Collecting art is about passion indeed. I chose Frederick the Great as a historic example of a passionate collector. Thanks to him Berlin has the most important collection of works by the French painter Antoine Watteau, after the Louvre in Paris.
Beside the fact Frederick has been the King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786 with the great ambition to safe Prussia the great power status aside from France, United Kingdom, Austria and the Netherlands, he also had preferences for the fine arts.
His love for the French language accompanied with his love for French art has been a thorn in the side of his father Frederick William I. In 1730 the father even forbids him the use of the French language. During the lifetime of Frederick the Great French was the language of the court etiquette and all fine cultural activities were held in French.
But Frederick the Great broke the rules of his father and even became a collector of French art and specially of works by the poetic artist Antoine Watteau. The Arcardian ideal worlds with their presence in Watteaus paintings were fascinating the young Frederick II. He wished to bring this utopian world to the Prussian court. What makes the fetes galantes by Watteau that unique is his way of depicting galant paradises, which were born in dreams and know how to charm everybody who is receptive to poetry.
The first acquirements of fetes galantes are documented in a letter Frederick II wrote to his sister Wilhelmine on 9 November 1739:
“[…]il y a deux chambres pleines de tableaux […]. La plupart de mes tableaux sont de Watteau ou de Lancret, tous deux peintres francais de l’école de Brabant.”
(Friedrich II, 1865, Vol. 1, p. 75, #72)
This is the first phase of the collecting activities as the crown prince even before he became the King of Prussia.
The second phase is the more widely and important phase during the development of Fredericks II collection. He acquired fetes galantes in the direct context of his building activities. In March 1744 he purchased two important works by Nicolas Lancret for the City Palace in Potsdam. It is documented that Frederick the Great had precise plans for the paintings. They all have their own particular places in the buildings. He also was obviously looking for works by Antoine Watteau for his collection, what can be seen in a letter from 1744.
In 1746 then Frederick II bought two works by Watteau from the art dealer Peter Boetgens. From then on he is the owner of the two most important works by Watteau generally. The “Embarkment on Cythera” and “L’enseigne. The shop sign” (see more infos in the slideshow below). During this main period of acquirements of fetes galantes (1745-1748) the king bought 18 works. Until 1748 there are over 50 works by French artists in the collection.
After the end of the Seven Year’s War (1763) the third and last phase of buying fetes galantes began. During this time the king became the owner of 24 new works by Watteau, Pater and Lancret.
All this ambitions make Frederick the Great the most important collector of works by the above mentioned artists Watteau, Pater and Lancret. To call Frederick the Great a collector of French fetes galantes is correct in a way, but it is very important too to underline that he didn’t only acquired French art. He is also regarded as a great collector of high quality Dutch art, e. g. by Rubens or by Antonis van Dyck and also of Italian art – there are over 600 works in his property.
All in all Frederick the Great has been a passionate collector of the French fetes galantes. During the 1750s he started acquiring works in the context of his building activities and the works need to fit into their provided niches.