The results of New York’s auction gigaweek may be in, but the Frick’s Center for the History of Collecting is here to remind you: Don’t read too much into them. The Dan Colens and Adrian Ghenies of today may well become the John Hoppners and Ludwig Knauses of tomorrow.
Lest we forget, the original art market boom—the Gilded Age—produced a number of artists who were outrageously successful in their day and have since become obscure footnotes to history.
While the Impressionists were languishing in poverty in the 1870s, a host of other artists—academic painters, aristocratic portraitists, members of the Barbizon school, and genre painters—were hungrily snapped up by collectors.
“Collectors liked going to artists’ studios and getting to know the artists,” says Inge Reist, the director of the Frick Art Reference Library’s Center for the History of Collecting. “They were collecting contemporary almost exclusively.” Work by some of these original market darlings did end up in major museums (perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the caliber of their patrons), but none is a household name today.
How did paintings that appear utterly prosaic to us now command such high prices then? “Sometimes there’s peer pressure: ‘If everybody is buying this guy, I want some of that too,’” Reist says. “Art collecting can be as subject to fashion as clothing. We look at things and say, ‘How could we ever have worn that?’”
Like all bubbles, this one eventually burst. By the 1890s, collectors had shifted their attention to Old Masters. “The market for contemporary art became overheated,” Reist says. “Tastes change.”
To mark the center’s 10th anniversary this year, we asked Reist to exhume a few of these once-ubiquitous names. Here are six of their stories.
Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891)
While now-famous French artists like Ingres and Corot were struggling to get by, this Classicist painter—a favorite of the railroad heir William Henry Vanderbilt—was living large. A specialist in portraits of Napoleon and scenes of military battles, Meissonier was a favorite of the influential critic John Ruskin, who is said to have marveled at the artist’s dexterity after examining his work under a magnifying glass. By the age of 31, Meissonier had become so rich off of his art that he bought himself a mansion in Poissy, France. (Like any good mansion, it had its own name: the Grande Maison.) The house had two large studios, one for the winter and one for the summer. But his market success did not outlive him. So far this year, five works by Meissonier have gone up for auction, according to artnet’s Price Database. None has sold for more than $5,000.