January 31, 2011
In a comprehensive new book, the museum's senior curator, Sara Campbell, sheds light on this often-overlooked museum and the man who founded it. Collector Without Walls tells the story of Norton Simon — the businessman behind Hunt-Wesson Foods, Canada Dry and Avis — who had an eye for great art and a knack for collecting it.
The successful industrialist approached his art museum with a businesslike efficiency. When he came to visit, he would inspect his collection, but never linger,
"He asked everybody what they thought about the collection,"
But after gathering the information so democratically, Simon would dowhatever he wanted,
Chief Curator Carol Togneri met Simon when she was working at the
Simon constantly asked such questions. He wanted to be the best and have the best — and often, he succeeded. His accomplishment is measured by some 8,000 works of art, collected over three decades, starting in 1954.
No more than 800 or 900 of those pieces are on display in his
The portrait of the young boy with golden locks and rosy cheeks is one of three Rembrandt paintings in the collection; but if Simon had had his way, there would have been four. He had planned to bid against the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the master's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, but wouldn't match their bid of $2.3 million. So the painting belongs to the Met; it's the One That Got Away.
Simon kept careful track of all the numbers. "He remembered every price he ever paid,"
Over the years, Simon began loosening his purse strings. Twenty years later, he bought his most expensive piece — for a whopping $4.2 million. The painting is a 15th-century resurrection scene by Flemish painter Dieric Bouts, priced because of its rarity. But the regal depiction of Jesus, wrapped in a red cloth, also has outstanding artistic merits, says Togneri.
"It is a great painting," she says. "Look at the detail. Look at the way that the armor is painted — the reflection of the morning light — that brooding sky."
Before the Bouts and the Rembrandts, Simon's earliest purchases were comparatively modest. He paid $16,000 for a late Renoir and $300 for a painting by 20th century American artist Dan Lutz. He bought the works to decorate his new house,
Over the next years, Simon bought 80 works of art, spending about $1.5 million. He was a quick learner and a big spender. His tutors in art education were important art dealers in
"Mr. Simon was an industrialist, a businessman,"
Simon appreciated the art that he collected, but kept an emotional distance from it — especially when it came to buying and selling.
"There are times when he has been quoted saying, 'I have to maintain some distance from this or it will consume me,'" says
Simon needed to be able to decide when to sell a piece and when to walk away from a difficult dealer.
"Sometimes it worked, [and] the dealers quickly lowered their price and sometimes they didn't,"
Simon died in 1993, but since 1974, the artwork he collected have been on view at the handsome