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McMullen Remembers Legacy Of Renowned Courbet Collector

For The Heights

Published: Monday, November 18, 2013

Updated: Monday, November 18, 2013 00:11

“Art will hold up her head and say I am first a necessity. All else may be cheap, but I shall ever be in demand. My present owner’s fortunes may crumble, his title may banish, his manhood deteriorate, but I shall survive.” 

On Thursday evening, Elliot Bostwick Davis discussed 19th century art and explained the legacy of her great-great-grandmother, who, as an early collector of Gustav Courbet and other significant European artists, was responsible for bringing their work over to the U.S. The McMullen Museum currently houses several of Courbet’s pieces in its newest exhibition.

Born into a family of collectors, Davis earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 19th Century European American Art and proceeded to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she served as curator in numerous exhibitions. In 2001, Davis began working at the MFA and oversaw the installation of the Art of the Americas Wing, which opened in November 2010. 

Davis’ great-great-grandmother, Louisine Havemeyer, began to work with art at a young age.  When she was in her 60s, Havemeyer wrote Memoir of a Collector, where she recollected her experiences as a teenager on the brink of immersion into the world of art. 

After her father’s death, Havemeyer’s mother took her and her sisters to Paris in order to explore the culture and to continue their education. There, Havemeyer was introduced to Mary Cassat, who, after traveling around Europe, returned to Paris to set up a studio. Although 11 years her elder, Cassat spotted in Havemeyer a willing pupil, and the two became lifelong friends. 

“Miss Cassat was very kind to me showing me the splendid things in the great city of Paris, making them still more splendid by opening my eyes to see their beauty through her own knowledge and appreciation,” said Davis, quoting from Havemeyer’s memoirs. “It seemed to me that no one could see art with more understanding, feel it more deeply, or express themselves more clearly than she did.”

At the age of 16, Havemeyer bought her first painting, Degas’ Repetition de Ballet, which was not only the first Degas bought by anyone from the U.S., but also the first one to come into the country. The painting cost about $100, and Havemeyer had to borrow money from her sisters’ allowances in order to pay for it. 

In 1877, Cassat introduced Havemeyer to Courbet’s works, and Havemeyer was immediately drawn to his art. Throughout her lifetime, she collected 46 works by Courbet, 42 of which were original and are all housed at the Met. 

“Cassat called my attention to Courbet’s marvelous execution, to his color, and above all to his realism—to that poignant, palpating medium of truth through which he sought expression,” said Davis, quoting Havemeyer. “I listened to her with such a tension as we stood before his pictures, and I never forgot it.”

In 1883, Havemeyer married Henry Havemeyer, whose family ran the biggest sugar factory in the U.S. Havemeyer became her partner in crime as, in addition to the works by Courbet, the couple acquired 64 paintings by Edgar Degas, 42 by Claude Monet, and 25 by Edward Manet. 

“Courbet was her foundation and Degas was her great love,” said Davis of her great-great-grandmother. “I think that we think of those two realists often in the broad category of French impressionism, but they’re really the great realists of the 19th century.”

The Havemeyers’ collection encompassed a wide variety of subjects including still lifes, landscapes, portraits, and even nudes. 

“There are several reasons why we brought Davis to campus,” said Jeffery Howe, professor from the Art History Department and co-curator of the Courbet exhibition. “She’s a world authority on American art, she’s the great-great-grandaughter of the greatest collector of Courbet ever in America—and she has a particular insight into the effect that Courbet had on stimulating other artists to grow, develop, and share with him the excitement of realism, nature, and the joy of painting.”

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