The curatorial staff of the Milwaukee Art Museum are constantly researching the collection. Sometimes we request books and articles through interlibrary loan. Other times, we page through archival files either in person or online. And it’s not unusual to talk to colleagues in the field. But believe it or not, every once in a while, an important discovery is made by accident.
What do I mean by this? Well, this story starts with a Sotheby’s catalogue for an auction on November 22, 2016. Curators receive all sorts of auction catalogues by mail, and we always page through them to see if they contain anything of interest. This particular catalogue was full of 19th-century paintings—always one of my favorite topics!
One of the stars of the auction was a painting by Alfred Stevens (Belgian, 1823–1906), called Ready for the Fancy Ball. This painting has an important provenance: it was acquired directly from the artist by American industrialist and art collector William H. Vanderbilt and remained in the Vanderbilt collection until his grandson Cornelius Vanderbilt sold it in 1945.
I was intrigued by the story of the painting, which was told through a multiple-page entry in the catalogue with a long scholarly essay. As I paged through the essay, I then noticed a black-and-white photograph. It was a photograph of William H. Vanderbilt’s art gallery published in a book about his house and collection in 1884. You can see the Stevens painting in the corner of the room.
“Nice!” I thought. I love seeing these connections. And I love old black-and-white photos of art galleries. I scanned through the rest of the art in the photograph, interested in seeing what else Vanderbilt had in his collection. And I immediately noticed something that looked familiar…
Right next to the Stevens painting was a painting that looked suspiciously similar to Dance under the Linden Tree by Ludwig Knaus—a painting in the Museum’s collection!
“Wait a minute,” I thought, “was this painting once in the Vanderbilt collection?” I didn’t remember any painting having that provenance, so I looked it up in our collection database. There was nothing about Vanderbilt in the provenance. Then I pulled the object file, which is the paper record on the painting. There was nothing in there, either. I started to get excited—was this new information?
Discovering new information like this isn’t as crazy as you might think. René von Scheinitz, who donated Dance under the Linden Tree to the Museum, was not meticulous in documenting the provenance of his collection. In fact, we rarely know where he bought the things in his collection; if that information ever existed, the Museum never received it. I knew that it was very possible that Dance under the Linden Tree was once owned by the Vanderbilts. But I needed to find more proof before making that conclusion. Artists often painted the same subject matter, sometimes creating multiple versions of the same composition. There could be two versions of the painting that the Museum has in its collection. So, I dug in deeper.
I consulted Hathitrust, a digital library that compiles scanned versions of thousands of books from hundreds of libraries around the world. The scans are keyword searchable, which meant that if something out of copyright (generally published before the 1920s) mentioned the painting, I’d likely find it. And I quickly did!
In a 1905 catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a painting by Ludwig Knaus called A German Village Fete was listed as a loan from the Vanderbilt Collection. The title doesn’t match, but that’s not too worrisome. Painting titles often change over time. At least the subject matter is the same, which encouraged me to continue my search.
To continue unraveling this mystery, I needed to compare the dimensions—were the paintings the same size? The dimensions of Dance under the Linden Tree are 40 x 57 inches. The Metropolitan catalogue lists them as 57 x 40 inches. I checked the introduction of the catalogue, and it said that dimensions list the width first. This means it was a perfect match! Also, it was really exciting that the Met catalogue notes that the painting was painted to order in 1881. The painting in the Museum collection is signed and dated 1881—and imagine, if I could confirm that the two paintings are the same, it would mean that this painting was a direct commission from Knaus by William H. Vanderbilt.
I kept combing through the results in Hathitrust to find more information on the provenance or a better photograph. I discovered some documentation there but nothing that confirmed or contradicted the Vanderbilt ownership. I also found a digitized version of the book that published the photo of the gallery in 1884 on the Met’s library website, which has the same information as the 1905 catalogue. I discovered later that the Milwaukee Art Museum also owns a copy!
There was one last bit of the provenance that I wanted to track down: the sale catalogue for the Vanderbilt collection. Because the sale of the Vanderbilt Collection at Parke-Bernet auction galleries was in 1945, it is not in the public domain and cannot be scanned for access on the internet yet. But our librarian, Heather Winter, asked the Yale University library, which had a copy of the catalogue, to scan the pages with the entry for the Ludwig Knaus painting that had people dancing. And we lucked out.
There was a photo illustration! And it matched our painting!
Now we knew that the Museum’s Dance under the Linden Tree was commissioned directly from the artist, Ludwig Knaus, by William H. Vanderbilt in 1881. It stayed in the Vanderbilt collection until 1945, when it sold at auction. It is very possible that Rene von Schelinitz bought the painting at this very auction, I’m hoping to confirm this someday when an annotated copy of the auction catalogue is discovered and lists the buyers of each lot.
Finding this new provenance made it possible for me to find other published references to the painting, because I now know that Vanderbilt used the title A German Village Fete and not our title, Dance under the Linden Tree. You can see a complete list under “Published References” in the website entry.
Are you curious to learn more about the provenance of works in the Museum’s collection? Read past posts in the Questions of Provenance series and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for more art and Museum updates.
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.