A Brief History of Collecting Art

The practice of collecting art is almost as old as civilisation itself. Back in Ancient Egypt and Greece, owning precious objects was considered both a status symbol and a means of storytelling. From the lapis lazuli encrusted gold buried with King Tutankhamun to the bronze figures populating Greek temples, accruing art was a divine pursuit. 

 


 
Clockwise from top: Ancient Egyptian painting, Egyptian Jewels from the King Tut's tomb and Ancient Greek vase with narrative illustration. 

 

Since then, collecting has evolved. From the Renaissance to the twenty-first century, what draws humans to special objects has expanded in line with the class of person an art collector is. So join us as we travel back in time to the beginnings of collecting. After all, to understand who you are now, you must always look back. 

  

The Renaissance | Meet the Medicis

The Medici family were the trendsetters of Renaissance Italy. They founded Europe’s largest bank and through this, ascended to political power, producing four popes and two queens. They also financed the invention of piano and opera, funded the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica and Santa Maria del Fiori, and were patrons of Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Machiavelli and Galileo, to name a few.

  

Portrait of the Medici family. Notice how many of them are depicted as saints. 
Sacra conversazione con la famiglia di Cosimo I (1576).
 

So influential were the Medicis, that any account of the European Masters is inextricable from their patronage. You know Michaelangelo’s ‘Sistine Chapel’? It couldn’t have existed without the Medicis, nor could have the armless ‘David’. Through collecting, the Medicis propelled Florence to the forefront of ‘high’ culture, forever altering the Western canon.

 

The sublime Sistine Chapel, funded by the Medici family. 
 
 

The Enlightenment | Housing The World Under One Roof

The Enlightenment constituted the triumph of reason. This cultural shift from spirituality to knowledge was mirrored by collectors, who curated Kunstkammers or Cabinets of Curiosities. A kind of private museum, the Kunstkammer sought to contain the “entire world under one roof”.

 

 

The Cabinet of Curiosity - a home for the entire world. 

The Kunstkammer’s contents were fueled by The Grand Tour, which saw young aristocrats travel across Europe to gain an appreciation of history, culture and art. The works of art and artefacts they acquired became mementos of their travels, conversation starters and ways to conceptualise the world. 

 

Grand Tourists debating which art best synthesised their time. 
'The Council of the Royal Academy selecting Pictures for the Exhibition', by Charles West Cope. Royal Academy, London.

 

Where the Renaissance saw art patronage as religious, collecting in the Enlightenment was a kind of archiving. Rather than segregate the arts and science as we do now, this era perceived both disciplines as entwined paths towards knowledge. 

 
The Industrial Revolution
| There’s A New Collector on the Block

As the nineteenth century arrived, so did the rise of industrialists in America, thus inciting an explosion of U.S. collectors. Wanting to be perceived as equal to the Europeans, business barons like J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie and J. Paul Getty began rapidly accruing their masterpieces. Those who were less risk-averse invested in the artists of their day, helping to propel avant-gardists like Claude Monet to icon status. 

 

 

David Rockefeller surrounded by his art collection. 

  

The tide was also turning outside of America. Technological advances across the world meant the leisure class widening, giving middle and upper class people newfound access to disposable income and time. The act of collecting art was no longer confined to the very richest. 

 

The Getty Institute in California, housed with J. Paul Getty's European acquisitions. 

 

Collecting Today  

What do the collectors of yonder tell us about collecting today? For the Medicis, championing art was a civic duty. Yes it was a way to wield political power, but it was also a way to ensure the public had access to great art. In their words, art was how Florence would “walk the stairway to Heaven”. 

For those in the European Enlightenment, collecting helped make sense of the world. Each object tempted untapped insight into its creator and context, as well as limitless conversational opportunities. In the industrial revolution, collecting became increasingly accessible and international, allowing bridges to be built between Europe, America and the burgeoning West.

 

Deborah Klein - 'Witness'

 

Today, collectors take approaches from all these eras. Some, like the Medicis, consider themselves cultural custodians while others use art as a way to forge new connections and learn. The digital tide has seen collecting further expand, allowing art lovers across the world to trade, afford and discuss art with ease. 

Whatever your history is, to collect art is to activate your mind, start learning and join an evolving community; one that reaches back in time and will persist so long as we care about art.

  

Browse history-making art here