“…these objects, which mean so very much to me.”
Richard Feigen was, by any measure, a great art dealer, standing head and shoulders taller than the crowd in his chosen profession. To my way of thinking, he was an even more distinguished collector, although he always lamented that being a dealer, no one took him as seriously as a collector as he might have wished. Richard’s distinction lay not in the number of works he owned – his collection was small by comparison to many – but in their scale (usually intimate), quality (unfailingly high), and range (dizzyingly widespread). He was also a courageous collector, championing artists like: Richard Parkes Bonington, Max Beckmann, or Joseph Cornell, who at the time were all but unknown in polite and well-educated drawing rooms, and doggedly defending periods and cultures that others found unfashionable at best, uninteresting at worst. History has nearly always proven him right, never more so than in his passion for “gold grounds,” those hard-edged, often fragmentary, and even more often damaged or altered works that are so alien to our modern, everyday experience but so redolent of the personalities of the fourteenth and fifteenth century Italian artists who created them. How could Richard fail to love paintings that are as honest and unfiltered as he was himself?
I first met Richard – I should say, I first encountered Richard – when I was a graduate student and a research assistant in the department of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Richard had asked Sir John Pope-Hennessy to look at a roundel by the Sienese painter Domenico Beccafumi that he had acquired for his gallery (the Met owned only drawings and prints by this great master); John unapologetically sent Keith Christiansen and me in his stead. My memories of the painting are slight, but its owner left a forceful impression on me. Some years later, I heard the art world gossip that Richard had paid an absurdly high price at auction for a small roundel by Lorenzo Monaco, a price that today seems insignificant but that at the time had dealers worrying that it would skew the market beyond redemption. “How will he ever be able to resell it?” asked the wags. He never intended to, was the reply. He loved it and wanted it for himself. I was not surprised then, when many years later still, I received a call from Richard, out of the blue, asking if I knew anything about Benozzo Gozzoli. It is difficult to know where to begin answering a question like that, but Richard did not want an answer. He simply wanted to say that he had bought a painting for himself at auction and that after a year of traveling and research could get no closer to deciding who its author might have been than to wonder if it might be Benozzo Gozzoli. I was impressed by that level of commitment and determination and said I would be happy to add my guesses to his. The painting turned out to be an enormously important work by no less an artist than Fra Angelico, the missing piece to a suite that many of us had been hoping for years to find. Needless to say, Richard was elated. I was moved. Many people had seen this picture at public auction; only one had responded to it. Richard had bought it not as speculation for its marketability. He had bought it for himself, because he liked it and felt it had great quality. Richard’s instincts for quality, as I was to learn, were astonishing and entirely separate from his knowledge: he responded to what he saw, not what he was told to expect to see. That is a rare and enviable gift.
From this meeting there sprang a warm and lasting friendship, but also a new chapter in Richard’s compulsive life as a collector. He casually asked Keith Christiansen and me if we had seen any other early works on the market that we might have liked, and we both answered that a small, very well preserved and very desirable panel by Andrea Bonaiuti was on consignment from the Stoclet collection at a gallery in Paris. Richard did not hesitate; in fact, he was off to the races. Every few weeks or months for some time after, I could expect to receive a call proudly announcing the latest treasure that had caught his eye and asking whether I perhaps be kind enough to tell him what it was. Once I moved to Yale (at his suggestion, I might add!) he also asked what I was teaching and asking if would I mind if he listened in. Every week, no matter the topic, he made the two-hour train trip to New Haven, lunched on a bowl of soup, sat through the two-hour seminar, and took the two-hour train to return to New York in time for whatever dinner event or concert had been scheduled for that evening. This went on for years. Sometimes he brought with him one of his paintings – wrapped in paper and stashed in a leather artist’s portfolio – for the rest of the class to see and handle. I hope those fortunate graduate and undergraduate students all appreciate what a priceless opportunity this was.
Richard’s instincts for quality, as I was to learn, were astonishing and entirely separate from his knowledge: he responded to what he saw, not what he was told to expect to see. That is a rare and enviable gift.
Richard’s thirst for knowledge was insatiable, but I never had the impression that it was motivated by an agenda. He was not trying to scoop the market or outpace the competition; it strikes me that he truly loved the things he owned and never tired of learning more about them. He was humbled (not a word often associated with his personality) by a sense of how many secrets they were keeping from him and he enjoyed every small revelation that came his way. He was also amused, entertained, by the game of attributions. Every dealer knows that the value, or at least the salability, of a work of art depends in no small degree on what can be said about it. Richard obviously understood this and profited from it throughout his career. But he was not concerned about attributions with his gold grounds (unless a mistaken attribution made it easier for him to acquire one), rather he was fascinated by the disconnect between what he saw in an object and what people had said about it. Some of his paintings went through three or four name changes while he owned them and some are still settling into a stable classification, but with one exception, it did not trouble him in the least. The single exception is a painting included in this sale: Domenico Beccafumi’s Nativity (lot 13), which lived variously along the staircase or in the fabled dining room – hung floor to ceiling with early panel paintings, glittering from the gold of their backgrounds like Aladdin’s cave of riches – in Richard and Isabelle’s apartment. Richard had purchased the painting when it was called Gerolamo Genga, the third name under which it had lived since first being sold in 1904, and he lent it to an exhibition in Siena in 1990 with the artist’s name “Master of the Chigi-Saraceni Heroines” filled in on the loan papers. A week or so later, upon arrival in Siena, he found that it was displayed with a label that called it “Master of the Feigen Nativity,” and he never tired of telling people how much this upset him. I exhibited the painting in New Haven in 2010 with an attribution, which in hindsight I realize was mistaken, to “Capanna Senese,” and it is now widely, and I think correctly, recognized as an early work by Domenico Beccafumi, the seventh attribution it has borne with dignified patience. Richard, however, never stopped complaining that someone once had the temerity to call it the “Master of the Feigen Nativity” and to do so without asking his permission. Curious.
All of Richard’s friends can testify to how frequently he claimed only to be interested in artists who were “not looking in the rearview mirror,” but I wonder if this was a smoke screen. When he sold, some years ago, a lovely Guido Reni copper that had long hung in his living room, he said to me that Guido was a painter looking in the abhorred rearview mirror. It was the only time I was ever tempted to call his bluff, and I still cannot fathom what he was thinking when he said that. Richard owned some of the most beautiful paintings on copper from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that I have ever seen, one of which, by Alessandro Allori, an artist who never took his eyes off the rearview mirror, is included in this sale (lot 12). It is a great work of art, and Richard knew it. Richard also knew that Guido Reni has and deserves a secure place in the pantheon of great artists. His reputation is not hype: it is based on quality, that elusive character that Richard never failed to appreciate and to which he always responded viscerally. My suspicion is that Richard was sad to part company with the painting and softened the blow in his own mind this way. His paintings were more than possessions to him, they were experiences, they were his identity. It was an overwhelmingly endearing trait. I miss it, and Richard, more than I can say.