Many of history’s most enduring and significant works of art have been made possible through the practice of patronage. The tradition dates back to ancient times, starting with state and church-funded projects and eventually evolving over the centuries to a new class of wealthy aristocrats and merchants. Artists have relied on these patrons to support their livelihoods and promote their artistic output, and patronage was essential for artists from Michelangelo to Matisse. Read on to learn about some of the greatest patrons in the history of Western art.
The Medici Family
The idea of individual-sponsored art primarily began in the Renaissance, mainly as the result of a lack of a single consistent sovereign ruler in Papal Italy. Princes, dukes, counts and cardinals ruled smaller areas, and in such areas were often the wealthiest individuals. Thus, they possessed the means to commission significant artworks. In the early 1400s, Italy became the artistic and cultural center of Europe, and the relationship between wealthy patrons and artists flourished there for centuries. The rich became richer as increased trade and economic growth led to an increase in the expendable income of patrons.
The Medici family was an Italian banking and political dynasty that rose to prominence during the 15th century in Florence. Their wealth and influence during the Italian Renaissance were immense, and they are largely the reason that the Renaissance began and was centered in Florence. Over several generations, the family funded the work of practically every Renaissance artist imaginable, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. Eventually, the family would produce four popes and enjoy marriages with many of Europe’s leading royal families. The family was led by Cosimo III de’ Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany who enjoyed an unprecedented 53-year-long reign. He was generous with the family fortune, contributing much of it to improving and enriching Florence’s cultural life. He specifically funded Brunelleschi’s famed Duomo of the Santa Maria del Fiore and patronized artists such as Donatello, Ghiberti and Fra Angelico.
Anna Maria Louisa de’Medici was Cosimo’s daughter, and she was essential in protecting the family legacy as we know it today. Before she died, she created a will that bequeathed the vast Medici estate to the Tuscan state, ensuring that the art collection formed by the Medicis over the previous three centuries remained in Florence. Her death marked the end of the Medici governing line, though her actions ensured their legacy lived on in Florence for all time.
Francesco II Gonzaga and his wife Isabella d’Este were powerful political leaders in the Northern Italian city of Mantua in the 15th century. In addition, Isabella was an important humanitarian and one of history’s most prolific patrons of the arts. When her husband was captured as a prisoner of war in 1509, she served as regent of Mantua during his absence and became a successful military leader and diplomat. Known as the “First Lady of the Renaissance,” she was well-educated and fashionable, and she supported some of the most notable artists of the era, including da Vinci, Raphael, Titian and Giorgione. Some scholars have even speculated that she could be the sitter for one of the most well-known portraits of the Renaissance period — Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Remembered as one of the most important and visionary art collectors and dealers of the 19th century, Paul Durand-Ruel was purchasing Impressionist paintings when the larger art establishment was shunning them. The financial success, stability and notoriety that many of the greatest Impressionists enjoyed were due in large part to Durand-Ruel, who was an unwavering champion of their new, modern style. He was an early buyer of paintings from Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir and others, seeing their artistic value — and the potential to earn money for himself as their dealer.
Over the course of 40 years, Durand-Ruel purchased approximately 1,500 Renoirs, 1,000 Monets, 800 Pissarros, 200 Manets and 400 each of works by Degas, Sisley and Cassatt, and mounted exhibitions of their works across Europe and the United States. He was met with the same criticism the Impressionists themselves endured until a wildly successful 1886 exhibition in New York, where he was instead met with enthusiasm and open wallets. This blockbuster success did a great deal to change the minds of European art collectors, turning the tide for Impressionism and changing the face of modern art and modern art dealing forever.
Albert C. Barnes
A generation after the great Durand-Ruel began collecting, the Impressionists and other modern artists would find another friend in an American collector from Philadelphia. Albert C. Barnes was a chemist and businessman who did not begin collecting until he was in his 40s after reconnecting with his childhood friend, artist William Glackens. Glackens helped to launch Barnes’ famed art collection, working as his exclusive art buyer and adding van Goghs, Cezannes, Picassos and especially Renoirs to his estate.
Once Barnes began collecting, it became a driving force in his life. In one year alone, he made over 100 art purchases. In 1922, he established the Barnes Foundation, to which he donated his massive collection. For the new foundation, he built a palatial residence and gallery outside of Philadelphia where the collection could serve as an educational tool for students. As the foundation’s homepage describes it, “The unique approach to teaching - now known as the Barnes Method - emphasized close looking, critical thinking, and prolonged engagement with original works of art.” Today, the Barnes Collections includes 181 Renoirs, 69 Cézannes, 59 Matisses, 46 Picassos, and 7 van Goghs, among many others.
A monumental figure in the 20th-century art world, Peggy Guggenheim was truly global in her influence. She was born to the immensely wealthy New York Guggenheim family, and from young adulthood, she ran in avant-garde artistic circles in Manhattan and then Paris. She opened her first modern art gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, in 1938 in London, before the outbreak of World War II forced her to return to New York. There, she opened another gallery, The Art of This Century Gallery, where she helped launch the careers of some of the biggest names in 20th-century art, including Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. She was also a significant and early supporter of Surrealism and was even married to famed Surrealist Max Ernst for a time. Guggenheim eventually moved to Venice and in 1949, opened her own museum to house her remarkable collection, attesting to her undeniable influence and contributions to modernist art.
Jacob M. Goldschmidt
In pre-war Germany, Jacob M. Goldschmidt was a leader in international finance and philanthropy. He was also an enthusiastic art collector, owning works across styles and eras by the likes of Rubens, Murillo, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Gauguin. As a prominent Jewish banker, he became a target for the Nazis even before the war began, and he was forced to flee Berlin in the early 1930s, leaving everything behind, including his precious art collection. Sadly, the Nazis proceeded to loot Goldschmidt’s homes and auction off his furnishings and artworks to raise money for the Hitler Youth Movement.
Goldschmidt eventually settled in America where he began anew, earning his citizenship in 1944. There, he rebuilt both his life and his art collection. In the United States, his collecting focus was much more narrow, favoring major European modernists, and he became a patron of contemporary artists such as Marc Chagall and Jean Dufy. Following his death, his new collections were sold at Sotheby’s, London on October 15, 1958, where they became the stuff of art auction legend. The seven pieces by Cezanne, Manet, Renoir, and Van Gogh that formed the centerpiece of his collection sold in a then-record-breaking 21 minutes for $2,186,800, underscoring Goldschmidt’s importance as a collector.