Volume 21, Issue 3 | Autumn 2022

Florence, Berlin and Beyond: Late Nineteenth-Century Art Markets and Their Social Networks edited by Lynn Catterson

Reviewed by Véronique Chagnon-Burke

Lynn Catterson, ed.,
Florence, Berlin and Beyond: Late Nineteenth-Century Art Markets and Their Social Networks.
Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2020.
Series: Studies in the History of Collecting and Art Markets; vol. 9.
572 pp.; 140 color illus.; bibliography; notes; index.
$174.00 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978–90–04–41990–2

Since the creation of series such as Brill’s Studies in the History of Collecting and Art Markets in 2016 and Bloomsbury’s Contextualizing Art Markets in 2019, it has become much easier for art historians to grasp how layered and transnational the art market had become by the beginning of the twentieth century. The most recent volume of the Brill series, Florence, Berlin and Beyond: Late Nineteenth-Century Art Markets and Their Social Networks, contains some fascinating insights on the markets for decorative arts, Old Master paintings, and sculpture. The book’s fourteen essays provide an overview of the role that Florence played in the international art market during the late nineteenth century. The authors are a distinguished group of international scholars who specialize in the history of Italian painting and sculpture, collecting, and the art market. Lynn Catterson, the editor, is the foremost authority on the Florentine art dealer Stefano Bardini, having authored five articles about him. Her first edited volume, published also by Brill in 2017 and entitled Dealing in Both Sides of the Atlantic, 1860–1940, provided readers with an essential introduction to the transatlantic art market. This new volume gives her the opportunity to focus specifically on the axis between Florence, Paris, Berlin, London, and Boston, illuminating the central role played by a Tuscan city in the transatlantic art trade.

This book is a welcome addition to the scholarship on the art market before World War II. The establishment of the market for modern art is well documented: it took distinctive forms in Europe and the United States in this period because the traditional systems of patronage, display, and distribution were ill-suited to support it. We know that by 1914 a tight network of art dealers existed, operating between Berlin, London, Paris, and New York, and developed new strategies to promote modern art to an increasing number of international collectors.‍[1] Florence, Berlin and Beyond gives us a more complete picture of art transactions and art collecting during this transformative period, which saw the professionalization of art dealing practices born in the late 1800s. The various contributions to this volume convincingly establish the existence of a tight dealer’s network with deep private and institutional connections across Europe and the East Coast of the United States that, among other things, explains the booming art market for Old Masters during the first two decades of the twentieth century.

The volume is largely organized around Bardini, the center of an international art ecosystem. He played an active role in defining the art historical canon of fifteenth-century Italian sculpture and was involved in the conservation and preservation of the Italian artistic heritage, roles far beyond what we expect from a commercial agent. The essays demonstrate that the border between commercial and scholarly interests was often blurred and not clearly defined and, more importantly, that there were fluid exchanges between the institutional realm of the museums, the commercial world of the art dealer, and the private realm of the collector. It is fascinating to discover, for example, that the taxonomy that Bardini applied to his art dealing business ended up institutionalized and adopted by museums, demonstrating a cross-fertilization between the commercial and the scholarly.‍[2]

The second main character in the volume is the German art historian Wilhelm von Bode, who with Bardini was one of the most active art agents of the late nineteenth century. Like Bardini, von Bode was in contact with well-known scholars, as demonstrated by Kerri Pfister in her essay on von Bode’s network of scholars, as well as with more obscure characters, such as the nearly forgotten secondary-market art trader Alessandro Contini Bonacossi. In her essay, Fulvia Zaninelli convincingly demonstrates the constant interplay between the scholarly vetting process and the commercial art market, as Bonacossi looked to von Bode to validate the authenticity, authorship, and originality of the works he hoped to sell.

While in the case of modern painting, dealers turned to critics to validate the works of the yet unknown living artists, the essays in this volume demonstrate that Old Master and decorative arts dealers turned to experts to satisfy their clients’ desire for authenticity. Throughout most of the chapters, we encounter Bardini and von Bode navigating through different networks, working with and for different audiences, private collectors, and museum professionals, as well as other dealers. These essays illuminate how their social and professional lives were interconnected and how their success depended on this intricate network of relationships.

The volume is divided into five sections: “Forming a Collection,” “Transacting an Entire Collection,” “Dealers for Dealers,” “(No Longer) Obscure Agents,” and “Issues of Attribution.” It becomes evident, however, that the various sections are not autonomous, as the same characters populate them, but some actors have fluid roles that change from chapter to chapter. In Giancarla Cilmi’s essay, for instance, Bardini seems to be more of an advisor and “curator,” to use an anachronistic word, than a dealer.

The essays draw on rich archival material that includes correspondence, business records, and photographs—a wealth of previously unpublished information that should spark further research in this very rich yet understudied field. The quality and the depth of the archival research makes this volume a worthy addition to the history of international art business exchanges in the late nineteenth century. Some essays connect archival documents from different institutions to illuminate the complex relationships between commerce, connoisseurship, scholarship, and the pursuit of fame or profit. Each essay untangles a web of fascinating connections that gives the reader a more complex understanding of the history of taste and the networks through which fine and decorative art circulated between Europe and the United States.

We also encounter some of the expected characters—collectors Isabella Stewart Gardner and Nélie and Edouard Jacquemart-André, art dealers Thomas Agnew & Sons and Colnaghi, and art advisor Bernard Berenson—but, again, these essays bring to light lesser known parts of their activities, such as the relationship between painter, collector, and dealer Charles Fairfax Murray and the Agnew family, described in Paul Tucker’s essay, or the role played by Colnaghi in the sale of Botticelli’s Chigi Madonna (ca. 1470) to Isabella Stewart Gardner, described in Jeremy Howard’s essay. Collectors, art dealers, and art agents who until now were only obscure figures take on important roles. For example, Jacqueline Marie Musacchio’s essay illuminates the understudied role of women as advisors in the art market at the end of the nineteenth century. Some, like Mary Cassatt, were important artists, while others devoted their lives to supporting and promoting the careers of their husbands. The US born painter Elizabeth Jane Gardner, the wife of William Bouguereau, connected the artist to his numerous collectors in the United States, just as later in the twentieth century, Peggy Guggenheim, Nelly van Doesburg, and Hedwige Zak (née Jadwiga Kon) secured their husbands’ markets.

In a world that gave women little economic or political power, collecting and patronage had long been a way for women to have agency. Collecting was a well-established practice among women as it did not compromise them publicly and allowed them to fulfill important duties, such as creating a domestic interior to protect their families from the intrusion of modern life and showcasing the financial and social status of their husbands. During the nineteenth century, in the United States but also in Europe, women who came from families that made their fortunes in commerce, finance, and industry emulated aristocratic patronage. Specifically, in the United States, because museums were not centrally created by the federal government, but instead by the will of private citizens, women created museums as a way to assert their cultural power while keeping to the accepted behaviors for women of the patrician class. The museum landscape in the United States would be quite different without women like, to name only a few, Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, Catherine Lorillard Wolfe, Louisine Havemeyer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Arabella Huntington, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Abby Rockefeller, and Claribel and Etta Cone. More research is needed to expand our knowledge on these women, but the essays about Nélie Jacquemart-André and Jane Healey Jackson bring in a much-welcomed female point of view.

The art world described in this book consisted of players with roles that are more fluid than we expect today. Perhaps the more capacious term “art agent” would better describe the flexible identities of many of these individuals. Their ability to wear many hats testifies to the hybridity of roles in an art market that was dependent on international exchange. Eliot W. Rowlands’s essay on Berenson and Harold Woodbury Parsons is particularly telling in that regard. Without being famous like Berenson, we learn that Parsons had a fifty-year career liaising between museums, collectors, and dealers. Collectively, these essays give us a glimpse of an art market in the making. They confirm that value was assigned by a limited group of people and that concepts such as quality and authenticity were shifting, with no permanent meaning. They illuminate the role of commerce and taste in the building of the art historical canon, during the heyday of the market for Old Master paintings at the beginning of the twentieth century. Under the pressure of a new kind of collector, mostly from the United States and often concerned about authenticity, the market was forced, over the course of the first decades of the twentieth century, to become increasingly professionalized. While the market for modern art relied on the dealer/critic system, Old Master dealers relied on a dealer/expert to gain the confidence of their collectors.

Some of the essays in this volume address the transnational aspects of the art market by taking up issues of cultural power and capital as well as questions of emulation and appropriation. Virginia Napoleone describes the prominent place given to Rome in the global art market, long before Italian cultural institutions transformed it into a modern cultural capital. She describes the multiple lives that art objects lived as they moved from their original context, which was often religious, private, or archeological. The essay brings to the fore a period that saw contradictory forces at play. On the one hand, there was the exodus of Italian masterpieces to other countries like France, England, and especially the United States. On the other hand, Italy was a fairly young nation trying to build a national cultural identity, partly through art. Bardini attempted to respond to both of these drives. He provided sculptures to the city of Florence for the celebration of the fifth centenary of Donatello’s birth in 1887. As Catterson demonstrates, he was ostensibly protecting Italy’s artistic heritage, but he also used the opportunity to advertise his business.

The interest of this volume extends beyond its wealth of unpublished information. It demonstrates that during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth, institutional collecting was not so different from private collecting, and that, as noted, one of the most important relationships in the Old Master trade was between the art dealer and the expert. The relationship between Bardini and von Bode is in this regard exemplary. However, the greatest strength of the volume resides in its inclusion of lesser-known figures, who demonstrate the breadth of the mechanisms governing the international Old Master and decorative arts trade. The volume chronicles the art trade in the process of professionalization, when dealers’ roles were still fluid and relationships still personal, at the crucial moment when some of the most important private collections in the United States were assembled, many of which would go on to become the core of major museum collections, and when recently unified countries like Germany and Italy were developing institutional collections to cement their national identities.

This volume, like the others in the series, should play a role in the classroom, adding layers to the meaning of art works and opening up potential discussion on issues of ownership, cultural heritage, and the origins of public collections. Its beautiful color illustrations also make it attractive. Graduate students will find in it exemplary uses of archival materials such as correspondence, ledgers of dealers, and auction catalogues. The volume demonstrates the extent to which the circulation of art is part of its history. By focusing on very specific instances, this volume offers new areas of inquiry for tracking how works of art were exchanged over time and between places. The book tackles some of the most important issues in the history of collecting: How do we understand the legacy of these collections? How are artworks affected by their sale? How does the provenance of an object change its cultural value? These fourteen essays give the reader the opportunity to understand better a triangle that is more familiar to collectors of contemporary art—that is, the collector, the art dealer, and what we now call the art advisor or agent, an identity that was very much in place by the end of the nineteenth century. The book chronicles to an alternative history of taste, formed around the European classical tradition at a moment when modernity and modern art were challenging its priorities and preeminence.


[1] See for instance, Lynn Catterson ed., Dealing in Both Sides of the Atlantic, 1860–1940, Brill Studies in the History of Collecting and Art Markets, vol. 9 (Boston: Brill, 2017); Christel H. Force ed., Pioneers of the Global Art Market: Paris-Based Dealer Networks, 1850–1950 (New York: Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2020).

[2] We see the same phenomena happening in the case of modern art. Dealers like Paul Durand-Ruel and Georges Petit institutionalized the display of paintings on one line with space between the works, distinct from the museum hanging practices of the times.