Intrepid collectors of contemporary art, Louise and Walter Arensberg played an integral role in the promotion of avant-garde art and ideas in the United States. Today their collection forms the nucleus of the modern art holdings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Raised in Pittsburgh where his father ran a lucrative crucible manufacturing business, Walter studied English and philosophy at Harvard before traveling in Europe for a couple of years. After a brief stint as a reporter for The Evening Post in New York, he returned to Boston in 1907 and married Mary Louise Stevens whose family had emigrated from Dresden in the early 1880s.
The story of the Arensberg collection begins with the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art—more commonly known as the Armory Show—the first major exhibition of modern art in America. The Arensbergs attended that groundbreaking exhibition at its New York venue, where they made their earliest purchases: an Édouard Vuillard lithograph that Walter later exchanged for two more lithographs, Paul Cézanne’s The Bathers (large version, 1896–98; Philadelphia Museum of Art), and Paul Gauguin’s Design for a Plate: Shame on Those who Evil Think. At the insistence of his friend, the artist Walter Pach, one of the show’s organizers, he also purchased Jacques Villon’s abstract Sketch for “Puteaux: Smoke and Trees in Bloom," No. 2 (1912; Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Excited by what they had seen at the Armory Show, the Arensbergs moved to New York a year later and began fervently collecting contemporary art. The couple was advised in their pursuits by Pach and Marius de Zayas, the owner of the Modern Gallery. Through Pach, the Arensbergs met Marcel Duchamp, whose painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1912; Philadelphia Museum of Art) had made him the star of the Armory Show. The artist also played a key role in guiding the Arensbergs’ collecting. Before long, the walls of the couple’s West 67th Street apartment were crowded with seminal pieces by European and American artists, including Fernand Léger’s Typographer (1919; Philadelphia Museum of Art), which closely relates to Composition (The Typographer) (1918–19) in the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection. The Arensbergs’ home also became a gathering place for avant-garde artists and poets, and it was there that the Society of Independent Artists—a New York-based organization that offered artists the chance to participate in an annual prize- and jury-free exhibition—was formed.
In 1921 the Arensbergs moved to Hollywood. While far from the art world’s epicenter in New York, the couple continued to be actively involved by lending to exhibitions and acquiring artwork, relying on Duchamp (who was back in Paris) for advice. Their collection—which also included Pre-Columbian sculpture, Oriental carpets, Byzantine and Renaissance paintings, and American folk art—grew to include one of the largest holdings of Cubist art at that time. In addition to a number of works by Duchamp, including Nude Descending a Staircase, which they acquired in 1919, the Arensbergs owned pieces by Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay, André Derain, Lyonel Feininger, Albert Gleizes, Juan Gris, Léger, Jean Metzinger, and Pablo Picasso. The couple presented the collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1950.
For more information, see
McBride, Henry. “Modern Forms.” The Dial 69 (July 1920): 61–63.
The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection. Exh. cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1954.
Naumann, Francis. “Walter Conrad Arensberg: Poet, Patron, and Participant in the New York Avant-Garde, 1915–20.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin 76, no. 328 (Spring 1980): 2–32.
For the Walter and Louise Arensberg papers, 1912–1982, see:
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
For correspondence, ephemera, clippings, writings, personal and art collection records, and photographs documenting the Arensbergs’ art collecting activities as well as their friendship with many important artists, writers and scholars, including Marcel Duchamp, Charles Sheeler, Walter Pach, Beatrice Wood, and Elmer Ernest Southard, see:
The Arensberg Archives, Philadelphia Museum of Art