Joseph Brummer: Collector, Dealer, Game-Changer
by Katrina Arutunyan
The renowned Joseph Brummer was born in Sombor (then part of Hungary) in 1883. Studying applied arts from an early age, and even working as a sculptor throughout his life, Brummer always had an appreciation for both the history and the presentation of art. After moving to Paris with his brothers, Brummer opened a gallery in which the arts of Africa, Peru, and Japan were exhibited among works of contemporary artists. After the First World War, Brummer moved his successful gallery to New York, where he expanded his collection and became a significant figure in the collection and dealing of medieval art. Brummer was most recognized for the unusual manner in which he displayed medieval works. In an area in which it was common to install medieval objects in spaces meant to evoke the Middle Ages, Brummer treated medieval works as if they were modernist sculptures, isolating them in glass cases. After his death, a large part of Brummer’s collection was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where his influence continues to resonate with visitors, historians, and curators alike.
Early Life and Career
Brummer was interested in the arts from an early age. After studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, Brummer moved to Paris, where he initially worked as an apprentice at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and the Académie Colarossi. To pay for tuition, Brummer often served as a model for art classes. By the fall of 1909, Joseph ventured on a new career path, away from art production and toward collection and sale. Brummer formed a partnership with the Maison Delhomme to sell antiquities at 67 Boulevard Raspail in Paris. In November of 1910, he set up his own gallery, Maison Joseph Brummer, at the same address, and a couple of months later moved to yet another location and renamed the gallery Brummer: Objets d’art anciens. His younger brothers Imre (1889–1928) and Ernest (1891–1964), soon joined him and the gallery was renamed Brummer Frères: Curiosités. The brothers worked in Paris for two years, while Ernest studied art history and archaeology at the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne. In 1914, Joseph and Imre would immigrate to New York and open a gallery on 57th Street—the rest is art history.
During his early years in Paris, Brummer made important connections with prominent figures in the contemporary art world. Not only did he cut marble for Rodin, but as a close friend of Henri Rousseau, joined his Académie—an important center for international students in Paris. Familiarity with these leading lights allowed Joseph to exhibit works prominent contemporary artists, earning him a reputation for his galleries as ones not to be missed. Brummer featured artists like Picasso, Csaky, Lipchitz, Brancusi, Matisse, and even some American artists, including Thomas Eakins. Brummer’s intimacy with Henri Rousseau, for instance, is suggested by the portrait of the dealer that the artist painted in 1909. The connections Brummer made with both people and institutions during his early career allowed him to establish a network that he could still call upon once he had relocated to New York. With a firm footing in Paris, that is, Brummer was able to draw upon his connections to get him started in America and present himself as a person worth knowing.
Move to New York
With the onset of World War I, the property of all Austro-Hungarian and German enemy nationals in France was sequestered, including that of Brummer Frères. This is most likely why Joseph decided to move his gallery to New York City in 1914. While Ernest stayed behind to finish his studies, Imre came with Joseph, and the two continued to run the gallery together until Imre’s premature death. During the interwar years, the Brummer galleries in New York and Paris (the latter still run by Ernest) continued to work together across the ocean. At the beginning of the Second World War, Ernest was forced to flee occupied Paris, and joined his brother in New York. Thus the entire Brummer collection and network was now based in the Big Apple. At the start, Brummer’s significance in America was owed primarily to his status as a European art dealer, but his presence in New York made him even more influential to the United States than he was in all of Europe. The Brummer name was established as part of an American conversation about art, and gave Brummer the stature needed to have an influence on collections such as those of Henry Walters and William Randolph Hearst.
The Brummer brothers’ interests and early dealings were not just in contemporary art. Back in Paris, the gallery also displayed tribal arts of Africa. Eventually, the New York gallery would be recognized widely for its collection of Medieval Art. Joseph himself had a particular interest in European antiquities, and devoted quite a bit of personal study to the art of Medieval Europe. Recognizing that this artistic era was somewhat underrepresented in museums and other kinds of collections, Brummer began amassing and displaying medieval works early on in the gallery’s history. At the time of the New York gallery’s opening in 1914, there were not many spaces of comparable approach to Medieval Art. The Barnard Cloisters opened in the same year, but its collector and curator had a very different method to displaying art from the Middle Ages. Whereas Brummer isolated his works in glass cases, Barnard had his guards dress like monks, lit the space with dim candle light, and designed it to look like a dark interior of a medieval castle. The Cloisters Museum would not open until 1938, and though the Morgan Library opened in 1906, it was not made public until years later.
As one of the early figures of the boom in amassing Medieval Art in America, Brummer was able to set some precedents for its collection, and also for its display. Brummer’s experience in displaying many works of modern art undoubtedly influenced his techniques in curating other kinds of works. Spaces like Barnard’s Cloisters approached medieval art by attempting to contextualize it, to the point that that the buildings themselves became the attractions, instead of the artworks. Brummer instead turned to a method one similar to that which he had already been employing in his exhibition of modern art, isolating each piece and giving it its due attention. As such, Brummer’s methods influenced the display of medieval art throughout the following years. As shown by the photographs of his medieval galleries, Brummer treated each piece as an individual worthy of analysis in its own right, instead emphasizing its function as a part of a larger whole. The pieces were not treated like decorations for a space that becomes the attraction itself, but rather each piece was an individual attraction. Works that had been largely overlooked, like household objects, smaller liturgical objects, and stained glass were shown respect and admiration at the Brummer Gallery. Particularly, wooden sculptures had been pushed aside for their far more praised white marble counterparts. Thanks to Brummer, works like the 12th Century Burgundian Enthroned Virgin and Child (47.101.15) were shown as pieces worthy of serious attention, study, and acclaim. These previously underestimated works seem nothing less than luxurious to us now, and the popularity of objects like the Enthroned Virgin and Child is partially owed to Joseph Brummer. It is this prestige he gave to medieval art that continues to influence its collection and display today.
After Joseph Brummer’s death, The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired hundreds of artworks from his estate, which are held in the departments of Medieval Art, Drawings and Prints, Ancient Near Eastern Art, and Greek and Roman Art, though the addition to the medieval collection is most significant. Many of the star works of the collection are owed to Brummer, including the 13th Century South Netherlandish Arm Reliquary (47.101.33) and the pictured 13th Century German Chalice, Paten, and Straw (47.101.26). Over the years, Ernest, and then later his widow Ella Baché-Brummer, organized several auctions of the brothers’ collections. Today, works from their galleries can be found in public and private collections around the world. The gallery records, which were kept by Ernest, were given to the Met by Ella in 1980.
Brummer’s collection accounts for some of the masterpieces of the medieval department, and of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a whole. Making up a significant portion of the Cloisters’ treasury, Brummer’s additions to the Metropolitan elevate their collection to a point of influence, grandeur, and representation that is rivaled by medieval art collections around the world. Without Joseph Brummer, the Cloisters Museum and the Metropolitan as a whole would not be the epicenters of medieval art studies that they are today. Brummer’s influence thus continues to affect the study and display of medieval art in the 21st century.
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