A collection can signify on many levels. An art collection could be seen as any of the following: a portrait of acquisitiveness; the psyche of a neurotic personality; a love affair between the collector and the object; a bulwark against assumed cultural and social decline; a confession set out in paintings and drawings. I must confess that I couldn’t really get a handle on the collector behind the paintings I saw yesterday. His personality remains at distance, lurking behind the faces and objects presented in the many fine paintings on display. Instead, I concentrated on the taste of this collector and left the physiognomy of the art lover laid bare through art to those more qualified to do the task. I recommend the introduction to Pierre Cabanne’s The Great Collectors.
My first thought on this exhibition is how chronologically broad the collection is. The Lewis family started off collecting 19th century impressionist artists like Pissarro and Sisley, but then switched to old masters going back to the mid 15th century. Stylistically, within this exhibition I can identify a number of periods and tastes. Most conspicuously, there’s an interest in 17th century French art. A truly wonderful part of the show, especially for someone like me who knows this school well. It’s represented by paintings by Sebastian Bourdon, Gaspard Dughet- -the brother of Poussin’s wife-, Simon Vouet, Pierre Mignard and most especially Phillipe de Champaigne. There’s a stunning self-portrait of the realist painter in which his honesty and forthrightness shine out from the canvas. He painted for the Jansenist sect at Port Royal, and that side of him is represented by a half length of Moses with the tablets of the Law. The prophet is very realistic, with a breaking of the frame suggested by the ledge crossed by his hand. Then there’s the iconography, which I’d go into in more detail if I could trace an article I’ve got on Biblical painting and 17th century France. I was amused at a visitor who was mortified that the Ten Commandments were written/painted in French!
Moving across to Italy, we have some Salvator Rosa works: a hermit in a landscape and a portrait of a philosopher modelled on Ribera’s Neapolitan sages. Next to this is another philosopher, attributed to Ribera, and there’s a Giordano painting of another philosopher, Astrologus. According to Christopher Wright’s essay in the catalogue – reasonably priced at just under £10- based on the defining principles of 20th century art history, the collection’s taste falls into two main strands: Caravaggism and Neoclassicism.
“The Schorr collection began with works by the Impressionists, two by Sisley and one by Pissarro, and soon progressed to a broad representation of the old Masters from the 16th century onwards. What soon emerged was that the collection became representative of several stylistic trends which were defined by 20th century art history such as Caravaggism and Neoclassicism. A parallel interest was in the Netherlandish 16th century which now numbers some 60 works.” Read the essay here.
P de Champaigne, Rosa and Ribera would fall into the Caravaggisti camp; to this you could add portraits by Mor, Carducho and others. Bear in mind that we’re only seeing part of the collection in Liverpool, not much neo-classicism on show- an Annibale Carracci mythology, and Rubens if you count him as neoclassical- some sketches and a Battle of the Amazons.
So the 17th century is clearly a favourite area with these collectors, but what about the renaissance? A Sebastiano del Piombo portrait of Pope Clement VII, but not much from Italy; hardly surprising as most of it would be in public museums when the collection was started. Also, as Christopher Wright says, the Schorr Collection was formed not according to prevailing stylistic trends, but on broader historical principles. That’s partly why there’s a lot of northern renaissance art, though not those artists in vogue in the 20th century. Don’t expect to see Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, but instead minor masters like Jan van Hemessen (Christ as Man of Sorrows), Franz Floris (Holy Family), a Madonna by the intriguingly labelled ‘Master of the Prodigal Son’- reminiscent of Joos van Cleeve-, Pieter van Kempanaer, Augustus and the Sibyl, Jan Mostaert, Education of Cain and Abel, very esoteric iconography. These are names that will not be known outside highly specialist circles, and art historians interested in this minority taste.
There’s a small deposit of Spanish art including two El Grecos, Luis de Morales, and other unidentified painters. The German renaissance has a Cranach Lamentation, not the most aesthetically appealing of paintings. The French Napoleonic/Romantic period is represented by Gerard, Ingres, and a copy of Velasquez’s Philip IV- just the face- by Delacroix, an example of experimenting with colour while retaining the integrity of the original. The 19th century ends with a few Sisleys and a Pissarro originally purchased by Lewis’s wife. The best painting in this room is Sisley’s whose Port-Marly in the Snow observes a frozen Seine with detachment.
As for themes, and remembering the danger of divining the personality of a collector out of subject mater, there’s obviously a lot of interest in philosophers, some artist’s self-portraits, genre and animal pictures, devout paintings and sacred scenes- pretty broad thematically by any standard. Omissions are interesting; not much interest in landscape, although there’s the Dughet and the Rosa. I wouldn’t want to speculate about what the content of the collection might reveal about the collectors. Perhaps it’s worth quoting David Lewis in the catalogue on Marinus van Reymerswaele’s Jerome in his Study.
“This image, repeated frequently by the artist, would not necessarily have great aesthetic appeal. The Saint has the typical claw-like hands Reymerswaele depicts. His visage is grim…The subject itself has huge impact: St Jerome translating the Bible, living in isolation in the desert, a fundamental contrast with much of contemporary existence. Such contrasts are the very essence of a collection.”
Wright, the compiler of the catalogue of the whole Schorr Collection, to be published this year, notes that such collections as the Schorr holdings and others betray “a certain austerity of taste.” The presence of such artists as Reymerswaele and de Champaigne confirm this; they also confirm that this collector’s eye sees far beyond the landscape mapped out by conventional surveyors and cartographers of taste and style. See it if you can.