Home Subjects

a working group dedicated to the display of art in the private interior, c. 1715-1914

Gustav Waagen and Treasures of Art in Great Britain

Editors’ Note: Today we present a blog post by Dr. Emilie Oléron Evans of Queen Mary University, London. One of the goals of Home Subjects is to explore the intersections between the way pictures were displayed in the private house and in the public museum, a theme which Oléron Evans explores below. Oléron Evans will present a talk on this topic in the Home Subjects session at the upcoming Association of Art Historians conference in New York.

Amongst the visitors who were granted access to the prestigious collections held in private homes throughout England in the nineteenth century, art expert Gustav Friedrich Waagen held a unique position. Waagen, who was appointed director of the Berlin Gemäldegalerie in 1830, travelled Europe to take the pulse of the art world of his time. In the course of his travels he saw as many artworks as he could and cataloged them with all the scientific eagerness that might be expected of a close collaborator of Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Waagen was particularly attracted to England by “the astonishing treasures of art of all descriptions which this island contain(ed)” and, since these treasures were mostly held in private houses, proceeded to tour the country armed with letters of introduction. Waagen rapidly acquired a strong international reputation as an art expert. His Kunstwerke und Künstler in England und Paris,which he published in Germany in 1837, was the very first attempt at a comprehensive survey of major art collections, both private and public. In 1850, it was translated into English as Treasures of Art in Great Britain by Elizabeth Eastlake, the wife of the director of the National Gallery, Charles Eastlake, a close friend of Waagen’s. Eastlake’s translation introduced English audiences to the modern curatorial and cataloging practices that had been developed in German-speaking territories.

As wealthy English collectors invited Waagen into their homes, they symbolically granted public access to the artworks in their possession through the “imaginary museum” of the catalogue he was compiling. At the same time, they asserted their ownership of the collections with which their names were associated. Waagen’s expert eye made him rather critical of the way that many owners considered their collections “as mere expensive ornaments for a drawing-room” and, for instance, acquired particular paintings by the Dutch and Flemish schools because they were deemed “suitable” for these decorative purposes. As a result, Waagen’s project drew attention to the tension inherent between the art works’ status in the private home as art historical objects and as ornament or decoration.

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