Collecting Prints during the Gilded Age: The case of Frederick Paul Keppel and Robert Nanteuil

Collecting Prints during the Gilded Age:  The Case of Frederick Paul Keppel and Robert Nanteuil

In 1947, Helen Brown Keppel (1880-1961) donated to Columbia University 184 engravings by the 17th-century French artist Robert Nanteuil (c. 1623-1678). This collection was assembled by her late husband, Frederick Paul Keppel (1875-1943), who served as Dean of Columbia College between 1910 and 1918. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Keppel was actively collecting engravings by Nanteuil, communicating with dealers and auction houses in the United States and Europe. By the time he assumed his role as President of the Carnegie Corporation in 1922, he had amassed “a notable collection of Nanteuil’s engraved portraits.”[1]

The basis for Keppel’s collection seems to be his belief that there was no artistic tradition in the United States. In his history of Columbia University, published in 1914, he lamented that “it must be remembered that as yet we have no traditions of art in this country. Our Puritan forefathers came here believing that they had left art behind as one of the luxuries that were to be condemned.”[2] Keppel believed that art was a necessity, and his collection can be seen as his own attempt to enrich American culture.

This idea was prominent throughout the Gilded Age: business tycoons and East Coast elites were purchasing famous works of European art to decorate their lavish homes, as well as to elevate American taste. While emphasis is typically placed on the collecting of paintings during the Gilded Age, there was also a thriving market for prints during this period. Though contemporary with some of the biggest names in the history of American collecting, including J.P. Morgan (1837-1913), Henry Clay Frick (1849-1919), and Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924), Keppel was not a business tycoon or an heir/heiress to a previous fortune, but the son of a prominent art dealer and scholar, Frederick Keppel (1844-1912). Therefore, his collection serves as an example of smaller scale collecting, which also went on during the Gilded Age in New York.

While Keppel’s collection was much more modest than those of his contemporaries, both sides of his family were involved in the culture of collecting that was prominent around the turn-of-the-century. His parents, Frederick and Fannie, were both born in Ireland, emigrating to the United States in the 1860s-70s. Frederick Keppel’s love for books eventually led him to become a print dealer. Through connections with booksellers, he met collectors who introduced him to the business. He ultimately established his own firm, Frederick Keppel & Co., in 1868. David, Frederick’s younger son, described his father as “the pioneer in the United States”[3] for large scale print dealership outside of Europe. Indeed, Frederick Keppel & Co. had offices in New York, as well as London and Paris. Frederick Keppel sold the work of modern etchers in New York during the last few decades of the 19th-century. In particular, he was known as “one of the most enthusiastic promoters of the Barbizon etchings, exhibiting Daubigny, Jacque, and above all Millet.”[4] In addition to Frederick Paul’s own family’s involvement in the art world, his wife Helen was the niece by marriage of one of the most prolific contemporary collectors, J.P. Morgan.[5]  

The Keppel family was involved with not only the sale of art, but also the development of American taste in the early decades of the 20th century. Research in Frederick Paul Keppel’s personal archives held at Columbia University led to the discovery of some intriguing family dynamics that allow for a better understanding of his collecting practice.[6] While Frederick Paul was the eldest son, his younger brother David was the one to take over the family business after their father’s death in 1912. This situation is confirmed by an article in American Art News published in March 1914, which explains that after their father’s death, Frederick Paul received only $5,000 from his father’s will, to be given in annual installments of $1,000. The article also states that Frederick Paul had previously received $25,000 from his father and that he was “to be given no further share.”[7] David inherited his father’s company with an estimated value of $247,886. Allegedly, Frederick Paul and his father had quarreled over the inheritance of the family business. Frederick Paul had no interest in becoming a print dealer. This displeased his father, who ultimately wrote him out of his will.[8] Frederick Keppel & Co. continued under David Keppel and Fitzroy Carrington until it merged with another dealer in 1940.

Letters from the following decade also gesture to these tense family dynamics. For example, in 1924, The Rosenbach Company in Philadelphia offered Keppel a special price for three Nanteuil engravings he was interested in purchasing as he was “practically in the family of dealers.”[9] Despite these potentially uncomfortable circumstances, Frederick Paul and David appear to have remained close throughout their lives.

While Keppel had no interest in a career as a print dealer, he certainly shared his family’s enthusiasm for prints. As a young man, he spent summers working in the stockroom of his father’s print dealership. Frederick Keppel & Co. sold both contemporary and Old Master’s prints and it is undoubtedly there that Frederick Paul received his introduction to Nanteuil. In The Golden Age of Engraving: A Specialist's Story about Fine Prints, published in 1910, Frederick Keppel described Nanteuil as “an engraver who well deserves to rank with the best.”[10] Nanteuil’s engravings were the focus of several solo exhibitions around the turn-of-the-century: at Frederick Keppel & Co. in 1908,[11] and at other prominent galleries such as M. Knoedler & Co[12] and R. Ederheimer Print Cabinet[13] in the next decade. In the introduction to the catalogue for the 1908 Nanteuil exhibition at Frederick Keppel & Co., David characterized Nanteuil as “the greatest portrait engraver that ever lived,”[14] describing the unique subtlety of Nanteuil’s engravings as follows:

“Nanteuil's method throughout was remarkable for great simplicity and straightforwardness. He had a wonderful technical mastery, and was capable of performing the most astounding tours de force, but he rarely did so, except in so unobtrusive a manner as to be scarcely noticeable.”[15]

Based on the Keppels’ and other major New York dealers’ interest in Nanteuil, it is clear that the artist had a prominent reputation in print collecting circles in the United States during the early years of the 20th century.  

Frederick Paul Keppel began collecting Nanteuil after returning from France where he served as Director of Foreign Operations of the American Red Cross during the First World War. His correspondence with dealers in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Paris shows that he was extremely knowledgeable about Nanteuil and that he was intent on assembling a large collection. However, it is also apparent from these letters that condition or quality of the impressions was not Keppel’s top priority. In a letter to Paul Prouté, Keppel asked the Parisian dealer to be on the lookout for more Nanteuil prints for him, “not necessarily of museum quality, but decent impressions at a reasonable price.”[16] Similarly, in a letter from April 1926 in which Goodspeed’s Bookshop in Boston discusses the purchase of two prints now in Columbia’s collection, the dealer confirms the “imperfections which you [Keppel] pointed out,” but assures Keppel that “these were known to us when we made the price. However, we are willing to give you these two engravings for $32.50.”[17] This type of information is consistent with the quality of the Nanteuil prints that Helen Brown Keppel donated to Columbia: many have been bleached, cut down to or beyond the original plate mark, or pasted on to 19th-century paper. These condition issues illustrate the damage inflicted by early conservation efforts; however, it is unclear if specific prints were already in poor condition when Keppel purchased them or if the damage reflects his own attempts to have the prints conserved. Keppel’s mode of collecting was typical for American print collectors after about 1880. Previously, collectors like Samuel P. Avery had built collections based on connoisseurship; by contrast, later generations of print collectors were generally concerned with volume over quality.

Keppel’s correspondence with print dealers also serves as a valuable resource for understanding the financial aspects of print collecting. The sale and auction records kept in Keppel’s archives indicate that the prices that the collector paid for his prints are consistent with the going prices for Nanteuil’s prints in the 1920s, i.e., between $20-150 per print, although a sales catalogue from an auction hosted by the Rochbach Company, which Keppel attended, lists the prices for Nanteuil’s engravings as ranging from $30-350, likely depending on the quality of the impression and the prominence of the sitter. According to an archival note from 1943, Keppel estimated the average value of his prints at $40 a piece, while in his will, he estimated the total value of his collection at $10,000. Interestingly, records of his purchases indicate that he was inclined to buy prints in bulk, furthering the hypothesis that he was more concerned with amassing a large collection rather than a collection comprised of only spectacular impressions. In 1924, for example, Keppel bought a total of seventeen engravings from M. Knoedler & Co. in New York for a total price of $1,100. Many of the prints Helen Brown Keppel donated to Columbia appear to have been purchased as part of this 1924 sale. However, it is difficult to be sure because Keppel was not opposed to buying multiple impressions of the same sitter, making records of the purchases difficult to track.

Throughout his career, Frederick Paul Keppel introduced his friends and colleagues to Nanteuil’s work and encouraged them to collect too. According to evidence found in his papers, he circulated catalogues of Nanteuil’s prints to various friends and acquaintances at the Carniege Corporation such as Elihu Root, and advised them on their purchases.[18] Therefore, Keppel appears to have been considered an authority on Nanteuil’s engravings by his contemporaries.

Considering the inclusion of this type of information in his personal archives, as well as the prints’ prominent place in his will, it is clear that Keppel’s collection was of great importance to him. During his time as the President of the Carnegie Corporation, Keppel decorated his office with the engraved portraits from his collection. His brother David noted that:

“Mr. Carnegie’s portrait, which hung in the President’s office at the Carnegie Corporation, was surrounded by Seventeenth Century Dukes and Marshalls of France. I am sure Mr. Carnegie himself never dreamed of being in such distinguished company.”[19]

In addition, an archival note dated January 14, 1943 states that there was a total of forty-two prints displayed throughout the Carnegie Corporation offices. This demonstrates the prints’ personal significance to Keppel.

The case of Frederick Paul Keppel – a contemporary, and in some cases an acquaintance, of some of the most prominent Gilded Age New York collectors – presents a unique example of smaller scale collecting during this era.[20] Through his connection to J.P. Morgan and his father’s role as a prominent print dealer, as well as his personal devotion to improving the American artistic tradition, Keppel became interested in creating his own print collection. Over the course of his career, he accumulated a vast collection of Nanteuil’s engravings that demonstrate the artist’s range and virtuosity.


Sarah Bigler

[1] Keppel, David, FPK: An Intimate Biography of Frederick Paul Keppel. (Washington D.C.: Privately printed, 1950-51), 39.

[2] Keppel, Frederick Paul. Columbia. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1914), 241.

[3] Keppel, David, FPK: An Intimate Biography of Frederick Paul Keppel, 10.

[4] Melot, Michel, Prints: A History of Art. (New York: Skira: Rizzoli, 1981), 116.

[5] Helen Keppel was the niece of Frances Louisa Tracy, whom J.P. Morgan married in 1865.

[6] Frederick P. Keppel papers. Columbia University, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York, MS#0707.

[7] “Frederick Keppel's Will," American Art News, XII, No. 22 (March 7, 1914): 1. Google Books. Accessed May 2, 2017. A second article titled “Frederick Keppel Left $405,177” was published with the same text in the New York Herald in March 1914.

[8] Keppel, Charles T. “Our Family History,” 1981. Frederick Keppel Clippings File, New York Public Library, Prints Department, MDGZ (Keppel, F.).

[9] Fagg, Helen M. to Frederick Paul Keppel. 30 December 1924. The Rosenbach Company: Rare Books, Paintings and Art Prints, Antique Furniture and Objects of Art. 1020 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA.

[10] Keppel, Frederick. The Golden Age of Engraving: A Specialist's Story about Fine Prints, second ed. (New York: The Baker & Taylor Company, 1910), 14. Google Books. Accessed May 2, 2017.

[11] A Catalogue of an Exhibition of Engraved Portraits by Robert Nanteuil: 1630-1678. (New York: Frederick Keppel & Co. : October 14- November 2, 1908).

[12] A Notable Collection of works by the Peintre-Graveur: Robert Nanteuil (New York: M. Knoedler & Co.: 1920).

[13] An Exhibition of Portraits by Robert Nanteuil (1630-1678). (New York: R. Ederheimer Print Cabinet: October 1913).

[14] Keppel, David. “Introduction” in A Catalogue of an Exhibition of Engraved Portraits by Robert Nanteuil: 1630-1678. (New York: Frederick Keppel & Co. : October 14- November 2, 1908), 3.

[15] Keppel, David. “Introduction” in A Catalogue of an Exhibition of Engraved Portraits by Robert Nanteuil: 1630-1678, 4.

[16] Keppel, Frederick Paul to Pierre Prouté. December 10, 1931. 522 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York. “…portraits de Nanteuil, pas nécessairement des pièces de musée, mais des épreuves honorables…, et à prix raisonnables.”

[17] Goodspeed's Book Shop to Frederick Paul Keppel. December 30, 1924. 5A Park Street and 9A Aushburton Place, Boston, Massachusetts.

[18] Various letters in the Frederick P. Keppel Papers exchanged with Keppel’s Carnegie Corporation colleague Elihu Root discuss Keppel’s recommendations for prints by Nanteuil.

[19] Keppel, David, FPK: An Intimate Biography of Frederick Paul Keppel, 39.

[20] Interestingly, it appears that Keppel only collected the work of Nanteuil. More specifically, only Nanteuil’s engravings, not his drawings or pastels. These, which are much more rare, likely would have been too expensive. Although the Columbia Daily Spectator reported on November 3, 1947 that the Keppel gift included a portrait of the architect Antoine Le Paultre drawn by Nanteuil, no such drawing has been located in the Columbia collection, though the artist did engrave Le Paultre’s portrait (Columbia owns some impressions).