Handel as Art Collector

George Frideric Handel (shown on right in a portrait (1726-28) attributed to Balthasar Denner) is one of my favorite Baroque composers. And it’s not only his music that I like: the more I learn about things related to Handel (such as his passion for food (so much that he withheld fine food from guests in his home), or even seemingly unrelated things, like the fact that he and Jimi Hendrix could have been next-door neighbors), the more I am intrigued by him.

Hence, I became helplessly distracted this afternoon when JSTOR’s unreliable search engine brought up Thomas McGeary’s article “Handel as Art Collector: Art, Connoisseurship and Taste in Hanoverian Britain” (when I had typed in keywords to search for medieval illustrations of French queens).

It was interesting to learn that Handel was a prolific art collector.  He was recorded to have “taken great pleasure in contemplating the works of art” in his collection.1 I really enjoyed learning about the nature of his collection, too. Despite the fact that Victorians praised Handel for his biblical oratorios, the composer had few biblical works of visual art.2 Instead, Handel was drawn to more landscapes, Dutch/Flemish paintings, French classical painters (e.g. Poussin), and a handful of Italian artists. Handel didn’t care too much for portraits of individuals (which is unusual, since portraiture was so popular in England at the time), and it appears that he even gave away all portraits of himself. He did, however, have two pictures of heads by Balthasar Denner, one of which may have resembled Denner’s Portrait of an Old Woman (before 1721, shown above left).

It also is apparent that Handel bought works of art simply because he liked them; he doesn’t give one the impression of a hard-nosed collector who is interested in owning works by all major artists and schools, nor was he interested in collecting works by the Old Masters. He also didn’t follow the contemporary craze to purchase works by William Hogarth, even though Handel might have known Hogarth personally. Instead, Handel did “his own thing” when it came to art collecting, which (I think) indicates an aspect of his personality that translates into his musical compositions: instead of closely following musical trends, Handel created his own musical style (which I think is instantly recognizable). He wrote music that appealed to him, just as he collected art which he found appealing.

Thomas McGeary, “Handel as Art Collector: Art, Connoisseurship and Taste in Hanoverian Britain,” Early Music 34, no. 7 (2009): 533. 

2 McGeary lists the few biblical works that Handel owned: Hagar and the angel, the finding of Moses, prints of rest on the flight into Egypt, a Guido Reni altar-piece and possible a pair of biblical prints.  McGeary suggests that the lack of biblical scenes could be due to a Protestant fear of idolatry. It is interesting to see McGeary’s comparisons of Handel’s collection with other collections, which have large numbers of biblical scenes (approximately 27-33% of the collections mentioned). See Ibid., 533-576.

  • e says:

    It's always so cool to discover who is/was art collectors.

    I can't remember which painting it is now, but I remember hearing once that Jermaine Jackson was a fine art collector and had a particularly famous painting in his possession. Really surprised me since he was just not someone I took to appreciate really fine art. Though, that brings up an interesting topic: do the rich collect art because they like it or because they like the prestige of having it?

    It was interesting reading that article on Handel. I love that he almost threw that singer out the window.

  • Hels says:

    I love the bloggy world. Despite knowing the 18th century well, I would never have known about Handel's passion for art, if it had not have been for your post. And I will chase up the McGeary article – thanks.

    Of course there are heaps of questions to ask:
    How long was Handel in Britain?
    Did he not collect any British art?
    Did he regularly participate in a cultural salon that expanded peoples' interests to ALL the arts?
    What happened to his collection?

  • H Niyazi says:

    How wonderful! M – do you have any of Handel's Cantatas performed by Emma Kirkby/Judith Nelson and the Academy of Ancient Music… simply amazing.

    I have been awestruck by Emma Kirkby's soprano voice since my teenage days – I imagine I was only one a few(?) teenage boys that had a heavy metal + Handel Cantata mixtape in my walkman at age 15 🙂

    I was planning on doing a post about Kirby's involvement with Renaissance music but will throw in some Handel for good measure.

    There are some remarkable Handel biographies out there, though the ones by Hogwood and Lang are my favourite.


  • columnist says:

    We share the same love of the composer's work. I think Handel is my favourite classical composer. That he was an art collector too only adds to my liking! I suppose it should not be surprising that he should collect art, as he clearly had an eye/ear for beauty.

    "e" certainly raises a good question – why the rich collect art – perhaps in the instances of old money the art is already there, and the present day custodians of their families' treasures may be completely oblivious to the beauty that surrounds them. Certainly of some of the great art collections, the collector must have had an interest and inherent love of art.

    I collect art – not on the scale of the great collections I have to add – and I do so because I like the pictures that I have bought. I understand the "prestige" element too, however. But I would say I am pleased when others enjoy what I have collected, so prestige is perhaps not the exact word. It's the same with interior design, (and pictures to some extent form part of that).

  • heidenkind says:

    I've always been more of a Bach fan when it comes to German composers, but I do think Handel's style is unique and instantly recognizable. I had no idea he collected art, either.

  • Dr. F says:

    Perhaps the greatest art collector in 18th century England was Sir Robert Walpole, the chief minister of both George I and II until his fall in 1741. After his death his collection at Houghton (his home) was eventually sold to Catherine the Great of Russia, and now forms a great part of the collection in the Hermitage.

    Walpole's son, Horace, was the famed letter writer and avid collector himself. His odd collection at his home at Strawberry Hill played a large role in the Gothic Revival.

  • M says:

    e, That's interesting about Jermaine Jackson and art. I wouldn't have pegged him as an art collector, either. Like columnist mentioned, I think there are a couple of reasons why people collect art. I do think that some (but definitely not all) people collect because of the prestige associated with it. These people might want to appear culturally-savvy and intelligent through the works that they acquire – not only can they show off good taste, but they can give the impression that they know which artists are associated with good taste.

    Or, as columnist mentioned, other people collect art simply because they like certain pieces. I think that there are a lot of collectors who fall into this category (and if I ever had money to collect, I'd want to be in this category too). Handel seems to have been this type of collector.

    Hels: You bring up some good questions! A lot of them are answered in the McGeary article, but I will answer a couple of them. Handel lived in London for 36 years, until his death in 1759. Most of what we know about Handel's collection is from auction sale descriptions (from the estate sale after Handel's death). Unfortunately, some of those descriptions are rather vague, and it's hard to pinpoint the exact works of art to which they are referring.

    I'm also interested by your question about Handel purchasing British art. Now that I think about it, I don't remember any British artists being mentioned in his collection. (How interesting!) However, McGreary did mention one work in the collection by the Flemish artist Pieter Angellis, who worked in London from about 1716 to 1728.

    H Niyazi: Fun to hear that you are a Handel fan as well!

    heidenkind: Bach is my other favorite Baroque composer. I vacillate between pegging him and Handel as my "#1" favorite. Have you ever heard Bach music played on a period organ? It sounds really different – the way organs are tuned today is completely different from what Bach would have heard while writing.

    Dr. F, I'm glad that you mentioned Robert Walpole. I know a little about Horace Walpole, but I didn't realize that much of his father's collection ended up at the Hermitage. Very interesting!

  • heidenkind says:

    Did you know Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier reinvented tuning into its modern form? It's weirdly fascinating.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.