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    Thanks to Keynes, classic artworks in the public eye

    John Maynard Keynes, pictured in 1929.
    John Maynard Keynes, pictured in 1929.

    Much has been written — and said — about the extracurricular activities of the economist John Maynard Keynes over the past week, beginning with comments by Niall Ferguson linking his purported homosexuality with callous disregard for the well-being of future generations. (Homosexuality equals no children equals narcissism and reckless short-term thinking. Impeccable logic. It’s hard to know why Ferguson felt the need to apologize.)

    Many people may not know about a side of Keynes’s extracurricular activities that showed not just admirable long-term thinking but also great courage.

    When the painter Edgar Degas died in 1917, at 83, he left behind an astonishing collection of art. It was so fine that at one time Degas had considered turning it into a museum. The collection had been assembled in the 1890s, when he began earning enough money to indulge what quickly became an obsession. He bought paintings and dozens of drawings by his heroes Ingres, Delacroix, and Daumier; he owned eight paintings, 14 drawings, and more than 60 prints by his late friend Manet; he bought works by members of the younger generation, including Cezanne and Gauguin; and he acquired prints and pastels by Mary Cassatt, paintings by Camille Corot, and more than 100 printed pictures, books, and drawings by Japanese artists.


    Twenty years later, by the time of World War I, this astonishing collection was a muffled rumor, at most. Hardly anyone had seen it for years. So when it came on the market, near the end of the war, it hit the art world with the force of a revelation. “The event of the season” is how the journal Les Arts described the series of three sales held in Paris in March and November 1918. (Five further sales were held to disperse unsold works by Degas himself). American collectors such as Louisine Havemeyer and institutions like the Metropolitan Museum in New York sent instructions across the Atlantic to their agents, telling them how to bid. The Louvre, too, was a heavyweight contender — all the more so because the overwhelming majority of the artists Degas collected were French. But in the event, the most substantial share of the collection went to London, after Keynes convinced the British Treasury to award the cash-strapped National Gallery in London a special grant of 20,000 pounds.

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    War was raging when Keynes, who had been convinced of the collection’s quality by his friend the critic Roger Fry, went to Paris in March 1918. The city was under attack. The dull thud of bombs could be heard, getting uncomfortably close, in the afternoon. After one such explosion, according to Keynes’s friend and traveling companion Charles Holmes, “there was quite a considerable rush to the door.” The majority of those who fled failed to return. As a result, many of the sale’s finest pictures came under the hammer before a greatly diminished audience. Keynes and Holmes stayed on; the British public reaped the benefit.

    The Brits came away with 27 paintings and drawings. The prices were so depressed under the circumstances that a quarter of the money went unspent. Keynes also showed that, in art as in economics, a bit of self-interest never goes astray: He bought a Cezanne still life for himself, for the absurdly low figure of 327 pounds.

    Sebastian Smee can be reached at