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Smith College and the Case of the Peddled Painting

The debate over the 1940s sale of some 100 paintings from the Smith College Museum of Art collection—including a Lockwood de Forest work, Ramesseum at Thebes, which sold for $10—raises the question over whether selling off works of American art, at the time deemed unimportant, was prudent. Now that the painting is once again owned by Smith, it will be part of an installation in August. Detail shown; image courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art, Inc., New York.

/ Published June 26, 2015

Jessica Nicoll, the director and Louise Ines Doyle ’34 chief curator of the Smith College Museum of Art, calls it an “evisceration of our early collecting history.” John Davis, the Alice Pratt Brown Professor of Art, calls it a “massacre.”

Both are referring to the 1946 sale of 80 paintings from the museum’s collection of American art for a total of $10,873 through Gimbels, the famed New York department store, which has since gone out of business.

In museum parlance, what took place was a deaccession of works that the museum management at the time deemed unimportant.

Nicoll and Davis have been working with research assistant Samantha Page ’17 to track down those works, many originally purchased by Smith’s founding president Laurenus Clark Seelye, to gain a better understanding of what Davis says was at one time “the greatest collection of American art in the country,” before it was superseded by big-city institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

In the midst of this project, Page came across a document in the archives about an earlier sale of 15 paintings in 1942. That lot went to a dealer in Pittsburgh for $150.

Lockwood de Forest. American, 1850–1932. Ramesseum at Thebes, c. 1876–79. Oil on canvas. Purchased with the Hillyer-Mather-Tryon Fund. Image: Courtesy of Debra Force Fine Art, Inc., New York. Click to enlarge.

Davis looked at the list, and the name of one of the artists, Lockwood de Forest (1850–1932), caught his eye. He knew that a painting by that artist, whose work has recently experienced a resurgence of interest, was among Seelye’s earliest acquisitions. He also knew that one of de Forest’s large canvases was for sale at a New York City gallery.

“We contacted the gallery and they sent us a picture,” recounts Davis, his voice rising with excitement. “The dimensions and the subject matched completely” with what he knew about one of the works Smith once owned.

The subject is the ruins of a temple erected in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes memorializing Pharaoh Ramesses II, putting the painting into the category of “orientalist” art. The genre, characterized by Westerners depicting exotic scenes from the East and the Middle East, has been missing from Smith’s holdings since the sales of the 1940s. Filling that “hole in the collection” has been a longstanding goal for Nicoll.

“Once I had the picture (that the gallery provided) I went back to the only photograph of the Smith art collection we had from when it was located in College Hall,” says Davis. It is dated somewhere between 1879 and 1882, and it offered a glimpse of the de Forest painting off to the side. “There it was, the shadow of a light fixture over it.”

Nicoll, who had planned a trip to New York, went to see the painting. Almost immediately upon her return to Northampton, Davis, together with Linda Muehlig, the museum’s curator of paintings and sculpture and associate director for curatorial affairs, started drafting a proposal that would lead to a go-ahead from Smith President Kathleen McCartney to purchase the work, titled “Ramesseum at Thebes” (ca. 1876), and to reinstate it in Smith’s collection.

“It seemed like a no-brainer to us that we needed to get it and that we needed to bring it home,” says Davis.

Nicoll won’t say how much Smith paid for the painting this spring, allowing that it was more than the $10 for which it was sold nearly three-quarters of a century ago.

“We want to keep people’s attention focused on the historical and intellectual value of our collection and not to be preoccupied with the monetary value,” she says by way of explaining why she wants to keep the purchase price under wraps. Besides, she adds, “once something enters our collection it effectively loses its monetary value because it is off the market.”

The significance of the painting has as much to do with the subject matter as it does with the artist or that it is in pristine condition. To be sure, aesthetics also plays a role. “It’s a very beautiful painting and that is important,” says Nicoll. More than three feet high, “it’s got scale, it is filled with light and it is very striking....We would never have bought this back if it wasn’t an interesting artwork to us today—no matter what its history here had been.”

Jessica Nicoll

Jessica Nicoll

Alex Dika Seggerman

Alex Dika Seggerman

The Smith museum is planning an installation of Ramesseum at Thebes in August, to be co-curated by retired Mount Holyoke faculty member Diana Wolfe Larkin, an Egyptologist, and Alex Dika Seggerman, a Five College Mellon postdoctoral fellow teaching courses on Islamic art and architecture at Smith this year.

Seggerman explains the place of orientalism in the art world, though she points out that the de Forest painting is “definitely not one of the quintessentially orientalist paintings that you think of.”

A view down the hypostyle hall, framed by columns arrayed along the sides, the painting uses a fallen statue of Ramesses II as a focal point beneath a bright blue sky. In the foreground sit two Egyptian contemporaries from the mid-19th century.

The installation will include a lesson in how some of the iconography associated with orientalist art was fashioned.

“What’s really interesting is that the museum has also acquired a photograph that the painting was based on,” says Seggerman. Indeed, while researching this image, Henriette Kets de Vries, the museum’s Cunningham Center manager, discovered that the photograph, by 19th-century commercial French photographer Henri Béchard, was the one that de Forest used as the template for his work. “The composition of the architecture and even the light and shadows on the architecture is exactly the same in the painting as it is in the photograph,” says Seggerman. The only significant difference is that the photo depicts three people sitting in the foreground, while the painting only has two.

Part of what puts Ramesseum at Thebes in the orientalist tradition—which has come to have pejorative connotations since the publication of Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism—is the way the painting uses locals as mere “props,” says Seggerman.

“They are mainly there for scale and local color, but there is no interest in who they are,” she says. The painting evinces “a fascination with ancient architecture and a disregard for the people who are living there.”

Even though Seggerman sees exoticizing overtones in Smith’s newly reacquired de Forest painting, “it is very mild” compared to more prototypically orientalist works, she says. “It is a less obviously offensive image.” Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Snake Charmer, for example, is a quintessentially orientalist painting, owned by the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, produced at around the same time as de Forest’s work. That painting, which appears on the cover of Said’s book, provides a more titillating and overt example of how the genre depicted faraway places as exotic and strange.

Part of Smith College’s interest in the DeForest painting, explains Davis, is that Seelye bought three works that would today be labeled “orientalist.” This likely reflected his personal interest in the Middle East, having traveled there as a young man. His writings about that sojourn, discovered in the Smith College Archives by Elaine Kuoch ’15, one of Davis’s students, reflect “a typical Western horror at what he saw as the primitive way of life of the Arab populations he was visiting,” says Davis. “His comments were not atypical for any Westerner traveling in that period.”

Ramesseum at Thebes is only one of about 100 paintings sold from Smith’s collection in the 1940s. Bringing it back to Northampton “allows us to represent a little bit more of what the original comprehensive collection of American art was like,” says Davis. “Every time we can bring one of these paintings back, we have a slightly more precise and a wider sense of what Seelye’s tastes were and what the original visitors to the Smith art museum would have seen.”

Nicoll says that part of the reason she and others have been “combing the archives” relating to this lost piece of the college’s collection is to glean “what it reveals about the ideology of Smith at its founding.”

Davis praises the financial resources the college devoted to buying this particular painting as part of a longer-term project of reconstituting Smith’s collection of American art that was sold off for a pittance. “It is a testament to Smith that we are now finally dealing with this chapter of our history,” says Davis. “When we are able, we are trying to repair the breach. We are trying to make amends for what people in an earlier era did without the historical perspective we have today.”

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