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A French Mystery

Paintings without attribution or documentation of any sort arrive in our warehouse every day. Many end up being generally catalogued as French School, European School or 20th Century School if no information can be found. The case of this French painting is different. The work came to us as part of an estate that included many very fine French paintings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the likes of Georges Braque and Jacques Villon, some of which were being donated to museums. This painting was left behind in the NYC apartment and came to Stair Galleries with a small, eclectic group of works to be sold on behalf of the Estate. We noticed right away that someone had done research on the painting at some point, it had notations on the stretcher referencing inclusion in a book on the French painter Eugène Delcroix. Our research began.

Our painting resembles Delacroix’s large masterpiece Marphise, from 1852, now in the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD. As cited on the stretcher, Raymond Escholier writes about Marphise in his book on Delacroix, La Vie et l’Art Romantiques, Delacroix, Peintre, Graveur, Ecrivain 1848-1863, (vol. 3, pg. 158) noting that a sketch of the painting was owned by M. Henri Delacroix (1873-1937), who was a psychologist, author and Dean of the Faculty of Letters at the Sorbonne. Lee Johnson, who wrote the catalogue raisonné of Delacroix’s paintings, The Paintings of Eugene Delacroix. A Critical Catalogue, 6 Vols., mentions a copy of the original painting by an “unknown artist with unknown dimensions” that past literature had attributed to Delacroix. Could this be our painting?

Works form the collection of Henri Delacroix were sold on March 31, 1962 at Pallais Galleria, Paris. Included in that sale was Delacroix’s Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard from 1827-28, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Roland, Browse and Delbanco, a London gallery was listed in 1962 as provenance for a painting similar to our Marphise. Though we could not find our painting in the old auction catalogue from the Pallais sale, could Delbanco have purchased it in that 1962 auction and brought it back to London?

The subject of Marphise is based on Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando Furioso, written circa 1516-1532. In the tale, the female warrior Marphise knocks the knight Pinabello off his horse after his lady had mocked Marphise’s companion, Gabrina. In the scene depicted in the painting, Pinabello lies on the ground while his horse rides off in the distance. The knight’s lady is forced to disrobe and give her fancy clothing to Gabrina. Delacroix frequently chose subjects from 16th century literature in his later work, and was partial to the writing of Ariosto. In the Walters painting, Pinabel can be seen in the background and Gabrina is depicted on the back of Marphise’s horse. Our painting is a much smaller esquisse version of the Walters painting, lacking some of the details and painted with loose delineation of the figures. It is a mesmerizing picture whose mystery makes it all the more interesting.

We will offer this painting for sale on October 28-29, 2017.


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