Book Series XIX: Studies in 19th-Century Art and Visual Culture, vol. 9

Private Collectors in Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent, ca. 1780-1914

Between Public Relevance and Personal Pleasure

Ulrike Müller

  • Pages: 376 p.
  • Size:216 x 280 mm
  • Illustrations:19 b/w, 128 col., 3 tables b/w.
  • Language(s):English
  • Publication Year:2024

  • ISBN: 978-2-503-60619-4
  • Hardback
  • Available

This book explores from an interdisciplinary and comparative perspective, the changing public role and relevance of private art and antique collectors in Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent during the long nineteenth century (ca. 1780-1914).


Ulrike Müller is an assistant professor in heritage studies at Antwerp University and a post-doctoral researcher at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, specializing in the history and theory of collections and museums. She received a joint PhD in art history and history from the Universities of Ghent and Antwerp, respectively (2019). Her research focuses on public and private collecting, material culture, taste and the art market, in Belgium and internationally.


In the first half of the nineteenth century, Belgium was repeatedly praised as a country of collectors and amateurs, and private art and antique collectors were important and highly visible actors in urban cultural life. At a time when the public museum was still a relatively recent innovation, private collections were quite easily accessible for local and international visitors of the same social rank as the collectors. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the collector’s position in the public sphere had changed dramatically. Private collections were less accessible to an ever-expanding and increasingly culture-consuming public, and functioned more strongly in the context of the personal and explicitly private aims and networks of their owners.

This book uncovers the premises and reasons for private collectors’ shifting public role and relevance in nineteenth-century Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent. It examines the specific social, cultural, political, artistic and material context of private collectors’ activity. Its main focus is on three related issues: 1) collectors’ social profiles and networks; 2) collectors’ tastes; and 3) the function, accessibility, display and reception of the collections. Attention is also paid to the differences between Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent with regard to the urban collecting cultures. The book intends to further our understanding of the diverse ways in which private collectors interacted with the social, cultural and artistic life of their cities and what the collectors’ changing relationship to the public sphere can tell us about broader shifts in nineteenth-century culture, art and society.


Private collectors and the public sphere: An introduction
1. The collector as a research subject
2. Towards a collective biography
3. Of amateurs, connoisseurs and collectionneurs
4. Sources, methods and the urban dimension
5. Looking ahead
1. An elite cultural practice in an age of transition
1.1. Preserving national heritage at the dawn of the nineteenth century
1.2. Belgian amateurs through the eyes of international travellers, ca. 1780-1860
1.3. Transformation of the collector scene, ca. 1860-1914
1.4. Personal profiles, artistic taste and local identities
1.5. Gender norms and the exclusivity of private collections
2. Enlightenment and the persistence of noble collecting, ca. 1780-1860
2.1. Arenberg. A rich tradition of collecting
2.2. The picture gallery and the art historical canon
2.3. Patronage and politics
2.4. Contemporary art and (semi-)private spaces
2.5. The adaptation and (dis)continuation of an influential model
3. Local historiography and Romantic imagination, ca. 1815-1880
3.1. Ghent as a city of antiquarian collecting
3.2. Heritage and experience in the Musée Minard-Van Hoorebeke
3.3. The collector’s cabinet as a place of artistic inspiration
3.4. Family bonds, gender and the maintenance of a legacy
3.5. The end of Romantic collecting
4. The rise of Belgian art and its patrons, ca. 1830-1860
4.1. Cultural politics and the public life of private collections
4.2. Théodore de Coninck and the encouragement of the Belgian school in Ghent
4.3. The lithograph album: Dissemination and self-presentation
4.4. Common goals, distinct tastes …
4.5. … and personal agendas
5. The amateur in an expanding art world, ca. 1850-1900
5.1. Inventing the golden age of private collections: Politics and nostalgia
5.2. The Huybrechts family and the status of contemporary art in Antwerp
5.3. Elite sociability and the collector’s private realm
5.4. Forging a new position in the public sphere
5.5. The public-private divide
6. The cultural significance of the aesthete, ca. 1880-1914
6.1. Personal taste and national representativeness
6.2. Charles-Léon Cardon and his multiple roles in the art world
6.3. The lure of the Early Flemish Masters
6.4. The private interior as a work of (national) art
6.5. A model of taste
6.6. Private collections and public impact
7.  The emancipation of female taste, ca. 1890-1914
7.1. The disinterested maecenas and the collection as an alternative social space
7.2. Emma Lambotte and the avant-garde in Antwerp
7.3. The home as a means of self-expression and distinction
7.4. Women and the canon of modern Belgian art

List of abbreviations
Appendix 1: Belgian and international travel guides and travelogues. Selected case studies (62 sources)
Appendix 2: Private collectors cited in Belgian and international travel guides and travelogues (62 sources)
Appendix 3: Art and amateur journals published in Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent. Selected case studies (4 journals)
Appendix 4: Private collectors cited in art and amateur journals published in Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent (4 journals)
Appendix 5: Database (list of the 121 most important private collectors active in nineteenth-century Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent that were encountered in the course of this research, containing, among others, the collectors’ personal details, addresses, information about their social background, professions, networks, tastes, content of their collections, etc.)