If you love French 18th century art you are probably acquainted with the name Carl Gustaf Tessin (1695-1770). He was a Swedish politician, courtier, diplomat, public official, artist, writer, historian and best known of all among appreciators of art, a collector. In the latter endeavor he did have some help from his father who died in 1728 and left him with a substantial collection of paintings.
The Nationalmuseum of Sweden and the Morgan Library have collaborated to bring this incredible exhibition to New York until May 14. Possibly, the beginning of title “Treasures from” is a bit misleading for some like the critic from New York Times who seems to have expected Swedish and modern art, missed the second part of the title “The Collections of Count Tessin” on which the exhibition is totally focused.
Tessin was a Francophile and an unofficial ambassador to France. His longest stretch in Paris was from 1739-1742 where he had a Palais and led the good life. In 1741 he managed to attend the banker Pierre Crozat’s (1665-1740) estate sale. Crozat’s holdings of by his contemporaries and Old Masters, were already famous and Tessin acquired 2,000 of them!
Tessin’s Parisian life style, however, did not agree with his pocket book and he had to sell a great deal of his collection to the Royal Family of Sweden. Happily the latter had dreams of a museum and eventually this collection became a core part of today’s Nationalmuseum.
The number of great drawings in this show is really hard to believe. To see works by Raphael, Callot, Giulio Romano, Durer, Goltzius, Rembrandt, Rubens and Watteau altogether and all of such high quality is an extraordinary treat.
A personal favorite, one of many, is by Jacques Callot (1592-1635), “The Tempation of St. Anthony” ca. 1635 was published during the last year of his life. This is not the print that I have seen at several museums but the original drawing, which is much more lively.
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), ”Two Studies of Women with Children” has a an immediacy and charm that could be explained by the fact that it is part of a series Rembrandt drew in the 30’s and 40’s as his own children were born and growing up.
I was going to show only two drawings but cannot resist the Antoine Watteau (1684-1721). This artist, who died at a young age, led the charge into the French 18th century rococo style.
He often did drawings like this one, but the difference here is that they can identify the young woman on this sheet as the daughter of the artist’s biggest patron and at the upper and lower left as the salesgirl in Watteau’s famous sign for the art dealer Gersaint’s shop.
The reason I went to the exhibition, however, was Tessin’s French 18th century paintings, which I have known, forever, and experienced in the original when I went to Sweden many years ago. Here it is again difficult to choose among the many. Some of the artists represented are Lancret, Boucher, Chardin, Lemoyne and Toqué. I amaze myself by mentioning the latter since I would definitely place him in the second rung of French 18th century artists but he happens to have outdone himself in his incredibly animated portrait of Tessin. We have to give him credit, for Tessin to have realized his potential and picked him as his image maker. As was customary, Tessin is wearing his richest finery. Sitting at an important Louis XV desk, his library behind him shows how learned he is and I suspect he is looking at a map to show that he is also well traveled.
The Boucher “Triumph of Venus” from 1740 has been published in every review so I have picked another wonderful Boucher. If not as large it is a far more intimate picture, “The Milliner”, 1746. Tessin commissioned it from Boucher for Crown Princess Loisa Ulrika. It was going to be part of a series of times of the day but this one of Morning is the only one the artist completed. Considering who the painting was destined for and that this was the first in a series, the odds are far better that it was actually painted by Boucher and not his studio.
I will end with one of the smaller images in the show, “A Student Drawing”, 1633-35, by Jean-Siméon Chardin ( (1699-1779). It is one of a pair of paintings. I do not think I remember it from Sweden but rather the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas where they own practically the exact same subject painted a few years later. I have now learned that the artist repeated the subject twelve times showing how popular it was with his clients, and probably himself as well.
Great museums throughout the world have collections formed by major benefactors, but when you look at the consistent quality of the Tessin Collection and think that one connoisseur picked out these works you have to be wowed. It adds to the enjoyment of the experience if you wonder….If I had lived 300 years ago could I have done the same?