By Shannon Bewley, Provenance Research Fellow
New research on the Birmingham Museum of Art’s Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville (Foggy Morning at Pourville) by Claude Monet traces the painting’s provenance back to the artist himself. Provenance is essentially an artwork’s history of ownership. This unbroken thread of ownership—a rarity in provenance research—reveals how the appreciation of this painting changed over time and some of the many ways in which an object can transition between owners. The Museum has always recorded provenance for objects in its collection but recently has focused on improving its knowledge in this important area and better communicating this knowledge with the public. Over the past year, two of the Museum’s collection support groups, the Friends of American Art and the European Art Society, funded provenance research on a selection of paintings in the Museum’s American and European art departments.
As part of this research, the Museum has greatly enhanced the provenances of many objects in its collection and expanded Nazi-era ownership histories for several objects. While in power from 1933 to 1945, the Nazi regime of Germany stole and forced transfers of hundreds of thousands of works of art throughout Europe. Many works could not be or were not properly returned to their rightful owners after the war and were later acquired by museums or private collections. The Birmingham Museum of Art, in accordance with guidelines set forth by the American Alliance of Museums, is committed to researching works in the collection that may have been unlawfully appropriated by Nazi Germany.
This painting’s ownership history also reveals the shifting aesthetic values and social conditions of the time in which it was created, illustrating different perceptions of Impressionism in France and the United States in the late nineteenth century. Although he was one of the leading Impressionist painters, Claude Monet found little acceptance among the French art establishment. Most art critics, his peers, and public audiences considered his works to be unfinished and lacking realism. The dominant arts organization in France, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, barred many Impressionists from exhibiting their works at the Salon in Paris, the major annual art exhibition in Europe. As a result, these artists, including Monet, struggled to sell their paintings to French collectors that favored realistic paintings in the academic tradition. However, almost immediately after Monet painted Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville, the Parisian dealer Paul Durand-Ruel purchased the work. Recognizing the significance of Impressionism (and its potential market value!), he supported Monet and other artists with monthly stipends in exchange for paintings.
Unable to sell his growing inventory, the dealer crept toward bankruptcy until a fortuitous connection brought his Impressionist paintings, including ours, across the Atlantic. In April 1886, James Sotton, director of the first auction house in the United States, invited Durand-Ruel to exhibit more than 300 paintings in New York City at the American Art Galleries. Following this exhibition, the market for Impressionism in the United States exploded and saved Durand-Ruel, and arguably Monet, from financial ruin. Referencing the different reception of Impressionism in France, the dealer is reported to have exclaimed, “The American public does not laugh. It buys!”
An annotated copy of the 1886 exhibition catalogue indicates that the Museum’s painting, number 216, was purchased by “Spencer.” (fig. 1) Later the buyer lent Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The exhibition catalogue entry for our work, number 2954, reveals his full name as Albert Spencer. The last trace of Spencer as owner of the painting appears in another similar catalogue printed for a loan exhibition of Monet paintings at the Lotos Club, New York, in January 1889.
According to the 1979 catalogue raisonné of Monet’s works, a “Mme A. Holtz” in Paris owned the painting after Albert Spencer. She sold the painting back to Durand-Ruel’s gallery in New York. However the nature and dates of A. Holtz’s acquisition of the painting, and subsequent sale to Durand-Ruel, are still unclear. The dealer’s continued monopoly on Impressionist works solidified the unchanging American market for these paintings. In 1911 Durand-Ruel sold the work to Arthur B. Emmons.
In 1920 Emmons sold the work at the American Art Association. At this auction, Durand-Ruel and his now well-established gallery purchased the painting once again. For this third purchase, Durand-Ruel partnered with another major dealer of European paintings in New York, M. Knoedler and Co., to make a joint purchase. They each paid half of the price of the work, splitting the cost (and the prospective profits). The record of this purchase can be seen in an excerpt from a Knoedler & Co. stockbook. (fig. 2) Stockbooks are ledgers used by dealers to record seller and buyer names, inventory numbers, prices, and other pertinent information for works.
The stockbooks of Knoedler & Co. track the provenance of our painting from 1920 through 1946. Three years after the 1920 auction, Henry Thompson Sloane of New York purchased the painting from Knoedler & Co. His daughter Jessie Sloane inherited the work and sold it back to Knoedler & Co. in December 1946. The repeated sales between the Sloane family and Knoedler indicate the often close relationships between dealers and private collectors. Early the next year, the stockbook records William H. Taylor’s purchase of Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville. Taylor’s niece inherited the painting and sold it in 1981 to the Birmingham Museum of Art, where it rapidly became a favorite in the collection.
Our painting’s provenance speaks to the different levels of interest in Impressionism in France and the United States, especially in the late 1800s. The provenance also confirms that Le Matin, temps brumeux, Pourville was not unlawfully appropriated by Nazi Germany. The Museum will continue to research the provenances of less-recent acquisitions, like our Monet, to bring new stories about our collection to light.
- Yeide, Nancy H. Konstantin Akinsha, and Amy L. Walsh. The AAM Guide to Provenance Research. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 2001.
- Herbert, Robert L. Monet on the Normandy Coast: Tourism and Painting, 1867-1886. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.
- Discovering the Impressionists: Paul Durand-Ruel and the New Painting. Edited by Sylvia Patry. Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015.