Art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg were friends with some of the most important artists of the 20th century, and as such, played an integral role in the formulation and promulgation of avant-garde artistic ideas and activities in the United States. Walter Arensberg (1878-1954) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the oldest child of Conrad Christian Arensberg and his second wife, Flora Belle Covert. Walter's father was President and partial owner of a successful Pittsburgh crucible company. Between 1896 and 1900, Walter attended Harvard University. Following graduation, he travelled to Europe, where he spent at least two years. In 1903, he returned to Harvard, as a graduate student. He did not complete his degree, but rather moved to New York City to work as a cub reporter from 1904-1906.
Louise Arensberg (1879-1953) was born Mary Louise Stevens in Dresden, Germany, to John Edward Stevens and his wife, Harriet Louisa. In 1882, the family relocated to Ludlow, Massachusetts, where Louise's father worked in his in-law's textile manufacturing business, eventually amassing the fortune Louise would use to finance the Arensbergs' art collection. Louise studied music and attended finishing school in Dresden. On June 26, 1907, she married Walter, a Harvard classmate of her brother Sidney.
Initially, the couple settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they purchased and renovated Shady Hill, the former home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and later Charles Eliot Norton. There, Walter pursued a career as a poet, publishing his first volume, Poems, in 1914. The Arensbergs' travelled to New York in 1913 to view the International Exhibition of Modern Art (Armory Show), where Walter purchased an Edouard Vuillard lithograph. He later returned the work during the Boston venue of the exhibition, purchasing instead lithographs by Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, as well as a small painting by Jacques Villon. Henceforth, the Arensbergs would dedicate their time, energy and money to amassing a seminal collection of twentieth-century art.
In 1914, the Arensbergs relocated to New York City, renting an apartment at 33 West 67th Street. Between 1915 and 1921, they collected approximately 70 more works of art, including that of various French and American avant-garde artists who they befriended. The Arensbergs became particularly close with Marcel Duchamp, who lived in their apartment during the summer of 1915 while they vacationed at their summer home in Pomfret, Connecticut. They would become the artist's life-long patrons and form the largest, most significant collection of his work.
During these years, the Arensbergs' apartment served almost nightly as a gathering place for artists, intellectuals, and writers, including John Covert, Arthur Cravan, Jean and Yvonne Crotti, Charles Demuth, Marcel Duchamp, Albert Gleizes, Mina Loy, Allen and Louise Norton, Francis Picabia, Henri-Pierre Roché, Pitts Sanborn, Morton Schamberg, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Wallace Stevens, Elmer Ernst Southard, Carl Van Vechten, Edgard Varèse, William Carlos Williams, and Beatrice Wood. Through these intellectual exchanges emerged such important art movements and developments as New York Dada, the Society of Independent Artists, and The Others Group of poets. Amongst these influences, Walter pursued his interest in poetry and his other literary interest, cryptography. In early 1921, he published The Cryptography of Dante, and the next year The Cryptography of Shakespeare. Walter sought to interpret both authors through the analysis of puns, acrostics, and anagrams. For the rest of his life, Walter avidly pursued the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy in the hopes of using cryptography to establish incontrovertible evidence that Sir Francis Bacon was the real author of the Shakespeare's plays, poems and other writings.
In 1921, upon Louise's insistence, the couple relocated to Hollywood, California. While the move was originally intended to be temporary, the Arensbergs remained in California for the rest of their lives, returning to New York for only a year between 1925 and 1926. In September 1927, the Arensbergs purchased their permanent home at 7065 Hillside Avenue.
Once in California, the Arensbergs quickly re-established their importance in the art world. By 1922, they began lending works to galleries and museums for exhibitions. They felt strongly that the public should have an opportunity to view works in the hands of private individuals, and thus were very generous in making loans, limiting, but never ceasing, their cooperation only after several of their works were damaged. Their Hillside Avenue house also served as an ad-hoc museum. Almost anyone who sought permission was granted a visit to their home to view their art collection. The Arensbergs also played an active role in many art associations. Walter served as a board member of the Los Angeles Art Association (1937), Los Angeles County Museum (1938-1939), and the Southwest Museum (1944-1954). In addition, he was a founding board member of the short-lived American Arts in Action (1943) and the Modern Institute of Art, Beverly Hills (1947-1949), organizations dedicated to showing modern art in California. The Arensbergs were among the Modern Institute of Art's biggest supporters, lending generously to its exhibitions and providing financial assistance. Despite this, and the support of many Hollywood notables, including Vincent Price and Edward G. Robinson, the Institute failed.
Through the 1930's and 1940's, the Arensbergs continued to build their art collection, buying primarily modern art and non-Western artifacts as well as some Oriental rugs, Byzantine and Renaissance paintings, and American folk art. They expanded their modern collection to include works by Surrealists such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí; the Blue-Four (acquired through the group's American agent Galka Scheyer); and contemporary Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. They also acquired additional work by Marcel Duchamp whenever possible. In addition, the Arensbergs collected pre-Columbian stone and ceramic sculptures, many bought from their friend and next-door neighbor, the dealer Earl Stendahl, from 1940 onwards.
In 1937, Walter Arensberg organized the Francis Bacon Foundation; a non-profit educational and research institute dedicated to the study of Francis Bacon. In 1939, the Foundation became the legal owner of the Walter and Louise Arensberg art collection, an arrangement agreeable to the Arensbergs for both financial and ideological reasons. The Arensbergs maintained that the so-called Baconian method for the interpretation of nature was also applicable to the interpretation of art. (Walter Arensberg to Kenneth Ross, unpublished interview, circa 1948).
In the 1940's the Arensbergs began to look for a permanent home for their collection. In 1944, the Arensbergs signed a deed of gift with the University of California, Los Angeles, which included the stipulation that the University build an appropriate museum to house the collection in a specified time frame. By the fall of 1947 it was obvious that this condition would not be met and the contract was nullified. The Arensbergs then began negotiations with numerous other institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Denver Art Museum, Harvard University, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes (Mexico, D.F.), the National Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Art, Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Minnesota. The Arensbergs eventually dropped their demand that the recipient of the collection also provide for the continuance of Walter's Francis Bacon Foundation. After protracted discussions and many visits from Director Fiske Kimball and his wife Marie, the Arensbergs presented their collection of over 1000 objects to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on December 27, 1950. On November 25, 1953, Louise died of cancer. Walter lived only a few months longer, passing away on January 29, 1954 from a heart attack. Neither lived long enough to see the opening of their collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on October 16, 1954.