One Hundred Years at the Library: The Art of Collecting

In celebration of the centennial of the Frick Art Reference Library, peek into the past one hundred years of the library’s remarkable history through important places, people, and objects from the collections. The objects featured are included in the commemorative publication One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library and are available for consultation in our reading room.

In this entry, we delve into three time periods represented in the library’s rich holdings on private art collections: Regency France, Gilded Age New York, and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Among the first books purchased by Helen Clay Frick when she founded the Frick Art Reference Library in 1920 were catalogues of private collections, art sales, and exhibitions. These holdings remain a strength of the collection, making the library a leading resource for research into provenance and the art market—essential to our understanding of the journeys of works of art and collecting practices throughout history. In this post, we look at how catalogues held at the library enable us to trace the formation and fate of three significant art collections: those of France’s Philippe II, Duke of Orléans; the Gilded Age collector Mary Jane Morgan; and the actor Edward G. Robinson.

A Royal Collection: Philippe II

Portrait of a man in a landscape with a large powdered wig, swathed in armor and fabric, and holding a blue staff with yellow fleurs-de-lys
Jean-Baptiste Santerre (1651–1717), Philippe, Duc d’Orléans (1674–1723), 1710–17. Oil on canvas, 49 3/4 x 39 3/4 in. (126.4 x 101 cm). Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, UK, purchased from David Peel & Co. Ltd, 1967. Image courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust, licensed under CC0

Philippe II, Duke of Orléans (above), was a French prince, soldier, and statesman who served as Regent of the Kingdom of France from 1715 to 1723. He built his collection of paintings over a period of two and a half decades, including acquisitions from prominent collectors such as Cardinal Richelieu, Cardinal Mazarin, and Queen Christina of Sweden. Held in the library’s collection is a copy of the 1727 publication Description des tableaux du Palais Royal (below), which brought the Regent’s collection to the wider public following his death.

Cover page titled "Description des Tableaux du Palais Royal" with a decorative coat of arms
Cover page of Description des tableaux du Palais Royal, Paris, 1727 (transcribed below). Frick Art Reference Library, acquired through Clotilde Brière-Misme, 1927

The publication was put together by Louis-François Dubois de Saint-Gelais—the secretary and historiographer of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture—to document some five hundred paintings in the Regent’s collection. The volume is extremely useful as it records in the margins previous owners from whom the Regent had purchased or received the works of art. While some of the attributions have changed over time, remarkably much of the recorded provenance information in the publication remains the same today.

Thanks to this volume, many works of art now found around the world can be traced back to the Regent’s collection—such as the Frick’s Choice Between Virtue and Vice and Wisdom and Strength by Paolo Veronese and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Rape of Europa by Titian. In the late eighteenth century, the collection was sold off, due to the nobility’s loss of power with the abolishment of the feudalist system and the mounting personal debts of the Regent’s grandson. The Frick Art Reference Library holds catalogs from two of the collection’s sales, enabling scholars to research the entire life cycle of the artworks once owned by the Regent, from their acquisition to their later dispersal.

The Gilded Age: Mary Jane Morgan

Brown handbook cover with the initials MJM embossed in gold
Hands holding a small guidebook with the title "Mrs. Morgan's Collection of Paintings, New York, 1884"
Cover and title page of Mrs. Morgan’s Collection of Paintings, New York, 1884. Frick Art Reference Library, gift of Mrs. Wilhelmina Waller, 1956

A good portion of our collection catalogues date from around the era of the library’s founding. In the wake of the Civil War and with rising industrialization, the United States experienced cataclysmic growth and accumulation of wealth in the second half of the nineteenth century. This boom, known as the Gilded Age, is evidenced in the many private collections and mansions built at this time.

One such art collection belonged to Mary Jane Morgan, one of New York City’s wealthiest women who, over only seven years, from 1878 to 1885, acquired a vast trove of paintings, prints, and decorative arts from America, Europe, and Asia. Like many of her male counterparts, she commissioned a catalogue, Mrs. Morgan’s Collection of Paintings, New York, 1884 (above), to serve as a guide for those visiting her home and viewing her collection.

Three men in long coats viewing framed paintings hanging on a wall
Potential buyers previewing works from Mary Jane Morgan’s collection ahead of the 1886 auction at the American Art Association. Courtesy of the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

The Frick Art Reference Library’s copy of Morgan’s paintings guide is perhaps the only one to survive today. It opens with an index of artists’ names and records 270 pictures, numbered and organized by where they were displayed in her home: Parlor, Hall and Stairway, Library, Picture Gallery, Small Gallery, etc. At the library, the guide is complemented by materials related to the sensational 1886 auction of Morgan’s collection after her death (see above). The sale raised approximately $1.2 million, setting a record that would not be surpassed in the United States for another twenty-four years. Together, these rare materials provide researchers with a glimpse into both Morgan’s aesthetic choices and how she operated as a collector in late nineteenth-century New York.

Learn more about Mary Jane Morgan in the library’s collections in a recent video.

Golden Age Hollywood: Edward G. Robinson and Gladys Lloyd Robinson

Moving from the Gilded Age to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the 1910s to 1960s saw the explosion of the American film industry. Many stage actors, such as Edward G. Robinson and Gladys Lloyd (below), transitioned to the silver screen due to exponentially higher pay by film studios. Their newfound wealth meant that, for the first time, actors interested in art were able to form collections of their own. Over the twenty-nine years following Edward and Gladys’s 1927 marriage, the couple built what became one of the most important collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the country.

Pastel of a man, woman, and young boy in a living room
The Family of Edward G. Robinson, commissioned in 1939 by the Golden Age Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson from prominent French artist Édouard Vuillard. Robinson and his first wife, actress Gladys Lloyd (depicted in the pastel along with their son, Edward G. “Manny” Robinson Jr.), formed one of America’s most important collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Pastel on paper, 18 7/8 x 25 in. (48 x 63.5 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Weiner. Image courtesy of the MFA Boston

The library’s holdings related to the Robinsons’ art reveal a fascinating aspect of a collection’s history: what happens when it falls apart. When the couple divorced, in 1956, they organized museum exhibitions—first at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and then at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco—before placing their entire collection up for sale. The library holds a copy of the exhibition catalogue, which, uniquely, includes a typewritten list from the art dealer Knoedler & Co. of the fifty-nine pictures purchased by the Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. The list features annotations by staff from the Frick Art Reference Library indicating where in its collections photographs of the paintings can be found (see below).

Typewritten list titled "Gladys Lloyd Robinson - Edward G. Robinson Collection, Schedule of 59 Items"
Archival mount of an image of a painting depicting a bearded man in a blue jacket and hat seated in front of paintings
Left: Page one of a list from Knoedler & Co. of the works purchased by Stavros Niarchos from the Robinsons’ collection (transcribed below). The handwritten notes are by Frick Art Reference Library staff indicating where reproductions of each work can be found in the library’s collection. Right: Reproduction from the Frick Art Reference Library’s Photoarchive of Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Père Tanguy (1887–88). The Photoarchive documentation helps us trace the painting’s provenance, including its purchase by Niarchos from the Robinsons’ collection.

Other materials at the library, including later exhibition and auction catalogs, provide insights into the famous couple’s taste for art and, interestingly, how their collecting practices differed after their divorce. To augment his second collection, Edward would purchase fourteen works of art back from Niarchos. At the same time, Gladys would go on to build and sell two more collections, first by collecting works of art from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries and later by patronizing up-and-coming artists such as Roger Bezombes and Gabriel Dauchot.

All three examples—the Orléans Collection, Mary Jane Morgan’s Gilded Age collection, and Gladys and Edward G. Robinson’s twentieth-century collections—were formed in different economic periods and across two continents. Though none of the collections exist in full today, the richness of the Frick Art Reference Library’s holdings allows us to understand their histories—tracing previous ownership, the collectors’ acquisitions, and subsequent sales. Related exhibition and sales catalogues, documentation in the Photoarchive, and other resources in our collections supplement these materials to give us a fuller picture. This remains a prominent feature of the scholarship made possible at the library, furthering a core aspect of its mission for a century and counting.

Learn more about the history and offerings of the Frick Art Reference Library at Discover all one hundred objects in One Hundred Objects in the Frick Art Reference Library. To explore more content celebrating the library’s centennial, watch our video series on YouTube, subscribe to our e-news, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

One Hundred Years at the Library is supported in part by Virginia and Randall Barbato.

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