Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. sits down with Sotheby's to discuss his remarkable collection and artist Vilhelm Hammershøi's masterpiece Interior, Strandgade 30, 1899, a highlight of the Impressionist & Modern Art auction.
A mbassador John L. Loeb Jr. has always been a collector. He first discovered this lifelong affinity as a child, initially in collecting toy soldiers and thereafter by ameliorating his father’s coin collection. With time, his interests evolved – and by the age of 26, Loeb had turned to art.
Art collecting was commonplace among Loeb’s distinguished lineage. It was his mother’s cousin, Philip Lehman, who kindled the sparks of the familial collection, amassing an impressive array of Western European masterpieces. Lehman’s son Robert followed suit, and formed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Lehman Wing, a diverse display of works of both Western and Non-Western origin.
The ambassador’s parents, John Langeloth Loeb Sr. and Frances Lehman Loeb, had artistic leanings as well; the celebrated artwork Madame Cézanne Seated in a Yellow Chair by Post-impressionist Paul Cézanne hung prominently in their home as Loeb was growing up.
Thus, in 1957, Loeb acquired his first artwork – a contemporary painting by the Vietnamese artist Vu Cao Dam. And by 1981, the year that President Ronald Reagan selected Loeb to serve as Denmark’s ambassador, Loeb’s penchant for collecting reached new heights; as in Denmark, he was introduced to the country’s titans of art history, artists like Vilhelm Hammershøi, Peder Krøyer, Laurits A. Ring, Ludvig Find and Harald Slott-Møller.
“I have had such pleasure in this collection that one of my lifetime goals has become to make the world – especially Americans – aware of the impressive quality of Danish art, which has not achieved the recognition it deserves. Whenever we have been able to advance it, I leap at the chance.”
With his expert eye, the ambassador identified that the Danish artists’ exceptional oeuvres were internationally underappreciated and undervalued. Recognizing an opportunity, he swiftly began acquiring works of the genre.
Upon his return to the United States in 1983, the ambassador (subsequently a public delegate to the United Nations General Assembly) did not decelerate his newfound passion for Danish art; instead, he set out to impel the works to the international arena. His efforts were with avail, as in 1994, Harvard’s Busch-Reisinger Museum mounted the lauded exhibition, Danish Paintings of the Nineteenth Century from the Collection of Ambassador John L. Loeb Jr. Today, the ambassador boasts a collection of 148 Danish works of art – largely considered to be the most significant assemblage of Danish art outside of Denmark.
At Sotheby’s, the ambassador is offering the singular painting Interior, Strandgade 30 by the renowned artist Vilhelm Hammershøi in the Impressionist & Modern Art auction (November 12, New York). Composed by Hammershøi in 1899, the atmospheric masterpiece is a window to the artist’s Copenhagen home. Hammershøi’s beloved wife, Ida, poses in the midground with a glinting, silver bowl in hand – finely illumed by an open door.
Below, the ambassador sits down with Sotheby’s to discuss his astonishing collection.
One of the first changes you enacted upon arriving at Rydhave, the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Denmark, was the mounting of American paintings on the walls. Later you would turn the basement of the residence into a gallery of sorts for contemporary Danish art. Would you be able to describe what you were trying to communicate through exhibiting art in your home?
I brought to Denmark 30 paintings by American artists which I hung around the Ambassador’s residence. I did this to let the Danes know how interested Americans were in art. I used this as a way of explaining the many other cultural activities that existed in the U.S. such as music, photography and, of course, the movies. Over my two years there, several thousand Danes visited my residence and saw these paintings.
The basement of the residence was turned into a bomb shelter by Dr. Werner Best, the Nazi controller of Denmark during World War II. A prior Ambassador, Guilford Dudley, Jr. had turned it into a nightclub. I turned the basement into a small museum and gallery to show the contemporary Danish paintings that I had collected, generally through Jacob Asbaeck, the leading dealer in contemporary Danish art. I wanted to show that I was very interested not only in my own culture but also Danish culture.
In your memoir, Reflections, Memories and Confessions, you described Copenhagen as feeling somewhat lonely at first. What role did art play for you in warming you to life in Denmark?
When I first arrived in Denmark, I arrived with my six-year-old son and my nineteen-year-old daughter, Alexandra, who was taking a year off from Harvard to study in Paris.
After a few weeks, Alexandra returned to Paris and I began to feel quite lonely. As a result, I began visiting museums in the late afternoons and weekends. I visited Denmark’s most important museums which helped me to learn about Danish history and life both in the past and present. I also began to collect Danish art. I particularly admired and was influenced in my collection by the famous, small Hirschsprung Museum.
In what ways, when you look at Danish works of art, are you able to see the culture that you came to know reflected?
Most Danish paintings revealed the daily lives of Danes, particularly in fields, their homes or cities. Some of the most intriguing and beautiful paintings are paintings of interiors often with only a single individual – for example, Hammershøi’s and Holsøe’s paintings which I have bought for my collection. There are also many paintings of the seaside.
The most famous painting that illustrates this style is Krøyer’s painting of two ladies walking on the beach in Skagen. It is entitled, Summer Evening on the South Beach at Skagen and it appears on the cover of the catalogue for the Northern Lights exhibition.
You were first introduced to the Hirschsprung Collection while in Copenhagen. In your memoir, you referred to the tobacco merchant and collector who was already long deceased, your Danish art “mentor.” How did his collection influence you?
I was looking for a mentor or professor or someone to guide me in my beginning to collect Danish art.
Just by luck, I came across a famous collection put together by Heinrich Hirschsprung, a tobacco merchant. Unlike many successful men in Denmark in the middle of the 20th century who generally bought French Impressionist art, he collected only Danish artists and their paintings. To begin with, it was hard for me to judge the quality of every painting I liked. I found comfort in knowing that the Hirschsprung Collection contained a piece of art by the same artist I was thinking of buying.
In 1982 you hosted a dinner at Rydhave to launch the Danish portion of the exhibition Scandinavia Today – a show that later traveled across the United States. Recalling that moment, what impact did the exhibition have on the legacy of Danish art?
The Danish portion of the exhibition Scandinavia Today which traveled all across the United States particularly enhanced the understanding of Danish paintings. This was due to an exhibition called “Northern Lights” organized by Professor Kirk Varnedoe, a professor at NYU, who went on to the Museum of Modern Art, but, sadly, died very young.
This exhibition brought Scandinavian art, in general, to the American public but, in particular, Danish art which few people knew about. This exhibition included artists such as Vilhelm Hammershøi, Peder Krøyer, Laurits A. Ring, Ludvig Find and Harald Slott-Møller.
The Northern Lights exhibition gave me the “courage of my convictions” to continue collecting Danish art. After that exhibition, I felt much more comfortable, in fact, actually exhilarated by buying Danish art.
In 1984 you purchased your first painting by Vilhelm Hammershøi for 1 million Danish kroner ($85,000), a sum that made news at the time for being the highest price ever paid for a Danish work of art. In the years since, you fell in love with Hammershøi’s work, and global appreciation has continued to rise – rendering that price to appear as an inconceivably good deal. As an early devotee of not only Hammershøi, but of many under-recognized Danish artists, what has this growing global interest meant to you?
The growing interest in Danish art means a lot to me. Not only because of the beauty of their paintings but also because I was not following in my parents’ footsteps who generally collected French Impressionist art.
I felt I had discovered a new art which was beautiful and extraordinary and the majority of collectors in the United States had never heard about Danish art.