Richard Feigen, who died at the age of 90 from complications related to the coronavirus last week at his home in Mount Kisco, New York, had a discerning eye and a frankness that has earned him his reputation as a formidable Old Masters dealer. Revered by colleagues, collectors, and museum curators, he first made his name showing contemporary artists like Francis Bacon, Joseph Cornell and Claes Oldenburg and cultivating a focus on German Expressionist as a dealer in Chicago and New York during late 1950s and early 1960s. But his pivot toward focusing largely on Old Masters works in the decades afterward cemented his place in history.
Known for being as rigorous a collector as he was an art dealer, Feigen cultivated strong ties to art institutions. By field experts close to Feigen, he is remembered as one of the most prolific dealers of his generation to museums and a figure unafraid to be blunt with curators and museum directors. Below, a survey of the many ways he contributed to museum collections around the world.
“An Extraordinary Eye”
Feigen’s gallery, Richard L. Feigen & Co., estimates that it has placed works by Old Masters artists around 120 museums. One of them was the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, whose holdings were augmented by sales Feigen facilitated. “He had an extraordinary eye and was a great connoisseur,” said Eric Lee, the museum’s director. “He always thought of the context when he considered placing a work of art.”
One of the most important acquisitions the Kimbell made through Feigen was its 1984 purchase of Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Four Figures on a Step (1655–60). The Kimbell Murillo depicts a set of figures akin to the painter’s renderings of characters on the streets of 17th-century Seville. The painter’s intention with the work is debated among scholars, but it is believed it may serve as a moral message about earthly temptations or as an allegory for the four stages of life.
Feigen purchased the rediscovered painting from the heirs of Charles Feldman, who were based in Greenwich, Connecticut, after asking the dealer to examine three works left in their family’s estate. At the time of the purchase, Bill Jordan, a Spanish painting expert and deputy director of the museum, helped bring the work to the Kimbell.
“It had come to the U.S. during the 19th century, and it had been lost for decades,” said Lee. “He knew immediately what this was.” Today, Lee said, the work ranks among the “most iconic paintings in the Kimbell’s collection. I think it’s one of the greatest Murillos in America.”
Other major works Feigen brought to the Kimbell’s collection was Nicolas Poussin’s Venus and Adonis (1628–1629) in 1985, Goffredo (Gottfried) Wals’s Country Road by a House (ca. 1620s) in 1991, and Richard Parkes Bonnington’s Grand Canal, Venice, Looking Toward the Rialto (1826) in 2009. The purchase of the latter work would set the stage for another significant purchase of a rediscovered work by Bonnington, a rare oil sketch, The Interior of San Ambrogio, Milan (1826) in 2016 and Wals’s was the first work by the artist ever to enter a public collection in the U.S.
The Poussin acquisition, which sparked controversy at the time over disagreements on its attribution, eventually led to an exhibition that established a new chronology around the artist’s output. “It was an enormously important exhibition in terms of scholarship, and it all began with that painting,” said Lee. “It also began with the sureness of Richard’s connoisseurship, when he believed in this painting when a leading Poussin expert, Anthony Blunt, had rejected it.”
The Kimbell was not the only U.S. institution altered by Feigen, however. In 2000, he sold Bernardo Cavallino’s Triumph of Galatea, which had belonged previously to one of his high-profile clients, the American financier Saul P. Steinberg, to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for around $2 million. Over the next decade, the National Gallery also bought works by Horace Vernet and Narcisse Diaz de la Peña from Feigen.
Yet Feigen’s gallery, which specializes in art spanning seven centuries, also helped foreign museums make significant deals too. In his early days, Feigen had been known as a prominent dealer of German Expressionist art, and in 1978, he sold George Grosz’s Metropolis (1916–17), an allegorical scene depicting an apocalyptic Berlin following the first world war, to the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid. “It’s a very important picture in this context,” said Puppa Sayn Wittgenstein Nottebohm, an Old Masters dealer whose gallery joined Feigen’s in 2018.
Metropolis was confiscated and shown in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in 1937, through which the Nazi regime targeted modern art, and was later sold by the Third Reich at Galerie Fischer in Lucerne to fund Hitler’s rearmament program. Feigen helped raise the profile of works such as these, also selling another major Grosz painting called Lovesick Man (1916) to the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf.
“He was incredibly passionate. He wasn’t just a dealer who saw these things as merchandise,” Nottebohm said.
A Master-Class Collection
Feigen began collecting at a young age, buying his first artwork at an antique store around the age of 14. Over the course of his lifetime, he wound up amassing a collection mainly comprising Italian Old Masters from the 14th–17th centuries. Periodically, he parted with pieces from his holdings, either by selling or gifting them to museums.
Feigen’s legacy is perhaps most closely tied to the Yale University Gallery of Art, the museum of the Connecticut school that the dealer himself once attended. Feigen maintained a close relationship with Yale curator Laurence Kanter, and the museum even mounted a show of works from Feigen’s holdings in 2010.
Since then, Yale’s collection has received various notable works from Feigen. One is Paolo Uccello’s tempera on panel Triumphal Entry into Rome of Titus and Vespasian (1430), a work depicting Roman forces returning from the siege of Jerusalem, which entered the collection in 2015. Another is a rare still life by 17th-century Italian Mannerist Orsola Maddalena Caccia, titled Vases of Flowers on a Table, that Feigen purchased for $39,900 at the Viennese auction house Dorotheum in 2016.
And in 2019, on the occasion of the museum’s 150th anniversary, Feigen gifted Carlo Saraceni’s altarpiece The Dormition of the Virgin (ca. 1612) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in honor of director Max Hollein. (The current Met director is the son of architect Hans Hollein, who designed one of Feigen’s New York galleries during the 1970s.) European paintings curator, Keith Christiansen, described it as, “a major gift that transforms the Museum’s representation of Baroque painting.”
The Getty Museum in Los Angeles, too, received some key works from Feigen—albeit through less conventional means. In 2009, during the financial crisis, he sold J. M. W. Turner’s The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius (1814–16), depicting dancing figures against a Greek temple, which he bought at Christie’s London in 1982 for $1.1 million. The Getty purchased it at Sotheby’s for $12.9 million, at the low end of its $12 million–$16 million estimate. Years later, another piece the Getty bought from Feigen’s collection was Orazio Gentileschi’s painting, Danaë and the Shower of Gold (ca. 1623), for $30.5 million, at Sotheby’s in 2016.
One of his earliest contributions to the Getty includes the 1978 sale of Flemish artist Michael Sweerts’s 1654 painting of a smiling peasant titled Head of Woman, which Feigen acquired from an Irish private collection.
The Sought-After Pietà
Feigen once described himself as “a collector in dealer’s clothes,” and some museums benefitted from his unique working style. Ever the diplomat, he engineered acquisitions by navigating a complex market that involved relying on players in both the institutional and commercial spheres.
That was the case with the Louvre, which in 2014 acquired a painting of the pietà by 15th-century Valencian painter Gonçal Peris Sarrià. When the painting came up for auction in 2008 at Christie’s in Paris, the Louvre could not afford it because the museum had focused on putting a significant chunk of its budget toward buying an Ingres’s painting of a French statesman, Portrait of Louis-Mathieu Molé. The Peris work, which had been in a French collection for more than a century, went to Feigen, who purchased the painting for $790,300, well above its estimate of $125,300.
Guillaume Kientz, a former curator at the Louvre, was told by museum colleagues that trying to obtain the work would be a lost cause, believing it would likely end up at Yale. But Kientz persisted, later arranging to meet Feigen for the first time in New York to view his private collection. There, Kientz indicated his interest in acquiring the work for the museum. A few years later, Feigen told Kientz that he was considering selling the picture. After corralling trustees on the Amis du Louvre committee to back the purchase, Kientz asked Feigen to bring the painting to Frieze Masters in London, where the curator worked with the head of the Louvre’s paintings department, Sébastien Allard, to secure it.
“It was kind of a tradition of the Amis du Louvre buying important early Spanish paintings for the collection,” Kientz said, referring to the major acquisition of four panels by 14th-century painter Bernart Martorell by the committee a century earlier. The Louvre finally bought the Peris for €700,000 ($930,000).
Kientz still regrets the fact that the museum couldn’t buy the Peris work back in 2008, when the museum was also vying for the Ingres. “I still think that it’s a failure of us that we couldn’t buy both,” Kientz said. But in this end, “stars aligned”—thanks, largely, to Feigen.