Published: December 2, 2008
The much-maligned William Randolph Hearst (1863‱951) was one of the most ambitious and flamboyant art collectors of all time, assembling a high quality trove of visual and decorative objects and exhibiting them in a series of extraordinary houses, notably the celebrated Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif. As a result of the negative caricature of the newspaper tycoon’s life in Orson Welles’s film Citizen Kane , and the fact that half his holdings were sold off during the Great Depression, Hearst’s achievements as a collector have been underappreciated.
He was, in fact, not only a voracious, but an accomplished and discriminating collector †and an important force in the art world of his day. It was estimated by The New York Times that Hearst alone accounted for one-quarter of the world’s art market in the 1920s and 1930s. But when he nearly went bankrupt in 1938, his collection was divided. Half was retained by Hearst and half became his companies’ property, much of it to be sold.
A goodly number of dispersed items came into the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), of which he was the museum’s greatest individual donor. It is today one of the nation’s top art museums.
Some 150 of the most significant objects from Hearst’s collection have been brought together by LACMA in one of the most intriguing exhibitions of the year. “Hearst the Collector,” on view through February 1, documents the strength of his holdings in medieval decorative arts, tapestries, silver, arms and armor, and European paintings and sculpture.
Hearst’s passion for California and the American frontier, exemplified by his trove of 300 Native American textiles, set him apart from traditional East Coast collectors. Also displayed are drawings of Hearst Castle by Julia Morgan, Hearst’s preferred architect.
The exhibition was organized by LACMA’s curator of European painting and sculpture, Mary L. Levkoff. In addition to LACMA, works in the show have been loaned by other institutions and private collectors.
Museum officials suggest that the perspicacity, determination and good taste required to amass this high-quality collection belie the dark reinvention of Hearst promulgated in Citizen Kane. As LACMA director Michael Govan says, “This groundbreaking exhibition addresses many distorted perceptions about the man who was the most fascinating collector in American history.”
The museum contends that Hearst was a generous benefactor of the arts and “a populist millionaire who crusaded against political corruption.” They note that he promoted “simultaneous excellence and sensationalism in reporting,” and that he “transformed the graphic design of newspapers.”
Be that as it may, this stunning show demonstrates in particular Hearst’s good eye for arms and armor, silverware and tapestries. “In each of these areas,” LACMA declares, “he surpassed virtually all his contemporaries, amassing the greatest quality of top-tier works.”
Hearst’s taste for paintings was European-oriented, with canvases by Boucher, David, Fragonard, Gerome, Greuze, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Lotto, Sir Joshua Reynolds and the prize of the collection, Anthony Van Dyck’s large, lush and luminous “Portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria,” 1633, purchased from wily British dealer Joseph Duveen.
A notable exception was expatriate American John Singleton Copley’s enormous and sumptuous “Portrait of Sir William Pepperell and His Family” of 1778. Among the leading sculptors whose work is displayed are Antonio Canova, Clodion and Bertel Thorvaldsen.
With the help of an outstanding catalog, the exhibition traces the saga of Hearst’s life, the development of his collections and the story of the six palatial residences that housed them. Hearst was the only child of George Hearst, who amassed a colossal fortune in the Gold Rush of 1849 and subsequent investments, owned the San Francisco Examiner and served in the US Senate in the 1880s. His mother, nee Phoebe Apperson, was much younger than her husband, but “matched him in ambition,” according to Levkoff. After the couple settled in San Francisco, she “became one of the most illustrious and sophisticated philanthropists in California’s history,” says the curator.
She took her son to museums, introduced him to European art on tours of the continent and exposed him to an eclectic collection of objects, floor to ceiling, in the family mansion in Washington.
Dropping out of Harvard after two years †he excelled as business manager of the Lampoon , but not in the classroom †Hearst persuaded his father to give him control of the humdrum San Francisco Examiner , which he transformed into a visually appealing, exciting and profitable enterprise.
Following his father’s death, William organized a media conglomerate that by the 1920s included the largest publishing business in the world. In addition to newspapers and magazines, there were radio stations, wire services, newsreels and movie studios. In the early 1900s, he married a beautiful showgirl, Millicent Wilson, was elected to two terms in the House of Representatives, lost a race for mayor of New York City and unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nominations for governor of New York and president.
In part to display his growing collections, Hearst acquired six spectacular residences. He owned a five-story apartment, the largest in the world, the Clarendon on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. Rooms were crammed with fireplaces, tapestries (including the vividly hued, Sixteenth Century Dutch/Belgian “Apostles Creed” tapestry), ceramics, furniture, paintings, sculpture and an ornate Northern European chalice dated 1222. The high-arched armory featured long rows of suits of armor on either side, backed by tall tapestries under a huge chandelier that spotlighted a large, silver Spanish processional cross.
“The Beach House” in Santa Monica, Calif., was the province of Hearst’s longtime lover, movie actress Marion Davies, a lithe blond ex-chorus girl from the Ziegfeld Follies. Hearst’s enduring affection for this smart, humorous beauty caused an estrangement from his wife.
Davies parlayed Hearst’s generous salary and her own intelligent investments into a sizable fortune, with which she expanded a Georgian-style, waterfront mansion. Hearst stocked it lavishly with Eighteenth Century furnishings, Chinese carpets, ornate chandeliers, English silverware and canvases by the likes of Boucher and Fragonard. The outstanding painting was Sir Thomas Lawrence’s romantic “Portrait of Arthur Atherley as an Etonian,” circa 1791.
In the late 1920s, presumably as compensation for his wife’s tolerating Davies, Hearst bought Millicent a neo-Gothic estate on the beach at Sands Point on Long Island’s North Shore. The mansion was designed by Richard Howland Hunt in a medieval French style and formerly owned by society leader Alva Vanderbilt Belmont. “It was the most important estate on Long Island,” says Levkoff.
Hearst added a Romanesque portal and Gothic bay, reinforced the baronial look of the interior by installing various architectural elements, placed suits of armor to complement paintings of Joan of Arc and lined the living room with Sixteenth Century English paneling.
Eighteenth Century French paintings by Boucher and sculpture by Houdon animated some rooms, as did two splendid portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds, a classical canvas of “A Woman, Possibly Elizabeth Warren,” 1758‵9, and an exotic likeness of a famed beauty, “Mrs [George] Baldwin,” 1782.
Around this time, Hearst bought a Norman castle in Wales dating to 1200, with later additions, called St Donnat’s. Replete with Tudor terraced gardens sloping down to a channel and magnificent views, he expanded it to encompass 40 bedrooms, a swimming pool replacing an old jousting field, wood vaulting moved from another structure and assorted antiquities, tapestries and luxurious furniture. The highlight was what Levkoff calls “one of the two greatest private collections” of armor.
Numerous sculptures graced the rooms, including Thorvaldsen’s classic marble of “Hebe,” conceived in 1806 and carved in 1819′3, depicting the Greek goddess of youth. Among the oil paintings were portraits by Lawrence, George Frederick Watts and Johann Zoffany. The standout canvases were Copley’s portrayal of the Pepperell family and Robert Peake’s winsome, elaborately gowned young lady, “Portrait of a Woman, Possibly Frances Cotton of Boughton Castle, Northamptonshire,” circa 1605‱5.
Around 1930, Hearst had Julia Morgan design three smallish mansions in the late Gothic German style on a 60,000-acre property near California’s Mount Shasta. He called the estate Wyntoon. The trio of rustic houses around a sun-splashed lawn created what Levkoff calls “a sumptuous fairyland village.” With 25 bedrooms, several sitting rooms and living rooms, the houses sought to blend into the surrounding forest. “The tranquility of the setting is ineffable,” says Levkoff. The half-timbered exteriors were decorated with narrative scenes painted by Hungarian-born illustrator Willy Pogany.
The interiors featured soaring, peaked wood ceilings, Germanic ceramic stoves, European stone mantelpieces, Sixteenth Century polychromed wood statues, German enameled glass humpen and rare Northern Renaissance Lusterweibchen (oil lamps/chandeliers with upper torsos of polychromed wood figures) suspended from ceilings. Levkoff asserts that the “Lusterweibchen constitute the most original of all Hearst’s collections.”
More than a decade before that, Hearst had begun plans for his greatest residence: Hearst Castle, sited on 240,000 acres (bigger than Washington, D.C.) overlooking the Pacific Ocean in San Simeon, 250 miles north of Los Angeles. Hearst had already employed Morgan, the first woman to be admitted to and earn a degree in architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, to design a building in Los Angeles.
A lively dialogue between architect and patron led to a complex of buildings in the Spanish Renaissance/Moorish style: three cottages that became luxurious guest houses, fronting the enormous main house, called Casa Grande, which evolved into a shape like a lobster. Hearst’s fertile imagination and knowledge of Spanish precedents, combined with Morgan’s disciplined genius, resulted in what Levkoff calls “a set piece in a residential estate that resembles a village of fabulous luxury in Renaissance Spain.” Hearst called the property “the enchanted hill.”
In a buying spree to furnish the elaborate mansion, Hearst acquired Islamic tiles, a rare Fourteenth Century alabaster altarpiece, ancient Roman herms (stone posts topped by busts), opulent furnishings, sumptuous embroidered textiles, Greek and Italian vases, and 30 elaborately carved, polychromed tile ceilings.
Hearst Castle’s décor featured tapestries, antiquities and sculptures, highlighted by Canova’s “Venus Italica,” circa 1804‱4, and Thorvaldsen’s “Venus Vincitrice,” 1818′4. Concentrating on canvases with religious themes, the top painting was a large baroque extravaganza, “Virgin Appearing to Saint James,” 1677, by Spanish painter Claudio Coello.
Through the onset of the Depression, Hearst continued to buy treasures for his widespread residences. After his credit was “shattered” in 1937, he turned over half his collections to his corporation to be sold, as well as disposing of such other assets as radio stations and newspapers.
Toward the end of his life, the aging tycoon donated large sums and 900 objects to the burgeoning Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Gifts ran the gamut from pre-Columbian gold and medieval altarpieces to Greek vases to Limoges enamels to paintings and sculpture. Hearst’s beneficence launched LACMA toward the world-class status it enjoys today. Hearst Castle, given to the state of California and opened to the public in 1958, has become a major tourist attraction.
As the second largest repository of Hearst’s treasures (after Hearst Castle), it is fitting that LACMA should mount this fascinating exhibition, which goes a long way toward documenting William Randolph Hearst’s genius as a collector.
The 256-page illustrated catalog contains perceptive essays and commentaries by Levkoff that offer insights into Hearst the man and collector †and the remarkable works that he assembled. It is published by Abrams and LACMA and sells for $50, hardcover.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is at 5905 Wilshire Boulevard. For information, 323-857-6000 or www.lacma.org .
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