The Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky has two must-see oil paintings by James Tissot – and you can see them as of March 12, when the museum reopens after a three-year, $56 million renovation and expansion project.
But thanks to the generosity of curator Erika Holmquist-Wall, my husband and I were invited for a sneak peek at these paintings in February. I had emailed her every six months or so from the minute she was hired in October 2014 as the Mary and Barry Bingham, Sr. Curator of European and American Painting and Sculpture at the Speed – to ask, “Can we visit yet?” And finally, after a year and a half, she was able to reply, “Yes!” Erika had the enviable task of selecting works to be displayed, and both of Tissot’s paintings, The Emigrants (1873) and Waiting for the Ferry at the Falcon Tavern (1874), have been installed in the new galleries.
In the meantime, I had spent hours researching the unknown stories of these pictures and the collectors who had owned them.
The Speed Museum is Kentucky’s oldest and largest art museum, located on the campus of the University of Louisville. Founded by Louisville philanthropist Hattie Bishop Speed in 1925, the Speed has renovated nearly 80,000 square feet of existing space and constructed 75,000 square feet of new space, as well as a 142-seat, state-of-the-art cinema and an art park.
On a grey and extremely blustery day, my husband (a native Louisvillian) and I made our way through what was still a construction site and were escorted through the work-in-progress in the surrounding galleries to find Erika in rubber boots amid the dust and cleaning crews scrambling to meet deadlines during the final weeks of preparations. She took a break from hanging gallery tags to admire these two paintings with us, telling us of her plans to replace the frames on these pictures with more authentic designs.
In Tissot’s Waiting for the Ferry at the Falcon Tavern (1874), the man is busy reading, the little girl is obviously bored, but the woman is calmly waiting. The figures, and their faces and fashions, are exquisitely painted. The entire scene is so compelling in its use of color, its composition, its level of detail, its human interest, and its overall beauty. I wanted to just gape at it for an hour, and it was a struggle to keep an eye on the clock so we could let Erika get back to work.
I had seen some incorrect information about this painting online – that it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874. After a bit of digging through public auction records, and a few emails to a Christie’s archives researcher in London, I was able to confirm that this picture indeed was exhibited – but at Nottingham Castle, and at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1887. It then was in the collection of James Hall, Esq., a prominent collector of Pre-Raphaelite art in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It was passed on to his son, Dr. Wilfred Hall, of Newcastle. His daughter, Mrs. Edward Reeves of Winchester in Hampshire, sold the painting at Christie’s, London in 1954 to the John Nicholson Gallery, New York for $ 4,339 (£ 1550).
In 1955, Mrs. Blakemore Wheeler [1887 – 1964, née Minnie Norton Marvin] of Louisville, Kentucky, who had been on the board of the Speed Museum since 1939, began collecting art. The daughter of a wealthy Louisville physician and the wife of a prominent Realtor, she had no children. By 1957, she owned this version of Tissot’s Waiting for the Ferry at the Falcon Tavern, and in 1963, she gifted it to the Speed. At her death in 1964, she bequeathed the Speed Museum more than fifty works by artists including Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Claude Monet, and Auguste Renoir.
The Speed’s other Tissot oil is The Emigrants (1873). From information I have pieced together from various Tissot scholars, there were two versions of The Emigrants, and Tissot exhibited either the original or the replica at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1879.
The original was a large oil on canvas, measuring 71.12 by 101.6 cm (28 by 40 in.). This painting was once in the collection of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, but was somehow damaged and cut down in height. It is considered lost.
It is now known only through the replica that Tissot produced. This smaller painting, an oil on panel also called The Emigrants (1873), measures 40.2 by 19 cm (15.75 by 7.5 in). As of at least 1984, it was in a private collection in New York. However, in 1991, it was gifted to the Speed Museum by Mr. and Mrs. W. Armin Willig.
[Winston] Armin Willig (1912 – 1992) was an alumnus of the University of Louisville, and he became a prominent businessman in the area. According to The Encyclopedia of Louisville (University Press of Kentucky, 2001), Willig, who was not an attorney, had never run for public office when he was appointed by the Governor of Kentucky to the post of Jefferson County judge after the incumbent County judge was killed in an automobile accident. [My husband informed me that the incumbent judge was E. P. “Tom” Sawyer, the father of American television journalist Diane Sawyer.] Easily defeated in the November election, Willig served only from September 29, 1969 until January 4, 1970.
Thanks to Erika, we had an exciting opportunity for a private showing of these paintings. Erika is warm and insightful, and she retains a sense of wonder of the art in her care. It was a real gift for my husband and me to stand there with her, quietly marveling at Tissot’s images in the empty gallery. Of the little girl in Waiting for the Ferry, Erika observed, “You can just tell she’s swinging her leg, impatient and asking her mom, ‘When can we go?’ ”
If you can, visit the Speed Museum and see these two oils by James Tissot.
Admission to the museum will be free every Sunday for the next five years.
For more information, see http://www.speedmuseum.org/.
© 2016 by Lucy Paquette. All rights reserved.
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