Frederick the Great's art collector

March 9, 2000

Mark Miester

Bodo Gotzkowsky was sitting in his office in Newcomb Hall reading a newspaper when a name caught his attention. It was his own. The article, which appeared in 1996 in a Frankfurt newspaper, discussed the art collection of Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, a distant ancestor and a major public figure of 18th-century Germany.

"I always heard from my grandfather that my ancestor had collected paintings and that they eventually went to St. Petersburg, but that's all I knew," says Gotzkowsky, the John T. Krumpelmann Professor of German.

While much had been written about Johann Gotzkowsky's legendary career as a merchant, businessman and adviser to Frederick the Great, little had been said about his equally legendary art collection, a magnificent if obscure collection of works by Dutch and Flemish masters.

The chance discovery of the article led Bodo Gotzkowsky on a four-year odyssey to document Johann's collection, and what he learned from that quest went far beyond his grandfather's description. Johann Gotzkowsky's collection, it turns out, was the cornerstone of the Hermitage, the world-famous museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Gotzkowsky will present his findings at Woldenberg Art Center on March 20 in a Newcomb Colloquium on the Visual Arts lecture, "The Founding of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg: Catherine the Great and the Purchase of the Gotzkowsky Collection in Berlin in 1764."

The presentation and slide show will be accompanied by a roundtable discussion featuring Russian professor George Cummins and art professors Jessie Poesch and Gail Feigenbaum. "Art historians really haven't looked into this," says Gotzkowsky, whose scholarly research up until now had focused on 16th-century German literature. Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky's life reads like an epic rags-to-riches-to-rags story.

Born in Poland in 1710, the son of an impoverished nobleman, Gotzkowsky built a fortune in Berlin as a haberdasher, jeweler and silk and velvet manufacturer. By 1750, Gotzkowsky was the largest employer in Berlin and a personal confidant to Prussian King Frederick the Great, who contracted the shrewd merchant to procure paintings for his new palace at Sans Soucis.

Frederick's dream never came to pass. Debt from the Seven Years War, which broke out in 1756, prevented Frederick from purchasing from Gotzkowsky the paintings he had collected, and Gotzkowsky's own debt to the Russian government for grain he had purchased during the war left him nearly bankrupt. At the time, Catherine the Great was intent on building for Russia a royal gallery to rival any in Europe, so in 1764, to pay off his debt, Gotzkowsky sold Catherine 226 paintings he had collected.

"It must have been a sad day in his life," says Gotzkowsky. While the fact that Gotzkowsky had sold paintings to Catherine has long been known, details of the transaction have remained sketchy.

Besides references to Rembrandts and Rubens in various historical documents, no one really knew what Gotzkowsky's collection encompassed. In the summer of 1997, Bodo Gotzkowsky spent a week at the state archive in Berlin studying Johann's papers.

There, shuffled in amongst letters and contracts, he discovered what would become his Rosetta Stone: a handwritten catalog describing every painting sold to Catherine. Titled "Specifications of My Very Best and Most Beautiful Original Paintings and Their Prices," the document provided concrete proof that the Gotzkowsky collection formed the core of the Hermitage.

Indeed, 95 of the paintings still hang at the Hermitage, and Gotzkowsky has traced another 11 of the paintings to museums in Moscow, provincial Russia and Washington, D.C. "I have no way of knowing where the remainder of the paintings are," Gotzkowsky says. Gotzkowsky hopes eventually to publish his research, including Johann's descriptions of the missing paintings.

"There is no telling what this may lead to," he says. "Some of the paintings may resurface." Gotzkowsky will soon have more time to work on his art history research. In May, after 33 years on the Tulane faculty, he will retire. "But this is a great way to go out," he says.

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