Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Another Portrait of Maria Gratz at the Rosenbach

Maria Cecil Gist Gratz (Mrs. Benjamin Gratz)
by Thomas Sully.  Oil on canvas.  Philadelphia, PA, 1831.
Courtesy of the Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Gift of John H. Thomas in memory of Hermine Cary Gratz Johnstone.

In 2011, Judith Guston, the Curator at the Rosenbach, enlisted my blog in a search.  For 40 years the Museum had owned a portrait of Benjamin Gratz (Rebecca's younger brother), painted in 1831 by Thomas Sully.  Although Sully's ledger had also listed a portrait of Ben's wife Maria, done at the same time, its whereabouts were unknown and had remained that way for four decades.

My job was to write a post about the missing painting in the hopes that its current owner might see it.  I published "Have You Seen Maria?" in June of 2011 and three weeks later Guston received a call from Maria Gratz Roberts in Atlanta, Georgia.  For the full story, see the follow-up post, "Found," from February 2012.

The reunion of the portraits was covered locally and in the art press and was also picked up by the Associated Press.  The story appeared in more than 200 newspapers.

Soon after, Guston received another call, this time from Jeannette Thomas in California, who is the wife of a great-great-grandson of Ben and Maria.  She said that she had a portrait just like the one of Maria she had seen publicized, the only difference being the presence of the date "1831" and Sully's characteristic initials "TS" on hers.  (The Maria portrait from Georgia had already been authenticated as a Sully, but it lacked signature and date -- omissions which were not unusual when Sully painted two portraits to be hung together.)

After a quick trip to California, Guston affirmed that the West Coast Maria was the original portrait, painted from life.  Furthermore, she was able to report that  John Thomas had made a gift of the painting to the Rosenbach.

So where did that leave Maria from Georgia?  The most likely story is that after Maria died at 44 in 1841,  Ben, in Lexington, Kentucky, wanted a copy of her portrait which hung in Rebecca Gratz's parlor in Philadelphia.  The family commissioned the copy from Sully himself.  Georgia Maria is the result.

If you come to the Rosenbach you can see both portraits in the parlor.  Georgia Maria is on the wall beside Sully's portrait of her husband, and West Coast Maria sits on an easel between the two.  The two Maria's are the work of the same hand and very similar, but Sully did not try to make an exact copy.  Visitors find the differences both fascinating and perplexing.

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