How did a Dutch insurance man become the most important collector and confidant of symbolist artist Odilon Redon?
Dozens of beautiful works by the leading, late nineteenth-century French artists were what you saw when you stepped over the threshold of the Amsterdam residence of Andries Bonger (1861-1936). Bonger amassed an impressive art collection over a period of fifteen years, and it all began in Paris.
There, in 1879, just eighteen years old, he started out as the youngest employee at a trading firm. In his spare time he visited galleries and exhibitions, eagerly immersing himself in the world of contemporary art and feasting his eyes on it.
Yet he only began to collect seriously after returning to the Netherlands. His lucrative job as an insurance agent afforded him the financial means to do so. He bought and acquired works by Vincent van Gogh, Émile Bernard and Odilon Redon, among others.
His collection grew into one of the most important ones of French modern art in the Netherlands. That was nothing short of exceptional, given that Dutch collectors in this field could be counted on one hand.
During his time in Paris, Andries Bonger became bosom friends with Theo van Gogh, Vincent's brother. They shared a love of art and literature, about which they could talk for hours on end.
Thanks to his work as an art dealer, Theo was well acquainted with the Parisian art world and passed on his knowledge to Andries. ‘My eyes are opened wider every day,' Andries wrote about his friend’s insightful encouragement. Theo also introduced him to his brother Vincent, from whom Andries eventually acquired no fewer than seven paintings.
When Theo married Andries' sister Jo, the bond between the two families became even closer. It is therefore fitting that about half of Bonger's collection ended up in the Van Gogh Museum.
Andries Bonger wanted as complete a collection as possible of the work of two artists: Odilon Redon and Émile Bernard.
He met Bernard at Vincent van Gogh’s funeral. In that period, Bernard mainly painted religious themes in bright planes and colours. This appealed to Bonger, and he bought dozens of his works.
However, there was an artist with whom the collector felt an even greater affinity, namely Odilon Redon (1840-1916). It was in Theo's Parisian flat that Bonger first saw a work by him: Closed Eyes. It depicts a figure whose eyes are closed to visible reality.
That must have appealed to Bonger, for he, too, preferred to lose himself in a dream world amidst his works of art. Bonger considered the artist's profound work as the absolute high point of his time.
Andries Bonger believed that art was a direct expression of the maker's mind. A close relationship between collector and artist was necessary for a better understanding of the art.
Bonger and Redon came to share a deep and trusting bond. They met for the first time in Paris in 1891. When Bonger moved back to Amsterdam two years later, they kept in close touch through letters, more than 300 of which have been preserved.
The two men shared a passion for music and literature and corresponded extensively about the art of their time. Naturally, they often discussed the works by Redon that Bonger wanted to buy or had already acquired.
Ultimately, over a period of fourteen years, Bonger assembled a collection that was representative of Redon's entire oeuvre, from his early charcoal drawings and prints in deep black to his later pastels and paintings in colour.
Bonger gave a place to all the works of art by Redon and other artists that he collected in his home. They covered the walls in a carefully orchestrated hanging. He compared this to composing a piece of music, where each new work adds a note to the harmony of the whole. The result was a work of art in itself.
Redon was closely involved in this project. He suggested, for example, hanging the works on yellow wallpaper, which the collector subsequently did. In addition, Redon selected the frames and passe-partouts for his own works, because he felt that this was crucial to the experience of his art.
The impressive result of both men’s efforts can be seen in these photographs.
The crowning glory of Bonger's collection were the decorative works that Redon and Bernard made especially for his home. Both artists ensured that they formed a whole with the art already hanging there.
Bernard, for instance, decorated a mirror frame and a fireplace screen that matched the colour palette of the artworks of Redon. Redon made the decorative panels The Buddha and The Red Tree, which were recessed in the wall as if they were murals.
These decorative works fulfilled a great wish of Bonger. He wrote to Redon in 1903:
‘It was a dream of mine to one day have a small house furnished according to my personal taste and decorated by you and Bernard.’
Bonger often let the artists whose art he bought choose their own frames. He was convinced that they knew which one best suited their work.
As these pictures rarely changed hands, all the original frames have been preserved. This is exceptional, and affords invaluable information, because it means we know how the artists themselves wanted to present their work.
Redon usually asked his regular frame-maker J. Boyer in Montmartre to provide a fitting frame. Boyer chose subtle gold ones that lent Redon's paintings a rarefied aspect. For important works, such as the flower still life Vision, Boyer opted for a splendid white frame with gold inlay.
The importance Redon attached to the framing of his work emerges in this letter to Bonger. He wrote:
‘Above all, tell me about the frames for which I took responsibility and about the effect of the works. [...] How sensitive they seem to me, and affected by the things that surround them.’