One might think that art patronage is a recent phenomenon, driven by large multinationals who often dedicate eponymous foundations to it. But it’s nothing of the sort… Art patronage has existed since antiquity, in turn the prerogative of wealthy benefactors or simply enthusiasts, aiming to protect the arts and influence art through the ages. From Pericles to Peggy Guggenheim, via Charlemagne, Isabella of Bavaria and the illustrious Medici, discover how these charismatic personalities not only shaped the history of Western art, but also that of their respective eras!
Caius Cilnius Maecenas, the father of patronage
When the term “patron” is mentioned, a historic name immediately springs to mind: “Caius Cilnius Maecenas“. This man, whose name gave rise to the words patron and patronage, remains for many a mysterious figure, yet central to the history of Ancient Rome.
We’re at the heart of the Roman civil war, in the turmoil of the Triumvirate, just after Caesar’s assassination in the middle of the 1st century BC. Maecenas, an influential political figure, knight and diplomat, played a key role alongside his friend Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus. Although remaining aloof from official honors, Maecenas made a significant contribution to the founding of the Roman Empire and the restoration of the Republic, quietly influencing the spheres of power.
But beyond politics, what immortalizes Maecenas in history is his profound love for the arts and letters. A patron of renowned poets such as Virgil, Horace and Propertius, Mécène is praised in their writings for his selfless generosity. He opened his sumptuous gardens for banquets, bringing poets and musicians together without ever imposing propaganda or restrictions on their creativity. His support for the arts was free and pure, allowing artists to express themselves without hindrance.
The pioneers of patronage, from kings and priests to emperors
We told you, the earliest forms of patronage have their roots in antiquity, when art was seen as a symbol of power and worship. This intimate link between art and power saw the emergence of the first patrons, notably among kings and priests. In ancient Egypt, the grandeur of pharaohs was displayed through the construction of pyramids, while in Greece, art reflected the splendor of “enlightened tyrants”. The 5th century BC, known as the “century of Pericles”, saw the birth of architectural marvels such as the Acropolis and the Parthenon in Athens. In those days, the artist was often a mere anonymous craftsman, his work magnifying the grandeur of his patron rather than his own creativity.
Collections of precious objects, the first “treasures” or ex-votos, were preserved in the temples of ancient Greece such as those of Olympus and Delphi. These collections bear witness to the devotion and power of early religious patrons. Patronage reached another dimension with Ptolemy, former general of Alexander the Great and himself a great patron of the arts. He was the driving force behind the construction of the Museion, a free university for scholars, and the famous Library of Alexandria, two establishments that marked a turning point in the Hellenistic period, symbolizing the thirst for knowledge and cultural prestige.
In Rome, as early as the 3rd century BC, private collections of statues and bronzes and the first pinacotheques (picture galleries) came into being, often as a result of wartime looting. Roman emperors such as Augustus and Nero also played the role of patrons of the arts, with major architectural projects affirming their dominance. And although patronage in this era favored poets and writers above all, artists, considered mere artisans, have, despite their anonymity, left behind a legacy of majestic works of art and buildings.
From religious fervor to secular rise: a brief history of the evolution of patronage
In the early Middle Ages, with the advent of Christianity, pagan art was largely eclipsed, resulting in a considerable loss of ancient artistic heritage. Nevertheless, this period saw the rise of a new Christian art, centered around the “cult of sacred images”. Private patronage and individual collections gave way to mainly religious patronage… Works of art, often created by clerics, found their way into churches and monasteries, through illuminated manuscripts or ex-votos.
Monks, notably the Benedictines in the 11th century and the Cistercians in the 12th, became skilled builders. Among the great religious patrons were Abbot Didier of Mont Cassin, future Pope Victor III, who favored manuscript copying and illumination, and Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, precursor of the new Gothic art with his many architectural innovations at Saint-Denis Abbey. At the same time, sovereigns played an increasingly important role in patronizing the arts. Charlemagne, for example, fostered a veritable cultural renaissance, known as the “Carolingian Reformation“, where art and scholarship were strongly encouraged. This period also saw courtiers and knights follow in their sovereigns’ footsteps in supporting the arts.
In the Gothic period, a more secular and bourgeois patronage emerges, with the construction and lavish decoration of castles, palaces and other mansions. Artists like Giotto enjoyed the support of wealthy Italian banking families, such as the Peruzzi and Bardis, for whom he created frescoes in Florence’s Santa Croce Basilica. Private collections underwent a revival, with a new aesthetic, notably those of the Duke of Burgundy and his brother Duke Jean de Berry, built up out of personal passion. As you will have gathered, this period marks a significant transition in the history of patronage, from the deep imprint of religion to a more secular and personal approach to art, paving the way for more artistic styles and expressions.
Great patrons of the arts in the 19th and 20th centuries
At the confluence of the 19th and 20th centuries, certain patrons left an indelible mark on the art world. Passionate Russians like Ivan Abramovich Morozov and Sergei Ivanovich Shchukin distinguished themselves by assembling collections of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, Nabis, Fauvist and Cubist works, popularizing avant-garde art in Russia. Despite political turmoil in Moscow and forced emigration, their confiscated collections enriched Russia’s national museums.
In the United States, Louisine Havemeyer, a feminist activist and art lover initiated by Mary Cassat, played a key role in the rise of Impressionism. Her vast collection, shared with her husband, was generously bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. And in France, the Marquise Arconati-Visconti left her mark on the world of art and literature by building an eclectic collection that enriched several Paris museums. A great patron of the arts, she also supported university research and made significant donations to educational institutions.
The Cognacq-Jay couple, renowned for their philanthropy, also left their mark on the art world with their collection of 18th-century works. Initially displayed in their famous store La Samaritaine, this collection is now housed in the Musée Cognacq-Jay in Paris. For her part, Nélie Jacquemart-André, a renowned portrait painter, created an international art collection through her travels with her husband. On her death, she bequeathed her estate to the Institut de France, transforming her Parisian homes into Jacquemart-André museums.
Finally, in the inter-war years, the involvement of American patrons in the preservation of France’s heritage was exemplified by John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s support for the restoration of such landmarks as the Château de Versailles, the Château de Fontainebleau and Reims Cathedral. To say the least, his work has inspired many foreign patrons to invest in the preservation of European art and heritage.
Patronage in France today
Once a simple form of financial support for an artist, the concept of patronage has evolved well in contemporary France. Today, it is seen as a collaboration in which the artist works not in the service of a donor, but in the service of art itself, in keeping with the vision of Kandinsky who, in his 1910 work “Du Spirituel dans l’Art”, defined art as an “inner necessity”.
Furthermore, modern patronage can take many forms, namely financial, in-kind, or skills-based, thus combining monetary donations, the provision of premises or materials, and the sharing of specific know-how. Several types of beneficiary can be distinguished: production sponsorship for artistic creation, heritage sponsorship for the conservation of monuments, sponsorship for museum collections, and entertainment sponsorship for the organization of cultural events.
The French state, although not a patron of the arts per se, plays a key role in supporting patronage, notably through subsidies and various forms of aid. Since the second half of the 20th century, the State’s actions have focused on supporting the creation and enrichment of national collections, as well as on democratizing access to culture. We might evoke a “State cultural patronage”, particularly active since the 1960s with the Malraux and then Lang ministries.
Today, patrons are mainly legal entities such as companies, foundations and associations, but also private individuals. The latter, whether they are wealthy art lovers or major collectors, make a significant contribution to artistic development, much as they do on the other side of the Atlantic. Their passion for art often leads them to become involved in promoting artists, to want to offer their collection to the public or to safeguard monuments, regardless of their financial situation.
From a regulatory point of view, legislation on arts sponsorship in France has undergone major changes, notably with the Aillagon law of 2003. In detail, this legislation clarifies the definition of patronage and improves its tax regime, offering private patrons tax reductions in exchange for donations to organizations of General Interest. While not all donors and causes benefit from this scheme, companies in particular benefit from an enhanced image.
Focus on some major figures in contemporary philanthropy
Unsurprisingly, the contemporary patronage landscape is marked by remarkable personalities and initiatives that have profoundly influenced the world of art and heritage. Among them, Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim (1898-1979) stands out as one of the 20th century’s greatest patrons and collectors of modern art. Self-taught and independent, she played an undeniable role in the recognition of then little-known artists, through her gallery in London and her museum in Venice, which has become a world reference in the field.
How could we fail to mention the Rothschild family, emblematic figures of philanthropy, who over the centuries have enriched institutions such as the Louvre and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France with nearly 120,000 works of art, testifying to a passion for the arts as profound as it is eclectic. The same is true of the Sauvegarde de l’Art Français, founded in 1921, and the Fondation du Patrimoine, created in 1996, which are committed to preserving and promoting French heritage, mobilizing patronage, public subsidies and participatory funding.
For his part, Bernard Arnault, with the Fondation Louis Vuitton inaugurated in 2014, has created a dynamic space dedicated to modern and contemporary art, organizing temporary exhibitions spotlighting renowned artists. A.D.M.I.C.A.L., founded in 1979, promotes corporate philanthropy, encouraging actions in favor of culture, but also humanitarian action, solidarity and the environment.
In addition, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon has been able to enrich its collection with major works thanks to the support of patrons, such as the acquisition in 2007 of a painting by Poussin and in 2016 of a work by Corneille de Lyon, underlining the importance of patronage in cultural enrichment. Finally, participative restoration campaigns, such as the one undertaken by the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon to restore an Egyptian sarcophagus, illustrate a new form of patronage that is interactive and open to all.