On Monday, October 28, 2013, a masterpiece by French painter James Tissot will be sold at Christie’s fall sale of 19th Century European Art in New York.
In the Conservatory (Rivals), c. 1875 (oil on canvas, 15 1/8 x 20 1/8 in./38.4 x 51.1 cm.) is being deaccessioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The painting was donated to the Met in 2009 by socialite, philanthropist and fine arts collector Mrs. Jayne Wrightsman (b. 1919), widow of oil executive Charles B. Wrightsman (1895–1986). In the four years that In the Conservatory (Rivals) has been in the Met’s collection, it has not been exhibited – inexplicably, it was not even included in the blockbuster exhibition, “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” which debuted at the Musée d’Orsay from September 25, 2012 to January 20, 2013, travelled to the Met from February 26 to May 27, 2013, and made its finale at the Art institute of Chicago from June 26 to September 29.
Mrs. Wrightsman, now an emeritus trustee of the Met, donated three other Tissot oils to the museum:
Tea (1872), oil on wood, 26 x 18 7/8 in./66 x 47.9 cm., gifted in 1998
En Plein Soleil (c. 1881), oil on wood, 9 3/4 x 13 7/8 in./24.8 x 35.2 cm., gifted in 2006
Spring Morning (c. 1875), oil on canvas, 22 x 16 3/4 in./55.9 x 42.5 cm., gifted in 2009
Of the four Tissot paintings that Mrs. Wrightsman donated, only In the Conservatory (Rivals) can be considered a major work, and it is considered a highlight of the Christie’s sale on October 28.
A little background: Charles B. Wrightsman, president of Standard Oil of Kansas and a tournament polo player, married his second wife, Jayne Larkin from Flint, Michigan, in 1944. The couple began collecting fine art in 1952, and Mr. Wrightsman was elected to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Board of Trustees in 1956. In 1961, the Wrightsmans’ collection was described by The New York Times as “one of the most important private collections in the world.” In addition to paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Johannes Vermeer, it included ”one of the finest collections of Louis XV furniture in the country,” according to The Times.
At a London auction in 1961, Mr. Wrightsman paid $392,000 for a 20 x 25 inch portrait of the first Duke of Wellington, attributed to Francisco Goya. The possibility that the painting would be removed from England created a storm of protest. Mr. Wrightsman offered to sell the painting to London’s National Gallery at cost, and the museum accepted. [Two weeks after that purchase, the painting was stolen from the head of the gallery’s main staircase. It was recovered in 1965.]
Upon his retirement in 1975, Charles Wrightsman was made Trustee Emeritus, a position he held until his death at age 90. In 1975, Jayne Wrightsman was elected to the Board of Trustees.
Mr. and Mrs. Wrightsman made many gifts that enriched the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including the eight Wrightsman Rooms, furnished and decorated in the style of 18th-century France, and three galleries for exhibiting furnishings and art objects from the same period. These galleries opened to the public between 1969 and 1977.
Among the paintings that the Wrightsmans gave to the museum in 1977 were works by Jacques-Louis David, Nicholas Poussin and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
When it was learned in 1977 that the couple had purchased David’s Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife for the museum at a cost of about $4 million, Mr. Wrightsman stated, ”Mrs. Wrightsman and I lead a very quiet life and we try to avoid publicity.”
But early in 1978, in a widely publicized acquisition, the Wrightsmans bought a painting by the 17th-century Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, a self-portrait with his wife and son, for a price believed at the time to be between $3 million and $4 million. Purchased from the collection of Baron Guy de Rothschild in Paris, the painting was described by an official of the Metropolitan Museum as ”the greatest Rubens in this country.” The Wrightsmans gave the Rubens to the Met in 1981.
In May 1979 the Wrightsmans gave the Met two exceptional Old Masters paintings: The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind by El Greco and The Penitent Magdalen by Georges de La Tour. The museum’s director said of the donors, ”They set the highest possible standards of excellence for all acquisitions, a goal to be reached for even if rarely to be obtained. Our debt to the Wrightsmans is, once again, beyond measure.”
That year, they also donated Vermeer’s Portrait of a Young Woman (also known as Study of a Young Woman, or Girl with a Veil), c. 1666-67. One of only twenty-four Vermeers in the world, the Wrightsmans bought it from the Prince d’Arenberg for an estimated £400,000.
Jayne Wrightsman, a close friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who served as the First Lady’s mentor during the 1961-63 restoration of the White House, is considered the grande dame of New York society and one of the great art collectors and museum patronesses of the 20th century. “As a collector, she’s very high up in the pantheon,” said banker Jacob Rothschild, a close friend, in a January 2003 Vanity Fair article. “She has given her life to the Met.”
Regardless, it is “rare to see a work sold only three years after its acquisition,” observes La Tribune de l’ Art, an independent French source of art history news in an October 3, 2013 article [La Tribune had announced the Met’s acquisition of Tissot’s In the Conservatory (Rivals) on June 16, 2010]. “It is clear that the donor has agreed to the sale but it probably would have been more logical to avoid this little passage through the Met, unless we should see in this round trip a desire to increase the value of the canvas by a prestigious provenance. But is it really the role of museums, even in America, to become art dealers in this way?” The article notes that the selling price of this Tissot painting (estimated at $2,500,000-3,500,000) “is a drop in the acquisition budget of the Metropolitan Museum.”
New York-based journalist Judith H. Dobrzynski recently wrote about the Met’s deaccessioning of In the Conservatory (Rivals):
“Using the Met’s website, I could not find an image, let alone an exhibition history there. But the Christie’s catalogue says the gift came in 2009, and the last exhibition it cites was in 1955. Still, I am a bit surprised at this sale. Tissot is no genius, but what he did, he usually did well — and this painting, in the slide, looks worth exhibiting to me.”
Interest in – and appreciation for – Tissot’s work dramatically increased in the U.S. with the inclusion of a dozen of his most memorable images (thanks to the insistence of curator Gloria Groom) in “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” in New York and Chicago. You can see this reflected all over social media. The Met enjoyed the fruits of the turnout, but could potentially shut the public out in the sale on October 28.
It is partly because some of Tissot’s most beautiful works have only recently been acquired by art museums that the public has had the opportunity to learn about and appreciate him. The Marquis and the Marquise de Miramon and their Children was acquired by the Musée d’Orsay in 2006, and the “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” show is the first time it’s been exhibited anywhere else since 1866. The Musée d’Orsay acquired The Circle of the Rue Royale in 2011 from the descendants of one of the sitters.
Meanwhile, Gloria Groom – who conceived the “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” exhibition and organized it with the Metropolitan Museum and the Musée d’Orsay – and who has newly been promoted to the Chicago Art Institute’s first “senior curator” position, recently noted that the Art Institute doesn’t own a single painting by James Tissot. “Maybe now,” she said in an August 19, 2013 article article in the Chicago Reader, “we can do something about that.”
Perhaps the Getty Museum in Los Angeles will purchase In the Conservatory (Rivals), after purchasing Tissot’s Portrait of the Marquise de Miramon, née, Thérèse Feuillant from her descendants in 2007. Until the Getty exhibited this gorgeous portrait, it hadn’t been displayed in public since the 1867 Paris International Exhibition.
Or perhaps a smaller, well-funded art museum would find In the Conservatory (Rivals) a welcome addition to its permanent collection.
In the Conservatory (Rivals) has an illustrious enough provenance without the enhancement of four years in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is thought to have been sold by London art dealer Algernon Moses Marsden [1848-1920, see Who was Algernon Moses Marsden?]: it was owned by Kaye Knowles, Esq., London, (1835-1886), a banker whose vast wealth came from shares in his family’s Lancashire coal mining business, Andrew Knowles and Sons. Kaye Knowles, who owned three other oil paintings by Tissot, was a client of Marsden’s. After Knowles’ sudden death, In the Conservatory (Rivals) was sold with his estate as Afternoon Tea by Christie’s, London, on May 14, 1887. William Agnew (1825 – 1910), the most influential art dealer in London – who represented Tissot for a time during the 1870s – bought the painting at this sale for 50 guineas and passed it to one of Kaye’s executors, his brother, Andrew Knowles, on May 16, 1887. It passed to Robert Knowles – probably their younger brother – and was owned by Mrs. Mary Grant by 1936 to at least 1955. From then, it was in the possession of J. E. Grant, Esq. and Mrs. P. M. Mackay Scobie until 1981, and they sold it – as Rivals – at Christie’s, London, on October 16, 1981 for $ 109,848/£ 60,000. It was purchased by the Richard Green Gallery, London, and sold to Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, New York, in 1981. Upon Mr. Wrightsman’s death in 1986, Rivals became the sole property of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, who gifted to it the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009.
As the Christie’s sale catalogue emphasizes, Tissot’s In the Conservatory (Rivals) has not been on the market in over three decades.
May the Met’s loss be a gain for an institution that values this work, and for Tissot fans
worldwide who would appreciate its inclusion in a public collection.
Note: On October 28, 2013, In the Conservatory (Rivals) sold for $1,700,000 (Hammer price; total with Buyer’s Premium was $2,045,000 USD/£ 1,270,817 GBP). There is no indication it was purchased for a public collection.
Video: “The Strange Career of James Tissot” (2:33 min.)
© 2013 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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