Western Art History’s Most Notable Patrons

September 29, 2020

The art patronage has a history of its own as it dates back to ancient times. While the art production during antiquity was more or less state and/or church funded, the one produced throughout the medieval ages, and especially the Renaissance, was funded by the aristocracy and new class of merchants and wealthy feuds.

Perhaps the best example of art patronage in art history is the legacy of the Medici family in Florence who practically supported artists to dispose of their power and disrupt the attention appointed by citizens to the origin of their wealth. The Italian family that stood at the core of the financial, religious, and political life of Grand Duchy of Tuscany for two centuries were responsible for an enormous production of paintings, sculptures, and architectural sites made by the leading Renaissance masters such as Filippo Brunelleschi, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Sandro Botticelli. 

The Art Patronage and Artist Patrons

Needless to say, that art patronage had a major role in the production of religious art, and such an activity was maintained and still is by the Roman Catholic Church and other confessional assemblies. The patronage system didn’t change until the middle 19th century and the development of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, when the funding of the European culture became the matter of public interest with the sprawl of institutions such as museums, theaters, operas, and further cinemas and other forms of cultural production in the contemporary world.

This particular text will take a closer look at the Western art and artist patrons who had a major role in the development of modern art and the wider appreciation of the same.

Featured image: Gertrude Stein sitting on a sofa in her Paris studio, with a portrait of her by Pablo Picasso. Library of Congress, image via Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Durand-Ruel

Paul Durand-Ruel (1831 – 1922) was a notable French art dealer responsible for launching the Impressionists and the Barbizon School, and the first to financially support to the painters he worked with. As a matter of fact, he followed the path established by his father who was also an art dealer. In 1865, Durand-Ruel started representing the artists such as Corot and the Barbizon school, and quickly became their leading advocate, nevertheless, he soon encountered another group of artists, that became the Impressionists, and fell for their works.

In 1870 Durand-Ruel opened the first Annual Exhibition of the Society of French Artists at his new London gallery, while the first presentation made solely of Impressionist paintings took place at the same venue in 1872. Thanks to his efforts, the Impressionism was popularized internationally as it gained fame on the American art scene after the Impressionist paintings were exhibited at the gallery by Durand-Ruel’s three sons.

Featured image: Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Portrait of Paul Durand-Ruel, 1910. Oil on canvas. Dimensions - Height: 65 cm (25.5 in); Width: 55 cm (21.6 in). Sammlung Durand-Ruel collection. Image creative commons.

Katherine Sophie Dreier

Katherine Sophie Dreier (1877 –1952) was an influential American artist, social activist, and art patron. She came from a privileged background and had the full support of her parents to study arts in both the United States and in Europe along with her sister Dorothea, who eventually became a Post-Impressionist painter.

Dreier was mostly influenced by modern art, an affiliation developed after her friendship with Marcel Duchamp. She encountered the poor reception of his works and decided to support him as well as other avant-garde artists active at the time. Therefore Dreier co-founded the Society of Independent Artists and together with Duchamp and Man Ray an organization called the Société Anonyme that focused on the study and promotion of modern art that eventually formed a collection consisting of more than 800 works of art. Dreier was also a member of the Abstraction-Création and an active suffragette.

Featured image: Unknown author - Portrait of Katherine Dreier holding an artist's palette, circa 1910. Photograph. 16 cm (6.2 in) x 11 cm (4.3 in). Archives of American Art Collection. Image creative commons.

A’Lelia Walker

A'Lelia Walker (1885 –1931) was one of the most significant figures active on the American cultural scene during the Harlem Renaissance. She was a successful businesswoman, a daughter of Madam C. J. Walker, the first self-made female millionaire in the US and one of the first African American millionaires.

After becoming the successor of her mother’s company in 1919, she not only managed the running of the business right but also to become an influential art patron and the most talked about hostess of social gatherings that attracted musicians, actors, writers, artists, political figures and socialites, as well as European and African royalty in her townhouse. Although her business was going well, and the patron even transformed a floor of her home into a legendary cultural salon called The Dark Tower, the Great Depression forced Walker to sell a great deal of valuable art and antiques she acquired through the fruitful years. She died in 1931.

Featured image: Portrait of A’Lelia Walker. Image creative commons.

Peggy Guggenheim

Peggy Guggenheim (1898 – 1979) is perhaps the best-known art patron in global terms. She was an actual socialite of privileged background who mingled through the art circles and gradually became the driving force of the American art scene. In 1938 she opened a modern art gallery Guggenheim Jeune, and started acquiring artworks from the leading modernists.

After one year she realized that her efforts should be moved to opening a museum, but the war outbreak stopped her. Then she left Europe, and in 1941 opened a new exhibition space called The Art of This Century Gallery that operated until 1947 when Guggenheim decided to live in Venice. The following year she was invited to show her collection at the first postwar edition of the Venice Biennale, and in 1949 she ultimately opened her own museum at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Throughout the decades, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection became one of the most visited attractions in Venice, while the grand art patron received accolades for her contribution to the development of modern art until she died in 1979.

Featured image: Peggy Guggenheim at the Greek Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 1948. Image via guggenheim-venice.it.

Gertrude Stein

After settling in Paris with her brother Leo, the celebrated American author Gertrude Stein (1874 –1946) formed a salon that attracted numerous American expatriates involved with arts, but also leading modernists at the time such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. At the same time, the two started forming a collection after being introduced through American art historian and collector Bernard Berenson to Paul Cézanne and the dealer Ambroise Vollard.

The collection gradually grew as the Stein’s acquired more and more works by the renowned painters like Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, Pablo Picasso, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Cézanne, Honoré Daumier, and Henri Matisse. In 1914, the collection was split in half since Gertrude and Leo had an argument and they grew apart from each other.

Featured image: Carl Van Vechten - Portrait of Gertrude Stein, with the American flag as a backdrop, 1935. Library of Congress Collection.

Edith Halpert

Edith Halpert (1900–1970) was the pioneering dealer of American modern art and American folk art responsible for the success of numerous avant-garde American artists on the art market. Since the mid-1920s, she ran the first commercial exhibition space called the Downtown Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village focused entirely on contemporary American art made by living artists.<.p>

Moreover, this iconic art patron/gallerist was mostly focused on showing the artworks made by women, immigrants, Jewish, and African American artists.Throughout her fruitful career, Halpert featured artists such as Max Weber, Stuart Davis, Peggy Bacon, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O'Keeffe, and many others while simultaneously representing American folk art, and few 19th-century American painters.

Featured image: Edith Halpert at the Downtown Gallery, wearing the 13 watch brooch and ring designed for her by Charles Sheeler, in a photograph for Life magazine in 1952. She is joined by some of the new American artists she was promoting that year. Credit: Photograph © Estate of Louis Faurer; The Daylight Gallery, 1930. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Forbes Watson papers Exhibition print.

Agnes Gund

The last art patron on our list is the American philanthropist, collector of modern and contemporary art, an avid supporter of women’s and environmental issues, Agnes Gund. She is an important art figure and decision-maker who precedes as President Emerita of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and Chairman of its International Council, as well as the Chairman of MoMA PS1.

Gund had a major role in supporting the art scene in the late 1970s amid New York City's financial crisis when arts education in public schools was eliminated from the budget; then she founded a non-profit organization Studio in a School, that hired professional artists as art educators in public schools and community-based organizations to lead classes in various artistic disciplines.

When it comes to collecting, Gund owns an incredible number of works, mostly paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures, made by modern and contemporary artists from the 1940s onward including Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, John Baldessari, Lynda Benglis, Lee Bontecou, Vija Celmins, Eva Hesse, Richard Serra, Kara Walker, Lorna Simpson, and others.

Featured image: A screenshot from the trailer of the upcoming documentary Aggie about Agnes Gund.