Who Was Josef Stransky?

Josef Stransky purchased the 1785 Delapierre portrait from Thomas Agnew & Sons on 5 March 1929. (Courtesy of Musical America.)

Josef Stransky (9 September 18721– 6 March 1936 2) was a legendary art collector and partner in the art gallery E. Gimpel & Wildenstein in New York City. The gallery became Wildenstein & Company in 1933.

Stransky joined the gallery as a full-time partner after conducting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 1911 to 1923,3 followed by a brief stint conducting the new State Symphony Orchestra of New York.4

He purchased the 1785 Delapierre portrait from Thos. Agnew & Sons for $3,000.00 on 5 March 1929. This was determined by cross-referencing the number "6899"—written on a small, partially obscured Thos. Agnew & Sons label attached to the back of the canvas stretcher—with the Agnew's inventory ledger in London that documented the purchase and sale of that item.5 (A coded entry on the same ledger line revealed that Agnew's had purchased the painting from Ugo Bardini on 1 October 1928 for an undisclosed sum.6)

Although Stransky sold several of his paintings and donated others during his lifetime and bequeathed some of his collection upon his death on 6 March 1936,7 neither he nor his widow parted with the Delapierre portrait while they were alive, and it was not put on the market until after her death on 2 February 1954.8 Thereupon, it was sold at a Parke-Bernet Galleries (now Sotheby's) estate auction in New York to O. Roy Chalk and his wife Claire on the afternoon of 16 October 1954.9

Stransky's Art Collection

Before his untimely death in 1936, Stransky amassed an unparalleled private art collection that included scores of major impressionist and post-impressionist paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Degas, Cezanne, Matisse, Seurat, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pissarro, Sisley, Delacroix, Ingres, Corot, Courbet, Daumier, Derain, Boudin, Modigliani, Segonzac, Fantin-Latour, Vuillard, Utrillo, Vlaminck, Guys, Laurencin, Rouault, Gromaire, and others.10 He also owned a large collection of old master paintings, and was a recognized authority on the old masters.11

Had this group of works remained intact and in private hands, today it would be one of the most valuable privately held art collections in the world.12

References and notes

[3] From Maud Dale's introduction to "The Private Collection of Josef Stransky," The Art News, Volume XXIX, Number 33, New York, May 16, 1931, pp. 86-117: "When he came to New York in 1911 he found a small-sized orchestra of inferior quality with funds available for only one more season and with a subscription of $28,000. When he retired twelve years later the Philharmonic Orchestra was one of the foremost in the country and the subscription had passed the $185,000 mark."

[4] Stransky resigned as conductor of the newly formed State Symphony Orchestra of New York unexpectedly in December 1924 with these words: "So far, music has been my occupation and pictures my hobby. Now the reverse is true; the masters of painting are my chief concern. Music is still my joy, but one cannot devote all his time to joy only." (From Stransky's obituary in The New York Times, March 7, 1936, p. 15.)

[5] See labels below and entry for item number "6899" (1 October 1928) in inventory ledger, Thos. Agnew & Sons, London. The ledger line includes notations indicating that the portrait was sold to Josef Stransky for $3,000.00 on 5 March 1929 and that the Agnew's New York office was involved in the Stransky transaction. (For images and detailed descriptions of these notations, see note 23 in Who Were Stefano and Ugo Bardini?)

Large label on back of 1785 Delapierre canvas stretcher.  

Small label on back of 1785 Delapierre canvas stretcher (item number "6899").

[6] Ibid.

[7] The New York Times, Tuesday, 24 March 1936, pp. 14, 44.

[8] The New York Times, Wednesday, 3 February 1954, p. 23.

[9] Parke-Bernet auction catalog (French XVIII Century Furniture and Objects of Art, Friday & Saturday, October 15 & 16 at 1:45 p.m., 980 Madison Avenue, New York, 1954), page 56, item number 258 (illustrated), signed and dated 1785. Curiously, the painting was misattributed in the catalog to the artist "Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre" (French: 1713-1789).

[10] "The Private Collection of Josef Stransky," The Art News, Volume XXIX, Number 33, New York, May 16, 1931, pp. 86-117.

[11] From Maud Dale's introduction to "The Private Collection of Josef Stransky," The Art News, Volume XXIX, Number 33, New York, May 16, 1931, pp. 86-117: "Josef Stransky retired at the height of his musical career in order to devote himself entirely to the fine arts. His hobby became his profession and his profession his hobby. A serious student of painting since his early youth, he is now known not only as a collector and fine judge of modern pictures but he has become a recognized authority on the works of the old masters." Then, from Ralph Flint's segment of the introduction: "…long before he ever dreamed of occupying a seat on the New York Art Exchange, Stransky was a collector. Even in his student days when music was his ruling passion the acquisitive urge proved so irresistible that on one occasion he spent his entire holdings for a coveted painting. How many times he has repeated that early performance it would be difficult to say.  …today the Stransky collection stands as one of the finest, most comprehensively selected sequences of French art of the XVIIIth, XIXth, and XXth centuries that is to be met with either here or abroad. Considering the wide range and completeness of the Stransky collection it can only be hoped that it will be kept together in the years to come, for it should stand intact as a fitting memorial to a great collector and art lover."

[12] One of the many Pablo Picasso paintings formerly owned by Stransky—"Les Noces de Pierrette" ["Pierrette's Wedding"]—became the second most expensive painting ever sold when it brought $51.3 million at a Paris auction on 30 November 1989. See also Auguste Renoir Gallery, Most Expensive Paintings Ever, Item #8.