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Art/ Online Features/ Charles and Jayne Wrightsman and The Metropolitan Museum of Art/ The Wrightsmans' Old Masters

The Wrightsmans' Old Masters

Keith Christiansen, John Pope-Hennessy Chairman, Department of European Paintings  

The importance of the Wrightsman gifts to the Department of European Paintings can be measured by quality and depth—ninety-four works, including several superlative pastels—and perhaps even more critically by their transformative impact. In no fewer than seven of the old master galleries, it is a Wrightsman picture that holds center stage. This is not only a remarkable fact, it is, I believe, unique. Just imagine the Vermeer gallery without the Wrightsman Study of a Young Woman, one of only two such works that have come down to us (the other is the celebrated Girl with a Pearl Earring in the Mauritshuis). Purchased from the descendants of Prince d'Arenberg in 1955, it was given to the Museum in 1979.

Similarly, it is almost impossible to conceive of the Rubens-Van Dyck gallery without the incomparable portrait in which Rubens depicted himself with his beautiful young wife Helena Fourment and their son Frans in a formal garden, with a red macaw clawing its way up a rose hedge toward a snail. From about 1704 until 1884, the picture—one of the two greatest works by the artist in the United States—formed part of the dukes of Marlborough's collection at Blenheim Palace. It was then sold to Baron Mayer Alphonse de Rothschild in Paris and descended in the Rothschild family until 1976; it was acquired by the Wrightsmans in 1978 and placed on loan to the Metropolitan until its gift in 1981. It is now joined by Anthony Van Dyck's remarkable portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria, notable for the way it conveys an image of the queen that is at once intimate yet formal. This beautiful picture was painted in 1636 as a gift to the papal nephew, Francesco Barberini, Cardinal Protector of England and Scotland and a renowned collector.

Samson Captured by the Philistines

Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri) (Italian, 1591–1666). Samson Captured by the Philistines, 1619. Oil on canvas, 75 1/4 x 93 1/4 in. (191.1 x 236.9 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1984 (1984.459.2)

The Wrightsmans' acquisition in 1979 of Guercino's Samson Captured by the Philistines—one of the artist's most dynamic masterpieces—was immediately deposited in the Metropolitan and has become the anchor of the collection of Baroque painting, to which the Wrightsmans have contributed a series of defining works by leading artists such as Guido Reni, Domenichino, and Pier Francesco Mola. The same, central position is occupied by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's Allegory of the Planets and Continents—the presentation piece for his greatest masterpiece, the frescoed vault over the staircase of the Residenz in Würzburg (the Museum owes to the Wrightsmans no fewer than seven superb paintings by Giovanni Battista and his son Giovanni Domenico, including the latter's lighthearted A Dance in the Country). And then there is Jacques Louis David's landmark portrait of 1788 depicting Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and his wife, in which the affectionately posed couple is shown with the laboratory equipment used in Lavoisier's pioneering work on oxygen and the chemical composition of water. It is the centerpiece of what is now, thanks to Jayne, the finest collection of Neoclassical painting outside the Louvre. In addition to David's portrait of the Lavoisiers, there are two full-length portraits of the great diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand by David's outstanding pupils, François Gérard and Pierre Paul Prud'hon, as well as Gérard's portrait of Madame Talleyrand, who is shown enticingly dressed and standing at ease in an elegantly appointed Empire-style room. To this outstanding group of portraits must be added Louis Léopold Boilly's The Public Viewing David's "Coronation" at the Louvre. Fittingly, the gallery bears Jayne's name.

The Companions of Rinaldo

Nicolas Poussin (French, 1594–1665). The Companions of Rinaldo, ca. 1633. Oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 40 1/4 in. (118.1 x 102.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, 1977 (1977.1.2)

Jayne has always had a particular passion for French painting, so it is not surprising that the Wrightsman legacy is especially rich in this area. Standouts range from Poussin's The Companions of Rinaldo, painted for the artist's cultivated supporter in Rome, Cassiano dal Pozzo, and Georges de La Tour's The Penitent Magdalen, to Philippe de Champaigne's exquisite Annunciation, commissioned by Anne of Austria for her private oratory in the Palais Royale in Paris, and Jean François de Troy's elegant scenes of aristocratic life (tableaux de mode), The Declaration of Love and The Garter. This extraordinary body of work was capped by the purchase in 2014 of one of the defining portraits of seventeenth-century France, Charles Le Brun's magnificent depiction of the German banker-collector-merchant Everhard Jabach and his family seated in their grand Parisian residence. 

Everhard Jabach and His Family

Charles Le Brun (French, 1619–1690). Everhard Jabach (1618–1695) and His Family, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 110 1/4 x 129 1/8 in. (280 x 328 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, 2014 (2014.250)

This very summary survey of some of the outstanding masterpieces with which the Wrightsmans have enriched the Museum does not begin to not convey the range and character of their interests and the impact of their many gifts. It has, for example, omitted mention of what, for me, is one of the absolute high points of the Metropolitan's Renaissance paintings, Lorenzo Lotto's cheeky depiction of Venus and Cupid, in which the goddess's impudent son is shown directing a stream of urine on his mother's lap through a wreath of myrtle. Unique in conception, the picture has become a keystone in the study of Renaissance marriage pictures. It has also provided endless pleasure and amusement to millions of visitors. In its combination of urbane wit and erudite allusion to the poetry of ancient Greece and Rome I fancy there is something of the spirit of Jayne herself.

Venus and Cupid

Lorenzo Lotto (Italian, ca. 1480–1556). Venus and Cupid. Oil on canvas, 36 3/8 x 43 7/8 in. (92.4 x 111.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Mrs. Charles Wrightsman Gift, in honor of Marietta Tree, 1986 (1986.138)

Selected Works

See selected works from the Wrightsman Collection in the Department of European Paintings.

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