Mapping Cultural Philanthropy

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Lessing J. Rosenwald

Lessing J. Rosenwald Gardner Cox, Portrait of Lessing J. Rosenwald, 1955. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Lessing J. Rosenwald, 1955.8.1. Beginning in 1943, Lessing Julius Rosenwald (1891–1979) donated his collection of prints and drawings to the National Gallery of Art; his gifts eventually totaled over twenty-two thousand items.“Highlights of the History of the National Gallery of Art.” Born in Chicago in 1891, Lessing Rosenwald was the son of Julius Rosenwald, a clothing business magnate who in 1895 bought twenty-five percent of the Sears, Roebuck & Co. and made his fortune with the rise of the mail-order business. Lessing Rosenwald graduated from the University of Chicago and then went to Cornell University to study chemistry. He joined Sears as a shipping clerk in 1911 and worked his way up to chairman of its board of directors by 1932. After the Second World War, he devoted his time to art collecting and managing his family charities, chief among these the Julius Rosenwald Fund and the American Council for Judaism.

Rosenwald began collecting prints in the mid-1920s, when some of the great private collections of Europe were being broken up after the First World War. His interest in prints come about by chance when he noticed a print by D. Y. Cameron in a Philadelphia print shop window and purchased it. By 1929, he had amassed a collection of forty-three hundred prints.Around the same time, Rosenwald also collected rare books, which were donated to the Library of Congress at the time of his death. As he had decided early on that he would ultimately donate his collection, the guiding principle of his collecting was to match as closely as possible the great collections of Western prints and drawings in the world. Then-curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery, Andrew Robinson, called this collection “probably the most comprehensive and finest collection of prints, drawings, and illustrated books ever brought together by a single man” in America.J. Y. Smith, “Lessing Rosenwald Dies, Donated Art, Rare Books,” The Washington Post (June 26, 1979), https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1979/06/26/lessing-rosenwald-dies-donated-art-rare-books/3eebe53e-0a3a-4e0e-991e-d49fae1b7217/ (accessed July 28, 2017).

Lessing Rosenwald encouraged the National Gallery and other donors to “continue collecting and improving upon the work he had accomplished.” His 1943 deed of gift made this explicit, specifying that should the gallery already own or subsequently acquire by gift or purchase a duplicate print of equal or superior quality to any in the Rosenwald Collection, it would be free to deaccession the Rosenwald item and to use the proceeds for new acquisitions of graphic art. Rosenwald “always expected and hoped that other donors would expand and strengthen the gallery’s collections, improving the holdings in areas he loved but also adding new areas of emphasis which had not happened to appeal to him personally.”Ruth E. Fine, Lessing J. Rosenwald: Tribute to a Collector (Meriden: Meriden Gravure Company, 1982), 7–8.

 Profile by Noah Houghton, 2017 summer intern.