ROBERT MANNING’S LIFE SEEMS to have been marked by several moments of unusual serendipity. One such moment was certainly the day in 1947 when the then 23-year-old native of Mart, a maintenance depot on the now defunct Missouri Pacific rail line between Houston and Fort Worth, arrived in New York City with the proverbial $50 in his pocket, a room at the YMCA, and a letter of acceptance from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, the nation’s most prestigious graduate program in art history. Two hours off the train, queued up to enroll in classes, the famously reserved Manning was so taken with the attractive young woman standing ahead of him in line that he introduced himself. The woman was Bertina Suida, the daughter of a distinguished Austrian art historian, and the result of that chance encounter was a 42-year marriage and a remarkable professional partnership that produced what may be the last great private collection of old master paintings and drawings assembled in this country.
Almost half a century after that meeting, the legacy of what is now known as the Suida-Manning Collection was ensured by an equally unlikely encounter. In 1994, two years after his wife had passed away and two years before his own death, Manning visited a cousin in Austin and casually dropped in at the Archer M. Huntington Gallery (recently renamed the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art), the little museum crammed into the University of Texas art building and two floors of the Harry Ransom Center. Manning asked a guard if he could speak with museum director Jessie Otto Hite, who had to admit to the visitor that she had never heard of him. But Hite invited Manning to stay for coffee with someone who did know him quite well, if only by reputation: The museum’s curator of prints and drawings, Jonathan Bober, had visited Manning’s art-stuffed house in Forest Hills, New York, for a Harvard graduate seminar two decades earlier. Manning hinted that he was looking for a permanent home for his collection, but Bober couldn’t allow himself to even imagine the trove of almost 250 paintings and about four hundred drawings coming to a small university museum of limited means. “I was struggling to find support to buy prints costing in the tens of thousands,” Bober recalls. “It seemed utterly implausible.”
Yet in a coup more nearly miraculous than merely serendipitous, Hite and Bober won for the diminutive Blanton museum a prize coveted by art world Goliaths like Sotheby’s auction house and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Abetted by UT regent Lowell Lebermann and president Larry Faulkner, several anonymous donors who put up the seed money, and Robert and Bertina’s daughter and son-in-law, Alessandra Manning Dolnier and Kurt Dolnier, who donated a large portion of the collection ( UT is raising money to pay for the rest), the deal was closed last November. Now almost sixty of the best paintings (six of them yanked from the walls of the chagrined Met, where they had been on long-term loan) have been put on display at the Ransom Center. They’ll stay there until 2002, when the Blanton is expected to move into a new home designed by the ultra-hot Swiss architects Herzog et de Meuron, another happy coincidence that will boost the Blanton into the first rank of American university museums and give UT a legitimate reason to brag about its cultural eminence.
In benefiting from all this good fortune, UT and the Blanton have also done good, sparing an irreplaceable cultural artifact from suitors who had eyed the collection with all the subtlety of investment bankers hoping to carve up a conglomerate. The objects of universal desire were the celebrity pieces—paintings by Rubens, Veronese, Poussin, Lorrain, Tiepolo, and Guercino—certain to fetch millions and enrich any museum’s cache of art-historical highlights; the auction tally would have been fattened by numerous masterpieces by lesser-known but equally adept masters such as Daniele Crespi, Sebastiano Ricci, and Luca Cambiaso. But this collection, as Jonathan Bober likes to point out, is worth considerably more than the sum of its parts. It represents almost a century of study, sleuthing, and shrewd shopping by two generations of scholars whose day jobs involved acquiring art for noted private collectors like Samuel H. Kress and Walter Chrysler, Jr. The condition and quality of the paintings will come as a revelation to museumgoers too often served up mediocre old masters that just look old. Yet as gorgeous as the works are, the Suida-Manning is more than a collectors’ collection. It is an opportunity to see one of the most fecund and fevered eras in the history of Western art through the eyes of three of its most discriminating and insightful students—a journey of discovery akin to actually entering King Tut’s tomb with Howard Carter rather than strolling past the royal sarcophagus in a glass case.
The earliest work in the Suida-Manning Collection dates back more than six hundred years; between Simone dei Crocifissi’s pristine little fourteenth-century tempera-and-gold altarpiece, with its attenuated medieval figures, and the questioning secular gaze of Sebastiano del Piombo’s High Renaissance Portrait of a Man (circa 1516) lies the familiar story of Western culture’s great humanistic reawakening. But the story the Suida-Manning tells in much more precise detail is a teeming chronicle of what came after that revival: the Age of the Baroque, which began at the end of the sixteenth century and ended in the middle of the eighteenth, bringing Europe (and later the Americas) from the Renaissance to the threshold of modernity and leaving in its wake so many of Europe’s premier tourist attractions, from St. Paul’s in London to Versailles to St. Peter’s in Rome. Bracketed by the Counter-Reformation and the Enlightenment, Baroque culture was a seething cauldron of ideas both medieval and modern, cooking up an art so turbulent, so boiling with conflict between the sacred and the profane, that historians looking back from the narrow perspective of the nineteenth century regarded it as perverse.