Samuel von Brukenthal, his Dutch and Flemish paintings and their study
A century ago, in 1901, Abraham Bredius visited Sibiu and its Art gallery. His visit was prompted by the “kleine galeriestudien” Theodor von Frimmel wrote about an almost unknown collection of European art.
Let us go back in time and discover how a thousand or so, old master paintings found their way into Transylvania and how the transformation of baron Brukenthal’s house into a museum actually meant a dream come true. A closer look will help us better understand the place, the man and his age.
Transylvania is a region surrounded by the Carpathians and a frontier land. Towards the middle of 16th century Transylvania became a Principality with autonomous status under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. During the 17th century Transylvania was once more an object of dispute between the Imperial Habsburgs and the Ottoman Turks. The Austrian monarchy created a Central European state including Transylvania as a separate autonomous principality. What was to the Ottomans the western border became at once the most eastern frontier for the Habsburgs. Once more Transylvania was a frontier land.
A cruel government and heavy military occupation led to fierce resistance and ended in open rebellion against the new rulers. The war ended in 1711 with the defeat of the rebels. The Habsburgs restricted the autonomy of the principality, which was forced to follow the pattern established by the absolutist state. To this end local gentry was granted aristocratic status and a new Transylvanian elite, which owed its allegiance to the Imperials was promoted in the administration of the country. In 1712, Michael Brekner (1676-1736), the father of the future collector, was made Königsrichter (Royal Judge) of Leschkirch (Nocrich), in Sibiu county and in 1724 was granted the use of “von”, associated to the name of Brukenthal.
His first son Michael (1716-1773) inherited the family estate. The second, Samuel von Brukenthal (1721-1803), cashed in his share of the estate which amounted to 867 Renish Fl. and went abroad to continue his studies at the University of Halle (1743-44) and then at Jena (1744-45). He studied law, history, philosophy and theology. Soon he became a member of Halle’s Freemason lodge, “Aux trois clefs d’or” and shortly after became “Maitre depute”. He found no time to take a degree at the University: the war broke out and he ran out of money.
In 1745, young Samuel returned to his native Transylvania. He found a modest job as second secretary to the magistrate of Sibiu. A promotion was difficult to attain, with no support but his dreams. The ambitious young man had to act quickly to find a way out. Several months after his arrival the whole community celebrated his marriage with Katharina Sophia von Klocknern, the daughter of a rich and powerful patrician of Sibiu. She brought him a considerable dowry: 30.000 Fl., properties in the city and the access to the higher positions within the hierarchy of the province. But this was not enough for someone determined to prove his abilities. Sibiu had a very conservative community, which looked down onto the nouveau rich.
In 1753 Brukenthal quit his position “for private reasons” and went straight to Vienna, asking the Empress for an audience. While waiting for an answer, he approached the Imperial Consort Franz I with a royal gift: a collection of golden antique medals from Transylvania, knowing that the Consort shared his own interest for history and numismatics. The 32 year-old Transylvanian coming to the Court to defend the rights of his people impressed the Empress no less. Shortly afterwards Maria Theresia appointed Brukenthal “wegen seiner Capazität” as secretary of the Transylvanian government, a position never granted before to a Lutheran Saxon. It was only the beginning of an incredible ascension. With no obvious reason, Maria Theresia willingly ignored the bureaucratic requirements of any such promotion, although her protégé did not embraced Catholicism. Enjoying the highest protection, Brukenthal managed to become Councilor of the Government, Private Councilor to the Empress, President of the Transylvanian Chancellery in Vienna, Imperial Envoy in Transylvania. Moreover, the Empress granted him the Baron rank in 1762 and the Order of St. Stephen. In 1768 he returned to his homeland in 1768 as the saviour of the nation, celebrated in a spectacular ceremony.
Although the task of governing was overwhelming – and Brukenthal really put all his energy to implement the program of reforms – he also started his own building program.
“The garden house” as well as the summer residence in Avrig were built in a moderate, rather modest Baroque style, similar to that of many Austrian country houses. Interiors were decorated with a mixed assemblage of traditional and imported decorative elements, which from time to time were subject to interdiction as luxury. A “Polizeiordnung” from 1752 forbade certain pieces of furniture, the great mirrors with golden frames, portraits and “neu mode-Schilderein”. It was against such strict regulations that collectors exercised their passion.
However, young patricians came back from their studies with books, prints and paintings. Georg von Reissenfels left in his last will from 1748 no less than 69 paintings, exhibited in his house: “4 grosse Viehstücke, 3 küchel und Obststücke, 12 kleine Landschaften, 4 Blumenstücke, 1 hollendisches Bauernstück, etc.” One can see that the interest for Dutch and Flemish pictures was already there and documented. Moreover, the choice of paintings is relevant for the taste and options of the hermannstädter Bürgern. Landscapes, still-lifes and genre scenes in particular were among the favorites. In both of Brukenthal’s houses paintings and framed prints are recorded, not only for a decorative purpose. The first description of a “Halle mit Malerein” in his Avrig summer residence dates from 1764 and the “garden house” built in Sibiu in 1772 had a “Bilderkabinet”. Brukenthal’s interest in books, coins, medals and minerals is known to date back to the 1750s, but his first steps as an art collector should be related to the desire to show off his newly acquired aristocratic status.
Brukenthal’s wife Sophia kept records of all expenses that the couple made during a Viennese sojourn from 1771 to 1772. Several times each month, acquisitions of paintings, the framing or cleaning of paintings are mentioned. Sometimes she wrote the names of the artists, as Brankenburgh with “ein Paar Conversations Stück Gulden 16.40” or “ein Sammet Breughel Fl. 8.32”. Sometimes the mention reads simply “Meinem Herrn auf Bilder Fl. 43.40”. As of 1772 Brukenthal employed Johann Martin Stock, a local Sibiu painter, as his agent. The first record states in April 24 reads: “Dem Stock auf zwei Bildern mit Blumen Krantz 8 Gulden 36 kr.”
Brukenthal had already gathered a collection of art and was known in Vienna as an art collector. The first published mention of his collection appeared in the “Almanach de Vienne” in 1773 and 1774, where it was described as a private cabinet in Brukenthal’s residence, located in the Transylvanian Chancellery. The cabinet was opened to visitors, as were the other three private collections, those of Baron Hagen, Councilor Reitzer and Mr. Grosser.
As a testimony of the esteem, according to the regulations of the Academy of Art, the printmaker Carlo Conti (1740-1795) presented there, in 1774, as reception pieces, two prints after the pictures of Franz von Paula Ferg (1689-1740), “Summer Dutch Entertainment” and “Winter Dutch Entertainment”, both in Brukenthal’s collection, at the Transylvanian Headquarters. Chancellor Brukenthal’s residence in Vienna was refurbished as early as 1767 with the support of the Empress. Maria Theresia’s high appreciation of Brukenthal’s loyalty to the House of Habsburg was shown in different ways, including some gifts of paintings. Theodor von Frimmel pointed out that “The Man smoking in a window” by Frans van Mieris, “The Judgement of Paris” by Hendrick van Balen, “Endymion” by Giulio Romano, ascribed today to Goltzius, two landscapes by Franz Boels and perhaps a “Massacre of the Innocents” by P. Brueghel were documented in the Imperial Collections.
However, most of the paintings were bought at auction or by negotiations with art-dealers and Viennese collectors. Some of the sales catalogues are still preserved in the Brukenthal’s Hausarchiv and others are only referred to in his huge correspondence or documents justifying expenses. Further research should be carried out with regard to obtain more information about the size and the shape of the Viennese art market, which was the provenance source for Brukenthal’s paintings and prints.
An auction catalogue compiled by the Court Painter Johann Christian Brand in 1772, for the heirs of Georg von Reütter is preserved; Brukenthal marked the paintings he was interested in. From 312 pictures, Brukenthal chose Van Dyck, Teniers, Wouwermans, van der Meulen, Bonaventura Peters, Ossenbeeck, Craesbeck, Brueghel, Quellinus, P. van der Laar, Hendrick van Balen, van Mieris, Gerhard Dow, Quentin Matssis, Rubens, Abraham Janssens and a few Italian painters. As one can see, 16th and 17th Dutch and Flemish painters were very sought after by the Viennese collectors. The interest in Netherlandish painting was very high and the demand resulted in an equally high supply. Brukenthal himself had a particular interest to possess more Netherlandish paintings.
In 1774, the Empress appointed Samuel von Brukenthal President of the Transylvanian government and three years later Governor. It was for the first time after eight decades of Habsburg rule that the leadership of the country was no longer entrusted to an Austrian general-commander, but to a native civilian Lutheran. This was the peak of Brukenthal’s glorious political career, and the most difficult as well. Brukenthal was caught in the middle of the fights between the supporters of the ancient constitution, the privileges of the states, ethnic and religious claims in a multicultural country on one side and the centripetal, absolutist, Catholic requirements of the Habsburg Court, on the other. He succeeded to keep a fragile balance for more than a decade, even after the death of his great protector, Maria Theresia. Her son, Joseph II did not like him, but kept him in office, even after the great Romanian uprising of 1784. Gradually, however he restricted the governor’s power. The Transylvanian response of the government as well as that of the conservative privileged states was a bitter resistance against any reforms as fostered by the Emperor in Vienna.
Although deeply involved in all these events, Brukenthal did not give up to his passion for collecting. Moreover, he was busy building a new city house and a second summer residence in the Carpathian Mountains. The former residence in Sibiu was located outside the fortress, as a consequence he was not a true patrician, but an intruder through marriage. However, the Brukenthals maintained this “garden house” as their favorite private home in Sibiu.
The new office required a representative, official house and despite some local resistance, Brukenthal started up the building (the current location of the museum) in 1778; right in the heart of the inner city, on the main square, the house was built following the Viennese fashion, in a late Baroque style with several classicist elements. On the first floor, a “parade apartment” had been designed, including a reception and a music hall, as well as Brukenthal’s study, which hosted also his much beloved numismatics collection.
Simon Hoffmeyer carved the gilt alabaster relief over the doors, based upon a Dutch pattern: the prints made by Cornelis Bloemaert after the drawings of Abraham van Diepenbeeck with the most appreciated scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Brukenthal chose the plates from the copies of the prints amassed in the album “Le Temple de Muses”, published in Amsterdam by Bernard Picart in 1733, which he had in his library.
In the meantime, Brukenthal had brought his Viennese collection to Sibiu and the paintings were divided between his various residencies. In 1775, Michael Karl von Heydendorff had spent several hours admiring the pictures in the “garden house” gallery, in the company of Baron Brukenthal. The collector showed him a wonderful piece brought by Count Stahremberg from Rome to Vienna, by a Netherlandish painter who had worked in Italy. It is very likely that Brukenthal knew that the painter was Jost Sustermans, despite the fact that his cousin did not record the name.
Admittedly, Brukenthal was not a real connoisseur, but he was interested in knowing more about the pictures he amassed, through the art-dealers and other collectors he was in touch with. Baron Adolf Braun, Councilor to the Viennese Court and an art collector himself, often wrote to Brukenthal. In 1778, March 17th Braun informed Brukenthal about the sudden death of J. G. von Reitzer, Secretary of the Court and art collector. “If you are still interested in collecting, you should know that the Reitzer’s paintings will be soon for sale; many of them have been overpainted by Johann Balhorn but a lot are preserved in their original condition”. Obviously Brukenthal was interested in, so a second letter from Braun dated July 11th reached Sibiu, enclosing the catalogue of the paintings. As Braun stated “sunt bona mixta malis”, good and less good. At least one of the three paintings bought by Brukenthal at Reitzer’s auction is documented. Joseph Redel, an “akademischer Maler” reported to Brukenthal in a letter dated May 6th 1779, about the restoration he had made, with great ability. The double portrait of Charles I Stuart and his wife Henrietta Maria, thought to be by Van Dyck requested a special attention. It is very likely to be an ancient copy or a replica of the famous painting now in Kromeriz (Slovakia), but a further investigation remained to be done.
Another important auction of paintings and prints was that involving Jesuit holdings, that took place in 1777 in Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp. The “Catalogue d’une nombreuse et riche collection de Tableau et Estampes des meilleurs maitres flamands, italiens et autres?” is to be found in Brukenthal’s archive. Although there is no evidence so far about Brukenthal’s participation in that auction, one can suppose that several paintings bought by a certain Mr. Donckers, for an unknown Austrian client reached the Viennese market. Among them, St. Ignace and St. Francis Xavier, studio pieces by Rubens and perhaps the oil sketch made by Jordaens after “St. Lievin’s Martyrdom” by Rubens, a landscape by Momper and a “Madonna with Angels” by Pieter von Avont have found their way to Brukenthal’s collection.
Further archival research will shed new light on the provenance of many Flemish and Dutch paintings in Brukenthal’s collection. The names of the art-dealers Artaria, Schrämbl, Sahn, Stöckl, Mechel, Winckelmann, Mettra and Birkenstock appear on many purchase documents, but only a future research will bring more details.
Based upon the study of the seals preserved on the backs of some paintings, Theodor von Frimmel pointed out that four pieces ascribed to the circle of Franz Franken as well as two works ascribed by Bredius and C. Hofstede de Groot to Herman Hals came to Sibiu through the art-dealer Mettra.
An interesting letter, by Johann Melchior von Birkenstock, Coucillor at the Court and at the Viennese Academy of Art, collector and art-dealer, sent to Brukenthal in 1780 October 3rd testifies to the size, content and prices of the Dutch and Flemish art on the Viennese market, on a specific time. Birkenstock was about to sell a major part of his collection and Brukenthal had already chosen 20 paintings on a prior visit. Unfortunately they both are referring to the numbers on a yet undiscovered list. Birkenstock was ready to give up in favor of Brukenthal “all those paintings of famous masters, no doubt originals, as the connoisseurs would like, as the works are in good shape, clean, with no overpainting and could be exhibited with great honor in any royal gallery”. For a good price, Birkenstock would prefer to dispose of the whole lot rather than separate pieces. Beside the twenty negotiated paintings, Birkenstock had to offer a rare Brueghel, “den Holländer Eiertanz vorstellend”, the great Brouwer and yet more rare Craesback, a P. Potter, the great fox hunting by Snayers and several others, all with 1000 Ducats.
The same letter acknowledges the presence of one of the most powerful competitors on the Viennese market: “Prince Kaunitz has recently shown great interest in the arts and has bought almost everything worth”.
Another provenance source might be the lotteries. Brukenthal’s nephew Johann Andreas Wielandt told him in 1783, that the Court Councilor von Grävenitz was just disposing his art collection through a lottery. Among the paintings were “ein schöner Rembrandt, Christ in the Temple” and a “Massacre of the Innocents” by Tulden. Yet we do not know whether Brukenthal won on the lottery.
A Viennese sojourn during autumn 1785-spring 1786 offered Brukenthal the opportunity to buy more paintings. The collector spent many thousands florins for new art purchases, including works by Herman and Cornelis Saftleven, Ossenbeck and Drochsloot.
On January 2nd 1786, the acquisition of the “beautiful manuscript” is registered for 130 Fl., afterwards named the “painted book”. This is a Flemish breviary from early 16th century with miniatures ascribed so far, to Simon Bening and J. Horenbaut. The study of it is now a work-in-progress.
The acquisitions of works of art are continually recorded until 1803, with a peak in 1788, when Brukenthal bought paintings for 4384 Fl.
In the same year his new city house was completed with the second floor designed to host his art gallery. Johann Seiwert compiled an almanach published by Martin Hochmeister in 1790. The house is described as the most tasteful and the pride of the town. On the first floor, his library enclosed a room for public lectures and a meeting point of the city’s intellectual elite. Next to the library were the antiquities, the coin and medals collections. On the second floor, about 800 paintings were on display: four rooms with Italian art, six rooms with Netherlandish art and three rooms with German paintings. The most appreciated Flemish paintings were those by Rubens, Jan Fyt, Frans Snyders and Abraham Janssens. The Dutch painters highly recommended to visitors were those by Rembrandt, though not original, Saftleven, Gerrits van Bronkhorst, Ossenbeck, Berchem and Wouwermans. This is a testimony of the taste of that age.
The almanach bears witness that as early as 1790, the collections were opened to the public, on request.
During Brukenthal’s lifetime, several travelers, most of them British or German left their impressions after having visited the collections: John Petty, Johann Lehmann, Elizabeth Craven, William Hunter, Christoph Ludwig Seipp, John Jackson and Edward Daniel Clarcke.
The original installation of the picture gallery was carried out by the painter Johann Martin Stock, according with the symmetrical Baroque divisions, based on a certain rhythm of formats and genre. There is no doubt that both Brukenthal and Stock have known the new installation made by Christian von Mechel as early as 1777 at the Belvedere Palace. Mechel had exhibited the paintings chronologically, classifying the pictures according to the evolution of each individual artistic school.
Brukenthal had met Mechel and Joseph de Rosa many times in Vienna. The surviving correspondence testifies to their lasting relationship.
Although Brukenthal’s gallery was organized by schools, that of the Low Countries being the best represented, the collection could not provide a complete idea of the historical artistic development. Therefore the original installation perpetuated an earlier Baroque model, such as that in several albums with prints and “galleries work”, the collector had in his library: that of Prince Eugene at Belvedere, by Solomon Kleiner or, even better, “Prodomus Theatrum Artis Pictoriae” by Frans von Stampart and Anton Prenner.
During the last years of the 18th century Baron Brukenthal took care that his collections were arranged throughout the house, as in a museum.
His wife had passed away in 1782 and he retired from public life. He spent much of his time with the classification and the cataloguing of the collections. One can suppose that the idea of a Temple dedicated to the arts and sciences, opened to everyone interested to enlighten himself and to share the knowledge with others, was already in his mind. The beloved ideal of the Enlightenment of the people, so close to his generation, was about to be achieved in Sibiu, as much as anywhere else in Europe.
Brukenthal had to secure the future of his collections through a legal document. His last will of 1802 was conceived to protect everything he had gathered along a lifetime, in a foundation, administered by “fidei-commis”, actually a board of trustees. Brukenthal appointed as first trustee, his great-grand nephew, Johann Michael Joseph von Brukenthal (1781-1859). In case the family would become extinct, the trusteeship was to be granted to the Lutheran Gymanasium of Sibiu. This actually happened in 1872.
The provisions in this will were all meant to protect his collections, which could not be subject to any alienation and had to be on public display on certain days and hours.
The same document that is the milestone of Brukenthal’s foundation foresaw amounts of money for new acquisitions, the preservation of the collection and salaries for the librarian and an art teacher.
The “Malersaal” arranged in the art gallery since 1799, by the painters Franz Neuhauser and Johann Krempels was to be used for art learning and for the cleaning every once in a while the paintings. Unfortunately this stipulation was implemented by the trustees, so many of the paintings still preserve layer upon layer of aged, dirty varnish: hence the unfavorable opinion of many foreign travelers, from the 19th century to the present day.
The main disinherited contested Brukenthal’s testament; his nephew Michael was disqualified from Brukenthal’s legacy and contested the will.
The trial, as well as the difficult task to appraise the value of the inheritance, including the collections, and to establish the capital assets, after the Austrian bankruptcy of 1811, led to a considerable delay in the opening of the Brukenthal Institute. The ceremony took place as late as 1817, February 25th, consecrating the Brukenthal Museum as a national institution, the first of its kind in Transylvania.
The earliest catalogue of the Flemish, Dutch, French and German pictures was compiled by the painter Franz Neuhauser, before 1813. It is very likely that this manuscript along with a short notice about the collector were used by Hormayr to be published in the “Archiv für Geschichte, Statistik, Literatur und Kunst” in 1826-1827.
A new manuscript catalogue was drawn in 1836 by Johann Ludwig Neugeboren, published only in 1844, with some corrections and additions made by the painter Theodor Glatz and the publisher Joseph Benigni. The catalogue included too many great names, such as Rubens and Rembrandt, copies taken for originals and several fabricated attributions. These led Professor Johann Trost (1789-1867) to publish a harsh review in the “Österreichische Blätter für Literatur und Kunst” in 1845.
At the time no one could do more in Sibiu, with regard to the proper cataloguing of the collection. No change was to be expected as long as the leadership of the foundation was in the hands of Brukenthal’s heirs and throughout the first half of the 19th century the position of librarian-curator was held by priests, while during the second half of the century, by teachers of the Lutheran Gymnasium. Both categories had shown interest for the library, the history and natural history collections.
However, in 1881 the trustees took an historical decision; Karl Shellein(1820-1888) painter and restorer, director of the Belvedere’s School of Restoration was invited to Sibiu. Schellein restored twelve paintings, made several attributions, proposed some changes in the exhibition and expressed some opinions about the pictures. The curator Martin Schuster took these into consideration when he compiled a new catalogue. Karl Schellein was also asked to mark the most important pieces of the collection that were eventually pointed out in the printed catalogue of 1882. It was a start for a critical interpretation and the highest point in the studies carried out in the gallery by painters, within a century.
The year 1894 is a milestone in the history of the Brukenthal collection. For the first time, the Dutch and Flemish paintings was the subject of interest for a connoisseur. Theodor von Frimmel (1853-1928) came to Sibiu on a routine visit, in order to fulfill his aim of scanning the art collections spread all over the Empire. He was surprised and delighted. Frimmel made a review of the entire collection and established many attributions, changing others and paying attention to every detail. His interpretation of the Brukenthal Flemish and Dutch pictures is still valuable, so far. The most impressive discovery he made was a portrait by Jan van Eyck that was in the German section, under a fake Dürer monogram. Having published many of his notes, Frimmel opened the collection to a wider audience. He thus attracted the interest of Abraham Bredius, Cornelis Hofstede de Groot and Karl Voll, their major contribution to the identification and interpretation of the Dutch and Flemish paintings currently being re-interpreted on the basis of archival material.
Michael Csaki completed the most elaborate catalogue of Brukenthal’s art collection in 1909. Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, it happened to be the last one, a situation that we would like very much to amend.
For more than two centuries a collection of about 500 paintings, small masters from the golden age of The Netherlands, remained intact in Sibiu and largely unknown. Every once in a while, someone rediscovered it.
In the late 18th century, an enlightened man amassed the paintings that he highly praised. At the end of the 19th century an enthusiastic team of connoisseurs made their expertise available for a critical interpretation. While the 20th century run off, several Dutch art historians were eager to shed more light on a forgotten part of Netherlandish culture, now hosted in Transylvania. At last, we are fortunate enough to start a new century with the hope that this time around there will be no unexpected break off. Due to the generous support and interest of CODART’s staff and members, this hope is about to come true.