Saturday, February 4, 2012

Found: The Lost Portraits of Mrs. Benjamin Gratz

Maria Cecil Gist Gratz (Mrs. Benjamin Gratz)
by Thomas Sully. Oil on canvas, Philadelphia, 1831.
Courtesy of the Rosenbach Museum & Library.
Gift of Maria Gratz Roberts. 2011.0023.00l.
Photograph by Douglas A. Lockhard

Last spring Judith Guston, the curator of the Rosenbach Museum & Library, asked me to write a blog post about a painting which neither of us had ever seen: a portrait, by Thomas Sully, of Maria, the wife of Rebecca's brother Benjamin Gratz.

The Museum's interest in this painting began more than 40 years ago when the Rosenbach received a bequest from Ben's granddaughter which included Sully's portrait of Ben, painted in Philadelphia in 1831. The artist's records show that he had also painted Maria at the time, but where was she? Henrietta Clay, who gave the bequest, had heard that the painting existed but had no idea where it was. This is not too surprising because the Kentucky Gratz's are a large family. Miss Clay, a descendant of Ben's second wife (Maria was his first), was in the wrong line of descent to know much about Maria.

In 1984 the Rosenbach received another Gratz bequest, this time from the widow of a descendant of Maria's. She knew the Museum was looking for Sully's painting, and she reported it had already disappeared by the time she married into the family. She gave the Rosenbach a lovely portrait of a youthful Maria, by Matthew Harris Jouett. And she included in her bequest a photo of what she termed "a crayon copy" (a pastel) of the Sully portrait, which I would eventually use in my blog post.

Years passed, and the Maria portrait never made an appearance at auction, with a dealer or in an art publication. So the Rosenbach took a shot with my blog, and it was no sure thing. The portrait could well have been in the hands of someone who did not know the sitter or the painter and would never find my post. Or the painting might turn up in another institution, no longer a possible addition for the Rosenbach.

I published the post at the beginning of June, thinking we should probably give it a year or two. I did not know that a Gratz descendant in Georgia was already acquainted with my blog and checked it from time to time. Three weeks later our curator got a call from Atlanta. Maria Gratz Roberts, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Ben and Maria, had the original Sully portrait in her parlor. It had been given to her father by his great-uncle, a grandson of Ben and Maria, no later than 1935. And although Maria Gratz Roberts had lived with the painting throughout her life, she, like us, had the romantic notion that Ben and Maria's portraits should be together again.

What's more, Ms. Roberts proposed that she GIVE the Rosenbach the Sully portrait of Maria, the pastel copy which she also owned and a chair that Ben had brought from Pennsylvania. This incredible generosity was much more than anyone could have imagined at the beginning of our search. I know from my work with the Gratz correspondence how much Rebecca Gratz and her family admired Maria Roberts' great-great-great-grandparents and their happy marriage. It is absolutely fitting that their portraits be reunited. I hope our benefactor will visit the paintings at the Museum and accept our thanks in person.

But wait!  Another descendant contacted the Rosenbach.  The result is this.

Thomas Sully's 1831 portrait of Maria will go on display to the public on Saturday, February 11th, just in time for the Rosenbach's annual Romance Tours which take place that weekend. They will be spotlighting those objects in our collections which have romantic associations -- the portraits of Ben and Maria, a love letter by John Keats, Lord Byron's marriage license and much more. Click here for information about the tours and their times.

If you would like to know more about the artist Thomas Sully, you can get an interesting perspective on his work on Feb. 15th. Carol Soltis, Associate Curator at the Center for American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, will be giving a talk at the Rosenbach on "Thomas Sully's Ladies: Real, Imagined and Literary." Click here for more information.

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