The Missing MadonnaCALVIN TOMKINS
The story behind the Met’s most expensive acquisition.
Small as it is, the painting has a powerful presence. It captures the eye from a distance, and commands, up close, something like complete attention. Holding the Christ child in her left arm, the Virgin looks beyond him with melancholy tenderness, while the child reaches out a tiny hand to brush aside her veil. Centuries of Byzantine rigidity and impersonal, hieratic forms are also brushed aside in this intimate gesture. We are at the beginning of what we think of as Western art; elements of the Byzantine style still linger in the gold background, the Virgin’s boneless and elongated fingers, and the child’s unchildlike features but the colors of their clothing are so miraculously preserved, and the sense of human interaction is so convincing, that the two figures seem to exist in a real space, and in real time. Candle burn marks on the frame, which is original, testify to the picture’s use as a private devotional image. It is dated circa 1300.
Although the “Madonna and Child” was well known in art-historical circles as the only one of Duccio’s dozen or so surviving paintings to remain in private hands, its whereabouts had been uncertain since the death, in 1949, of its last registered owner, the Belgian collector Adolphe Stoclet. In fact, the picture never left the Stoclet house in Brussels. Stoclet and his wife, who died within a week of each other, had willed the house and much of their collection, including the Duccio, to their son, Jacques, whose widow held on to it until her death, in 2001. Soon after that, her heirs (four daughters), who are very high on anonymity, agreed to lend it to an important exhibition in Siena of Duccio and his school. A color-plate reproduction of the picture the first one ever made was printed in the exhibition catalogue, but a few weeks before the opening, in 2003, the painting was withdrawn. This coincided with rumors of an impending sale, which turned out to be true.
Although everyone involved in the transaction is bound by omertà, it is known that both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the principal auction houses, engaged in lengthy and fiercely competitive negotiations with the heirs, and Christie’s eventually won the prize. “The family was very keen that the painting go to a public museum or institution,” according to Nicholas Hall, international director of Christie’s Old Master department. This was one reason that the family decided upon a private “treaty” sale, in which the auction house and the seller determine a price and then offer the work to selected potential buyers, rather than letting it take its chances at public auction; another reason was that a private sale is more private. “We got it by putting a significantly higher valuation on the painting than anyone else by multiples based on its being the last Duccio in private hands and its being so impeccably preserved,” Hall told me. Hall himself never met the sellers. “The contract document must have been four inches thick, and it was the most rigidly controlled transaction I’ve ever been involved in,” he said. “At times, it didn’t seem they were too keen to sell at all. I really have no idea what went into their thinking.”
One day last August, Hall had lunch at Serafina’s, on Madison Avenue, with his friend Keith Christiansen, the curator in charge of Old Master paintings at the Met. “This is going to be the most expensive pizza you’ve ever had,” Hall said, handing over an envelope that contained a high-resolution color transparency of Duccio’s “Madonna and Child,” and a lavish presentation booklet that Christie’s had prepared for prospective buyers. Christiansen, a tall, energetic man who clearly finds endless enjoyment in his work, brought these items back to his office at the Met, and took some very deep breaths.
Duccio’s fame and influence in fourteenth-century Siena were as great as Giotto’s in Florence, but, throughout the long and sometimes warring rivalry between these two city-states, history, power, and publicity favored the Florentines. By the sixteenth century, Duccio’s name was largely forgotten outside Siena. Giorgio Vasari, whose “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects” was published in 1568, extolled the great Rucellai Madonna, which Duccio had painted on commission for the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence, and which now hangs in the Uffizi; he called it a pivotal work that left behind the “Greek” (Byzantine) manner and took the first step toward the modern style, but he attributed the painting to Cimabue, Giotto’s predecessor and teacher. Vasari devoted only a brief entry in his book to Duccio, and got his dates wrong.
Stroganoff was a wealthy Russian expatriate who had lived in Rome for most of his mature life. His main interest lay in his art collection, which filled his large palazzo on the Via Sistina. He particularly liked Italian pictures of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and he seems to have known a good deal about them, although his level of connoisseurship was perhaps not quite as high as his close friend Antonio Muñoz suggests in the catalogue of the Stroganoff collection. Muñoz would have us believe that the Count found his Duccio in an antique shop “in Tuscany,” had it restored, and personally identified it as a work by Duccio. Keith Christiansen thinks it more likely that the Count bought the painting from a Roman dealer. There are no documents on its provenance, at any rate, so we will never know, any more than we will know whom it was painted for originally, or where it had been for the previous six hundred years. This is not at all unusual for early Renaissance pictures, according to Christiansen. “We don’t know who the Boston triptych was painted for, or the London triptych,” he told me. “The Lorenzetti ‘Crucifixion’ that we bought two years ago was acquired in the nineteenth century by the French artist Paul Delaroche, who thought it was by Giotto.” The fact that the Duccio “Madonna and Child” is so well preserved suggests, however, that it has passed through relatively few hands since 1300. “It wouldn’t be completely out of the question that the same family passed it down,” Christiansen said.
When Stroganoff died, in 1910, he left no legal instructions regarding his collection. An Italian art historian named Verduì Kalpakcian, who has done research on Stroganoff, writes that the Count had a married daughter, Princess Maria Gregorievna Scerbatoff, who conveyed all rights of inheritance to her grown son and daughter, Vladimir and Aleksandra. These two wrote a letter in 1911 to the director of The Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, saying that, as their grandfather had wished, they were bequeathing two of his paintings to the museum Simone Martini’s “Annunciation,” one of the two pictures that the old Count had put into the 1904 exhibition in Siena, and a “Tabernacle” by Fra Angelico. Stroganoff’s grandchildren subsequently gave The Hermitage two more Italian paintings, but Duccio’s “Madonna and Child” stayed in Rome. The Scerbatoff family moved back to Russia before 1912, and when the Revolution broke out, in 1917, they were trapped there. Maria, Vladimir, and Aleksandra were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1920, at the family estate in St. Petersburg. Vladimir’s widow managed to escape Russia with two young daughters: Olga, born in 1915, and Maria, born a year later. The three of them made their way to Rome, where, in a scene right out of an Ernst Lubitsch film, a loyal former employee of the old tsarist embassy offered them a tearful welcome and handed over the keys to the Via Sistina palazzo.
Having no other means of support, the surviving Scerbatoffs started selling the furniture and the art. Bernard Berenson, who had formed a lucrative advisory partnership with the dealer Joseph Duveen, knew the Stroganoff collection well. In 1922, he cabled Duveen a list of Stroganoff pictures for possible purchase, with Duccio’s “Madonna” at the top of the list. A Duveen agent went to the palazzo to look at Berenson’s recommendations, and reported unfavorably on the Duccio. “Very small and ineffective,” he called it, and, more to the point, “nothing for America.” Although the Scerbatoffs cut the price from five hundred thousand lire to four hundred thousand (approximately twenty thousand dollars), Duveen knew that the tastes of his American clients the ones Berenson called “squillionaires” ran to large, colorful paintings, and he declined to buy it. The picture was still unsold early in 1923, according to correspondence in the Duveen files, but soon after that it was acquired, through the Sangiorgi auction house, in Rome, by the Stoclet family, in Brussels.
Adolphe Stoclet, the son of a rich Belgian banker, had had the wit or the good fortune to marry a niece of the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens, who lived in Paris and knew Manet and Whistler. Suzanne Stevens and Adolphe soon became ardent patrons of the avant-garde in theatre and music. In Milan, where they lived from 1896 to 1902, they developed a passion for the opera and for buying Italian paintings, especially early ones. From Milan, they moved to Vienna for two years, and then, in 1904, they returned to Brussels, where, having come into a large inheritance from Adolphe’s father, they engaged the Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann to build them a grand house in the Wiener Werkstätte style of Art Nouveau. The murals and mosaics in their dining room were painted by Gustav Klimt. Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Cocteau, and other modernist luminaries attended their soirées and admired their proliferating art collection. Like most large-scale collectors of early Italian art, the Stoclets picked up some fakes here and there, including a small “Maestà” that they thought was by Duccio. (It was later traced to a master Sienese restorer and forger named Federico Joni.)
“Everything the Stoclets collected was something you could hold in your hand, small and precious,” I was told by Everett Fahy, the head of the European Paintings Department at the Metropolitan. Fahy visited the Stoclet house in 2002, to negotiate with one of Jacques Stoclet’s four daughters for the Duccio’s loan (later rescinded) to the 2003 exhibition in Siena. The painting, he said, still hung then where it always had, in Adolphe Stoclet’s private studio.
The Duccio was being offered not only to the Met. The Getty Museum, in Los Angeles, had already turned it down, reportedly because of the price. This struck Christiansen as ironic, because the price was so clearly predicated on the fifty-five million dollars that the Getty had agreed to pay, two years earlier, for Raphael’s small, perfectly preserved “Madonna of the Pinks.” The British government temporarily denied that picture an export permit, to give English buyers a chance to come up with the necessary funds; they did, and the Raphael is now in London’s National Gallery. (There would be no export problems for the Duccio, because its owners were Belgian, and the relatively lenient Belgian laws on exporting art apply mainly to architecture and furniture.) The Met’s only serious rival at this point was the Louvre. The Louvre, like the Metropolitan, had no Duccio to anchor its glorious collection of early Italian art, and its acquisition money, from museum funds and private sources as well as from the French government, were eminently tappable.
De Montebello, Christiansen, and Dorothy Mahon, the museum’s head of paintings conservation, flew to London on September 24th. They spent two hours with the little painting. They held it in their hands, and examined the surface with a ten-inch magnifier. Its state of preservation amazed them. The colors of all Renaissance paintings have altered to some degree over time, especially the blues, which often become formless black shapes with no visible definition. In this case, the modelling of the folds in the Virgin’s deep-blue mantle was largely intact. Duccio had used a high-quality blue made from azurite, Mahon told me later, after she and her colleagues had analyzed the picture in the Met’s conservation studio. “The buildup was so skillfully done,” Mahon said, “with different colors of azurite and then lead white in the final one.” (White is more resistant to chemical change than dark colors are.) Seeing the painting at Christie’s was enough to convince de Montebello. “There was not an ounce of doubt in my mind about it,” he told me. A sense of urgency he was aware that his colleagues at the Louvre had already been to see the painting led him to make an offer on the spot, an offer that was, he indicated, close to the asking price.
The director’s move stunned Christiansen. “I never expected that he would make an offer,” he said. “I thought this was the first phase normally, we would return, he’d talk to the trustees, and of course you’d try to get the picture here, but that was out of the question. The picture wasn’t leaving Christie’s until the whole deal was finished.” De Montebello concedes that he moved much faster than he normally would have. “Technically, I was not authorized to make an offer,” he explained. He had talked to several key members of the board, though, and, as he put it, “I just took a chance that my trustees would go along, and they did. But my offer was to Christie’s. They were going to relay it to the seller the following week, so I knew I would have time, and in fact by the time they relayed it to the seller I had already got the approval of my trustees.” (Note the recurrent modifier here: my trustees.) De Montebello dispatched several of his trustees to London to look at the painting, and he made sure that as many others as possible had a chance to hear Christiansen talk about it. Christiansen’s eloquence on the subject is torrential. He views the little painting as a decisive step in the evolution of Duccio’s style, which reached its apogee about eight years later in the “Maestà” altarpiece. As he put it to me, “It’s part of the whole revolution in expression that takes place in the late thirteenth century and early fourteenth century the revolution which of course has as its real figurehead neither Duccio nor Giotto but Dante. Dante is an absolute contemporary of Giotto, and a near-contemporary of Duccio, he’s writing at exactly the same time, and he even made a scene with Giotto and Cimabue in The Divine Comedy. The fact that Dante chose to write in the vernacular, in Italian rather than Latin, is one of the turning points of the West. And this is precisely what these artists were about as well finding a vernacular as opposed to an intentionally élitist, anti-popular form of painting. This is the real thing; painting is no longer an illustration but something that attempts to evoke a human response from the viewer.”
Duccio’s “Madonna and Child” went on view at the Metropolitan last December, as the centerpiece of a second-floor gallery containing the Lorenzetti “Crucifixion” and other early Italian pictures from the collection. It was removed temporarily on June 13th and taken to the Conservation Department for intensive study and possibly some very minor repairs. “I feel that only the least should be done to a picture,” Dorothy Mahon said to me. “Only what’s absolutely necessary.” The painting will be back on July 12th. You can scarcely fault de Montebello for attaching his favorite modifier to the new acquisition. “It’s the single most important purchase during my twenty-eight years as director,” he said. “It’s my ‘Juan de Pareja,’ it’s my ‘Aristotle.’ ” De Montebello was quite touched that, among the many congratulatory letters the museum has received about the painting, there was one to him from Hoving. He was even more touched by the letter from a visitor he had never met, who wrote, “Finally, the Met has its ‘Mona Lisa.’ ”
Calvin Tomkins. "The Missing Madonna." The New Yorker (July 11, 2005).
This article reprinted with permission from The New Yorker. All rights reserved.
Calvin Tomkins writes for The New Yorker.
Copyright © 2005 The
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