The visionary collector behind the Ordrupgaard Collection

Published 28 February 2020

Not every collector’s story ends happily. Novelist Sarah Dunant charts the bumpy tale behind Wilhelm Hansen’s treasured collection of Impressionist paintings, which go on display at the RA this spring.

  • Sarah Dunant is a writer and broadcaster. She is currently researching Isabella d’Este for a novel Rare as the Phoenix (forthcoming)

    From the Spring 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

  • “We have more spirit than to let a loss of 10 per cent come between us and the things that we want…”

    “I may just as well confess now as later that I have been rash and made substantial purchases…”

    Four hundred years separate these two quotes; the first from the formidable Renaissance collector Isabella d’Este, the second from the Danish art lover Wilhelm Hansen. But both these individuals share qualities that define the successful collector. Money, of course (though it is never enough), and an eye for quality, but also perseverance to ferret out the best buy and, when the scent of a chase gets strong, the ability to throw caution to the wind.

    Without such men and women, the history of art, and many of our most prestigious cultural institutions, would be the poorer. The British Museum, the Borghese Gallery in Rome and the Frick in New York were all initially founded on private collections bequeathed to and/or bought at a knock-down price by the state. One could add to that list the exquisite Ordrupgaard Collection in Denmark. As well as Golden Age Danish art, its treasures include scores of 19th-century French paintings, the finest of which now come to the RA. The story of its foundation and its collector Hansen, however, had some very bumpy moments along the way.

  • Paul Cézanne, Women Bathing

    Paul Cézanne, Women Bathing, c.1895.

    Oil on canvas. 50 x 80.5 cm. © Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

  • Born in 1868, Hansen was a hugely successful businessman with an idealistic, almost visionary streak. He made his fortune selling affordable life insurance both in Denmark and abroad. With no formal art training but a hunger to learn, he started collecting Danish art dating from its Golden Age in the first decades of the 1800s. But the history of 19th-century art belongs to France and when business took him to Paris he fell under its spell. His chance came with the outbreak of the First World War, in which Denmark remained neutral and prices became depressed. He knew what he wanted: a collection that ranged from Corot (The Windmill, c.1835–40) to Cézanne (Women Bathing, c.1895), with 12 paintings by each of the 19th century’s masters, exploring step by step the journey towards modernism.

    Using a revered French art critic, Théodore Duret, as his guide, along with more personal contacts (including Gauguin’s wife, who was Danish and had returned home with his paintings after he departed for the South Seas), Hansen went on an astonishing buying spree. That opening quote is from a letter written in 1916 to his wife Henny and it went on to list high-class works by Sisley, Pissarro, Monet and Renoir. It was only the start. Backed by a Danish bank, he founded a consortium with other collectors, which added muscle for even bigger purchases. In 1918, when Degas’s estate came up for sale, they bid for and bought over 46 works, some of which he moved on, but the cream of which he kept.

  • Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Windmill

    Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Windmill, c.1835-40.

    Oil on canvas. 25 x 39.5 cm. © Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Photo: Anders Sune Berg.

  • By the end of the war, Hansen’s collection required a new gallery to house it. He rebuilt a summerhouse near Copenhagen, at Ordrup (where the works remain to this day – with a 2005 extension designed by Zaha Hadid RA). In this idyllic setting, the Danish public, who enjoyed free entry on Mondays, could experience a journey from Delacroix, through Realism and Impressionism, to Matisse. It was one of the best collections of 19th-century French art outside France. And it would, Hansen declared at the opening, eventually all go to the state. Vision, taste, determination and a little recklessness when it came to that other necessity: money. It was this last that would undermine him.

    In 1922, barely three years after the house’s official opening, the Landsmansbank, Denmark’s biggest private bank, went spectacularly bankrupt. Among its debtors: the consortium, and Hansen personally. This idealistic businessman now faced a crisis. Honour to his debt versus his love of art. He did not hesitate. “I have accustomed myself to the loss of my pictures,” he wrote. “I will get over it if only I can get out of my debts and be a free man again.”

    It was not that simple. To unload enough paintings in the right timeframe he needed rich buyers and with the end of the war the market had changed, with some of the main players now coming from Japan and America. It had been part of his dream to build a collection for the benefit of Northern Europe. He offered the Danish state his whole collection intact at a severely reduced price. They turned him down. He started to sell.

  • Paul Gauguin, Blue Trees, (Your Turn Will Come, My Beauty!)

    Paul Gauguin, Blue Trees, (Your Turn Will Come, My Beauty!), 1888.

    Oil on jute sackcloth. 92 x 73 cm. © Ordrupgaard, Copenhagen. Reproduction: Anders Sune Berg.

  • Within 18 months he was, by his own description, a free man again. But that magnificent collection had been cut in half. Among the losses: seven of a series of eight masterpieces by Cézanne; several Manets, including a powerful self-portrait and work by Degas, Gauguin and many Pissarros and Sisleys, some acquired by the Japanese businessman Kojiro Matsukata (part of whose collection is now in the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo).

    Over the next eight years, Hansen would recoup some of his losses. These acquisitions were modest in number, but nonetheless impressive. In the second room of the RA’s exhibition, dedicated to the precursors to Impressionism and hung to resemble Hansen’s own original gallery, visitors see Delacroix’s radiant portrait of French author George Sand (1838) and Daumier’s The Wrestler (c.1852), both later purchases and proof that Hansen’s eye for quality never wavered. But he also never forgave the Danish state’s refusal to come to his aid when he needed it. Such “almost hostile coldness”, as he described it, meant that when he died he left everything, instead, to Henny. It was not until the 1950s that, on her own death, the Danish nation finally got Ordrupgaard and its collection.

    Not every story of a great collector is a happy one. Had she lived longer, Isabella d’Este would have seen many of her treasures snaffled up by Charles I. As for Charles I – we all know what happened to him and his collection. You don’t need to know the turbulent history of Wilhelm Hansen to enjoy the wonders on the walls at the RA’s Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries. But as you wander through, it might be worth remembering that it came at a cost. And not just money. Though in this, I think, the next words of Hansen’s letter of 1916 still stand as a testament to his life achievement: “I know I will be forgiven when you see what I have bought: it is all first class, with stars.”

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