Between public relevance and personal pleasure Private art and antique collectors in Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent, ca. 1780-1914

Date: 4 July 2019

Venue: Het Pand, Zaal Rector Vermeylen - Onderbergen 1 - 9000 Gent

Time: 4:00 PM

PhD candidate: Ulrike Müller

Principal investigator: Marjan Sterckx (UGent) en Ilja Van Damme (UAntwerpen)

Short description: PhD defence Ulrike Müller - Faculty of Arts, Department of History


In the first half of the nineteenth century, Belgium was repeatedly praised as a country of collectors and amateurs, and private art and antique collectors were important and highly visible actors in urban cultural life. At a time when the public museum was still a relatively recent innovation, private collections were quite easily accessible for local and international visitors of the same social rank as the collectors. Private collections were places of cultural exchange and social interaction; they guaranteedthe preservation of the local and national heritage; and they provided models for artistic and (art) historical study. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the collector’s position in and relationship to the public sphere had undergone considerable transformations. Private collections were less accessible to an ever-expanding and increasingly culture-consuming public, and functioned more strongly in the context of the personal and explicitly private aims and networks of their owners. Private collectors defined their role less on the basis of a public and national reasoning, but increasingly through individual and aesthetic motivations, and a close involvement in the contemporary artistic and cultural life.

This dissertation aims to uncover the premises and reasons for private collectors’ shifting public relevance. What happened precisely to the public role of private collectors over the course of the century? How and why did their position in society change? The dissertation concentrates on the (changing) public role and relevance of private art and antique collectors in Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent during the long nineteenth century (ca. 1780-1914). It intends to examine the specific social, cultural, political, artistic and material context of private collectors’ activity, and it looks at the complex phenomenon of private collecting in nineteenth-century Belgian cities from an interdisciplinary and comparative perspective, combining art history and interior decoration history approaches with the methods of urban, social and cultural history and material culture studies. Its main focus is on three related issues relevant to private collectors’ activity: 1) collectors’ social profiles and networks; 2) collectors’ tastes and the range of their collected objects; and 3) the function, accessibility, display and reception of the collections. Much attention will also be paid to the specific local contexts of Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent and the differences between these three cities with regard to the urban collecting cultures. In so doing, this dissertation furthers our understanding of the diverse ways in which private art and antique collectors interacted with the social, cultural and artistic life of their cities, how this interaction changed over the course of the century, and what the collectors’ changing relationship to the public sphere can tell us about broader shifts in nineteenth-century culture, art and society.