Leo Lewin's Collection

Published on: 13 / 12 / 2009

Authors of this entry:
  • Magdalena Palica

Leo Lewin, born in 1881, was the oldest of six children of Carl Lewin, a well-known producer and wholesaler of textile wares of Breslau. The company “C. Lewin”, established by Leo’s father, initially produced menswear. Its success was the result of expanding the assortment so that it included work and protective clothing, as well as horse blankets and rugs all of which were mass-produced. The citizens of Breslau could buy the standard products at Lewin’s company shop in Gartenstrasse 7 (today ul. Piłsudskiego).

During WW1 mass orders for military uniforms made the owners rich and it was probably then that Leo Lewin started collecting works of art on large scale. It is known that already in 1917 his collection of works by Max Liebermann and Max Slevogt was impressive. In the same year the collector purchased a spacious villa in an elegant district of Wrocław, in Akazienallee (today's Aleja Akacjowa). The interiors were re-designed by a famous Berlin architect Oskar Kaufmann to suit the needs of the new owner. Some walls were sparingly decorated, in order to create an exhibition space for the collection of paintings.

The villa in Akazienallee became a place of regular meetings of artists befriended with Leo Lewin. Both painters whose works formed the foundation of the collection - Max Slevogt and Max Liebermann - were guests at Lewin’s home. The results of those visits were e.g. the portraits of family members by both artists. Starting from 1917, the interiors started filling up quickly with works of art. Some of them were commissioned or bought by Lewin directly from the artists. Other purchases were made in Berlin via Paul Cassirer’s gallery.

The core of Lewin’s collection were works of German painters including numerous compositions of aforementioned Slevogt and Liebermann. Lewin’s third favorite artist was the sculptor August Gaul. The collector was the only person in possession of the complete “Small Animal Garden”, a set of fifteen small bronze and silver figures. Among the works commissioned by Lewin to Gaul was the fountain with sculptures of geese, decorating the garden of his villa in Akazienallee. Its interiors were decorated with canvases by Hans von Marées, Wilhelm Trübner, Lovis Corinth, Hans Thoma and Carl Spitzweg, as well as sculptures by Georg Kolbe and Ernst Barlach, both of whom the collector knew personally. Lewin collected also drawings by painter Adolph von Menzel of Breslau, of which he managed to amass several dozen. The artist's painting “A Corpus Christi Procession in Hofgastein” (today in Neue Pinakothek in Munich)was the pearl of Lewin's collection. However, what made it truly famous was not works of native artists, but the paintings of leading European painters, mainly impressionists.

It is not known exactly when Lewin decided to broaden the scope of his collection with works of artists from outside Germany. He purchased numerous paintings, including canvases by Daumier, Manet and Monet, from Dresden collection of Rothermundt, probably in 1920. One year later, at the exhibition of Edvard Munch in the Cassirer’s gallery in Berlin he came into possession of two landscapes by this artist. An early acquisition was also a still-life by Pablo Picasso (today in Tate Gallery in London). In Lewin’s collections one could admire the works of three excellent representatives of realism: Camille Corot (e.g. "Poetry", today in Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne), Honoré Daumier and Gustav Courbet (“Grand Pont”, today in University Art Gallery in Yale). The artist whose work was the bridge between realism and impressionism, Édouard Manet, was represented in Lewin’s collection by the depiction of a young bull on a meadow made in 1881 in Versailles. The collection was enriched with two portraits by Renoir and one landscape by Camille Pissarro, as well as an early composition by Paul Cézanne. Its pride was a beautiful painting by Claude Monet depicting vineyards in Moulin d'Orgemont covered with snow. The collection also contained two paintings by Edvard Munch reflecting Lewin’s interest in the newest artistic trends. Both canvases show sea landscapes. One of them was sold at an auction in 1927 and soon became a property of Kunstmuseum in Basel where it can be admired until present day. The second one (now a private property) depicts a coast in Hvitsten. Lewin owned also three paintings by van Gogh, one of which turned out to be a forgery later. When it was acquired by the collector of Breslau, however, it was accompanied by an expertise confirming its authenticity by a renowned critic of van Gogh – Julius Meier-Graefe.

Doubts about the authorship of the second painting “A Garden in Auvers” were resolved a few years ago and it was recognized as the original work of van Gogh. The only painting of van Gogh from Lewin’s collection which never raised any doubts as to its attribution is a depiction of a bronze casting of a statue, made in 1887 during the artist’s stay in Paris, where van Gogh created a series of paintings depicting antique art inspired by his numerous visits in the Louvre. The industrialist of Breslau owned also a large collection of European masters’ drawings (e.g. by Cézanne, Delacroix, Daumier) with two drawings by Rembrandt. Both of them were bought from the collection of Wilhelm von Bode, a long-standing director of Berlin museums.

The economic crisis of the second half of 1920s had to affect the company of the Lewins as well, since as early as 1927 the owner decided to sell a large part of the collection. The auction was organized by two renowned art dealers, Paul Cassirer and Hugo Helbing. It took place on 12th of April 1927 and was preceded by a three-day exhibition in Cassirer’s salon in Viktoriastrasse 35 in Berlin. Three years later the collector decided to put up for auction further works of art. After the Nazis' rise to power Lewin, as a Jew, was burdened with additional taxes which made him sell his collection of prints at an auction in Max Perl's salon in Berlin. Before the outbreak of WW2 the Lewin family emigrated to Great Britain taking with them the preserved part of their possessions and selling works of arts during the following years. The books affixed with a characteristic bookplate designed by Max Slevogt (depicting a young man holding two steeds), which used to belong to the rich library in the villa in Akazienallee, started showing in the antiquary books market of London in 1950s. It is still possible to buy them in numerous European antiquary bookshops.

The article is based on the book: Magdalena Palica, Od Delacroix do van Gogha. Żydowskie kolekcje sztuki w dawnym Wrocławiu (From Delacroix to van Gogh. Jewish Art Collections in Breslau), Wrocław 2009 [in print]

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