Unlike Henry Francis du Pont, most art collectors don’t leave records explaining why he or she decided to purchase one work of art or another. Understanding demand for art during a particular time period can help scholars determine how and why artistic styles took a certain form and what that reveals about that time period in history.
To explain specific artistic acquisitions, scholars studying collectors in the nineteenth century must do a little sleuthing and rely on inference based on the limited available evidence about the content of collections and biographies of collectors. Winterthur’s rare book collection has, however, yielded a particularly valuable source for understanding the art collection of William Bement, a self-made man who helped build an industrial conglomerate, amassed a large art collection, and served as director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The source is the Catalogue of Works of Art, with Illustrations and Descriptions; Also, Views of the Summer and Winter Homes, Etc. of William B. Bement.
William Barnes Bement (1817–1897) was born in New Hampshire and raised in Connecticut. He was the son of a blacksmith and worked as an apprentice in his father’s shop. He eventually developed an expertise in making machine tools and moved to Philadelphia after being offered a partnership with a firm there. The firm became one of the first and largest machine tool manufacturers in the country, operating under the name of William B. Bement & Son by the 1870s. It is now a constituent part of Pratt & Whitney.
Catalogue of Works of Art, with Illustrations and Descriptions; Also, Views of the Summer and Winter Homes, Etc. of William B. Bement is a large leather-bound catalogue that is embellished with gold leaf and printed on thick, high-quality paper stock. The hundreds of illustrations are, according to Bement’s own foreword, “made by phototype process, and, being printed in ink, will last as long as any printed matter.” No expense was spared to commemorate Bement’s expensive real estate holdings and art collection. Using methods from the study of material culture, one can speculate about why Bement made the selections he did and the personal meaning that his art collection held for him.
The first image in the catalogue is its frontispiece, a three-quarters view portrait of the collector. Placing this image before the presentation or discussion of any art is a clear statement of what unifies this collection: Bement himself. The next series of images is dedicated to the industrialist’s real estate holdings: a house at 1814 Spring Garden Street in Philadelphia and Bay-View Cottage in Lake George, New York. Both exterior and interior views of his Philadelphia home create an image of splendor.
Each artwork in Bement’s collection receives its own two-page spread with an image and description. There is no clear organizing principal or explanation of the order in which works are presented. However, to detect the relative importance of these paintings to their owner, one can consult the interior photos in the catalogue. Returning to the image of Bement’s library, one can see a large painting hung in the center of the wall beyond the doorway and a medium-size bronze statue. This painting is given a place of pride in the center of a sightline and is larger than all the works surrounding it. This placement suggests it was important to its owner.
One can see several figures cloaked in black set against a background of elaborate architecture around the edge of the horizontally oriented canvas. These details match Sortie of the Grand Council by Louis Claude Mouchot. The Great or Grand Council—part of the government of Venice—met in the Doge’s Palace. This image of a politics at a historical moment in a famous setting is typical of nineteenth-century academic French painting. Interestingly, it is this kind of painting—and not the now-famous Impressionism—that was considered by most nineteenth-century Americans to be the most accomplished European art of the day. Sortie of the Grand Council was described in the catalogue as “a canvas freighted with so much of import that ‘grand’ is not too strong an adjective to apply to it… grand in its pictorial elements of architecture and costume, grand in the…movement of its figures, grand in the simplicity of its lines, grand, also in its human suggestiveness.” It has, however, since disappeared. The only record of it is the reproduction in Bement’s catalogue.
What could this grand painting mean to its owner? Why would a machine tool maker in Philadelphia want an image of historic Venetian government? Clues come from Bement’s other holdings, which were mostly academic European works. First, these paintings were “certified” as good. These artists, and sometimes the specific paintings Bement owned, had won prizes and medals at important foreign exhibitions. Second, he owned several images of men negotiating, both in political and commercial settings—like Belgian painter Theodore Ceriez’s Talking Politics, which is now also missing. Tellingly, the importance of commerce and negotiation to Bement’s own life is emphasized by his choice of image to conclude the catalogue: the “Industrial Works” of William B. Bement & Son. He may have loved his art collection, but business was his most important legacy.
Post by Diana Seave Greenwald, Research Fellow. A forthcoming post will examine the text that Bement and a professional art critic wrote for the catalogue.