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Portrait of Prince Nicholas II Esterházy as an avid collector, a bankrupt, and a womaniser

The Prince's passions cost him his fortune but gave Hungary a fine collection of art

Prince Nicholas II Esterházy (1765–1833) should have been one of the most successful men of his age. Instead he was an abject failure. Even in the one area in which he acquired a lasting reputation—his compulsive collecting—his endeavours merely ended in bankruptcy and humiliation.

Stefan Körner’s richly illustrated biography explains that this was the result of bad luck, incessant philandering and a depressive and self-indulgent personality. When Nicholas II succeeded his father in 1794 his prospects seemed excellent. His grandfather, Prince Nicholas I (1714-90), had been a field marshal and had attended the coronation of Joseph II in 1764 wearing a uniform decorated with 10,000 oriental pearls and an aigrette with 3,369 diamonds. He also built the magnificent Eszterháza Palace, just south of Lake Neusiedl, the largest non-imperial building constructed in the reign of Maria Theresa, where he installed Josef Haydn as his kapellmeister (music master).

Nicholas II inherited 29 lordships scattered across present-day Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and Romania. Over 430,000 hectares of land, 21 castles, and palaces in Vienna, Eisenstadt, Bratislava, Sopron, Buda and Pest came encumbered with debts of 5.6m gulden. Yet his credit was excellent for such debts were not unusual among the upper nobility.

It was, however, unfortunate that Nicholas came into his birthright during the French Revolutionary wars. For it soon became clear that he lacked the military and political skills of his predecessors. He failed to make his mark as a military commander; a diplomatic mission to keep the Russians in the War of the Second Coalition foundered when the Tsar withdrew his forces in 1799. His enthusiasm for Napoleon after 1803 earned him no reward and later rumours that Napoleon wished to create him king of Hungary merely intensified the distrust of the Vienna court. The acquisition of the tiny Swabian county of Edelstetten in 1804 enabled him to become a ruling prince of the Holy Roman Empire, but two years later the empire was dissolved.

After 1815 his options were limited. By then his philandering had become so scandalous that he was close to being expelled from the Order of the Golden Fleece. His wife abandoned him publicly in 1811. It is estimated that the prince had well over 100 mistresses, including the former French prostitute Marie Louise Plaideux whom he met in Paris in 1810. Installed in Vienna, she bore him three children and retained his lifelong devotion.

Collecting remained the prince’s other constant passion. While his forebears had collected art for representational purposes, Nicholas II was a true connoisseur and an innovator. On an extended trip to Italy in 1794-95 he bought paintings by Mengs, Kauffmann and Wutky, canvases by Correggio and Andrea del Sarto, as well as prints, drawings, ceramics, marbles and fine linens. A stay in Paris 1802-03 saw the acquisition of further paintings and artworks. During a tour of southern England in 1803 he purchased technical instruments in addition to decorative items, and also eagerly gathered ideas about landscape design and modern estate management.

At home Nicholas II eschewed the rococo flounces of Eszterháza and set about turning his Eisenstadt palace into a monumental Neo-Classical complex. The park alone was filled with 35,000 specimen trees, 60,000 plants in the glass houses and 771 types of vine. In 1814 Nicholas finally realised his plan to establish a museum with the purchase of the Kaunitz palace in Vienna. The galleries were open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they were kept up to date with work by Canova, Thorvaldsen and others that the prince purchased on further visits to Italy.

From now on providing for Plaideux and her children and augmenting the collections at Vienna and Eisenstadt—with paintings and prints, books, minerals and sea shells, jewels and plants—became the prince’s obsession. In 1813 he had already been temporarily insolvent. By 1828 his credit finally ran out. In 1832 Nicholas II was formally declared bankrupt and his property was sequestered. He withdrew to the island of Mainau in Lake Constance, where he lived with his second family.

Nicholas II’s heir, Prince Paul III Anton, was left with the painful task of dissolving the main collections, which his grandson Nicholas III continued. The “Celebrated Esterházy Jewels” were auctioned at Christie’s in 1867. The 81 lots, including nearly 50,000 diamonds, made £38,000; the main buyers were the Rothschilds, Sebastian and Robert Garrard and Charles Tiffany. From 1861, the Hungarian Academy of Arts received 637 paintings, 3,545 drawings and 53,914 prints as a loan; ten years later they were sold to the Hungarian government for 1.3m gulden. The Esterházy pictures still form the core of the national collection in Budapest today.

Patriotism inspired the desire of Nicholas II’s heirs to see the works of art remain in Budapest, but they also needed the money. The Esterházy collections thus contributed to Hungary’s national revival. It was not, however, until 1898 that the family’s estates were released from sequestration. It took the Esterházy family nearly a century to repair the damage that Nicholas II had done to his dynasty.

Nikolaus II. Esterházy und die Kunst: Biographie eines manischen Sammlers

Stefan Körner

Böhlau Verlag, 397 pp, €69 (hb).

In German only

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Portrait of the collector as a bankrupt and a womaniser'