A collector’s itinerary. History, fables and portraits

Parcours d’un collectionneur. L’histoire, la fable et le portrait
Sceaux, Musée de l’Ile-de-France, from 13 September 2007 to 21 January 2008
Arras, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 1st March to 15 June 2008
Bayonne, Musée Bonnat, from 11 July to 13 October 2008

After Sceaux and Arras, this exhibition of a private collection will end its tour at the Musée Bonnat. We should have talked about it much earlier (we saw it in Sceaux a year ago now [1]) and those readers who missed it and are unable to go to Bayonne can still — but they will have to hurry [2] — purchase the excellent catalogue which includes notices by the leading specialists of 17th and 18th century French painting.

There are more private collections in France than one might suspect but most amateurs prefer to remain anonymous. Fortunately, some enjoy sharing their passion for art and willingly display their masterpieces. This is the case of Doctor Milgrom and his wife who for the last thirty years have patiently assembled in their apartment in the Paris area paintings they have discovered, had restored and for which they themselves have often found an attribution.
Pierre Rosenberg, who is behind this exhibition, has often written : to be a good collector it is a good idea to have time, knowledge and money. Although these three conditions may be enough, the second is the only truly essential one. And it is better when accompanied by taste and a good eye, the ability to discern the hand of a master. In any case, Edwin Milgrom does indeed possess all three.

1. Eustache Le Sueur (1616-1655)
Tobias’ and Sarah’s Wedding Night
Oil on canvas - 87 x 123 cm
Milgrom collection
Photo : Philippe Fuzeau

The collection thus includes a very beautiful painting by Eustache Le Sueur (ill. 1 ; cat. 10), and its purchase makes for excellent storytelling. This is recounted in detail in a short film which was shot for the occasion. One day when Dr. Milgrom was visiting Drouot, his eye was drawn to a very dirty painting listed under the vague attribution of : “Follower of Eustache Le Sueur” representing a subject which was already well-known in the painter’s work due to a canvas belonging to the BNP-Paribas bank. He was intrigued by the quality he saw there, and consulted his research files which revealed that a second version of this subject by Le Sueur is known from texts which describe notably a landscape visible on the Drouot canvas. Having taken the risk (one often has to make a quick decision), the daring collector won out in the bidding and came away with the work for 7,500€ without charges, obviously a ridiculous price for an authentic work but a bit high for a copy. The painting went off to be restored and the good news started pouring in. The canvas, which seems to be of excellent quality, shows several repentirs and the blues are painted in lapis-lazuli, an expensive material which was rarely used in secondary works. The various specialists who were called in quickly determined that it was in fact an original Le Sueur. Alain Mérot, who published a monograph on the painter, also sees a participation by the workshop, a point which is debatable as the quality is so stunning. Three years later, in 2007, a second painting by the master, The Triumph of Galatea (cat. 9), acquired in the United States also entered the collection.

2. Carle Van Loo (1707-1765)
The Flight into Egypt, 1736
Oil on canvas - 223 x 136 cm
Milgrom Collection
Photo : Philippe Fuzeau

3. Pierre Mignard (1612-1695)
The Discovery of the Bodies of Pyramus and Thisbe
Oil on canvas - 123.5 x 182.5 cm
Milgrom Collection
Photo : Philippe Fuzeau

4. Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755)
Portrait of a Gentleman, 1720
Oil on canvas - 147 x 114 cm
Milgrom Collection
Photo : Philippe Fuzeau

Among the best works, there are also two by Philippe de Champaigne representing The Adoration of the Magi and The Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple (cat. 1 and 2), from a series of the Life of the Virgin of which there is another known element, a large Guy François, The Adoration of the Shepherds (cat. 6), a beautiful ensemble of three Carle Van Loo, including a study (cat. 32) preparatory for the décor of a chapel at the Invalides which the artist did not have the time to execute and an exceptional Flight into Egypt (ill. 2 ; cat. 31) which is 2.23 m. high, a reminder that a private collector is often limited in his purchases by the size of his home (the work barely enters the apartment and rests directly on the floor). One of the most important paintings is undoubtedly the one by Pierre Mignard, The Discovery of the Bodies of Pyramus and Thisbe (ill. 3 ; cat. 11), another brilliant “find” by Edwin Milgrom as it came up for auction several times as “Entourage of Poussin” and “Roman school, entourage of Pierre Mignard” until the last name was finally confirmed by Jean-Claude Boyer.
The Milgroms observe the academic hierarchy of genres : historical paintings are foremost, then portraits, among which the following stand out : (cat. 21) that of Jean-Georges Wille by Greuze (another version can be found at the Musée Jacquemart-André) and a Portrait of a Gentleman by Jean-Baptiste Oudry (ill. 2 ; cat. 26). There are not many landscapes but nonetheless a Pierre Patel (cat. 13) and a Joseph Vernet (cat. 35). The collection holds only one genre scene by Etienne Jeaurat Leaving for the Market which might almost be classified as a landscape (cat. 23), and there are no still-lifes.

5. France, XVIIe siècle
Jesus at Martha’s and Mary’s
Oil on canvas - 162 x 135 cm
Milgrom Collection
Photo : Philippe Fuzeau

6. France, 17th century (Charles Le Brun ?)
Portrait of the Engraver Michel Lasne
Oil on canvas - 149 x 123 cm
Milgrom Collection
Photo : Philippe Fuzeau

Despite their knowledge, art historians sometimes are unable to come up with a convincing name, even in the case of great masterpieces. This is the case for Christ at Martha’s and Mary’s (ill. 5 ; cat. 16) still frustratingly anonymous and for which no one seems to have a clue. On the other hand, another portrait which is presented as anonymous in the catalogue, that of the engraver Michel Lasne, might soon be identified. Several art historians, including Sylvain Laveissière and Bénédicte Gady, are strongly convinced that it could be a work by Charles Le Brun himself (ill. 6 ; cat. 18).
Among the more unusual items, there is a small Pietà on copper by Nicolas Moillon. This modest work by the father of the still-life artist Louise Moillon and of Isaac Moillon who was recently rediscovered, reveals the curiosity of a great collector who is not interested only in famous names.
We will conclude by recalling that Dr. and Mrs. Milgrom have donated a Portrait of the Countess of Brionne and her Son Louis de Lorraine, Prince of Lambesc by François de Troy to the Musée d’Ile-de-France (see news item of 25/2/08). Let us hope this is not their only gift as we would like to see more of these paintings hanging in a museum for others to enjoy at their leisure. Since the couple continues to acquire works (the collection has already grown since its first stop at the Musée d’Ile-de-France), they will after all need to find other walls to hang them on.

Collective work, Parcours d’un collectionneur. L’histoire, la fable et le portrait, Editions du Musée de l’Ile-de-France, 2008, 171 p., 36 €. ISBN : 9782901437222

Didier Rykner, mercredi 10 septembre 2008


[1] The presentation in Sceaux was partly spoiled unfortunately by its poor staging.

[2] The catalogue, which is now out of print, can still be ordered by mail from the Musée Bonnat (5, rue Jacques Laffite, 64100 Bayonne) and by including a check for 36€ written out to Trésor Public. We advise our readers to hurry as they will soon run out probably. The museum in Arras also still has a few copies.

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