For art lovers, the most interesting thing in Austin, Texas, is not the LBJ Presidential Library or the grandiose State House–impressive as both of them are–but the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Texas. A fine example of a university or college museum, it has strong collections of American and Latin American art, as well modern and contemporary. But what raises the Blanton far above most good university museums is its collection of Old Master paintings. What is so special about these works is that they come almost entirely from a single source, the famed Suida-Manning Collection, which the university acquired nearly intact in 1998 and around which it built the stylish Blanton Museum, which opened its doors in 2004.
Above: Saint Cecilia by Simon Vouet, c. 1626. Oil on canvas. The Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas, the Suida-Manning Collection, 1999.
What is so special about the Suida-Manning Collection, relative to most other important collections of Old Master painting, is that it was assembled, not by potentates and merchant princes, like the Pitti Palace in Florence or the Frick in New York, but by a family of art historians who, over the first three quarters of the 20th Century, purchased the art that they were studying, as they were studying it. These collectors were Wilhelm Suida (1877-1959), his daughter Bertina Manning (1922-1992) and his son-in law Robert Manning (1924-1996), a native Texan.
At the time when Suida began to collect, around 1900, it was still possible to purchase fine old paintings for relatively little, especially since his collecting tended to focus on such obscure corners of the 15th and 16th centuries as Genoa and Milan. When his daughter and son-in-law inherited the collection, they continued to collect in these areas, but also looked further afield to France and to the Baroque and after.
The result is a collection that includes what is surely the finest group of works by Luca Cambiaso, the eminent mannerist painter, outside of his native Genoa, not to mention notable pieces by Bernardo Butinone, Jacopo Bassano, Guercino and Simon Vouet. In all, the collection comprises 240 painting and 390 drawings. By this one acquisition of the Suida-Manning collection, the University of Texas was transformed overnight into one of the essential pilgrimages for any serious student of Old Master painting.
As heir of Robert and Bertina Manning, Alessandra Manning Dolnier received many solicitations to sell the collection off at auction and she would doubtless have reaped a fortune for doing so. Instead she bided her time and looked around for an institution that would be willing to accept the collection as a whole, through a combination purchase and gift. In the event, Ms. Dolnier’s forbearance has paid off spectacularly through the establishment of an inspiring monument to her parents and her grandfather, as well as an important addition to the cultural life, not only of Austin, but of the nation as a whole.