, the one who had married the Ridder van Esso. Her specialty is not described, but it would have been axiomatic that a Dutch dealer would have a sophisticated knowledge of ceramics. He or she would know, in the case of old Delft polychrome pottery, then becoming increasingly scarce and prized, that a Paris firm was making a clever profit from nice copies. He would learn about the confusing marks separating genuine old silver from its mundane, therefore modern, facsimiles. He would have to know how Oriental porcelain, called Oost Indiesch in Holland, had been made, so that he could instantly recognize the genuine and rare from i...

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