Three-quarter Length Portrait of a Woman

Thomas de Keyser: “Three-quarter Length Portrait of a Woman”

On the trail of a mysterious lady.

The painting and its art-historical classification

The “Three-quarter Length Portrait of a Woman” by the Dutch portraitist Thomas de Keyser (1596/97 – 1667) has been in the possession of the painting gallery of the State Art Collections Kassel since 1959, originally on permanent loan from the Hesse Ministry for Schools and National Education. Both the date of purchase and the name of the vendor, the London art dealer W. Katz, are recorded in the painting’s documentation. There one can also find an initial clue as to an earlier owner. According to a pencilled note, the painting originated from the Pierpont Morgan collection. But can this be proved? In the painting’s documentation and the museum’s archives, no purchase documents that might indicate such an origin could be found. A search for relevant transactions in external archives and for more information on the Pierpont Morgan collection thus began.

A journey almost around the world - creating a provenance chain

An important source of information for provenance research is the Hesse Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs’ file inventories located in the Hesse Central State Archives in Wiesbaden. Until responsibility for cultural affairs was divided up in July of 1984, this ministry and the Ministry for Schools and National Education (1949 – 1983) were responsible for the State Museum in Darmstadt and the State Art Collections in Kassel—besides numerous other public institutions such as universities, libraries, archives, etc.

Documents relating to “acquisitions of the Kassel State Art Collections” exist for the period 1953 to 1976, yielding valuable clues as to the provenance of the portrait by Thomas Keyser. The London art dealer Dr. Willy Katz’s original bill of sale, dated 20 July 1959 and made out to the Painting Gallery, Hesse State Museum Kassel, confirms that the picture was purchased for £750 from the Pierpont Morgan collection in New York (see fig. 2).

As established by further documentation, the picture was acquired by the Hesse Ministry for Education and Science and made available to the State Art Collections in Kassel on permanent loan.

The amount on the invoice was remitted by the Hesse Ministry for Schools and National Education via the state cashier’s office in Wiesbaden. In August 1963, the status of permanent loan was annulled by a decree of the Hesse Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, and the painting entered with others into the permanent inventory of the Kassel State Art Collections.

From the Old World to the New and back

To create a provenance chain, it was necessary as a next step to establish through documentation both the provenance indicated—the Pierpont Morgan collection—and the painting’s transferal to the art dealer Dr. W. Katz. An important clue was provided by an excerpt from Ann Jensen Adams’s dissertation on the paintings of Thomas de Keyser—with catalogue raisonné of his works—published in 1985. The Kassel painting is listed there, but under works that, according to Adams, are not attributable to Thomas de Keyser. Though perhaps a disappointment for the museum, as regards tracing the picture’s provenance yet another link in the chain was established: the portrait originating from the Pierpont Morgan collection was apparently auctioned in March of 1944 by Christie’s of London, before being acquired in May of 1959 by the Kassel Art Gallery from a London art dealer. The relevant auction catalogue is available in the Museum Landscape Hesse Kassel’s library:

There, under lot No. 128, is listed a “Portrait of a Lady” by Th. de Keyser.

The picture’s description, dimensions, and details of materials used (on wood, 43 x 30 ½ Inches) correspond by and large to those of the Kassel painting. An examination of the picture’s reverse revealed the number “128”, written in white chalk on the parqueted back of the wooden panel. This corresponds to the painting’s number in the auction catalogue and once again confirms the work’s identity.

Reverse of a painting
Extract from Christie’s auction catalogue

In answer to a request for further details on this sale, Christie’s stated that de Keyser’s painting was acquired by “Katz” for £347. The vendor was the executor of the deceased J. Piermont Morgan’s estate.

A famous banker and art

John Pierpont Morgan was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1837 and died in 1913 in Rome. He was one of the most powerful bankers and financiers of his age. His son John Pierpont “Jack” Morgan Jr. (1867–1943) took over the firm, J. P. Morgan & Co., after his father’s death. He inherited his father’s extensive art and book collection and in 1924 founded the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York as a public institution.

Christie’s auction catalogue of 31.03.1944

The trail runs cold in Paris

In further determining the painting’s provenance, the J.P. Morgan Junior Papers, located in the Morgan Library archives, were an extremely important source of information, documenting as they do that the painting was in his collection in 1937–38 and in 1917. Thanks to information provided by Ann Jensen Adams—the abovementioned author of the catalogue raisonné of portraits by Thomas de Keyser and professor of art history at the University of California, Santa Barbara—the exact date on which the painting entered the Pierpont Morgan collection could also finally be determined. On a photograph of the painting in the Witt Library in London, Ann Jensen Adams found a reference to the London art dealer Thomas Agnew & Sons Ltd. As could be determined from the latter’s invoice ledgers, in April of 1903 Agnew had sold a painting of a “lady” by de Keyser, measuring 43 x 30 ½ in., to J. Pierpont Morgan jun. for £1,800. Additional information, according to which Agnew had acquired the painting—apparently originating from the Comte de Monteuil’s collection in Paris—from T. Humphrey Ward, could not so far be verified.

Will this painting’s eventful biography ever be completely resolved? Its journey can be traced from entering the J. Pierpont Morgan collection in 1903 to its being auctioned from this collection by Christie’s of London and acquired by Willy Katz in 1944, as well as its subsequent sale by Willy Katz to the Kassel State Art Collections in 1959. Even though only a small part of the picture’s history since its creation can be traced, nevertheless expropriation as a result of National Socialist persecution can be excluded.

Miriam Olivia Merz