Medium:Oil paint and black ink on a pre-made wood painter's palette.
Dimensions:Height: 34.5 cm. Width: 53 cm.
Credit Line:Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
It is odd — and also oddly fitting — that the only oil painting by the delightful artist Marcel Vertès in the Robert Lehman Collection is a palette. Vertès, whom Robert Lehman knew well, came to New York from Paris in 1935 and spent a good deal of the rest of his life shuttling between the two cities, making effortless and appealing drawings for chic magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and Vogue and painting charming, pastel-hued decorations for public and private interiors. In 1947, Lehman commissioned Vertès to transform the rather dark entrance hall of the town house at 7 West Fifty-fourth Street that he had inherited from his father, Philip, and Vertès obliged by creating a series of fantasy panels on which flowers, nymphs, birds, androgynous youths, a wary rabbit, and a cat rest or cavort on ivorycolored grounds. Coming off Fifty-fourth Street into this cabinet of wonders, the visitor must have felt at once refreshed and amused, as the entrance hall set a fanciful tone that must have been somewhat dampened by the grand rooms filled with important paintings, ceramics, bronzes, carpets, and furniture into which it opened. Indeed, the taste of the principal rooms of the town house was that of the Gilded Age, when Philip Lehman formed the collection — his fun-loving son, who later catalogued and inherited the works, responded, perhaps a bit wistfully, by commissioning his own small entrance “gallery.” The twenty-seven oil-on-Masonite panels for this entrance hall were given to the Metropolitan Museum by Robert Lehman in 1950, indicating both that they had served, for their patron, a temporary decorative function and that he and the Museum executives thought enough of them to bring them into the public domain. The panels have remained in storage for years, known mostly through photographs in the Museum files.(1) Vertès gave his friend and patron the palette he used to paint the decorations and on which he mixed the primary hues with liberal amounts of white to create almost opalescent tones. To clarify the palette’s function, Vertès wrote an explanatory text on a passage of dried ivory-colored paint, the colors used for the background of the murals. The French inscription in black ink may be translated as: “to Robert Lehman, this palette which faithfully served for the painting of the murals in his house on 54th Street, with friendship, Vertes, 1948, New York.” Unlike the paintings for which it was used, the palette remained in the Lehman collection until Robert’s death and came to the Museum with the extraordinary collection as part of the historic arrangement between the Robert Lehman Foundation and the Metropolitan Museum in 1975, half a generation after the death of Vertès himself in 1961. Because it is a palette, rather than a painting, it was not included in the catalogue of nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings in the Robert Lehman Collection published in 2009. This fact and the virtual disappearance in storage of the related paintings surely can be explained by the lowly stature in which many painters of the third generation of the School of Paris are held in both the scholarly world and the art market. Marcel Vertès was widely recognized in his lifetime as a congenial and decorative artist who worked for the likes of Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubenstein, the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and for Hollywood (he won two Academy Awards in 1952 for his art direction and costume design for Moulin Rouge) — hardly the bracing judges of historically “important” modernism championed by the “great” museums of modern art in either Paris or New York. The artists, carefully studied only in a book by Raymond Nacenta published in 1960 called School of Paris: the Painters and the Artistic Climate of Paris since 1910, include many that would “make the cut” in world-class museums. Encouragingly, the work of a number of these artists documented by Nacenta and collected by Robert Lehman — like Chagall, Bonnard, Derain, Vuillard, Matisse, Rouault, Utrillo, and Braque — commands respect today.
Catalogue entry from: Richard R. Brettell. The Robert Lehman Collection. Decorative Arts, Vol. XV. Wolfram Koeppe, et al. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Princeton University Press, 2012, pp. 399-401.
NOTE: 1. See Brettell, Richard R., Francoise Forster-Hahn, Duncan Robinson, and Janis A. Tomlinson. The Robert Lehman Collection. Vol. 9, Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century European Drawings. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2002, figs. 191.1 – 191.3. Drawings by Vertès in the Robert Lehman Collection are catalogued in the same volume (ibid., nos. 191 – 205).
Inscription: Inscribed in black ink on front, "To Robert Lehman/ [I give] this palette that has faithfully/served in the painting/ of the murals in/ his house on 54th Street/ With much affection/ Vertès 1948 New York."
Marcel Vertès. Acquired by Robert Lehman as a gift from Vertès in 1948.
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The Robert Lehman Collection is one of the most distinguished privately assembled art collections in the United States. Robert Lehman's bequest to The Met is a remarkable example of twentieth-century American collecting.