Series V. Art collection

1817-1821, 1839, 1902-1987, n.d.

10 linear feet

Scope and Content Note

This series documents many of the transactions that as a whole earned Henry McIlhenny the distinction of being named one of the all-time top 10 art collectors in America. At the same time, it underscores the building of the McIlhenny collection as a true family affair, comprising an 80-year legacy of art patronage and connoisseurship in the fine and decorative arts. Thus, a significant amount of material pertaining to the acquisitions of McIlhenny's parents, John D. and Frances P., is intermingled in these files, as are papers documenting purchases and loans made by his sister, Bernice McIlhenny Wintersteen. This material also makes apparent how, after the death of the senior McIlhenny, the son and mother often acted as a shrewd and astute team, negotiating with dealers and galleries. Documentation of other transactions, particularly with auction houses and museums, gives some idea as to how McIlhenny and his sister handled their parents' collection as it passed to the next generation. The reputation of the McIlhenny collection and the family's willingness to make it available to others is supported in the numerous loan requests, many of which were granted, as well as the number of objects gifted to various institutions, with the biggest benefactor being the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By the number of requests granted, Henry McIlhenny also was generous in allowing visitors to his Rittenhouse Square residence, where they could view his objects in situ.

Another aspect of this series that becomes readily apparent is that different subseries contain similar materials that document similar topics, particularly purchases and loans. Based on original folder titles and occasional notations that McIlhenny made on these papers, he intentionally categorized his records in this way--judging his collection by artist, by institution, by object type or by type of activity. Also evident is is that McIlhenny constantly received requests to lend his collection. While he agreed to many, if not most, of these loans, McIlhenny also found it necessary to turn down a significant number.

The artists cited in the first subseries, "Objects by artist," attest to the different tastes of father and son. Whereas works by Old European Masters indicate the elder McIlhenny's preferences, the multiple works by Cezanne, Degas, Delacroix and Renoir define Henry McIlhenny's enthusiasm for nineteenth-century French paintings. Both the "Objects by genre" and "Dealers, museums and others" subseries make obvious the breadth of the collections built by the McIlhennys. In addition to painting and sculpture, almost every type of decorative art is represented in these papers, from furniture to fireirons, as are other objects, such as books, textiles, jewelry and gems. Also of note are other purchases McIlhenny includes in these papers, namely of items intended for everyday use as opposed to display. Orders for sets upon sets of imported china, glassware and household linens suggests McIlhenny's grand style of living and an appreciation for any and every object to be one of beauty and fine craftsmanship. Most of the documentation in the "Subjects" subseries pertains to loans, visitor requests and gifts although other files deal generally with the purchase, shipping, insuring or disposing of items. Most of the photograph files in the "Photographs and publications" subseries pertain to objects in the collections of McIlhenny and his parents. Paintings acquired by both generations are well documented as are the silverware and rugs McIlhenny's parents collected so avidly. Publications consist of several exhibition and two estate auction catalogs, as well as one scholarly article published in 1972 regarding a work by Degas that McIlhenny owned at the time.

Additional information pertaining to McIlhenny's fine and decorative art collections can be found in the "Articles, interviews and lectures" series, and the "Appraisals and insurance" subseries of the "Financial records" series.

See Also:
Henry P. McIlhenny Papers / VI. Residences

Henry P. McIlhenny Papers / II. Financial records / A. Appraisals and insurance

Works Consulted:
  • "The McIlhenny collection: inaugural exhibition."
  • Fine Arts Company of Philadelphia, Inc. "Sale No. 704." [incl. estate of Henry P. McIlhenny Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia].