The Milwaukee Art Museum’s current feature exhibition, Milwaukee Collects, includes more than 100 objects from nearly 50 private collections in the Greater Milwaukee area. It offers an opportunity to see treasures that are typically not on public view. At the same time, it reminds us that the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection is part of a long tradition of collecting in the community. This is the first in a series of blog posts that will explore the provenance of selected artworks in the collection and how they came to be here.
Last summer, we took a closer look at a little gem of a painting in the European collection: Three Cuirassiers by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). It is a rare early oil painting by the great Post-Impressionist artist, done when Lautrec was only fourteen! So, how did the painting come to be in Wisconsin, at the Milwaukee Art Museum? Let’s take a closer look at the provenance trail.
The earliest source of information about the painting comes from a catalogue published in conjunction with an exhibition of 423 works held by the Louvre on the 30th anniversary of Toulouse-Lautrec’s death in 1931. The first entry in that exhibition, in the section from paintings dated 1879, is Cuirassiers A Cheval, or Cuirassiers on Horseback. In French, the description reads “Remembrance of great maneuvers in the Bosc. Three cuirassiers in large mantle; on the right, a pedestrian.” The catalogue notes that it is signed H. T.-L. at the bottom left, it is an oil on canvas, and the dimensions of the canvas are .4 by .32 meters (or 15 ¾ by 12 ½ inches). All of which matches our painting perfectly! (The dimensions are without a frame.)
The catalogue also notes two important things about the painting’s provenance.
First, it lists that a photo was made by “Pellet”. This was French publisher and dealer Gustave Pellet (1859–1919). Born to a well-off family in 1859, he lived a life of leisure and chose to pursue a fine arts education while at the same time building a vast library of rare and important books. Later, finding himself in financial difficulty, Pellet opened a shop in 1886 on the Quai Voltaire in Paris to sell off part of his collection of prestigious books.
In 1887, Pellet opened a new shop on the Rue le Peletier and began publishing books and fine art prints. He became close to the group of peintres-graveurs (painters-engravers) working then in Paris, and his gallery specialized in the production and sale of contemporary prints and books illustrated by young and unproven printmakers. His target clientele consisted of private print collectors and bibliophiles from the social elite. In eight years time, he published over 800 deluxe prints by artists like Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Signac (1863–1935).
Pellet’s most celebrated color project was the print series Elles by Toulouse-Lautrec, published in 1896. He was so excited about this particular series, that he personally signed and numbered the eleven color lithographs and had the high-quality printing paper watermarked with his name (as well as Lautrec’s).
We know that in the 1890s Pellet purchased two of Lautrec’s brothel paintings. Since the 1931 Louvre catalogue mentions a photo by Pellet, it can be assumed that Pellet acquired the Milwaukee painting directly from Toulouse-Lautrec. Maybe he bought it to help support the artist. Or possibly it was a gift from the painter. Or perhaps it could have been a form of payment for a debt that Toulouse-Lautrec owed Pellet (although this is probably unlikely, since Lautrec need only to ask his mother for money, and such a small painting was not of much value).
Pellet died in 1919. His collection and business went to his son-in-law Maurice Exteens (1887–1931), who had married Gustave’s daughter, Maud. This is where the second provenance information comes from the 1931 Louvre catalogue—Exteens is listed as the lender of the painting to the show!
We don’t know where the painting was after 1931—but hopefully someday we’ll find a reference to the sale from Exteens’ collection. The next documentation we have is a receipt from Knoedler Art Galleries in New York, who sold the painting in 1951 to Mr. and Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley (co-founder of the Allen-Bradley Company of Milwaukee). A note in the object file says that Knoedler told the Bradleys that it came from a collection in England.
The Knoedler Gallery archives are held by the Getty Research Institute. Many stock books are available online for provenance research. Unfortunately, the only painting that comes up for a search of “Cuirassier” was sold in 1953 to a woman in New York.
Finally, in 1977, Mrs. Bradley gave the Milwaukee Art Museum the painting as part of her gift of world-class modern art.
Indeed, Mrs. Bradley’s collection of modern art is special. She collected art that spoke to her personal taste—often colorful and expressionistic works caught her attention. She began collecting in 1950 (making Three Cuirassiers one of her earliest purchases), and over the course of the next twenty-five years, she pruchased over 400 works of art. Even the Toulouse-Lautrec print above, from the Elles series, is from the Bradley collection!
After the Bradleys acquired it, and then when in the collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum, Three Cuirassiers has been exhibited across the country as a wonderful example of the artist’s young and developing, pre-Paris years. Its most recent adventure was as a loan to the National Museum in Gdansk, Poland in 2004.
–Christa Story, formerly Curator of Collections at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Art Collection and Galleries, and now Collections Manager/Exhibition Coordinator at the Wright Museum of Art, Beloit College