A Mythic Matron- Collecting the Classics
Updated: Aug 30
An Essay on Art that is collected with a purpose- The private collection of Anne Pfister- By Brian Keeler
When I first met Anne Pfister, about ten years ago at the Roger La Pelle Gallery in Philadelphia, it was with a memorable entrée that resonated with me. She greeted me with a friendly hello and a quick segue into, “ I have the eye and passion of Isabella d’Este but with the budget of a school marm.” This reference to Isabella d'Este (1474-1539) is not exactly esoteric, but I knew this was a person who understood Renaissance art, as Isabella D’Este is the Mantuan matriarch, collector and inspiration for some of the greats of the Italian Renaissance. I have read about Isabella from many sources, so I am fairly well acquainted with her importance. The poet Ariosto referred to her as the "liberal and magnaminous Isabella." Titian, Bellini, Andrea Mantegna, Giorgione and Leonardo are among the artists that came within her orbit. To further underscore her own connection to the Italian Renaissance, Anne likes to compare her apartment in Wilmington, Delaware to the Pitti Palace. The Pitti is the grand sprawling structure on the Oltra Arno (south side of the Arno) in Florence that houses a superb collection of Italian art. Behind the Pitti is the beautiful Boboli Gardens that overlook the palace and offers splendid views of the city as well.
Anne first started collecting my art, as well as paintings by other artists at the Rodger La Pelle Gallery, where I had five one-man shows over as many years. She also has acquired many fine pieces at the nearby FAN Gallery on Arch Street, where I also showed for a short time.
Over the years Anne has purchased about 10 of my oils ranging in size from very small to mid-size; the biggest being 30” x 30.” In a way, she is the perfect collector for a certain genre of my art, that being the allegorical and mythological. As she is an expert in the field of Greco-Roman literature and the related paintings, she knows the story behind each work that I’ve painted within this category. Her tastes also occasionally include the Biblical, as the artists of the Renaissance were equally steeped in this tradition. So it is a real honor to be included in her very refined collection.
Regarding Anne's occupation as a teacher of classics in high schools demonstrates how a person of modest means can collect a significant collection of qualtiy art. We are reminded again of the Post Office couple in New York City, Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, who collected modernist art that is now worth millions. Anne of course, does not collect for investment. She purchases what she connects with and with art that has significance and meaning to her. It is often the lament of some viewers of art in galleries that they cannot afford to buy art. Well, Ann and her collection are evidence that one can purchase art on a budget.
It was indeed a treat to finally see her art in her apartment last week on a visit to Wilmington. I was in my element to be surrounded by so many other painters all involved in the same pursuit. It was like being in a private club of painters with common goals. The ideas were flowing and art admired as I viewed so many splendid canvases.
Her collection covers about every possible square inch of wall space, including the living room, entrance hall, kitchen, dinning room, bedroom and bathroom. I looked at everything. The work is hung in salon style but it does not seem crowded somehow. Seeing my own work in the context of a collector’s home is especially rewarding. Revisiting the works and seeing their new homes in relation to the art around them adds a new chapter to the works. My painting of Aeneas and Anchises, which was inspired by a statue in the Borghese Gallery in Rome by Bernini is in her bedroom. A number of my collectors have reserved their bedrooms as the showcase for my work. This always strikes me as a special honor to be in such an intimate setting.
Her collection is of four main groups, all of which are part of my subjects. Namely, they are plein air landscapes, still lifes, mythological and Biblical themes. I know most of the artists in her home gallery personally or by reputation. For others, it was my first introduction to their art. Oil paintings comprise all the work on the walls- no prints, pastels or watercolors. She does collect small -scale sculpture of myth-related themes as well as porcelain, Royal Vienna Plates and Miessen porcelain.
It was great see artists' work whom I know like Marty Poole, Fred Danzinger and Charles Newman on her walls and to discover many others. Some of the artists who are new to me are: Richard Proctor, Katie Mundie, Stanley Bielen, Ruth Sanderson, Bob Jackson and Leonard Porter.
One of my favorites was the large figurative oil by Richard Proctor of Bacchus. It is a tour-de-force of academic realism. One of my teachers at the York Academy of Arts, Tom Wise studied under Ben Kamahira at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and I see a connection in the work of Proctor with the other two. A finely modeled work, Bacchus is depicted with a still life and sheet covering the form. It is similar to the famous oil of Bacchus in the Borghese Gallery in Rome by Caravaggio with these same inclusions.
Anne has commissioned some works and even added some suggestions to artists to alter the works to fit in with the accuracy of the mythological theme. For example, on my painting of Hercules and Prometheus she requested that I adjust the color of Hercules' beard to make him look the age he was supposed to be (younger) in the narrative. I obliged. She also requested that Marty Poole adjust his work of Danae so that the shower of coins was in fact gold. The commissioned portraits of Anne are stunning and also recall Isabella d’Este commissioning works by Leonardo and Titian. Those Renaissance era commisions were fraught with complications. Ann also posed for a depiction of Minerva by Ruth Sanderson and a version of Hera by Bob Jacobson, the latter was inspired by an Ingres painting.
When we think of how the creation of art can be a collaborative effort, especially with commissioned works, we see that idea in action here. Anne has obviously had fun with concepts by inserting herself into the narratives on a couple of occasions. Her tastes often run to the sensual and erotic. My painting of Europa is a good example as Europa is portrayed caressing the outstrecthed tongue of Zeus as the white bull charges through a stream in a nocturne. Others include a beautiful painting of Anne nude from the back as Cleopatra with a handsome bearded man.
Anne’s knowledge of the classic Roman poets is expressed in her appreciation for the ribald, raucous, raunchy and racy poems of Ovid and others. She rattled off a few of the ancients with delight at the earthiness and salaciousness. Her mentoring and educating youth can only by something of gift to those students. It is not all high brow work, as these jobs often include teaching special needs and severely retarded students. She shared with me some of the challenges of internecine squabbles, scandals and the like at the various schools where she was a faculty member. So less we think that being a classics authority is all ivory tower aesthetics, we now can appreciate the everyday challenges of an academician in the real world.
Anne taught Latin at Triton Regional High School in Runnemeade, NJ for 27 years. Before starting her teaching career, when she was in graduate school at the University of Pennsyvania she authored a book, “Roman Portraits.” She did her undergraduate work at Case Western in Cleveland and then received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. So we can see that a long career in the classics has led to an appreciation of art while fostering the same in her students.
We artists are fortunate to have the involvement in our art with the support of Anne Pfister. And future generations will be better off because of because of her fostering a knowledge of the great works in the Western Literary canon as well as in our reinterpretations of timeless themes.