The Orléans Collection:
Masterpieces Reunited

Antoine Coypel, Assembly of the Gods, 1702. Oil sketch on canvas.

© RMN-Grand Palais / Benoît Touchard / Mathieu Rabeau
Antoine Coypel, Assembly of the Gods, 1702. Oil sketch on canvas.
To celebrate their city’s tricentennial, the New Orleans Museum of Art gathered under one roof what was once one of the greatest art collections in the world.

To celebrate their city’s tricentennial, the New Orleans Museum of Art gathered under one roof what was once one of the greatest art collections in the world.

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Mill, 1645–48. Oil on canvas.

“Having a distinguished provenance such as the Orléans collection connected to a work is very meaningful. It gives us special insight into historical phenomenon, like the history of taste and collecting.”

Alexandra Libby

Leaf through any current Parisian guidebook and you’ll undoubtedly find Les Deux Plateaux (1986), contemporary artist Daniel Buren’s installation of black and white columns in the Palais-Royal courtyard. For many, the striped sculptures are a sightseeing stopover en route to the main cultural attraction across the street—the Musée du Louvre.

Travel guides of the eighteenth century, on the other hand, would have recommended the opposite itinerary. Then, the Palais-Royal was the ultimate tourist destination, famous for its galleries displaying a distinguished art collection that was publicly viewable (highly atypical at the time). One such book, Description historique de la ville de Paris (1765), described it as “the most interesting and the richest that exists in the world, not even excepting the king’s collection.”

In four sunlit galleries overlooking the Palais-Royal gardens hung the personal collection of Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, who acted as French regent for eight years between 1715 and 1723 while a young Louis XV matured before taking the throne. When the duke assumed his new role as interim king, he demonstrated his power through an extravagant presentation of his trove of masterpieces, welcoming any well-heeled guest to see it for themselves.

His impressive collection numbered 772 paintings; included were 29 Titians, 19 Veroneses, and ten Tintorettos (the largest grouping of these Venetian masters owned by any individual in history). He also had six Rembrandts, 12 Poussins and works by canonical giants such as Raphael, Correggio, Dürer, Rubens and Van Dyck.

Museo Thyssen Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain

Paolo Caliari (called il Veronese), Portrait of a Woman with a Dog, 1585–1587. Oil on canvas.

The collection remained on view at the Palais-Royal for decades, even after the duke’s death. But eventually, the French Revolution put an end to such frivolities. In the mid-1790s the entire collection was sold by the duke’s great-grandson to support the revolutionary cause and his own political ambitions, dispersing the paintings across the globe. They’ve never been reunited in the centuries since, until 2018, in an exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) titled The Orléans Collection, an international loan exhibition of forty works celebrating the tricentennial of the duke’s namesake city, New Orleans.

While the powerhouse art collector that the exhibition honors is known in certain circles, mainstream history has largely obscured his legacy. “The duke himself has received little attention,” says Vanessa Schmid, NOMA’s senior research curator for European art. Choosing to celebrate him in the city that bears his name was a no-brainer for the museum staff, and the tricentennial offered opportunities to more fully tell his story while flaunting some of the collection’s greatest hits. “There is, in fact, much more to tell,” adds Schmid.

NOMA itself has no works from the duke’s illustrious collection. But for other institutions—especially those in the United Kingdom, where his collection was sold—the duke’s paintings became museum mainstays. “The sale of [his] collection in London absolutely transformed and informed the basis for almost every important collection and public museum in the UK,” Schmid explains. “It completely transformed taste and artists, whether it’s John Constable studying Rembrandt’s The Mill, or the Pre-Raphaelites looking at Raphael.”

The Mill (1645-48)—Rembrandt’s landscape painting of an iconic Dutch mill and one of the exhibited works in The Orléans Collection—now belongs to the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington DC, where it is among a handful of works once owned by the duke. “Having a distinguished provenance such as the Orléans collection connected to a work is very meaningful,” says Alexandra Libby, assistant curator of Northern Baroque Paintings at the NGA. “It gives us special insight into historical phenomenon, like the history of taste and collecting.”

Supper at Emmaus, mid 1570s. Paolo Caliari, called Veronese.
Photographer: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam

Paolo Caliari (called il Veronese), Supper at Emmaus, mid 1570s. Oil on canvas.

Ecstasy of Saint Paul, 1643, Nicolas Poussin.
Ringling Museum of Art

Nicolas Poussin​, ​​​​​​Ecstasy of Saint Paul, 1643. Oil on panel.

Alexander and his Doctor, ca. 1648-49, Eustache Le Sueur
© National Gallery, London / Art Resource, NY

Eustache Le Sueur, ​​​​​​Alexander and his Doctor, ca. 1648-49. Oil on canvas.

The Triumph of Rome: The Youthful Emperor Constantine Honoring Rome, ca. 1622–23, Peter Paul Rubens.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

Peter Paul Rubens, The Triumph of Rome: The Youthful Emperor Constantine Honoring Rome, ca. 1622–23. Oil on panel.

Saint John the Baptist Seated in the Wilderness, ca. 1603, Francesco Albani. 
Florida State University

Francesco Albani, Saint John the Baptist Seated in the Wilderness, ca. 1603. Oil on copper.

The Meeting of David and Abigail, ca. 1615-20, Guido Reni. 
Chrysler Museum of Art

The Meeting of David and Abigail, ca. 1615-20, Guido Reni. Oil on canvas, 61-1/4" x 64-1/2".

Precious Recognized, late 1660s, Godfried Schalken
National Gallery of Ireland

Godfried Schalken, Precious Recognized, late 1660s. Oil on panel.

Six Tuscan Poets, 1544, Giorgio Vasari. 
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Giorgio Vasari​​​​, Six Tuscan Poets, 1544. Oil on panel.

Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, 1715-1723, Attributed to Guy Noël Aubry.
Musée des Beaux Arts d'Orléans

Attributed to Guy Noël Aubry, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, 1715-1723. Oil on canvas.

Allegory of Philippe, duc d’Orléans, Regent of the Realm (1674–1723), 1718, Antoine Dieu.
Musée National du Château de Versailles

Antoine Dieu, Allegory of Philippe, duc d’Orléans, Regent of the Realm (1674–1723), 1718. Oil on canvas.

Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, Regent of France (1674- 1723), 1720, Jean-Louis Lemoyne
Musée National du Château de Versailles

Jean-Louis Lemoyne, Philippe II, duc d’Orléans, Regent of France (1674- 1723), 1720. Marble.

Venus and Amor, 1570s, Alessandro Allori. 
Musée Fabre de Montpellier Méditerranée

 Alessandro Allori, Venus and Amor, 1570s. Oil on panel.

The Duke of Orléans was certainly a tastemaker, among a privileged few that molded our view of what belongs in the art historical canon. But beyond shaping our preferences and advocating that works be viewable by a greater public, he helped set some of the standards that have dictated museum conventions to this day. The duke pioneered displaying artwork by national schools—grouping the Frans Hals with the Judith Leysters, for example, or the Raphaels with the Botticellis. We take this type of arrangement for granted now, but it was highly innovative during his time.

He also set a much-followed example for how collection books should be written. The duke included provenance, descriptions of his paintings, and artist biographies in Description des tableaux du Palais Royal (1727), the tome dedicated to the paintings he acquired over a lifetime and the palatial setting that housed them.

The Palais-Royal where the duke once flaunted his hundreds of oil paintings is no longer open to the public (although the gardens that eighteenth century visitors glimpsed from the gallery windows are still accessible). Instead it currently houses the French ministry of culture, a not-so-distant descendant of the duke’s project to aggregate the highest art achievements under the roof of the palace and share them with the people of France. Despite the fact that the paintings that were once fixtures here no longer line the walls, they have become ambassadors of sorts, carrying with them the duke’s belief that great art should be seen by many.

“This collection is part of a continuum. It’s a collection that becomes vital to the founding of fine museums, including American museums,” Schmid notes of the surprising places her team found works originating in the Orléans collection, while preparing the exhibition. “It’s a wonderful part of our story—we don’t just have paintings coming from Paris and London, they’re coming from El Paso, Texas; they’re coming from North Carolina. You have one in Kansas. I mean, it’s fascinating.”

In that way, perhaps, the duke has left the art-loving public the best gift of all. When they are not convened at NOMA, his works are viewed by millions who have come to expect them in their usual prized places in illustrious institutions around the world. Notes Schimd, “the best Orléans pictures are national treasures.”

About the Author

Karen Chernick

Karen Chernick is an arts and culture journalist who loves a good story.

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