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Profile of a Private Collection

Claire Lynch

David and Bathsheba dated 1600

Chicago Art Collector had the privilege of viewing one of the city’s finest private collections. Perhaps the most characteristic elevation of the art world, fine art with a museum-standard display yet excluded from the public is an age-old practice. Unlike any museum experience, viewing this group of works, acquired over time and chosen carefully, makes clear- to collect is to create.

The collector’s vision is aptly demonstrated immediately to the right of the home’s entrance. An oil titled David and Bathsheba occupies its own wall; the owner explains the painting is dated c. 1600. This work is among the oldest in this collection and provides a stunning example of chiaroscuro and classic, Renaissance-era technique. Although the name of the artist is officially unknown, this work is attributed to the North Italian School and marked with the initials LG. At first sight, the age of this work is not evident as a result of the painting’s pristine quality, but its provenance suggests the artist was a Da Vinci follower.

The collectors provided a wealth of other background information on this and virtually every other piece on display. Each work is accompanied by the auction house standard of research. Transparencies are filed neatly with records of previous owners; correspondence between the collectors and respective art world officials whom aided the acquisition are stored with original envelopes. David and Bathsheba is large and beautiful, the biblical heroine is nude, her form seductively vulnerable as she humbly accepts a gift of pearls. While most of her face is hidden in shadow, her expression is toying.

Reverend Sparhawk Jones by William Merritt Chase

In the library, an important work by William Merritt Chase is displayed. The Reverend Sparhawk-Jones (oil c.1905) is a strong example of Chase’s artistic merit and features his trademark simple composition and impeccable detail. The Reverend sits facing the viewer. He wears habit and forthright expression. Clearly painted in an interior, the Reverend is surrounded by darkness, but the brooding palette is mesmerizing and oddly inviting. The collector explains that Jones (1841-1910) was a highly regarded member of the church. At the turn of the century, Jones’ daughter, an aspiring artist, became William Merritt Chase’s apprentice.

Down a dimly lit hall lies one of the finest pieces of the collection, a painting clearly loved by its owner and with an incredible story: The Awakening (c.1909) by James Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917). The work was deaccessioned from the Art Institute of Chicago and was a part of the Chester Dale Collection before the present collectors came to own it. Years later, the painting was loaned to Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc. of Manhattan for an exhibition dedicated to Beckwith’s meditative images of women. This particular painting was given a full-page color reproduction in the show’s catalog, but never put up for sale.

The collector’s research agrees with Beckwith experts- the woman in this portrait is Mildred Hall, Beckwith’s longtime mistress. While this work shows her sitting nude with her back exposed to the viewer, her profile is distinct and exactly matches many of the artist’s other portraits. While the provenance and beauty of this work elevate its value significantly, perhaps the most astounding detail given by the collector is the reference of this specific work in Beckwith’s personal diary. He proudly described the completion of the painting and claims that he wished to portray female innocence lost; a modern nymph sitting in a lush garden with a lightning storm and robust clouds- perhaps a symbol of sexual maturity- looming nearer in the background.

The Awakening by James Carroll Beckwith

The richness of this collection becomes more apparent with two battle scene oils deaccessioned from the Oshkosh museum. Correspondence with the paintings’ consignors reveal these works were brought from England to a remote part of Wisconsin in 1875 by Louis J. Claude. No one is certain of his relation to the paintings or reason for their location change. On the adjacent wall, I am shown another beautiful pair of oils. Purchased for next to nothing, their value was stipulated by the owners, whom ignored the dirty and damaged canvas. Repaired, cleaned, re-mounted and re-framed, the collectors finally had the works appraised as 18th century Venetian oil worth 40 times their auction sale price. Countless other works illuminate the space- paintings acquired from across Europe, most accompanied with a story from the collector- when they first saw the artwork, how it made them feel, and what the artist is trying to divulge. The passion here is as lucrative as the collection.

Two Sisters by Constance Mayer

Finally I am shown another deaccessioned work, also from the AIC. Two Sisters (c. 1871) is by Constance Mayer, a French-American painter (1829/32-1911). Clearly a favorite of the collector, this work’s large size is equated with its degree of symbolism. The women wear lavish dresses, illustrating the time period and their societal status. The gathered silks of their costumes create the main source of light in this painting. The garden they sit in is shown in late-afternoon, the scene darkening behind them. Just over one sister’s left shoulder, a gloomy hillside illustrates a distant perspective. The immediate foreground shows a small pond; Mayer’s rendering of the water’s reflection is extremely well executed and begins to tell the story of these sisters. Sitting on the left and holding her sibling, one woman has a bright face but serious expression. To her right, her sister wears an eerie half-smile. At closer look, her eyes are sunken and she wears a mourning locket. Perhaps this work tells the story of a widow or of a dreadful sickness. Regardless of the family in the frame, this painting has vivid life to it and provides yet another example of pristine painting technique.

More intimate than a museum but filled with art of its standard, this private collection has a clear focus on classic craft, intense narrative and portraiture. This level of hand-selecting works, nurturing their condition, and becoming engrossed in their history is an admirable style of collecting and provides a refreshing reminder of art’s truest appreciation.