Bosch to Bloemaert & Dialogues

February 7, 2010By Claudia BarbieriArchive

Cache of Master Drawings
Finds a Safe Haven in Paris

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“Jacob, Benjamin and One of His Other Sons” (c. 1645), by Rembrandt van Rijn. Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

The Custodia Foundation, tucked discreetly behind the Boulevard Saint Germain in a pair of fine 18th-century mansions, has recently embarked on an exciting program of exhibitions, juxtaposing Old Master drawings from its collection with others from top museums around the world.

Until recently, the foundation has been a hidden gem, one of the most important but perhaps least-known drawing collections in private hands. With around 9,000 drawings dating from the 15th to the 19th century, it is compared by connoisseurs to the collection of the British royal family.

The first exhibition in the series, “Bosch to Bloemaert: 15th- and 16th-century Netherlandish Drawings from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam” is now running. Focused on 15th- and 16th-century Flemish drawings, it is built around 142 of the most important works from the Rotterdam museum, which have never before been seen in France.

The star of the show is a rare and exquisite study by Hieronymus Bosch, “The Owl’s Nest”: Penned with great delicacy in brown ink on paper and dating from around 1510, it depicts

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“The Owl’s Nest” (1505-15), by Hieronymus Bosch.Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam (Collection Franz Koenigs).

three baby owls and their nest in the crook of an old tree, with the dry bark of the tree contrasting with the soft feathers of the birds.

“This looks like a slice of life,” said Ger Luijten, director of the foundation, during a guided tour of the show. “It’s very directly drawn, an icon of early 16th-century drawing, but you have the feeling it could have been made in the 20th century.”

Other stellar works on view include a crucifixion attributed to a follower of Jan van Eyck and a fiercely dynamic pen and brown ink rendering of Jael killing Sisera, by Lucas van Leyden (c. 1520). Landscapes are represented by two fine mountain scenes and a vista of Reggio di Calabria by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, and by a delightful 12-month calendar series of roundels in brown ink and sepia wash by Brueghel’s follower Hans Bol. “It is very rare to see such early drawings,” said Luijten. “All the main figures that matter in art history are present.”

Down in the basement, another exhibition, called “Dialogues: Drawings from the Fondation Custodia and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen,” pairs 40 works from the Rotterdam museum with similarly themed selections from the Paris collection. Here, two vibrant versions of “Man with a Lion” confront one another, one in mediaeval style by the early 15th-century Italian Stefano da Verona (c. 1379-c. 1438), the other an early Renaissance rendering, executed a generation later by Cosimo Tura di Ferrara (1430-95). Vittore Carpaccio (1455-1525) is represented by two fantastic portrayals of old age, preparatory drawings for Venetian frescoes.

Post-Renaissance drawings from the late 16th to 19th centuries, in various media and styles, are by such masters as Rembrandt, Rubens, Tiepolo, Watteau, Fragonard, Goya and Corot.

The Custodia collection is worth a visit not only for the richness of its content, but also for its own story.

Started in Amsterdam in 1910 by the Dutch art historian and connoisseur Frits Lugt (1884-1970), it was built up over the following three decades with the inherited fortune of Lugt’s wife, Jacoba Klever. With World War II threatening, the couple, devout Mennonites and anti-Nazis, took refuge first in Switzerland and then in the United States, taking part of their collection with them. In their absence, works that were left in Amsterdam were looted by the Germans, with the help of a Dutch collaborator. When Lugt returned after the war, he worked with the Monuments Men

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A view of the Hôtel Turgot, one of the townhouses the foundation is housed in.

and managed to trace and recover the stolen art. In 1947, he and Klever created the foundation in Paris as a safe haven to preserve the collection for future generations.

Outside exhibition hours, the collection can be viewed at the foundation by appointment. For anyone interested in drawings and works on paper it is an appointment worth making.

Claudia Barbieri

Fondation Custodia: 121, rue de Lille, 75007 Paris. Métro: Assemblée Nationale. Open Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6pm. Closed Monday. Admission: €6. Through June 22.

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