Colnaghi Collections_Vol 01 - Page 11

J eremy H oward
‘With the benefit of hindsight’:
Colnaghi Collections in Context
The current catalogue of Renaissance and Baroque works of
Colnaghi’s second American client, Henry Clay Frick,
art can be seen as part of a long Colnaghi tradition. During
who came to collecting fairly late in life, seems to have first
the so-called American “Gilded Age”, between the 1890s and
kindled an interest in Spanish art during a trip to the Iberian
the early 1930s, the gallery was responsible for selling some of
Peninsula in 1893. Although he returned home from this
the greatest Renaissance works of art found in the United States
trip empty- handed, in 1904 he bought a Murillo Self-Portrait
today, including Titian’s Rape of Europa (Boston, Isabella Stewart
which, like many of his later purchases, had been part of Louis
Gardner Museum) and Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert (New
Philippe’s Galerie Espagnole. This may have inspired Frick to
York, The Frick). Colnaghi also played their part from the late
form his own “Spanish Gallery” with a second trip to Spain
nineteenth century in the revival of interest in Spanish sixteenth-
in 1909 (the year after the foundation of the Hispanic Society
and seventeenth-century painting, which was particularly marked
of America) and the purchase of several Spanish masterpieces
in America in the early years of the twentieth century. It this
through Knoedler and Colnaghi, including Velázquez’s
episode in Colnaghi’s history which finds the closest echoes in
magnificent Portrait of Philip IV at Fraga, a painting which
the firm’s activities today. Up until the late nineteenth century
Roger Fry described as “quite the finest portrait by Velázquez
most Americans had little appreciation of Spain or Spanish art.
I have ever seen”. The Velázquez was to provide a yardstick
“There is,” wrote John Hay in 1871, “the dim suggestion of the
of quality for any future purchases: “I do not wish to purchase
faggot and the rack among many Spanish masters,” with which
anything unless it ranks with the Rembrandts I have and the
Protestant Americans found it hard to identify. Things had begun
Velázquez,” he informed Roger Fry, “my standard is now so
to change in the 1880s when William Merrit Chase declared
high it is not likely soon that I will add any pictures to my
Velázquez to be the greatest painter that ever lived. Letters in the
collection.” Nevertheless, he went on to purchase a further
Colnaghi archive written in the 1890s from Colnaghi Director
nine Colnaghi pictures between 1911 and his death in 1919
Otto Gutekunst to Bernard Berenson are full of references to
including two other great Spanish paintings which had come
the quest for a great Velázquez for one of their most important
from Knoedler and Colnaghi: El Greco’s Vincenzo Astanagi
collectors at the time, Isabella Stewart Gardner.
(fig. 1) and Goya’s The Forge.
Fig. 1. Doménikos Theotokópoulos, called El Greco, Portrait of Vincenzo Astanagi, ca. 1575, oil on canvas, 188.1 x 126.7 cm, New York, The Frick Collection.


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