By Nan Brewer, the Lucienne M. Glaubinger Curator of Works on Paper, Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University
Whenever I showed works from the Vincent Price collection to classes, I began by asking the students if they were familiar with his name. Some recalled that he was an actor; others knew that he appeared in horror flicks. When I mentioned that he played the inventor who dies at the beginning of the movie Edward Scissorhands (1990) or that he provided the monologue in Michael Jackson’s video for Thriller (1982) they lit up. Few, however, had any idea of Price’s background in the visual arts or interest in collecting.
Born in 1911 in St. Louis, Missouri, to a wealthy and distinguished family, Price studied art history at Yale University and the University of London. In England, he switched his attention from art to acting. Nonetheless, he never lost his love of art and regularly purchased original artworks as his time and resources allowed. Price often lectured and wrote about art, including the book I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography (1959), and served as an art consultant, most notably for the Sears, Roebuck, & Company. The first exhibition and sale of the “Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” took place in 1962 at a Sears store in Denver, Colorado, before being expanded nationwide. Most of the items—available for $10 to $3,000 and payable in $5 installments—attracted entry-level collectors. Although Price never actually owned the art, he selected the pieces to be sold and even commissioned contemporary artists, like Salvador Dali, to create works specifically for the collection. The program claims to have sold more than 50,000 pieces of original fine art by the time it ended in 1971. Price’s daughter, Victoria, said in her 1999 biography of her father that he saw the Sears collaboration as an “opportunity to put his populist beliefs into practice, to bring art to the American public.”
When Price came to lecture at Indiana University in 1984 (his fourth time in Bloomington), the museum’s Director Emeritus (then curator), Heidi Gealt, knew of his art education and passion for collecting. She asked if he would be willing to lend a portion of his personal collection for students in an art history graduate seminar to use as the source material for technical examination and in-depth research. Their work would result in an exhibition with an accompanying scholarly catalogue. This was the fourth such partnership that the museum had undertaken with the art history department in the School of Fine Arts (now School of Art, Architecture + Design). Mr. Price kindly agreed to do so and sent 53 drawings ranging in date from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century.
I’ve always thought of this act as not only benevolent—in that it greatly benefited young scholars in their hands-on education—but also brave. Price opened up his treasures to intense scrutiny by the students, their professors, and the outside experts they consulted. In the field of Old Master drawings, authorship is often based on connoisseurship. When Price purchased a work, he generally assumed that the attribution to a particular artist was correct. Would those assignments withstand close inquiry? As it turns out, some of the works were by lesser-known artists or their respective schools, while others proved to be more important than was originally thought. What really interested Mr. Price was not increasing their monetary value, but learning more about the artworks that had attracted his eye and imagination.
The sampling of his collection that arrived at IU reflected Price’s eclectic taste. There were works in all media, ranging from delicate pen-and-ink drawings to graphite preparatory sketches. Although a few of the pieces, including a Study of Skulls by Giovanni Battista Franco, suggested a macabre (or vanitas) theme, there were also works of touching beauty, serenity, and piety. Among the artists best known by today’s audiences were Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Odilon Redon, Camille Pissarro, Jean François Millet, and Paul Gauguin.
The resulting exhibition, Master Drawings from the Vincent Price Collection, was held at the Indiana University Art Museum (now Eskenazi Museum of Art) from January 21 to May 3, 1987. Eleven students authored the catalogue entries and thematic essays on the media, history, and collecting of drawings. A museum graduate assistant at the time, I wrote on the tradition of copying and on two of the drawings, one by Pieter van Lisebetten and the other by Bartolomeo Passarotti, the latter of which ended up on the exhibition poster and book cover. It proved a truly formative experience that showed me the rigors and excitement of original primary research and inspired me to become a curator of works on paper. As Gealt and the late Bruce Cole wrote in their preface, “We are convinced that close and continuous study of works of art is the foundation upon which all art historical scholarship should be based.” I can attest that it was a thrill to uncover the source material used for a particular drawing, learn how it related to the artist’s oeuvre, and about its potential use—a lot like being a forensic drawing detective!
Although Price was scheduled to attend the exhibition’s opening, he had to cancel due to his mother’s death. Gealt continued to maintain contact with the actor until his own death in 1993. I still recall how excited the museum’s receptionist became whenever that distinctive voice called. In appreciation of the excellent work done by the students and the museum, Price donated two drawings in 1987. He later gave a third work to Gealt, which she gifted to the museum in his memory.
Here are those three works.
The most complex work in the Price collection to arrive for the student seminar was a rare multi-sheet, bound sketchbook by the Genoese artist Giovanni Agostino Ratti. In 1736—per a date on the cover sheet—Ratti drew preparatory designs for paintings in nine small pilgrimage chapels for the Church of Nostra Signora della Misericordia in the northern Italian port city of Savona. Since the paintings were commissioned for the bicentennial of the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary in the town, her image figures prominently. In this sheet, the Madonna appears in the upper right, where she saves a ship by imploring a swordfish to fill a hole in the hull. Although the sketchbook seems to be incomplete, it gives interesting insight into the artist’s process and provides a valuable reference source for works now lost. Only three of the frescoes survive, but even these were overpainted by a restorer in 1835.
When this piece arrived at the museum, it was attributed to the English painter William Dyce, but images and information sent to numerous experts around the world garnered mixed responses as to whether or not it was by his hand. Some suggested that it had similarities in style and theme to some British Pre-Raphaelite or German Nazarene painter, but no definitive matches were made. One even postured a French artist such as Leon Lhermitte. The subject matter, originally thought to be of a woman spinning, is probably a woman by a well, perhaps a segment of the biblical story from the Woman of Samaria. Even the drawing’s presentation raises questions. It appears to be a large preparatory drawing in a variety of media with gridded transfer lines; however, no corresponding mural or fresco has been found. Periodically, I re-examine this issue with the continued hope of unraveling this mystery.
This unusual drawing by a relatively unknown Italian artist reflects Price’s willingness to buy interesting material that was out of the mainstream. Duranti was born in Montefortino, a small town in the Italian Marches. Although he eventually went to study in Rome, he never achieved widespread success. Part of the reason for this failure may have been his mixture of Arcadian subjects based in a neoclassical tradition with an expressive romantic style. This image with its smudge-like shading is distinctive and personal in a surprisingly modern way. Relatively few American museums have any examples of Duranti’s unique work.
In March, Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria, will visit the IU campus as part of a special program at IU Cinema. Victoria will give a special lecture about her father’s life and sign copies of her book Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography. IU Cinema will also be screening two of Vincent Price’s most celebrated films, The Masque of the Red Death and The Abominable Dr. Phibes. Learn more and purchase tickets at the IU Cinema website.