The politics of masterpieces: the failed attempt to purchase
Rembrandt’s The Mill for the National Gallery
The first decades of the twentieth century in Britain
have been described as a time when “treasures
depart”; that is, when swathes of Old Master paintings
left the country to be purchased by wealthy American
collectors.1 This phenomenon is often explained by
the spiralling prices of works of art and the consequent
inability of British buyers ­– especially cash-deprived
public collections­– to afford world-class masterpieces.
Art dealers have also been held responsible for this
situation, as they, so the story goes, did not hesitate
to create thriving businesses by selling pictures
they purchased in the domestic market beyond the
national borders. In this narrative, the desire for
financial gain and a lack of scruples were the driving
forces. However, when analyzed at close range, the
stories of these “endangered treasures” show a much
more nuanced reality: one which presents a complex
equilibrium between sellers and dealers, and between
private and public buyers.
Fig. 1 / Rembrandt van
Rijn, The Mill, 1645/1648,
oil on canvas, 87.6 x 105.6
cm, Washington, DC,
National Gallery of Art.
Of the three important works which were offered to
London’s National Gallery – Diego Velázquez’s Rokeby
Venus in 1905, Hans Holbein’s Christina of Denmark in
1909, and Rembrandt’s The Mill in 1911 (fig. 1; now
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art) – much
more attention has focused on the first two sales, both
of which resulted in a National Gallery acquisition,
whereas the third transaction, which concluded with a
sale to the United States, has been, up until now, less
investigated. Yet the sale of The Mill, further elucidated
by new documents published in this article, illustrates
another distinctive case of such nuanced reality. The
episode shows, firstly, that price was only one variable
within a complex equation in which social and political
circumstances played an equally important role; and
secondly, the art dealer’s role could be supportive as
well as disruptive.
The sale of The Mill was concluded in a relatively
short time: the purchase was first announced in
February 1911, and by mid-April of the same year the
painting had already reached its new owner, Peter
Arrell Browne Widener, in Philadelphia.2 Esmée
Quodbach, in her excellent reconstruction of the
Widener Collection, has briefly recounted this sale,
defining it as “one of the most controversial in the art
trade”. Nevertheless, the detailed history of the sale
and the political background, that arguably played
a fundamental role and likely caused the loss of this
painting for Britain, has so far been unexplored.3
The Mill, attributed to Rembrandt since at least 1723,
came to Britain from the illustrious Orléans Collection
and had been in the possession of a long-standing
British aristocratic family since 1824, when it was
reportedly bought for £840.4 The Mill owed much
of its nineteenth-century fame to its subject matter,
considered at the time to be a romantic landscape.5
The picture had been often exhibited and written
about in the course of the nineteenth century and
praised as one of Rembrandt’s most important works.6
It had an equal impact on artistic practice, inspiring
British painters such as J. M. W. Turner and John
Constable (fig. 2).


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