Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on August 11, 2005 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Nassau County Museum of Art. The essay is included in a fully illustrated catalogue published by the Museum for the exhibition Master Artworks from Private Collections (August 21 - November 6 held at the Nassau County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Private Collections: Patterns and Aesthetics

by Franklin Hill Perrell


Who is the Private Collector?

Ever present, and necessary, for the continued production of art, is the market for art provided by private collectors, without whom galleries, auction houses, and museums, would all be lacking in a source for materials, as well as support for the original artists. All these rely on patronage whereby a group of persons who have the funds purchase selections from among the available art. In so doing, the purchaser exercises discrimination in which are weighed a host of factors incorporating availability, budget, and category of the work by media, school of art, subject matter, fame of the artist, etc

Collectors have a tendency to focus on groups of artists, or periods from art history, or types of work such as oils, watercolors, prints, posters or decorative arts. In very big or broad collections, more than one of these avenues is pursued, though it would be rare to encounter a private collection that would aspire to universality in scope. Comprehensiveness in focus is more often a possibility when multiples are concerned whereby it is possible, at times, to have an example of everything: all the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, all the publications of Vollard, et al... With original work, it's usually not possible for any one collector to do this, though some attempt to gather representative examples conveying all major periods of an artist or a representative group of paintings from a particular moment, or good examples- wide ranging- reflecting a school of art like Surrealism or Abstract Expressionism.

Two factors which are most pronounced consistently are zone of taste and budget. How these factors are applied, and when, as a collection evolves, determine its character. People who buy art always have a motivation. At the outset, it is always right to acknowledge a passion to own, yet what's behind that varies enormously. Who a person is, and where they are coming from, philosophically, ideologically, and contextually, is crucial to how they go about acquiring art. It is presently somewhat unfashionable to speak in terms of good taste or bad taste as it would seem to go against the grain of democratic societies, and certainly no one would agree as to what that is. Yet, when a collector votes with their pocketbook they indeed are declaring to themselves and to the world that what they have done is the embodiment of the best possible taste. Of course, there is always a budget, even for the richest collector. What could be accomplished by adding zeroes to a particular number would produce different possibilities. And, when there are new buyers coming on the scene with abundant funds pursuing a limited number of art works, this certainly changes the game.

Circles of collectors have always been a factor in patronage: Renaissance princes, popes, and nobles, the English landed gentry, the courts of France: various Bourbons and Bonapartes, the newly rich industrial wealth of the 19th century, and the corporate and investment banking fortunes of the 20th all imposed the character of their cultures on the collecting of art. On a more intimate level, what tends to happen is that when a number of collectors know each other, and agree to a great extent on other matters in life, they tend to pursue similar art. Thus, in recent years, there are those who focus on 19th century American art, those following Impressionism or Post-Impressionism, School of Paris, German Expressionism, or a cross section of European Moderns through Pop Art, post-war New York School painting, Latin Art, Outsider Art, or cutting edge contemporary, and hundreds of other categories. Some of these groupings readily segue into one another and overlap, others tend to be most often pursued to the exclusion of all else, and again, as reflecting the personality of the collector.

When collections are assembled, much like the art produced by an individual artist, what emerges to the observer is not only an assemblage of physical art works, but also a portrait of the human protagonist. The collector, like the painter, is an artistic producer of a type. A collage or assemblage of elements are gathered, displayed on the walls of a house, or put in storage, or loaned out to museums, or circulated in ongoing exchange and trade with dealers. Whether the collection is lived with in full, or handled in a different manner, the result is the same. The collector has bought certain things and not bought others. In this selection, a self-portrait of the owner is created. No collector would deny that the collection represents himself. In a great measure, this is a statement or declaration that they are making the world: they can live with disturbing things, or they pursue beauty, or they are adventurous or pioneering, or they must support the new and untested and are willing to take big risks. There are as many combinations or possibilities as there are people, and while there are strong points of affinity and agreement among collectors (a point in how the market for certain artists rises or falls, and also, something like a herd instinct at particular epochs), within the expression of collecting, person by person, overall it is a venue in which individuality is most pronounced.


The Works Themselves: Artistic Selection by the Makers

The production of a work of art as part of the continuing efforts of a single artist comes about as a result of the cumulative learning based on a lifetime of choices and selection. The artist by habitude, persistently modified by trial and error, arrives at a signature style. To the extent that this differs in approach from other artists, characteristics emerge that define individual identity of the maker. Generally, no artist sets out with the exclusive goal of finding something no one else has done, yet for the truly great artist, this is largely what happens. The significant personality is that artist who finds a new way, a mode of handling previously known component elements and investing them with new meaning by different combinations or a radically new emphasis.

In the twentieth century, it became very easy to see how this mode of individuation was expressed in a new approach to formal elements. What the painting became physically, and the unique means by which a painting took shape became increasingly dominant as areas of exploration for artists in the wake of Surrealism, most obviously American abstract expressionists. This was always somewhat true in prior eras -- for example in differentiating how Monet applied paint and dealt with surface as opposed to his academic contemporaries -- but it never previously had been fore-fronted as a deliberate topic of investigation by the artists themselves.

For the viewer, the question of whether or not a work of art succeeds is usually subjective. The viewer responds with gut instinct either to respond or withdraw from the encounter. Taste, in recent years, is most often thought to be intuitive and emotional, though not altogether immune to logic or provocation of the intellect, especially when these considerations are called up by the works themselves. Yet for the collector of art, certain patterns of emphasis, even bias, always appear, since the acquirer has a broad field of objects from which to choose and purchases only a small minority.

Aesthetics would seem to be a dated topic. Can there be objective criteria of quality? If anything, the premises for consideration usually issue from the work of art itself. The artist aligns himself with a certain community of like minded individuals, colleagues within a certain movement or style. Their dialogues with one another constitute a matrix in which breakthroughs can be assessed in relationship to the known and unknown. Key works are those exemplary of pivotal points or characteristic modes that epitomize crucial stylistic moments - and early, late or middle period works come into favor as they embody this history. Yet the relative merits of the individual work can well transcend these considerations. Ultimately, it is the integration of the elements, and the stimulus to engagement which they provide, which lend appeal to a work. Every collector or viewer has different priorities, yet most would agree -- at least generally -- on which are the most desirable pieces.

A hierarchy of a type emerges: works deemed to be very characteristic of the artist, or stylistically important, are more valued than those which are not; works produced at the outset of a stylistic episode are usually more sought after than later examples; imposing pieces, with strong color, and with as much pigment as deemed desirable for a given artist are usually more favored than sketchy or vague examples. Objectively, the quintessential statement, and well painted, is most in demand. Condition and rarity are extremely important, both in the marketplace, and in the perception and mythology of the piece. It is most desirable that the hand or the artist be quite evident in the making -- a piece extensively restored or worked over by others loses much.

It is quite important for the collector to have an understanding of what the artist was after, to be familiar with a broad range of that artist's work and place in history. This awareness establishes a comparative basis, and exemplifies the concept that the value of a work of art relies a great deal on context. It is well and good to have a successful outcome to all formal considerations, but does the work express either an innovation, or does it do with the materials at hand something that broadens the scope and potential of the artist? It is useful to separate works that are simply good from those that have something especially positive about them, a point to aspire to in acquisitions as much as circumstances allow. The latter point, of availability, is one which places art acquisition, and exhibition, out of the realm of the ideal and into that of practicality and possibility. Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon is not for sale, nor are the key works by most other major artists. For the collector of ample means, the goal is to get as close to that level as possible- a task that becomes increasingly difficult year by year. And in this respect, the dilemma for the collector is quite different than for the viewer who visits MOMA and can pass by two dozen masterpieces before finding a spot to linger.

In appreciating the individual work of art, there is much for the viewer to notice. What is the surface? How is the paint applied? How does the artist handle composition -- are forms within the bounds of the canvas edge or do they spill over; how does he handle line or contour; is the overall approach expressive or cool? How much was predetermined, how much spontaneous? When we see all the elements of art making handled by a master, sometimes in a painting which was executed with speed, we can hope that in the distillation of a lifetime of experience, the particulars in the work convey the artist's intent, and salient character.


Cycles of Taste

Successive periods in the history art have most typically proceeded with the notion that they have arrived at a definitive truth, and that their discoveries are of a final character. Our era affirms this view in coining the term post-modernism, as if to say that the possibilities for new innovative forms within the bounds of conventionally made paintings and sculpture has indeed closed -- a limitation reminiscent of the blindness of 19th century academics who couldn't find room in their pantheon for Impressionists let alone later innovators. Our new art, the cutting edge, receives its approbation from groups of collectors, curators, and museums. Is it at least slightly suspicious that in all previous eras since the 19th century, the true innovators functioned outside the bounds of the acknowledged art establishment? If we have indeed transcended this precedent, it would suggest that our world has laudably rectified the injustices of our precursors.

In the promulgation of art, its dissemination and promotion, the accretive impact of continuous exhibitions and art book publications is an inescapable factor in the expanding recognition of leading artists. On some level, the names of the School of Paris, Leger, Chagall, Picasso, and company are enjoying a renown in which a huge amount of prior advertising and publicity provides a foundation for further acclaim. Their desirable characteristics, and wide ranging repute, have become so pervasive to awareness, that the clamor to acquire their works is irresistible. In their wake, a type of trickle down affect leads to the rediscovery of hitherto neglected minor masters who move up in the food chain. The greatest remaining artists assume the slots vacated by Seurat, Van Gogh, Rousseau, Hopper, and their ilk, whose rarity makes them all but impossible to freshly collect.

The excitement of discovery, to latch onto some zone of art, a specialty, that is about to come into focus, enlivens the channels of art acquisition. Auction houses and dealers find new ways to nourish and support the budding markets for the emerging arts, both from back in history, as well as the emerging scene. Museums, and the collectors themselves, feed into this process, as works hitherto comprising the main-stream become increasingly difficult to secure.

There is a long list of factors that contribute to the renown of an artist, period, or group. While a sensational biography, or story, combined with compelling work, is an ongoing pattern, how this clicks with the individual viewer is a matter of empathy and identification. The heroic fight of prior avant-gardes who put up with scorn and hostility to ultimately triumph has its appeal; so does the plight of artists who endured persecution, or achieved exile as the price for freedom; the artist who has an uphill battle with poverty, or adverse family background, or other ills arouses our interest. For artists who cannot cite these negative credentials, their work alone must be sufficiently compelling to garner our support. We might be seduced by the physical beauty of color or surface, or conversely, fascinated by elements whose incomprehensibility is fore-fronted yet exert power and mystery.

For collectors, like other viewers, the experience of art might embrace politics, ideology, formalist or stylistic factors previously mentioned, or something entirely different. Ongoing encounters with art are made more personal when a purchase is made. The collectors commit to the artists whose works are collected: they are saying that the work acquired warrants being looked at more often than just once in a while. From the moment of the initial encounter, the collector hopes, or anticipates that over the course of time, the artwork will engage more deeply, reveal more about itself and the artist, and continue to suggest deeper layers of meaning.


About the author:

Franklin Hill Perrell is Curator at the Nassau County Museum of Art


Editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Doris Meadows, Nassau County Museum of Art, for assistance concerning the republishing of this essay. Readers may also enjoy Collections of Historic American Art, listing notable private collections.


Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Nassau County Museum of Art in Resource Library

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

© Copyright 2005 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.