The Old Collection

Carved wooden figure by Paul Gauguin "La Luxure". Part of Willumsen's Art Collection.

Willumsen’s art collection consists of around 2,000 items, purchased by the artist and later registered and incorporated in his plans for a museum to house the collection.

The first item listed in Willumsen’s inventory of the collection is a crucifix purchased in 1889 from a priest in Granada. It reveals that when Willumsen travelled to Southern Europe as a young artist, parallel to his focus on the latest Modernist trends, he was also interested in the past. In his memoirs he writes that immediately after arriving in Paris in 1889 he visited the Musée du Louvre to view its historical works. Willumsen also turned to the art of Antiquity. He was especially fond of visiting the Louvre’s galleries of Egyptian and Assyrian art, which he appreciated for its “simple, decorative style.”

During the same period, Willumsen’s own style shifted away from the naturalistic, and works by the artist from the 1890s reveal the influence of his studies of Antiquity as well as leading figures of modern art, particularly Odilon Redon and Paul Gauguin.

Started The Old Collection in 1889

Willumsen met Gauguin in Paris and Brittany in 1890-91 and the two artists exchanged letters and works. Willumsen’s collection includes several works by Gauguin: Five drawings, a copy of the print Soyez symboliste, and the wooden sculpture La Luxure. This sculpture he swapped with Gauguin for one of his own paintings.

In 1889 Willumsen visited Museo del Prado in Madrid where he saw El Greco’s (1541-1614) art for the first time. El Greco was only just being rediscovered, and had yet to become the cult figure among young artists he would start to be around a decade later. In Willumsen’s retrospective account, this first encounter with El Greco’s works was crucial. It led to the discovery of an artistic and mental affinity between him and the long-dead master.

Willumsen’s acquisition in 1911 of an early work by El Greco, The Adoration of the Shepherds (ca. 1568–69), was the catalyst for the increasing momentum of his art purchases.  

The Content of the Collection

Willumsen’s collection grew to include approximately 325 paintings, 225 sculptures, 750 drawings, 250 graphic prints, as well as textiles, ceramics, coins, medals, relics, ornaments, and jewellery. All of them bought for small sums from art dealers, antique shops, at auctions, and from private individuals in Europe and North Africa. Geographically the collection extends from Southern

Europe, with 750 Italian works, 460 French, and 100 Spanish, to Northern Europe, with 150 Danish works and numerous English, German, and Dutch works.

There is also a large collection from Asia, arts and crafts from the Middle East, Byzantine icons, and numerous antiques, including Greek Tangara figurines. Needless to say, the collection took up a great deal of room in Willumsen’s home in Nice.

Masterworks of the Collection

An early masterpiece by El Greco, a late oil painting by Jacopo Bassano, a work by Karel van Mander (I) as well as a sketch by Eugène Delacroix after Peter Paul Rubens are among the most important works in the collection. There are also excellent drawings by Parmigianino, Guercino, Giorgio Vasari, Andrea del Sarto, Giambattista Tiepolo, and Giacomo Guardi.

Among the modern works the wooden sculpture by Paul Gauguin, La Luxure, is exceptional. A portrait of Willumsen by Vilhelm Hammershøi, a painting by Per Krohg and a sculpture by Bertel Thorvaldsen are among the collection’s Scandinavian masterpieces.

Click on the pictures below to see a gallery of the works from “Old collection.”

Carved wooden figure by Paul Gauguin "La Luxure". Part of Willumsen's Art Collection.
El Greco The adoration of the Shepherds. Part of Willumsen's private Art Collection


In connection with the establishment of his art collection, Willumsen made extensive art-historical and technical analyses that form the basis of his “Notes on the Old Collection.” As well as incessantly comparing motifs and techniques, and investigating the sources and provenance of artworks, Willumsen also used reproductions to develop his own theories. In many cases the same image recurs again and again but with different notes and information about the work. Modern images also occasionally make their way into the notes on the Old Collection, establishing links between older art and the visual culture of Willumsen’s own lifetime. These juxtapositions provide evidence of the artist’s playful and complex understanding of images.

Wrong Attributions

The works in Willumsen’s collection range from the exceptional, with master drawings from the Italian Mannerists of the seventeenth century, to incorrect Leonardo da Vinci attributions and Rembrandt copies.

In 1936, Willumsen notes that his attributions should remain visible on the works, even if they were considered incorrect. Instead of replacing the nameplates, new ones “which in time can change according to knowledge and fashion” were to be placed next to them. The note demonstrates Willumsen’s scepticism about the ability of art historians to correct his attributions. It reflects his view of authentication as a dynamic process that could be as dependent on changing tastes as on expertise.

One of Willumsen's So-called "Rembrandt's". Part of Willumsen's Art Collection.