The beginnings. The formation of taste for art and the first collectors

Valentina Iancu

Simona Vilau and Valentina Iancu: Art Collecting in Romania

The 19th century was a century of change for the Romanian Provinces, both at the political level, but also in the mindsets. The spread of French Revolution’s ideas and the launch of a set of concrete national ideals (The Revolution from 1848) have determined the establishment of the modern state (1859), the Proclamation of Independence (1877) and implicitly, the beginning of a reforming process which aimed a fast-pace modernization of the Romanian state and society, based on the occidental model.

The role of the artist in this transition, from a late Middle Age, founded on Christian-orthodox ideas and principles – which have altered over the years the evolution of art – was rather symbolic and marginal. The first artists, separated from the “thick painters’” tradition, who have organized themselves at the end of 18th century and the beginning of 19th century in the cluster of “thin painters”, have joined a group of foreign artists who came here to speculate the absence of an art market and started to steadily gain a role in the society by painting the portraits for the high and middle nobility or for the recently enriched bourgeois. The phenomenon was for a long while isolated, the presence of art in the high class spheres being rather a proclamation of the social status than a genuine interest in art and thus, the collection of it. From the tradition of portraying the benefactors within churches, which ultimately signified a confirmation of the high social status of the personages depicted, the presence of the portrait in the private sphere came to continue this myth already shaped within the mindset of upper classes. Not even the appearance of some artists educated abroad, in Western Europe, did succeed to radically or visibly change the nobility’s reference towards fine art.

The first official exhibition – 1864 – which has coincided with the establishment of the Superior School of Arts in Bucharest and Iaşi and the Painting Collection of the State could be considered the historical moment corresponding to the beginning of art collecting phenomenon in the Romanian state. The Romanian Painting Collection – the first official act of forming a public art collection – was displayed in Iaşi, in the Art Museum, opened on October 26th 1869. As in Bucharest there was no set site, the exhibition was hosted within two-three side rooms of the Romanian Athenaeum. 

The first generations of Romanian artists had the bad-luck of being part of a rather marginal domain, art collecting being an extravagance without many amateurs. The sumptuous nobility interiors were still tributary to oriental tastes, while the recently-constituted low nobility still did not have an appetite for art collecting. The buyers and amateurs of art were isolated cases, the only known collection from those times belonging to the literary and liberal politician, Mihail Kogălniceanu (1817-1891). “He was collecting mostly paintings of universal classics, without neglecting sculpture, decorative and applied art and historical objects from all times.”[1] It is said that Kogălniceanu was also interested in contemporary art, both Romanian and international. Despite intending to donate his collection to the State with the purpose of creating a museum, because of some financial problems and also due to successive rejections from the authorities to get involved in the establishment of a museum, he has sold himself most of the exhibits, as the rest were sold by his descendants. What exactly that collection contained and which was its faith after being sold abroad, remains still a mystery.

Carol of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen (1839-1914), the future Carol I of Romania, an important collector of European fine art and armaments, was also a promoter of the art collecting phenomenon in the Romanian region. Some of his close acquaintances, politicians and distinct high class personalities, influenced by his passion, started acquiring art pieces, without forming any reputable collections though. The pieces collected by the King, left through his testament to the Romanian State, are displayed today by the Romanian National Art Museum or by the Peleş National Museum.

The first collector whose collection is very well known, a veritable art Maecenas, was the controversial Alexandru Bogdan-Piteşti (1871-1922). “Unquestionable information about the life of Alexandru Bogdan-Piteşti is very little. Everything is wrapped within a legend that has seduced and disgraced his contemporaries and assures him a prolonged presence in posteriority.”[2]

Expulsed from Paris under anarchism accusations, after a couple of arrests caused by the eccentricity with which he liked to spend his time along the symbolic and anarchic bohemia, Bogdan-Piteşti moved to Bucharest in 1894. The intellectual rebel integrated rapidly within the autochthon environment, becoming close acquaintance of many prominent poets and fine artists of the time. He involved actively in the cultural life of the city, financing exhibitions under the auspices of Ileana Society (whose symbolic patron, cynically chosen, was Ileana Cosânzeana[3]).  Being permanently preoccupied by novelty, Alexandru Bogdan-Piteşti was often organizing debates in his private home or different coffee-shops about art, literature, esthetics, etc. He published the first art magazine in Romania – Ileana – he signed the manifesto of the independent artists’ exhibition and in 1908 he transformed his estate in Vlaici (Olt County) into a real artistic colony. Significant names of Romanian modern art worked during summer time at the Maecenas-collector’s estate: Camil Ressu, Nicolae Dărăscu, Ştefan Dimitrescu, Max Hermann Maxy, Cecilia Cuţescu-Stork, etc. Most of the works made over the summers in Vlaici were acquired by Alexandru Bogdan-Piteşti, who was always evaluating them generously.

Until the end of his life, Bogdan-Piteşti collected in his house from Ştirbei Vodă Street no. 36 (today demolished), more than 1,500 paintings, graphic works and sculptures created by the most renowned Romanian contemporary artists. His collection was complemented by a significant number of icons, old cult objects, old books, ex-libris and pieces of folk art.  He died on March 25th 1922 without leaving any testament, despite his expressed intention of transforming his collection into a museum. “The Bogdan-Piteşti House! Since his death have completely disappeared those few square meters which represented Paris and Athens in the heart of Bucharest.”[4] mentioned a couple of years later the famous writer, Gala Galaction, while nostalgically talking about the moments spent with the collector and his group of friends.

[1] Petre Oprea, Art Collectors from Bucharest, Meridiane Publishing House, Bucharest, 1976, p.13

[2] Lucian Boia, “The Germanophills” the Romanian intellectual elite from the years before First World War, Humanitas Publishing House, Bucharest 2010, p.189

[3] Ileana Cosânzeana is a mythological character of Romanian fairy-tales, impersonating the symbol of feminism, beauty and good-will.  

[4] F. Aderca, Talking with Gala Galaction, in “The Liberal Movement”, December 27th 1927