Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, has announced the Gallery's acquisition of the core of the Ratjen Collection. Culminating a long relationship with the late Wolfgang Ratjen, the acquisition brings to the Gallery some of the greatest Italian and German drawings still in private hands.
"Wolfgang Ratjen was among the most discerning collectors in the twentieth century," Powell said. "His exquisite taste, extraordinary energy seeking the finest works available, and his intense desire to refine and improve his selection until his tragically early death made Ratjen a model of the pursuit for artistic quality that we all admire enormously."
The collection includes 65 Italian drawings dating from the High Renaissance to the end of the 18th century. Among the early masterpieces are a large mythological banquet scene by Luca Penni, an artist brought to France by François I to found the School of Fontainebleau (named for the king's rebuilt country palace), and the monumental Holy Family with the Infant John the Baptist by Pellegrino Tibaldi, among the foremost artists working in papal Rome in the mid-16th century. Jacopo Ligozzi, the premier still-life draftsman at the Medici court in Florence, created his watercolor A Marmot with a Branch of Plums in 1605. Also working for the Medici court, Stefano della Bella produced his chef d'oeuvre, the large, elegant Fall of Phaeton, c. 1655. Principal works from the 18th century include one of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's most powerful studies of a male figure, in red and white chalk on brilliant blue paper, as well as Canaletto's finest surviving drawing, The Maundy Thursday Festival before the Ducal Palace in Venice, c. 1766.
Even more extensive than the Italian drawings, 120 German drawings from 1580 to 1900 are by the preeminent artists from German-speaking areas of Europe, including Switzerland and Austria. Because American collectors have focused on Italian, Dutch, and French art, many of these artists are less well known in this country, but the Ratjen Collection, added to the Gallery's already strong holdings, will create the most comprehensive survey of German drawings outside Europe. Among the outstanding early examples are drawings by each of the three most renowned German mannerists: Friedrich Sustris, working primarily in Munich; Hans von Aachen, at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague; and Hans Rottenhammer, working in Venice and Augsburg. Adam Elsheimer, a favorite of both Rubens and Rembrandt, is represented by an extremely rare atmospheric gouache.
Ratjen especially pursued art by the great 18th-century painters who filled Bavarian churches and palaces with elaborate rococo altarpieces and ceiling frescoes, and he succeeded in forming a remarkable complex of their watercolors. German artists' development of a particular sensitivity to nature is demonstrated by an extensive series of luminous drawings and watercolors, highlighted by some of the best works of Johann Georg von Dillis and by Caspar David Friedrich's romantic masterpiece, New Moon above the Riesengebirge Mountains, 1810. All major movements of the 19th century are also represented, from romanticism to realism to impressionism and symbolism. A stunning group of five works by Adolph Menzel dates from 1840 to 1880 and includes his famously bold but sensitive pastel portrait of his sister Emilie, 1851.
Wolfgang Ratjen (1943–1997) was born in Berlin but moved to Liechtenstein as an infant with his family. Coming from a banking family, it was expected he might continue in that field; but at university his love for classical music flowered, soon followed by a passion for old master drawings. That passion, which he called "the most wonderful disease you can imagine," led him to become a professional collector. He pursued art historical knowledge as well as connoisseurship and sought the best Italian and German drawings he could find. With remarkable objectivity and characteristic humor, he refined his collection throughout his life, frequently upgrading or replacing good works with better ones, always seeking those of the highest quality. After his death his collection of drawings was cared for by the Ratjen Foundation in Liechtenstein, from which the Gallery was able to acquire it. Like all purchases of works of art made by the Gallery, the Ratjen Collection was acquired entirely with funds given by private individuals, including, in this case, a gratifying outpouring of financial support from many of the Gallery's donors in the field of old master prints and drawings.