One man, 500 years of Western art

Dr Gustav Rau has created one the world's finest private collections. Now, for the first time, it is on display in Paris
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The Independent Online

There is a rare treat to be had at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris between now and the beginning of next year. At the attractively refurbished museum attached to the Palace, maintained by the French Senate, and in recent years used mainly for routine exhibitions drawn from provincial museums, there is currently on show the Collection of Dr Gustav Rau, probably the finest still in private hands in the world today. Not only in private hands, but, up till now, never actually shown: Dr Rau's collection of some 400 paintings and over 200 sculptures normally remains in closely guarded vaults in Zürich.

There is a rare treat to be had at the Palais du Luxembourg in Paris between now and the beginning of next year. At the attractively refurbished museum attached to the Palace, maintained by the French Senate, and in recent years used mainly for routine exhibitions drawn from provincial museums, there is currently on show the Collection of Dr Gustav Rau, probably the finest still in private hands in the world today. Not only in private hands, but, up till now, never actually shown: Dr Rau's collection of some 400 paintings and over 200 sculptures normally remains in closely guarded vaults in Zürich.

Dr Rau is a man no less remarkable than his collection. Born in 1922 into a rich German industrialist family in Stuttgart, he was studying political science at the university of Tübingen when the Second World War began. He joined the German army but defected to the British in 1944, and, upon his release, returned to Tübingen to complete his studies.

Then in 1962, at the age of 40, Rau decided to study medicine, making a special study of tropical diseases and paediatrics. Graduating in 1969, the following year he disposed of the huge family business which he had inherited and determined to devote the rest of his life to humanitarian aid to the Third World. He set up a medical foundation in 1971 and moved to West Africa, beginning in Nigeria and then moving to Zaire, where he built a hospital at Ciriri, near Bukavu, which takes in 2,000 patients a year, and also set up a centre for malnutrition which was dealing with up to 15,000 people a day during the civil war in Rwanda.

Perhaps even more remarkable, at the end of the 1960s, Dr Rau began to collect fine art, with the same single-minded devotion that he applied to his philanthropic activities in West Africa, while remaining based there, and without having anywhere in which to show what he had bought. He began to make regular journeys to the great auction houses, predominantly Sotheby's and Christie's in London, and galleries where works were on sale. He began with his first love, sculpture, and then moved on to paintings, amassing a collection exceeded only in size by the Thyssen-Bornemiza collection - now housed in Madrid.

The truly remarkable thing about the Rau collection, aside from its sheer quality and scope, is the fact that each work was bought by Dr Rau himself and represents his personal choice, with no intervention by art experts or financial advisers. Not only that, but Rau always bids personally for the works he wants, and at times is not averse to using guile in doing so.

In November 1972, for example, when Degas' magnificent final self-portrait from 1900 was to be auctioned at Christie's in London, Rau heard that there was a likelihood of fog and therefore decided to take the night ferry to London. He was right: his rival bidders tried to travel by air, were delayed, and thus left Rau to claim the prize. Similarly, in 1981, when Sotheby's was auctioning Cézanne's glorious landscape The Sea at L'Estaque, Rau discovered that it was to be the first lot of the afternoon, and, knowing the propensities of London dealers, made do with an apple on the pavement in Bond Street, and was there to bid before the others had returned from lunch.

But even without such ruses, Gustav Rau has collected the most amazing group of paintings whose significance lies in the fact that it spans five centuries of the very best of European art, from the Renaissance to the 1950s, with virtually no example missing from any period, school or country.

It is this which puts his collection on a level with the Frick in New York City, the Wallace in London, and the Thyssen in Madrid. Moreover, although this exhibition at the Luxembourg shows only a quarter of the total collection held in Zürich, thanks to the judgement of the exhibition's General Director, Marc Restellini, assisted by Patrizia Nitti and Dr Rau's private secretary and collection administrator, Robert Clementz, it is a brilliant selection.

One feels, from the opening Fra Angelico panels of St Nicholas of Bari and St Michael of around 1425, to the final exquisite Marie Laurencin, Three young girls and two dogs, of about 1940, that every painting is a winner. In the early section there is a glorious Guido Reni of David and Goliath, only verified as a Reni after Rau's acquisition of it in 1971, a fine Allegory of Music by Elisabette Sirani (1638-1665) - Dr Rau makes quite a thing of female artists - a fine Judith by Cranach the Elder, a good Canaletto, a Van Ruisdael, and a quite stunning El Greco of St Dominic in prayer (1600-1610), acquired by Dr Rau in 1970.

Moving on, we see a marvellous portrait by Fragonard, a wicked Boucher of a shepherd boy teaching his little shepherdess to play the flute, two fine English portraits by Reynolds and Gainsborough, a ravishing bacchante by Courbet, and striking Algerian women by Corot, before reaching the glories of Impressionism.

Here are several superb Monets, including an amazing Norwegian snowscape of 1895, Manet's Femme au chapeau noir, and Renoir's haunting Femme à la rose, several Pissarros and Sisleys, and a wonderful Mary Cassatt of Louise breastfeeding her child (1899).

Into the 20th century, there are cherishable works by Signac, Odilon Redon, Vuillard, including his magnificent portrait of Monsieur Benac, Bonnard's beautiful bay of St Tropez of 1914, Vlaminck, Dufy, Derain and an immensely powerful red-bearded rabbi by Emanuel Mané-Katz (1925).

The entire exhibition is a joy from first to last, and, on a sunny day, to add to the joy, you can stroll the few metres to the Luxembourg Gardens, sit under the trees, and study the excellent catalogue (English version available) while people play chess on one side of you and tennis on the other. Thanks to Dr Rau, Paris seems an even more civilised city than usual.

At the Musée du Luxembourg, 19 rue du Vaugirard, 75006 Paris, until 4 January 2001, open daily, 11-7pm (Thursdays until 10pm), entrance: adults FFr50 (£5), children FFr15 (£1.50)

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