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From Brussels to the Baltic: Count Charles Cobenzl (1712–1770) and His Collection of Drawings

Catherine Phillips, St. Petersburg and Norwich, UK
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, January 2–February 28, 2018


Konstantin Ukhtomsky, The Gallery of Drawings in the New Hermitage, 1859. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; photograph by Leonard Kheifets, © The State Hermitage Museum

The existence, largely intact, of a collection of more than four thousand Old Master drawings formed in the 1760s is of itself a rare occurrence. That of Count Charles Cobenzl, most of which remains in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, offers a wealth of material on different fronts. One of very few significant eighteenth-century collections of drawings in the Austrian (Southern) Netherlands, it broadens our understanding of the picture beyond the main artistic centers (for drawings, France, the Dutch Netherlands, and England). This is illustrated by a simple analysis of numbers of drawings collections listed in sales catalogs of the period (see below). Moreover, when Catherine the Great purchased Cobenzl’s collection in 1768, it became, as far as we know, the first of only a handful of drawings collections in Russia in the eighteenth century.

A mass of supplementary information further illuminates contemporary collecting practice: most of the drawings are still on their original mounts, many in the boxes made for them in Brussels, and a manuscript catalog compiled in 1768 records the drawings individually. These boxes and mounts and the notations on them tell us that Cobenzl—based both geographically and culturally between Paris and the Dutch Netherlands—similarly reflected two different traditions in collecting works on paper, moving from a loose-leaf album-based system to the use of stiff mounts and boxes. Changes in the organization of his drawings are also attested in his abundant personal correspondence, which allows us not only to assess the finished collection but also to see how it was assembled over the years. Cobenzl’s letters throw light on the status and social aspects of collecting; they set out his preferences, illustrating his own understanding of individual drawings, of his collection as a whole, and indeed of a “collection” per se. As a noted bibliophile, credited with saving the Royal Library of Burgundy (composed largely of medieval manuscripts and historic texts and formed by the dukes of Burgundy), and founding the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels as a public institution, Cobenzl seems to have been guided by the idea of the collection as a comprehensive “dictionary” of artists.


During the two months of my fellowship I made considerable progress on my catalog of the drawings in Cobenzl’s collection, many of which have never been published. In the eighteenth century the question of attribution and the relative value of originals and copies was still in flux. Historical attributions of drawings have, therefore, much to tell us about attitudes and connoisseurship both within a specific circle and more generally. Moreover, not all apparently secondary drawings should be dismissed as “mere” copies: rather, it is among them that some of the most interesting works are to be found.

In the Cobenzl collection, a reassessment of a group of copies after paintings has already led to the establishment of the creative identity of Francesco Petrucci (1660–1719), one of the favorite artists of Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, previously known only from contemporary records. The rich and complementary sources of the National Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress produced a number of similarly rewarding discoveries, some of them entirely serendipitous.

A small sheet mistakenly acquired as a drawing, for example, is now revealed to be an extremely rare print after a small design for a lamp by Michelangelo (1475–1564; Fogg Museum, Harvard University), the work of French architect and sculptor Pierre Biard II (1592–1661), whose oeuvre is thus increased from twenty-six to twenty-seven known prints. A number of copies after Raphael (1483–1520), previously largely disregarded, can now be shown to occupy an important place in the development of several compositions by Raphael and his studio. A heavy ink drawing relating to The Standard Bearer, prints by Agostino da Veneziano (1490–1540) and Marcantonio Raimondi (c. 1470/1482–1527/1534) apparently after a design by Raphael, suggests the existence of an earlier drawing (by Raphael himself?), recorded only in this one sheet. The extensive body of recent publications on Raphael and his drawings has revealed the significance of other “copies,” perhaps the most interesting being Nude Transfiguration, an important addition to the relatively large body of studies and modelli (originals and copies) related to the (clothed) painting in the Vatican. Recent attention to a rather coarser compositional drawing with nude figures in the Albertina, which is dated to the middle of the sixteenth century, makes it possible to put the more finished Hermitage drawing in context and suggest that, though a copy, it should be placed somewhat earlier, perhaps immediately after the death of Raphael. These unexpected discoveries in the Cobenzl collection are now to be included in an exhibition in 2020 at the Hermitage marking the five hundredth anniversary of Raphael’s death.