Exhibitions Museums France

Fondation Custodia aims to be the place to see drawings in Paris

New exhibition programme is helping to put the institution on the cultural map

Tintoretto’s Study of the Head of Michelangelo's Giuliano de’Medici, around 1545/60. © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Grotesques by Michelangelo, studies by Tintoretto of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Giuliano de’ Medici, preparatory sketches for Raphael’s Vatican frescoes, studies of mummified body parts and a drawing of an unrealised tomb for Cardinal Francesco Armellini—the loathsome administrator of papal finances who was so detested by the Roman people that one historian blamed him for the city’s sacking in 1527: just a sampling of the 90 Old Master drawings on display in the exhibition “Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo: Italian Drawings from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt (1430-1600)” at the Fondation Custodia in Paris (until 21 June).

It is the third Old Master show to be staged by the 68-year-old French foundation since the launch of its exhibition programme last year. The initiative is part of the institution’s plan to extend its reach to become the place to see drawings in Paris, says the foundation’s director Ger Luijten—the former head of the Rijksmuseum’s department of prints and drawings. “We have one of the world’s greatest collections of drawings next to Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Devonshire,” he says.

Indeed, the Fondation Custodia has more than 7,000 drawings, 30,000 prints and 220 paintings from the 15th to the mid-19th century, with a heavy concentration of works by 16th and 17th-century Dutch and Flemish masters, as well as ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian artefacts, fine Chinese porcelain and Indian miniatures. The collection was amassed by the Dutchman Frits Lugt (1884-1970) who Luijten describes as a self-taught, “restrained collector” who preferred depictions of everyday life to allegorical scenes. The collection also includes 55,000 artists’ letters, including two of the seven extant letters written by Rembrandt, one of which offers advice on how to hang one of his paintings.

Luijten is actively adding to the foundation’s collection, buying works directly from other private collections or at art fairs, including The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht. Its assemblage of letters is the area experiencing the most growth, with one or two being acquired every week.

The foundation is a study collection and while Luijten stresses that it is “open to absolutely anyone with an interest in the collection”, it was off many cultural seekers’ radar until it launched its exhibition programme in a neighbouring building formerly occupied by the Dutch Institute, which was forced to close in 2013 because of budget cuts. The hope is that the current 100 visitors a day will grow to around 200.

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