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She was a reputable New York socialite, a fashion icon, and one of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s greatest benefactors. Jayne Wrightsman, who died in April of this year at age 99, was a longtime donor and trustee who had gifted the museum hundreds of artworks during her lifetime. Last week, the Met announced that Wrightsman left it with one last sizeable gift: a bequest of $80 million in cash and more than 375 paintings, drawings, decorative art objects, and rare books.
This past Friday, November 15, the Met installed a selection of works from Wrightsman’s bequest to pay tribute to her immense contribution to the Met’s collection in three of its galleries. The Department of European Paintings now features 22 paintings in Gallery 632, including works by Eugène Delacroix, Anthony van Dyck, Théodore Gericault, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, and Georges Seurat, among others. The Department of Drawings and Prints exhibits works on paper from the Wrightsman Collection in Gallery 690, including a portrait of Marie Antoinette by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, a pair of drawings by Louis de Carmontelle, and several rare bound books. The Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts showcases 55 small objects in Gallery 545, from decorative tobacco snuffboxes to a French porcelain inkstand in the form of a pomegranate. Older works that were donated by Wrightsman and her husband, Charles Wrightsman (an oil executive who died in 1986), were marked with a blue sticker to highlight the couple’s previous donations (the couple has given more than 1,275 works to the Met over the years).
An entire wall in the European paintings galleries is dedicated to landscape paintings of Venice, a city that was recently submerged in historically-high floodwaters. Six paintings by the 18th-century painter Giovanni Antonio Canal, commonly known as Canaletto, depict the city’s iconic Piazza San Marco, its Grand Canal, and other landmarks. They join eight existing Canaletto works that Wrightsman previously donated to the museum.
“These are permanent reminders of the glories and the beauty of this magical place,” Austin Chinn, a volunteer guide at the Met, told Hyperallergic while guiding a group of visitors through the gallery. “There’s no church building in mainland Europe that resembles this dream,” he enthused about St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, which is depicted in Canaletto’s “Piazza San Marco” (circa late 1720s).
Keith Christiansen, chairman of the Met’s Department of European Paintings, told Hyperallergic in an email that Wrightsman originally purchased the paintings for the museum in 1988 but kept some of them in her apartment until her death. “They are the kinds of pictures you can see yourself living with: they are not grand gallery pictures,” he wrote, “You can see why she wanted to retain them.” The newly bequeathed Canaletto works, he said, “have suddenly transformed the collection into one of the finest collections of this artist in the country.” Wrightsman’s gifts include other Venetian paintings by Canaletto’s contemporaries Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Francesco Guardi.
Wrightsman, Christiansen added, had also fortified the Met’s Delacroix collection with a unique painting she bequeathed after her death. “Delacroix’s ‘Rebecca and the Wounded Ivanhoe’ is as fine as these pictures get and, once again, has raised the Delacroix collection — which had already benefited from two earlier gifts (including an exceptional portrait) — to one of the finest outside the Louvre,” the curator said. In this painting, which draws from Walter Scott’s popular 19th-century novel Ivanhoe, the novel’s eponymous protagonist strains to leave his sickbed as an alarmed Rebecca describes to him a battle raging outside the window.
Other standouts in this gallery include amorous paintings by Jean François de Troy, “The Garter” and “The Declaration of Love” (both ca. 1724). In the first, a woman is seen rejecting a man offering to reattach her garter, and in the second, an unaffected woman listens to a man confessing his love to her. Troy is credited with establishing the painting genre known as tableaux de mode (paintings of fashionable society), which depicts the lifestyle and social mores of the French elites in the 18th century. “These genre pictures take one into the luxurious lives of 18th-century well-to-do in a unique way,” Christiansen told Hyperallergic. “De Troy was the master of this genre, and there are no finer ones anywhere. They give a new, much needed accent to the collection of 18th-century French painting.”According to Christiansen, the Wrightsmans acquired these two paintings in 1955 and promised to eventually gift them to the Met. “We did not even think of bidding for it since we knew these would come to us,” he said.
Two more noteworthy paintings are Anthony van Dyck’s portrait of the Queen of England Henrietta Maria (1636) and Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s “Julie Le Brun (1780–1819) Looking in a Mirror” (1787) which includes a mirror reflection of her only child Julie with a rather impossible perspective.
One magnificent painting from Wrightsman gifts to the Department of Drawings and Prints is Jean Etienne Liotard’s pastel “Woman in Turkish Dress, Seated on a Sofa” (ca. 1752). “[This] ravishing pastel is shown with the drawings because of light restrictions,” Christiansen explained. “Works of this quality by Liotard just don’t come on the market.”
Gallery 545 at the museum is named after the Wrightsmans, who have donated much of the works of French decorative art in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Most notable among the new gifts is a collection of 18th-century snuffboxes (containers for smokeless tobacco that was consumed by sniffing) coated in gold and enamel. The Wrightsmans were known to hold the finest private collection in the United States of French decorative arts from before the French revolution in 1789.
Other highlights in the Department of Drawings and Prints include a pair of namesake works by James Tissot, titled “In Full Sunlight” (1881). One is an etching and drypoint depiction of a group of women and children bathing in the sun of a private garden and the other is an oil on wood version of the same scene from a different perspective. Also worth noting is a group of orientalist paintings by John Fredrick Lewis, a portrait of Marie and an 1814 Gregorian calendar adorned with depictions of European monarchs.
“Wrightsman had a particularly grand taste that is somewhat of out fashion because so many collectors now go for the last word in contemporary art,” said Chinn. “She adhered to old standards.”
“This is small and quiet tribute to one great collector and her brilliance and devotion to the museum,” the veteran docent added. “She wouldn’t have wanted a big event with fireworks.”