In 1908, The Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased from the French art dealer Kleinberger Galleries a sixteenth-century portrait believed to be that of Johann, Duke of Saxony, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The Museum’s paintings curator, Roger Fry, had learned of the availability of this little-known work by the German Renaissance master late in 1907, and through correspondence with Kleinberger confirmed its provenance and attribution, which were attested by the eminent art historians Max Friedländer and Wilhelm von Bode. The picture crossed the Atlantic on the Courraine, arrived at the Met on February 3, and was installed in its galleries soon after. It was the first work by Cranach the Elder in the Metropolitan’s collection.
Since this picture was acquired by the museum more than a century ago, it has been the subject of extensive curatorial research and writing, technical analysis and conservation treatment, and lively scholarly debate. It has also been viewed by hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum’s European paintings galleries, where today it hangs near works by Hans Holbein the Younger, Hans Memling, and other German Renaissance artists.
The era in which Johann’s portrait arrived in New York was one of tremendous change for the Metropolitan Museum. Founded in 1870, the Met during its first three decades rose slowly to preeminence among American art museums by growing its collections, gallery space, budget, staff, and audience. After 1904, however, under the leadership of its president, J. P. Morgan, the scale of the museum’s operations and the scope of its collections, programs and ambitions expanded dramatically. Large bequests of acquisition funds, such as that of Jacob S. Rogers, and the munificence of trustees like Morgan enabled the Met to spend freely at a time when European masterpieces were being aggressively marketed to American buyers. While Roger Fry, and his successor as paintings curator Bryson Burroughs, eagerly bought pictures for the Met’s burgeoning galleries, new administrative staff formalized registration and cataloging procedures, streamlined business operations, established exhibition and loan protocols, and expanded educational programs.
In art museums across the United States and around the world, the work and staff associated with museum administration was increasingly professionalized in the early twentieth century. A body of knowledge related to museum collection management, display, and visitor service coalesced in these years into what we might today refer to as “best practices.” In fact, many of the approaches developed then continue to influence how museums like the Met collect, preserve, publish, and display artworks and information about them in the twenty-first century. People who view the Cranach portrait of Johann in a Met gallery today can augment their experience by consulting several sources of information provided by the museum: a label hung alongside the object, a presentation by a staff educator or docent, an audio guide chat, or information shared on the museum’s website. With the exception of the internet presentation, each of these techniques has been in use by the Met for more than half a century. And all of them—including online display—draw on a deep pool of art historical information that was researched, authored, prepared for public distribution, and preserved across the decades by dozens of museum experts.
Facets of this accumulated knowledge have also left physical traces that most museum visitors are unlikely to encounter, such as catalog cards, business correspondence, curatorial notes, out-of-print publications, and photographs stored in file cabinets and storage areas across the institution. Some of this documentation is now held by the central Museum Archives, and portions have been digitized and posted online, where the general public can access it. Nonetheless, a great deal remains distributed around the building, typically in the offices of those departments whose staff originally created or collected relevant materials: registrars, curators, conservators, photographers, archivists, and many others. Thus, accessing this information requires a great deal of implicit institutional knowledge.
The museum’s Drawings & Prints department owns a copy of an 1851 catalogue of works by Cranach, Christian Schuchardt’s Lucas Cranach des Aeltern: Leben und Werke. This work includes what is apparently the earliest printed reference to the portrait of Johann. Documentation concerning the later provenance of the portrait, and its purchase by the Met, appears in the business records of the Kleinberger Galleries, which were acquired by the museum in the 1970s. Art dealer records such as these, which have become increasingly accessible to scholars in recent years, provide evidence of the provenance of thousands of artworks in museums and private collections around the world and also illuminate business practices in the art world since the nineteenth century. Established in Paris in 1848 by Franz Kleinberger, Kleinberger Galleries developed a business model focused on the sale of thirteenth-to-eighteenth-century European artworks to American clients. Around 1913, they opened a New York gallery, which was managed by E. M. Sperling. Several decades later, the son, Harry G. Sperling, became president of the gallery. Sperling developed a strong business relationship with the Met and proved especially useful when it expanded its drawings and prints collections in the mid-twentieth century. Following Harry Sperling’s death in 1971, Kleinberger Galleries closed. Besides bequeathing an endowment to the museum for the purchase of European drawings, Sperling left the Met a portion of the Kleinberger Galleries business records. This material comprised stock cards for several thousand artworks acquired and sold by the business from the late nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth century. The card for the Cranach portrait of Johann was among them.
Since arriving at the Met, these stock cards have resided in the European Paintings department, where they continue to be consulted by Met curators. The records have informed provenance descriptions and the cataloging of art that the Met acquired directly from Kleinberger. The stock cards have also occasionally been made available to provenance researchers from other museums, as well as to art historians and graduate students. Currently, Met staff from the European Paintings department, the Watson Library, and the Museum Archives are collaborating to completely digitize these stock cards, and to present them online in a searchable format that will make them accessible worldwide.
Returning to the story of the Met’s Cranach, once the museum took possession of the picture in February 1908, staff members began their work of documentation, research, and publication. The museum registrar recorded basic information regarding its acquisition in an accession book. Curator Fry declared in the Met Bulletin that the picture was “remarkable for the extraordinary perfection of its lacquer-like surface,” and he also presented the evidence then available about the identification of Johann.1 In later decades, successors to Fry as well as outside art historians would freshly analyze the picture and present differing perspectives on its date, authorship and the identity of the sitter. Copies of scholarly articles and catalog entries spanning the twentieth century are now contained in a file on the picture in the European Paintings department office, and many are also accessible in the Museum’s central library. Still more information came to light as recently as 2007, when infrared reflectography imaging of the portrait revealed underdrawing in the sitter’s hands that Cranach had chosen to leave barely visible to suggest veins—a technique noted in other works by the artist. X-ray photographs revealed another Cranach device of layering paint to define the contours of the sitter’s figure.
These images complement earlier photographs of the picture made by staff in the museum’s photograph studio (the first was taken in March 1908 just after its acquisition), which appeared in such publications as A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings (New York, 1947). Decades-old photographs remain valuable to conservators today because they document the physical condition of the picture in earlier times, providing a basis for comparison when assessing the object’s current state. Glass and plastic film negatives of images made prior to the use of digital photography remain in a museum cold storage vault, while images made in the digital era are preserved in a digital asset management system, which can be consulted by staff across the museum electronically. Photographs and related data about thousands of Met-owned artworks, including this Cranach, are freely available online to anyone in the world for unrestricted use through the museum’s Open Access program.
In art museums, where objects may reside for hundreds of years, knowledge about them accumulates slowly over time through the collective efforts of many people who explore archival evidence, conduct scientific research, and manage collections. The information created and saved by each generation that cares for and studies these objects is safeguarded in multiple locations—physical and now virtual—across these institutions. In the digital era, many such disparate sources of knowledge are being brought together virtually in shared databases and online publications that make them more widely accessible than ever before. As art and accompanying metadata are made increasingly visible and shareable, museums are entering into new conversations with a truly global audience about the objects that they hold in public trust. A challenge for the future of art museums is to encourage dialogue and interactivity with their collections, and to document and preserve evidence of public engagement so that this knowledge may be shared with future generations as well.
James Moske is managing archivist at the Museum Archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His Twitter handle is @JimMoske.
Marguerite-Marie Luquet, former Met Archives intern, provided research support for this essay and metadata analysis of the Kleinberger Galleries stock cards
- Roger E. Fry, “Portrait of a Man by Lucas Cranach the Elder,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3, no. 5 (May 1908): 87–88, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3253349. ↩︎