Notes on German-Jewish Art Collectors | Mitchell Frank

Mitchell Frank, Carleton University

Many years ago, while driving home to Ottawa from my parents’ house in Vermont, I came across these street signs along a small highway in Quebec.

Did all strolls down memory lane lead to a dead end? Did it matter in what language one posed such questions? These signs caught my attention, perhaps, because I could see similar concerns in what I was reading at the time, Peter Gay’s Freud,Jews and Other Germans, an historian’s reflections, “a deeply personal book,” as the author calls it, on German-Jewish identity in modernist culture.[1]  I was particularly taken by a section on German Jews in the Imperial era (1870-1918), in which Gay discusses the life and work of Gustav Mayer, a historian of socialism and an exiled German Jew like Gay, but of an older generation. In London in the mid 1940s, Mayer wrote his autobiography, and in it he described the idea of homeland as inextricably tied to “memories of one’s family, abodes of one’s youth, and one’s mother tongue.”[2] Memory is often invoked in discussions of the German idea of Heimat (home), a concept that is fraught with obstacles, including das Unheimliche (the uncanny), as Gay, who wrote a biography of Freud, knew well.[3] For Mayer, living in England in the 1940s, the place and language of his childhood was a dim dream.  Of course, he could not go back in time, but he could not even return to the place where those memories were formed. The Germany of his youth was indeed a dead end, as it was also for the German-Jewish painter Max Liebermann, who remained in his country of birth until his death in 1935. In an often-cited letter of 28 February 1934 to Breslau businessman and art collector Carl Sachs, Liebermann lamented his life-long striving for Jewish equality in German society. “Unfortunately, unfortunately!,” the eighty-six-year-old artist wrote, “we have been awoken too soon from the beautiful dream of assimilation.”[4]

The text above was the first draft of the introduction for an essay I published on Max Liebermann.[5]  I rewrote the introduction, because, as the guest editors of the special issue of the journal rightly pointed out, the “memory and dead end” framing device did not articulate the essay’s main points. When thinking of a contribution to this Festschrift for Ruth, I was reminded of this piece of writing. While Ruth’s and my areas of study do not often intersect, there is one area of overlap, Jews and modernism. Ruth has investigated, for example, the relationship between Norval Morrisseau and Joseph and Edith Weinstein. My interest in Jews and modernism has focussed on Liebermann’s work and reception. Inspired by discussions with Ruth about Jewish collectors and dealers, I worked briefly in 2009 with a colleague at the Yeshiva University Museum in New York on an exhibition proposal to examine the role of German-Jewish collectors of French modernism. The goal of the exhibition was to investigate how beginning in the late nineteenth century, Jewish art collectors and dealers in Germany helped create a market for avant-garde painting and sculpture. The research of Stefan Pucks, Vera Grodzinksi, Emily Bilski and others has demonstrated that most collectors of French modernism in Germany were Jewish bankers and industrialists. They served as patrons and benefactors of major art museums in Germany, supporting and funding the first permanent collections of French modern art.[6] The proposed exhibition was to contribute to the scholarly literature by working specifically through the archives and holdings of the four institutes in New York’s Center for Jewish History: the Leo Baeck Institute, the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, the American Jewish Historical Society, and the Yeshiva University Museum. 

This project was never realized, but my preliminary research pointed me in a different direction from the premise of the exhibition. While there has been much emphasis in the literature on Jewish collectors and patrons of French modernism, not only in collections amassed and donated to museums but also in those stolen during the Nazi era, the material I reviewed showed that German Jews collected a much greater range of objects than avant-garde French painting.[7] Dr. James Simon (1851-1932), a successful cotton wholesaler and the largest donor in the history of the Berlin Museums (his most famous donation was the bust of Nefertiti), collected for the most part Northern and Italian Renaissance and Baroque paintings, sculptures, and medals.[8] The art collection of publisher Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920), so large that he hired an architect to create a building for it in Berlin’s Leipziger Platz, included a sizeable collection of modern German art: works by Wilhelm Leibl, Anselm Feuerbach, Max Liebermann, Adolf Menzel, Arnold Böcklin, Karl Spitzweg, Fritz von Uhde, and Hans Thoma.[9] Rudolf Philip Goldschmidt (1840-1914), whose collection was sold after his death in 1914, amassed mostly works on paper, whose “particular character,” as Rudolf Schrey put it in the auction catalogue, demonstrates the collector’s “fondness for the heyday of Dutch Art,” namely seventeenth-century drawings and prints. Goldschmidt also collected “modern masters,” specifically drawings by German artists such as Carl Blechen, Bonaventura Genelli, Max Klinger, Wilhelm von Kobell, Walter Leistikow, Alfred Rethel, and Gerhard Richter.[10] Banker and art collector Marcus Kappel (1839-1919) similarly collected old masters, as demonstrated in General Director of the Berlin Museums Wilhelm von Bode’s introduction to the auction catalogue of the collection.[11] When the collection of industrialist Dr. Eduard Simon (1864-1929), the cousin of James Simon, was auctioned after his death in 1929, art historian Max Friedlaender was disturbed not only by the fact that many of the works in the collection would leave Germany, but also by the destruction of an artwork, namely Simon’s collection itself, which included a playroom with Tiepolo frescoes, a salon decorated with works by Guardi, and sixteenth- to eighteenth-century French, Netherlandish and Italian paintings, such as Bronzino’s Portrait of a Man (also known as Pierantonio Bandini), which is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada.[12]  

I suspect the emphasis in the literature on French modernism and Jewish collectors and dealers has to do with a continuing francocentric emphasis in the study of European art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It should be noted that this emphasis on modern French painting also supports a type of essentialism that connects Jews with urban life, liberal views, international concerns, and cosmopolitanism, as if such associations were resolutely fixed. The efforts of historians, like Marion Kaplan, however, to understand the great range of ways in which Jews performed identities, preserved certain rituals, and adopted new social practices in Imperial Germany in personal terms (as “private decisions”) is important in this context. Concluding from her research into specific cases, Kaplan explains that there were “myriad private and public ways in which [Jews] connected to tradition, family, and community.”[13] Kaplan’s call to heed historical specificity and pay attention to the complexity of identity performances and social customs is also necessary in understanding the variety of collecting practices by Jews in Imperial and Weimar Germany. It is this need to pay attention to the historical record that also finds resonance in Ruth’s scholarship. Her treatment of the relationship between Morrisseau and the Weinsteins is not a simple story of unidirectional influence but rather more complex. The Weinsteins may have introduced Morrisseau “to the modernist artistic sensibility and the values and conventions of the art world,” but in the end their relationship reaffirmed Morrisseau’s exploration and preservation of “the Anishnaabe concepts, practices and imagistic traditions he had first learned from his grandfather.”[14] In my work, I’ve tried to follow Ruth in her adherence to historicity and her subtle and creative thinking about human relations, which are certainly hallmarks of her significant scholarly contribution.


[1]Peter Gay, Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Masters and Victims in Modernist Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1878), xiv.

[2]Gay, Freud, Jews and Other Germans, 165.

[3]See Barbara Gabriel, “The Unbearable Strangeness of Being: Edgar Reitz’s Heimat and the Ethics of the Unheimlich,” in Postmodernism and the Ethical Subject, ed. Barbara Gabriel and Suzan Ilcan (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 149-202.

[4]Max Liebermann, letter of 28 February 1934 to Carl Sachs, in Briefe, ed. Franz Landsberger, enl. ed. Ernst Volker Braun (Stuttgart: Hatje,1994), 70:“Aus dem schönen Traum der Assimilation sind wir leider, leider! Nur zu jäh auf geweckt.”

[5]Mitchell B. Frank, “Max Liebermann: Assimilation and Belonging,” RACAR (Revue d’art canadienne / Canadian Art Review) 45.2 (2021): 97-110.

[6]Stefan Pucks, “Ein kleiner Kreis der Feinschmecker unter den Kunstfreunden Liebermann, Cassirer und die Berliner Sammler,” in Max Liebermann Jahrhundertwende, exh. cat. Nationalgalerie Berlin, 1997, 237-238; Stefan Pucks, “Von Manet zu Matisse. Die Sammler der Moderne in Berlin um 1900,” in
Manet bis van Gogh: Hugo von Tschudi und der Kampf um die Moderne, exh. cat. Nationalgalerie, Berlin, 1996, 386-390; Vera Grodzinski, “French Impressionism and German Jews: the making of modernist art collectors and art collections in Imperial Germany 1896-1914,” PhD Dissertation, University of London, University College London, 2005; Emily Bilski, The “Moderne Galerie” of Heinrich Thannhauser, exh. cat. Jewish Museum, Munich, 2008.

[7]On Jewish collections stolen during the Nazi period, see Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow, Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice, trans. Jennifer Taylor and Tammi Reichel (New York: The Vendome Press, 2010).

[8]For Simon’s work donated to the Berlin museums in 1904, see Sammlung von Renaissance-Kunstwerken gestiftet von Herrn James Simon zum 18. Oktober 1904 (Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1904). For the auction catalogue of his collection after his death, see Collection Dr. James Simon de Berlin Tableux—Antiquités, Auction, 25-26 October 1927, introduction by Wilhelm von Bode (Amsterdam: Ant. W. M. Mensing, 1927).

[9]Kunstsammlung Rudolf Mosse, Berlin, exhibition in the Galerie Mosse, Leipziger Platz 15,

14-28 Mai 1934; Auction, 29-30 Mai 1934, introduction by Hans Rosenhagen (Berlin, Rudolph Lepke’s Kunst-Auctions-Haus, 1934).

[10]Katalog der Sammlung des im Jahre 1914 verstorbenen Herrn Rud. Phil. Goldschmidt—Berlin,

2 vols., Auction 4-5 October 1917, introduction by Rudolf Schrey (Frankfurt am Main: F. A. C. Prestel, 1917).

[11]Gemälde und Kunstgegenstände aus der ehemaligen Sammlung Marcus Kappel, Berlin, Exhibition 21 November 1914; Auction 25 November 1930, introduction by Wilhelm von Bode (Berlin: Paul Cassirer and Hugo Helbing, 1930).

[12]Die Sammlung Dr. Eduard Simon, Berlin, Exhibition 5-7 October 1929; Auction 10-11 October 1929, foreword by Max J. Friedlaender (Berlin: Paul Cassirer and Hugo Helbing, 1929).

[13]Marion Kaplan, “Redefining Judaism in Imperial Germany: Practices, Mentalities, and Community,” Jewish Social Studies 9.1 (2002): 20-21. 

[14]Ruth B. Phillips, “Morrisseau’s ‘Entrance’: Negotiating Primitivism, Modernism, and Anishnaabe Tradition,” in Norval Morrisseau: Shaman Artist, ed. Greg A. Hill (Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2006), 60.



Cite this blog post
Birgit Hopfener (2023, April 1). Notes on German-Jewish Art Collectors | Mitchell Frank. Celebrating Ruth B. Phillips. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vxbf

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