Inside Oppenheimer's rich art collection: a record-setting Van Gogh, a Picasso, and more

Christopher Nolan's summer blockbuster Oppenheimer has recently become a hot topic on the art scene because of a scene where the "father of the atomic bomb" admires a Picasso painting in a museum.

It turns out that Oppenheimer actually had an interesting start with the arts, growing up in a spacious apartment adorned with numerous great paintings including ones by Rembrandt, Picasso, and Cézanne, among other masters. 

One of them, Landscape With Rising Sun, which Oppenheimer inherited from his father, even set a then-auction record for Vincent van Gogh in 1985 when it sold for a staggering US$9.9 million at Sotheby's New York.

Young Oppenheimer and his father Julius

Pablo Picasso, Mother and Child (1901) | The Harvard Art Museums 

Oppenheimer's collecting journey began with his father, Julius. 

Born in the Kingdom of Prussia in 1871, Julius moved to the United States as a teenager in 1888. With an empty pocket and no knowledge of the English language, he started at the bottom of a textile company. And within a decade, he worked his way up to an executive there, eventually becoming a successful cloth importer. 

Along with his painter wife Ella, the wealthy businessman became a keen art collector, amassing a remarkable collection of French Post-impressionist and Fauvist paintings in their floor-through apartment.

By the time Oppenheimer was a teenager, the collection included a Rembrandt etching, a drawing by Paul Cézanne, a head by the French sculptor Charles Despiau, and paintings by Pierre-August Renoir, Edouard Vuillard, and André Derain. Unfortunately, it was unknown precisely which works the Oppenheimers owned.

Four artworks, though, have been clearly recorded. One of these is a blue-period painting by Pablo Picasso, entitled Mother and Child (1901). While Picasso painted several works of the same title, it is suggested that the one from Oppenheimer's collection is now in the Harvard Art Museums. 

Vincent van Gogh, Landscape With Rising Sun (1889) | Sold: US$9.9 million, Sotheby's New York, 1985

News article on Landscape With Rising Sun setting an auction record for van Gogh then

Oppenheimer standing in front of Landscape With Rising Sun

Other than that are three Van Goghs: Landscape With Rising Sun (1889), First Steps, after Millet (1890), and Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890), which hung in their living room wallpapered in gilded gold. 

Landscape With Rising Sun first entered the Oppenheimer family's collection in the 1920s, when Julius purchased it from a prominent Viennese dealer. Oppenheimer had inherited the painting from his father, before selling it to American writer Florence Gould for under US$1 million in 1965.

In 1985, the work crossed the auction block at Sotheby's New York, where it changed hands for US$9.9 million, a then-record for not only the artist but also Impressionist and post-impressionist period paintings. 

Interestingly, its final sum had even exceeded the house's expectations. Ahead of the sale, then-director of the painting department David Nash bluntly said, “There are no people in this painting. I think by the end of the day paintings of people are more valuable. They are expensive pictures, but not particularly rare. I think if you add up all the Greek millionaires who live in Switzerland, you could find 20 similar period van Goghs.”

Oppenheimer and his younger brother Frank

Frank was also a physicist who had been part of the Manhattan Project

Vincent van Gogh, First Steps, after Millet (1890) | The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Jean-François Millet, First Steps (c. 1859-66) | The Cleveland Museum of Art

As for First Steps, after Millet, it was acquired by Julius in 1926 for US$12,900 and inherited by Oppenheimer's younger brother, Frank. After passing through the hands of several collectors, the artwork now resides in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Van Gogh had a profound admiration for Jean-François Millet, the great French realist painter of rural life. Intrigued by Millet's peasant themes, Van Gogh made 21 copies of his works while a voluntary patient at the asylum in Saint-Rémy, including this painting. 

These copies – based on black-and-white images from prints, reproductions, or photographs – however, are much more than simply literal reproduction. 

In Van Gogh's own words, "It is rather translating into another language, the one of colours, the impressions of chiaroscuro and white and black. Even if they’re criticized one day or despised as copies, it will remain no less true that it’s justifiable to try to make Millet’s work more accessible to the ordinary general public."

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890) | Private Swiss Collection (possibly the one kept by the Oppenheimers)

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890) | Private Collection (possibly the one kept by the Oppenheimers)

In May 1890, Van Gogh left Saint-Rémy and settled in Auberge Ravoux in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small town north of Paris, where he could find the peace and tranquillity he needed. 

During his two months there, he threw himself entirely into painting, completing more than a hundred artworks, including three portraits of Adeline Ravoux, the 13-year-old daughter of the innkeeper, and a witness to Van Gogh's return to the inn after the fatal incident where he shot himself. 

Of these three paintings, one is now owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art, which, according to the institution's provenance, is certainly not the one that belonged to the Oppenheimers. 

Another, without the artist's signature, was the version Van Gogh gave to his brother Theo. It was last seen in public in 1988, when it sold for US$13.8 million at Christie's New York, though neither the buyer nor the seller was identified.

And the one with Van Gogh's signature, given to the Ravoux family and the first of these three portraits, has entered a private Swiss collection. Either one of these two had once hung at Oppenheimer's apartment.

A photo of Auberge Ravoux captured around 1890. Scholars suggest the girl standing in the middle was Adeline Ravoux

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Adeline Ravoux (1890) | The Cleveland Museum of Art (certainly not the one kept by the Oppenheimers)

It is worth noting that Oppenheimer's father, Julius, lived from 1871 to 1937. This means that many of the paintings he acquired were ground-breaking contemporary art of his time, such as those by Renoir (1841-1919), Van Gogh (1853-1890), and Cézanne (1839-1906).

As for what else Oppenheimer inherited, let's hope the question will pique the interest of more researchers as the film gains international acclaim.