Lessing J. Rosenwald

Rev. Leon H. Sullivan
Richardson Dilworth

Any ceremony that begins by referring to Philadelphia as the “Athens-on-the Schuylkill” may well expect to raise eyebrows. (What next: Rome-on-the-Delaware, Paris-on-the-Wissahickon, or Berlin-on-Cobb’s Creek?) But that is exactly how the Philadelphia Award ceremony on the night of April 11, 1967 began. The speakers wanted to firmly establish Philadelphia in its rightful place in the art world. And since the man being honored knew his art, noted New York/Philadelphia art critic John Canaday delivered the main remarks, commenting on the state of the art connoisseur. Rattling off several levels of connoisseurship, from the lowest to the highest, Canaday announced that Lessing J. Rosenwald reached the zenith. This for a man who was not really from the art world at all, but had headed up Sears and Roebuck’s catalogue division in Philadelphia. Rosenwald, as presenter Graeme Lorimer waxed, “went from casual window shopper to world-renowned art collector and knowledgeable connoisseur; from college dropout to author of learned monographs, and holder of honorary degrees.”

Y es, Lessing Rosenwald was no mere art hoarder; in fact, he really was not an art hoarder at all. At any given time, items from his prized collection of prints and rare books could be found at up to sixty national and international exhibits. At the time of the Award, his print collection numbered 25,000 and included works by Rembrandt, Picasso, Munch, and Matisse. His prized book collection of some 2,500 titles included the first illustrated Bible (the Giant Bible of Mainz), published in German in 1475; Epistolae et Evangelia (1495)—known as the “finest illustrated book of the fifteenth century”; and a “Baedeker-like guide book to Rome” (1488). He believed “that a work of art that is never seen is little better off than one that has never been created.” In 1943, Rosenwald announced that (upon his death), he was leaving his rare books to the Library of Congress and his prints to the National Gallery of Art.

In the meantime, his magnificent collections were available for public perusal at the Alverthorpe gallery, the fireproof wing of his mansion in Jenkintown. This perusal was by appointment only, but appointments were made steadily at first and gradually came in fast and furious, as many thousands visited the gallery. Heir to the Sears & Roebuck fortune, Rosenwald opened Alverthorpe in 1939, shortly after he retired from his position as chairman of the board of Sears and Roebuck, in order to devote himself full-time to his collections and philanthropy.

When at home, Rosenwald often greeted visitors to the gallery, shook their hands, inquired about their visit, and joked with them; he was thrilled by the great interest in his collection, not only from art connoisseurs and scholars, but from groups of adults and school children who arrived with little knowledge and left stimulated by what they had seen.

Rosenwald received the Philadelphia Award, not for amassing a great collection, but for making that collection available to the public, especially at Alverthorpe. He was also honored for his “dedicated intelligence,” which he had demonstrated by his work developing the print and drawing department of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, expanding the rare book department of the Free Library, and founding the Print Council of America.

Lee Arnold

Sources: Obituary, Philadelphia Inquirer, June 26, 1979; “The Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection,” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/rarebook/coll/211.html; “Rosenwald Honored with Philadelphia Award,” Philadelphia Inquirer, April 12, 1967; “Philadelphia Award to be Given to L.J. Rosenwald,” Philadelphia Bulletin, Feb. 7, 1967; “Lessing Julius Rosenwald,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lessing_J._Rosenwald. The following are collected in Philadelphia Award Records: Series 2 (Recipients & Nominees, 1965-1999), Box 7, folder 6: program, clippings, letters, press release; Series 3 (Award Ceremony), Box 19, folder 11: Report of Proceedings, Philadelphia Award, April 11,1967; Series 4 (Miscellaneous), Scrapbook, Box 20, folder 13. Photo:Philadelphia Record Photograph Collection, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Comment: Rosenwald had willed his treasures to the National Gallery of Art and Library of Congress, because of his concern over the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s operating deficit, and his conviction that his collections would reach the most people in Washington, DC. Yet, Rosenwald had been very much a part of the city’s fabric, serving on the boards of, and helping to cultivate, numerous cultural organizations, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Friends of the Free Library of Philadelphia, and the Rosenbach Museum and Library. He was vice president of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, dean of the Wistar Society, and Knight First Class of the Royal Order of Vasa in Sweden. Who can begrudge a Swedish knight for wanting to leave his collections to the nation?