Madonna meets Mad Meg. Masterpieces and Their Collectors
Fritz and Florent’s contemporaries tended to view Bruegel’s Dulle Griet and Fouquet’s Madonna as impoverished, nondescript, weird or downright ugly. Fortunately, the two collectors took another view. They broke completely with the fashions of their time in their quest for that one special masterpiece.
It goes without saying that Fouquet and Bruegel are the real masters behind the Madonna and Mad Meg. Yet it is thanks to the master collectors Florent van Ertborn (1784–1840) and Fritz Mayer van den Bergh (1858–1901) that we are able to enjoy these masterpieces today. These two figures from Antwerp collected paintings, sculptures, manuscripts and other art objects with immense passion. Their acquisitions were often bargains, sometimes investments and occasionally brilliant discoveries. Both collectors were far ahead of their time. For centuries, Rubens was considered the greatest artist and there was barely any interest in Flemish masters like Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Quentin Massys and Rogier van der Weyden, or in the work of the French artist Jean Fouquet. Van Ertborn and Mayer van den Bergh, by contrast, recognized the quality of this art.
Beginning on 5 October 2019, this pair of astute collectors invite you to visit the Mayer van den Bergh Museum in Antwerp, where Fritz and Florent will sweep you up in their passion for collecting and share several of their masterpieces. The highlight is the recently restored Mad Meg by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Fritz rediscovered the painting precisely 125 years ago and purchased it at auction in Cologne, where the enigmatic work was displayed high up on a saleroom wall. The young collector proved more alert than the various prestigious museums and was able to acquire the strange work for just 488 old Belgian francs. It turned out to be the purchase of Fritz’s life, as the masterpiece was believed lost at the time.
Florent van Ertborn, who acquired around a hundred of the masterpieces that now belong to the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp (KMSKA), had a similar nose for brilliant discoveries. Fouquet’s highly unusual Madonna – after more than 500 years, still one of the loveliest French paintings – was purchased from a Paris art dealer. To get hold of Antonello da Messina’s Calvary, meanwhile, Van Ertborn came to an arrangement with a Ghent collector, who could have sold the little Italian panel for a hefty sum. The precise details have yet to be discovered, but Van Ertborn most likely traded several other works for Antonella da Messina’s masterpiece.
Fritz’s acquisition of the Christmas cradle might have been a stroke of luck, as the piece formed part of a substantial lot, on which he took a huge financial risk. Connoisseurs and collectors viewed the cradle as a medieval toy, but Mayer van den Bergh spotted the household object’s exceptional quality. Nuns in the fifteenth century would pull on the string while singing songs, causing the cradle to rock and the little bells to jingle –a mystical experience that appealed to the senses.