Culture / History / Review

The Best of Buys

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As the cream of Denmark’s Ordrupgaard Collection comes to the Royal Academy in London, SARAH DUNANT tells the dramatic tale of its visionary collector, Wilhelm Hansen…


Sarah Dunant

Four hundred years separate these two quotes; the first from the formidable Renaissance collector Isabella d’Este, the second from the Danish art lover Wilhelm Hansen. But both these individuals share qualities that define the successful collector. Money, of course, and an eye for quality, but also perseverance to ferret out the best buy and, when the scent of a chase gets strong, the ability to throw caution to the wind. Without such men and women, the history of art, and many of our most prestigious cultural institutions, would be poorer. The British Museum, the Borghese Gallery in Rome and the Frick Collection in New York were all initially founded on private collections bequeathed to and/or bought at a knock-down price by the state. One could add to that list the exquisite Ordrupgaard Collection in Denmark. As well as Golden Age Danish art, its treasures include scores of nineteenth-century French paintings, the finest of which now come to the Royal Academy in London.

Born in 1868, Hansen was a hugely successful businessman with an idealistic, almost visionary streak. He made his fortune selling affordable life insurance in Denmark and abroad. With no formal art training but a hunger to learn, he started collecting Danish art. But the history of nineteenth-century art belongs to France, and when business took him to Paris he fell under its spell. His chance came with the outbreak of the First World War, in which Denmark remained neutral and prices depressed. He knew what he wanted: a collection that ranged from Corot to Cézanne, with twelve paintings by each of the century’s masters exploring step by step the journey towards modernism.


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Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot The Windmill (c.1835-40)


Using a revered French art critic, Théodore Duret, as his guide, along with more personal contacts (including Gauguin’s wife, who was Danish), Hansen went on an astonishing buying spree. That opening quote is from a letter written in 1916 to his wife Henny, and it went on to list high-class works by Sisley, Pissarro, Monet and Renoir. It was only the start. Backed by a Danish bank, he founded a consortium with other collectors, which added muscle for even bigger purchases. In 1918, when Degas’s estate came up for sale, they bid for and bought over forty six works. Some of them moved on, but the cream of it he kept.

By the end of the war, Hansen’s collection required a new gallery to house it. He rebuilt a summerhouse at Ordrup, near Copenhagen (where the works remain). In this idyllic setting, the Danish public could experience a journey from Delacroix, through Realism and Impressionism, to Matisse. It was one of the best collections of nineteenth-century art outside France. And it would, Hansen declared, eventually go to the state. Vision, taste, determination and a little recklessness when it came to money. It was this last that would undermine him. In 1922, barely three years after the gallery’s opening, the Landsmansbank, Denmark’s biggest private bank, went spectacularly bankrupt. Among its debtors: the consortium, and Hansen personally. This idealistic businessman now faced a crisis. Honour his debt versus love of art. He did not hesitate. “I have accustomed myself to the loss of my pictures,” he wrote. “I will get over it if I can be a free man.”

It was not that simple. To unload enough paintings in the right timeframe he needed rich buyers, and with the end of the war the market had changed, with some of the main players now coming from Japan and America. It had been part of his dream to build a collection for the benefit of Northern Europe. He offered the Danish state his whole collection at a reduced price. They turned him down. He started to sell. Within eighteen months he was, by his own description, a free man again. But that magnificent collection had been cut in half. Among the losses: seven of a series of eight masterpieces by Cézanne; several Manets, including a powerful self-portrait and work by Degas, a Gauguin and many Pissarros and Sisleys, some acquired by the Japanese businessman Kojiro Matsukata.


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Paul Gaughin Blue Trees. Your Turn Will Come, My Beauty (1888)


Over the next eight years, Hansen would recoup some of his losses. These acquisitions were modest in number, but nonetheless impressive. In the second room of the RA’s exhibition, dedicated to the precursors of Impressionism and hung to resemble Hansen’s own gallery, visitors see Delacroix’s radiant portrait of French author George Sand (1838) and Daumier’s The Wrestler (c.1852), both later purchases and proof that Hansen’s eye never wavered. But he also never forgave the Danish state’s refusal to assist him. Such “almost hostile coldness”, as he described it, meant that when he died he left everything, instead, to Henny. It was not until the 1950s that, on her own death, the Danish nation finally got Ordrupgaard and its collection.

Not every story of a great collector is a happy one. Had she lived longer, Isabella d’Este would have seen many of her treasures snaffled up by Charles I. As for Charles I – we all know what happened his collection. You don’t need to know the turbulent history of Wilhelm Hansen to enjoy the wonders on the walls at the RA’s Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries. But as you wander through, it might be worth remembering that it came at a cost. I think the next words, of Hansen’s letter of 1916, still stand as a testament to his life achievement: “I know I will be forgiven when you see what I have bought: it is all first class, with stars.”


Gaughin and the Impressionists is as the Royal Academy until 18th October.

SARAH DUNANT is a writer and broadcaster currently researching for a novel about Isabella d’Este. She writes for the RA Magazine.


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This article has also been published in the RA Magazine.


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