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A Painting, a Director, and the Mexican Film Industry

Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), “Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb,” 1630/34. Oil on canvas. Purchase, M1958.70. Photo by John R. Glembin.

When I returned to the Milwaukee Art Museum after the state’s Safer at Home order, one of the first things I did was visit an old friend: Saint Francis of Assisi in His Tomb (1630/34) by the Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbarán. I’ve walked by the painting nearly every workday in my time at the Museum, but never have I been more appreciative of its quiet contemplativeness and the sense of stability it brings me. Indeed, the painting is such a fixture of the Museum that it is hard to imagine that it was ever not here, that it lived in three different countries, across two continents, before arriving in Milwaukee.

Map showing the provenance, or history of ownership, for St. Francis of Assisi

So how did this masterpiece of the Spanish Golden Age—a period (spanning the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) that encompasses the art of El Greco and Velázquez and the literature of Cervantes—find its way to Milwaukee? The clues are in the painting’s object file at the Museum. Housed in the registrar’s office, where documentation is kept for every work in the collection, the object file for St. Francis of Assisi takes up nearly half a drawer and contains a trove of historic correspondence and ephemera. Much of the early correspondence stems from Edward H. Dwight, director of the Milwaukee Art Museum (then called the Milwaukee Art Center) from 1955 to 1962. In 1958, Dwight was a busy man. The Museum had a new building and Dwight was trying to secure artwork of the greatest caliber to bring to the city of Milwaukee.

Film still: Director Edward Dwight with a rendering of the Eero Saarinen-designed War Memorial and Milwaukee Art Center building, circa 1957. Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archives.
Film still: Director Edward Dwight with a rendering of the Eero Saarinen–designed War Memorial and Milwaukee Art Center building, ca. 1957. Milwaukee Art Museum, Institutional Archives

Although best known as a scholar of American art, Dwight was up-to-date on a wide range of research, and he learned that a significant Zurbarán painting in private hands had recently been authenticated and published for the first time in a catalogue raisonné. Armed with this information, Dwight decided to write to the owner, a French count named Philippe (Felipe) Subervielle living in Mexico City, and persuade him to sell the painting. Alluding to his own sense of civic duty, Dwight wrote, on behalf of the Museum:

A year ago we moved into a monumental new building on the lakefront, but we still have much to accomplish, we need an old master of which Milwaukeans can be proud, something that can serve as a symbol and an inspiration to the people.

Here the plot of the painting’s past ownership thickens. Subervielle responds, “I’m actually in a little town in the state of Veracruz producing a movie picture,” and we learn that the former owner of our Zurbarán was not only a count but also a movie producer. According to his letter, the painting had been in his family ever since his grandfather purchased it from the Marquis de Salamanca. Subervielle further related that he had the painting with him, in Mexico.

Subervielle’s name first appears in Mexican film credits in 1942, and his move from France to Mexico City was almost certainly tied to the city’s role as an international nexus of artistic activity and the explosion of the Mexican studio film industry in the 1940s and 1950s, a period known as the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema. Among the dozen or so films he worked on is Maria Candelaria (1944), starring Dolores del Río. The first Mexican film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival, it won both Best Cinematography and the Grand Prix prize (known as the Palme d’Or today) in 1946.

Subervielle agreed to sell the painting to the Milwaukee Art Center, but the connection between St. Francis of Assisi and cinema did not end with the change in ownership. The same year that the Museum purchased the painting, in 1958—a major occasion, which garnered much attention in the local press—it held a film festival devoted to the legendary and iconoclastic director Luis Buñuel (1900–1993) of Surrealist notoriety. Spanish-born with a career forged in France, Buñuel settled in Mexico in the 1940s, where he and Subervielle would have ran in the same circles, having both worked with the acclaimed cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (1907–1997). While we don’t know if the Museum’s purchase of Subervielle’s Zurbarán motivated the Buñuel festival, Dwight was in all likelihood behind this bold cinematic choice. The Museum staff was small at that time and, as Dwight conveyed in one of his letters to Subervielle, he was quite interested in film, having recently written an article on the French avant-garde filmmaker Jean Vigo (1905–1934).

With the Milwaukee Film Festival opening today, I would be remiss if I did not squeeze in one final filmic factoid. Typed on an old index card in the object file is a note that a reproduction of St. Francis of Assisi hung on the wall of the psychiatrist’s office in the film I Love My Wife (1970). Readers, could this be true, or was the long-ago typist perhaps mistaken, confusing it with Zurbarán’s St. Francis Contemplating a Skull at the St. Louis Art Museum? If you have access to this obscure movie, please take a screenshot and let us know in the comments.

I for one will keep coming back to this painting as I make my way in and out of work each day. From the smallest of trivia to the profoundest of revelations, there is always more to reveal if we look.

Amanda Brown is the collections manager for works on paper. She manages storage, cataloguing, and access to the Museum’s collection of prints, drawings, and photographs.

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