Questions of Provenance: Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers by Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant

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 second in a series of blog posts that will explore the provenance of selected artworks in the collection and how they came to be here.

Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (French, 1845–1902), Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers, ca. 1891. Oil on canvas. 58 1/2 × 39 3/4 × 1 1/4 in. (148.59 × 100.97 × 3.18 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Marie K. Ingersoll and George L. Kuehn M1962.1158. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (French, 1845–1902), Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers, ca. 1891. Oil on canvas. 58 1/2 × 39 3/4 × 1 1/4 in. (148.59 × 100.97 × 3.18 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Marie K. Ingersoll and George L. Kuehn M1962.1158. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers is a highlight of the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Orientalism gallery. Orientalism is a style in which the Near East is interpreted by western artists. This interest in the “exotic” was extremely popular in nineteenth century Europe and provided subject matter not just for paintings, but also decorative arts and interior decoration.

Even houses in small-town Wisconsin might have a “Turkish Corner” featuring a table, platter, and rug just like those found in the foreground of our painting. Just check out this one at the Hixon House in La Crosse!

The French painter Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (1845–1902) found a ready clientele for his Orientalist works in late nineteenth century American collectors. The relaxed atmosphere, monumental figures, and Mediterranean setting of Evening on the Seashore-Tangiers would have been of particular interest to wealthy patrons who had large new homes to decorate.

One of those homes would have been the Pillsbury mansion of Milwaukee. The red-brick Queen Anne home stood at what is now 1626 N. Prospect Avenue. The house was razed in the 1960’s and to be replaced by the highrise apartment building known as Prospect Towers.

The mansion was built by Oliver P. Pillsbury (1826–1890) and his wife, Vesta (1837–1917). Pillsbury was born in Newport, Maine in 1826 and moved to Michigan after the Civil War. There, he became a lumberman in Muskegon, going on to be elected as mayor of the city in 1876 and 1877. By 1884, he and Vesta had moved to Milwaukee and had built a home on fashionable Prospect Avenue overlooking Lake Michigan.

Pillsbury Mansion, Milwaukee. Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Pillsbury Mansion, Milwaukee. Courtesy of the Milwaukee County Historical Society

Such a large home must have been a showplace for fine art. Oliver and Vesta Pillsbury may have purchased the Constant painting from the well-known French gallery Goupil & Cie, which handled much of Constant’s sales. Goupil was only in business until 1884, however, and experts give the painting a date of ca. 1891, so we aren’t quite sure where the couple acquired the painting.

Oliver Pillsbury died in 1890, and Vesta lived in the mansion until her death in 1917. They are both buried in Forest Home Cemetery.

Here the story gets really interesting!

HEIRS SEEK TO TRACE FORTUNE TO C.F. FISHBACK” reads a headline on the front page of the November 6, 1917 issue of The Chicago Tribune. Apparently, after Mrs. Pillsbury’s death in May of that year, Chicago lawyer Charles F. Fishback produced a will that left her entire estate to him. When Oliver Pillsbury had died in 1890, that estate was estimated to be $1 million!

Needless to say, the Pillsbury heirs contested the will. Oliver and Vesta had no children, but her half-sisters and nieces filed objections. Among the accusations that the heirs put forward was that Fishback “from 1906 to 1917 exercised an undue and unlawful influence over the said Vesta E. Pillsbury”.

On February 3, 1918, The Chicago Tribune announced, “PILLSBURY WILL CASE IS ENDED; DECISION LATER—Fishback Lawyer Admits Client Wasted Money of Widow”. Fishback denied ever stealing money from Vesta Pillsbury. He just invested it unwisely with her permission.

Finally, the Tribune announces on March 1, 1918, “RULES OUT CLAIM OF FISHBACK TO PILLSBURY CASH—Court at Milwaukee Sees Fraud in Fight for Estate of Widow”. The judge found that Fishback convinced Vesta Pillsbury to give him, over time, more than $800,000 to invest in his so-called business.

Essentially, then, the Pillsbury Estate was bankrupt. On June 9, 1919, the mansion and its contents were auctioned off. The Milwaukee Sentinel reported:

20 roomsful of exquisite art treasures and Persian rugs were auctioned while a number of society women in attendance sobbed, remembering the elegant dinners and lavish receptions that had been held there years ago…

Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (French, 1845–1902), Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers, ca. 1891. Oil on canvas. 58 1/2 × 39 3/4 × 1 1/4 in. (148.59 × 100.97 × 3.18 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Marie K. Ingersoll and George L. Kuehn M1962.1158. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant (French, 1845–1902), Evening on the Seashore—Tangiers, ca. 1891. Oil on canvas. 58 1/2 × 39 3/4 × 1 1/4 in. (148.59 × 100.97 × 3.18 cm). Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Marie K. Ingersoll and George L. Kuehn M1962.1158. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

But that’s not where the story ends for our Constant painting.

George Louis (1867–1948) and Viarda B. (1872–1960) Kuehn bought the painting from the Pillsbury estate auction. Kuehn was the founder of Milcor Steel Company, which eventually merged with the Inland Steel Company of Chicago. Needless to say, the Kuehns had their own mansion in Milwaukee!

In 1920, they purchased a 1890 stone Tudor that stood at the north end of where Juneau Park is now, overlooking the lake. The city planned to enlarge the park in 1928, and rather than tear down the house, the Kuehns had it moved, stone by stone, north to a location on Lake Drive—where it still over-looked the lake.

Although after Kuehn’s retirement in 1940, he and his wife had their permanent home in Watersmeet, Michigan, they kept their Milwaukee home for when they returned to visit. George died in 1948; Viarda died in 1960. The family sold the home in 1962.

1962 is also the year that the Constant painting came to the museum. It doesn’t take much of a leap in logic to assume that it must have been on view there all those years.

It was George and Viarda’s two children, Marie K. Ingersoll and George L. Keuhn Jr., who gave the painting to the Milwaukee Art Museum. (They also presented a large painting of a waterfall by German painter Johann Wilhelm Lindlar, presumably from the collection of their parents. This painting will be cleaned so that it can but out on view soon!)

Consequently, Evening on the Seashore-Tangiers serves as a wonderful memorial for two art collecting couples of Milwaukee: the Pillsburys and the Kuehns.

Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.

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