Restitution and Acquisitions at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal

24/4/13 - Restitution and acquisitions - Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts - Thanks to a surprising coincidence, the Canadian museum has acquired a magnificent painting by Gerrit van Honthorst at the same time as it returned a work by the same artist to its owners after realizing it had been looted from a Jewish family, though purchased in good faith in 1969.

1. Gerrit von Honthorst (1590-1656)
The Duet, 1624-1624
Oil on Canvas - 79.1 x 95.3 cm
Montréal, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

2. Gerrit von Honthorst (1590-1656)
Woman Tuning a Lute, 1624-1624
Oil on Canvas - 81.5 x 64.5 cm
Montréal, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

Between 1928 and 1933, the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, in one of the most dramatic episodes of its long history, sold part of its collections. Among some of its major works, a Caravaggesque canvas by Gerrit van Honthorst, The Duet (ill. 1), was purchased by Bruno Spiro, an art dealer of Jewish origin from Hamburg. Deported by the Nazis, he died in 1936 while his wife managed to flee to Great Britain in 1938, leaving everything behind, including the painting. This ownership history was confirmed by the Musée des Beaux-Arts after alerting the Spiro family. The restitution was immediately decided, and an indemnity corresponding to the amount paid by the museum in 1969 was granted [1].
The director, Nathalie Bondil, and the chief curator for old master paintings, Hilliard Goldfarb, wished to offset this loss to the collections by purchasing another Caravaggesque painting. This is where chance stepped in : on inauguration night at the last Maastricht fair, they noticed a very beautiful work by Gerrit van Honthorst, Woman Tuning a Lute (ill. 2), with the same date and a very similar subject to the other work at the stand of the New York dealer, Jack Kilgore. With only one figure, smaller in size, perhaps a bit less representative of the artist’s work (nicknamed Gerardo della Notte due to his taste for night scenes by candlelight) and devoid of the prestigious provenance of the restitution, the canvas was sold at an affordable price for the museum which used the grant plus some of its own funds for the purchase.
The work was thus immediately acquired and will now replace The Duet in the galleries. A comparison of the two paintings reveals that the museum will not be losing much in fact : Woman Tuning a Lute, in excellent condition, is a superb work and just as attractive as the first due to its extremely vibrant and subtle colors [2].

3. Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793-1865)
Children Returning from School, 1836
Oil on paper mounted on panel - 44.5 x 34.5 cm
Montréal, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal

A simultaneous restitution and acquisition is eventful enough but the story does not end here. Another painting stolen by the Nazis is also in the headlines at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal, but this time the establishment is on the receiving end.
Children Returning from School (ill. 3), painted in 1836 by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, one of the leading artists of the Biedermeier school, belonged to the industrialist Viktor Zuckerkandl, an important patron in the Secession movement and a collector of Gustav Klimt. During the Anschluss in 1938, his sister, who had inherited his estate was deported along with her daughter and disappeared in 1941. Her grandson, Georges Jorisch, survived the Holocaust and settled in Montreal in 1957, successfully recovering several art works recently, including this Waldmüller returned to him by a private collector (a rare occurrence).
Following his death a few months ago, his widow and children decided, in keeping with his final wishes, to donate the work to the Musée des Beaux-Arts in order to thank Montreal for welcoming them after the war. This is the only painting by the artist to be found in a Canadian museum. It represents two young schoolchildren returning home, against a beautiful mountain landscape. According to Nathalie Bondil : "The pyramidal composition dominated by the heroic Watzmann, shows the long path - both in the figurative and literal sense - achieved by the two poor Bavarian schoolchildren returning from the village. Clearly sensitive to the problems of a society facing modernity, the painter, besides offering the undeniable charm of the scene represented, asserts the importance of education."

The restitution of the Honthorst, the unveiling of the one acquired to replace it and of the painting donated by the Jorisch family were celebrated in a brief but very moving ceremony in the former Erskine and American church which was recently renovated in order to house the museum auditorium.

Version française

Didier Rykner, vendredi 3 mai 2013


[1] The work will soon come up for auction at Christie’s.

[2] This does not really come across in photographs. We were lucky enough to see the two paintings side by side (which will probably not happen again soon) ; the woman tuning her lute is less red than in the illustration, and the colors in the duet are a bit more subdued.

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