Title: The Gilded Age in Canada: reconstructing the life and afterlife of the Sir William Van Horne Collection
Speaker: Janet M. Brooke (Independent scholar, Montreal, Canada)
Abstract: Whereas the history of collecting during America’s “Gilded Age” is well documented, the phenomenon in Canada has been largely overlooked. Yet many European art collections were formed there, specifically in Montreal. Among them—and arguably the greatest—was that of the Canadian tycoon Sir William Van Horne (1843–1915).
Van Horne’s is a classic rags-to-riches story. Born to modest means in Illinois, he climbed the ranks of the railway business, immigrating to Canada in 1881 to lead the construction of its transnational line. Something of a born collector (as a boy, he studiously catalogued fossils), his aspirations swelled in step with his fortune, and by the end of his life he had assembled some 300 European paintings, from Renaissance panels to Post-Impressionist works. He took a keen interest in the emerging field of art history, building relationships with scholars, curators and fellow-collectors whom he welcomed enthusiastically to his baronial Montreal residence, alongside the British, Continental and American dealers who solicited his favour.
The reconstruction of Van Horne’s collection and its incremental dispersal is a compelling cautionary tale of the burdens of ownership. While memory of its existence echoed through the decades, knowledge of its full character and stature crumbled over time. Grounded in a newly-accessible family archive and augmented through a wide range of additional sources, this paper will share fresh research and fascinating details of the man, his evolving collecting vision, taste and networks, and the complex destiny of a collection that once stood with the best of its generation.