Sunday, May 5, 2019

Jayne Wrightsman (1920-2019)

On April 20 of this year the New York Times announced the death of Jayne Wrightsman at 99.  I am sure that the great majority of my readers have never heard of this philanthropist and socialite. She with her husband Charlie, invented themselves.

It is said that Jayne’s early years in Los Angeles holding various jobs from model, to salesperson in a department store, to secretary, all changed when she married Charles Wrightsman, He was more than 25 years her senior and newly divorced when gossip columns recorded their  romance in 1938.  Married in 1944, they remained together until his death in 1986.  Charlie, as he was known, was an Oklahoma oil man and while he would have been considered rich by normal standards, he was not yet super rich.  He decided, however, that they were going to break into high society. When they were not accepted in Newport, they headed to Palm Beach where Charlie had been before.  In New York they found an apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue, a very posh address, but on a lower floor.

Then, they decided they would collect art to assist in thier social trajectory that would eventually bring them to the circles of Jackie Kennedy and Mrs. Astor.  Initially they could not afford major Old Master paintings, but they could afford fine French 18th Century furniture, which, after all, was worthy of the Kings of France.  Lucky for my family they were introduced to our firm, Rosenberg & Stiebel, by a member of the Rothschild family.  When they first came in my father told me that Jayne took copious notes for Charlie. This was a serious study and slowly, but surely, they built a major collection of French Furniture and other 18th century European decorative arts.  In the 50’s, 60’s and much of the 70’s they were major clients of ours.  Even later they came in regularly  to check the market.  I remember when Jayne came in to buy a gift for a friend and we had a small collection of renaissance bronze animals for sale.  Was I surprised when she picked out a bronze snake!

Since their neighbor, Baroness Renée de Becker (née Rothschild) collected Meissen birds the Wrightsmans had to have a similar collection.  You can see those in this image of Jayne.  Also, as far as I know, all the works of art in this image are from or through Rosenberg & Stiebel aside from the Vermeer.



When they decided that they were able to buy paintings Jayne invited the new young assistant curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, Keith Christiansen, to lunch.  That was in 1977 and they got on well.  From then on, they worked together building the Met’s collection.  In 1989 Keith became the Jayne Wrightsman Curator of European Paintings and today Chair of the Department as well.  Jayne & Charlie then, as Charlie’s health declined, Jayne alone, bought for the Met some of its most important paintings acquisitions. Keith wrote a wonderful commemoration of her as a patron in the Art Newspaper. He specifically mentions 2 paintings including one of my favorites by Lorenzo Lotto, a great Venetian renaissance artist.  It represents Venus and her son, Cupid.  It was probably done to commemorate a wedding in the 1520’s.


Slowly but surely Jayne became an expert in whatever she and her husband decided to collect.   She studied and read copiously, befriended experts and even hiring tutors for language.  Art education is not simply gained by standing in front of a painting for a few minutes, otherwise, as Sherman Lee, former director of the Cleveland Museum said, “all guards would be great art experts”.  For collectors there is a difference.  One wants to learn more about what one acquires and find out where it fits into the story of art.  Is it better or lesser than the work in the museum? Is the subject matter consistent with the artists other paintings? How does the brush stroke compare and where are other works by the artist?  Constant comparison helps in the education. 

In 1969 Jayne phoned the gallery and asked that a large Ormolu mounted celadon vase had to come up to the Met IMMEDIATELY.  I took the call and mentioned, as they already knew, that it had been repaired and therefore, the less than usual price.  Our art handler was on holiday so I bundled up the vase and sent our young temp in a taxi to the Met.

Here, my wife, Penelope picked up the story because she was at the receiving end at the Museum.  I, of course, learned this much later.  The reason for the rush was that the Wrightsman rooms were opening that evening with a huge bash. Their decorator, Henri Samuel, said that one of a pair of commodes had to have a piece on top to balance the vase he had placed on the other and Mrs. Wrightman recalled the vase in our gallery.  In this image the Varengeville room with the vase all the way at the end.  In the center is the red lacquer desk that had belonged to Louis XV acquired from our gallery.


To end with my wife’s story, “it was the end of my first year at the Met and the opening of the Wrightsman Rooms of French 18th century art.   As a fellow I had contributed to the label writing and done innumerable errands. I was astonished to receive the invitation to the seated dinner in the Louis XVI gallery. I climbed the ladders to light the candles in the chandeliers which had not yet been electrified in the Paar and Varengeville Rooms, then raced downstairs to the department offices to put on my long evening dress. Returning breathless I learned that Mrs. Wrightsman had decreed that I should join at the end of the receiving line, greeting the honored guests.

I am afraid I have no idea whose hands I shook nor whom I sat beside, nor what was served at that banquet. One vivid memory remains: During the cocktail hour the guests roamed the period rooms. Pierre Rosenberg former director of the Louvre, spotted my speechless expression of horror as Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, wandered across the Louis XIV Savonnerie carpet holding a lit cigar with a growing length of ash.  Rosenberg dived past me to catch it and usher Mr. Sulzberger off one of the glories of the Louvre Grande Galerie.“ 

There is no question that the Wrightsman legacy enriched the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art over years with donations and purchases that collectively amounts to a treasure trove.