Found a Lost Renoir? One of My Readers Thinks So…

Think you might have bought a lost Renoir?  The Secret History of Art was contacted by one of its readers who had an interesting story to tell.  It involves a possible Renoir, proper provenance-based and forensic investigation, and a conclusion that leaves the mystery still ajar.  Gregory K. was given the opportunity to write his own story in this column, prompted by interview questions from The Secret History of Art.

"The Bathers" by Renoir? This is the pastel in question

There are many stories of lost, and possibly found, masterpieces, each one an intriguing mystery.  Share yours by contacting us.

Renoir "Bathers" variation painting 1884-1903 (all images courtesy of Gregory K.)

Gregory K.’s story has been reproduced here, unedited:

From the time of my early childhood, our family spent many days of each month in the museums and antique shops. My favorite place was the Smithsonian. These family trips to view art were an especially important part of my life and sparked my career as a photographer and avocation as an art collector. Truly, I have loved art all my life.

My father, also an art enthusiast, a retired colonel, became a perfectionist hobbyist and taught me how to restore furniture and identify early works of the nineteenth century which were in his parents home in Winchester (VA), passed down from his grand parents, and part of his history.

Renoir "Bathers" Orsay Museum drawing

My brother, Robert, introduced me to the New York art scene. As a very young successful artist, Robert first exhibited in New York City in a group show at MOMA in his early 20’s and convinced me to move to New York City to study at the School of Visual Arts and enjoy the art scene in New York. Here, in New York, my home for the past 35 years, I photographed art collections and earlier on shared a loft with artists. I was not interested in early Renaissance Art history, but admired the spontaneity of precise, serious artistic creation. I now share my same loft with my young teen daughter and my wife. My wife studied Fine Arts and Art History and Architecture at the University of British Columbia and at Bezelal Academy.

In New York City, I had experienced carefully examining paintings and interacting with the artists. In my early twenties, I was hired to make photographic portraits of Andy Warhol, Robert Motherwell, Lowell Nesbitt, Hunt Slonem, Marisol, to name a few of the more precise painters who had me photograph their work in detail. Art collector’s like Mr. Harold Diamond and Jeffrey Holder, Barry Hill Galleries, Andre Emmerich, Will Barnett, and art restorers as Marco Grassi and Arnold Wagner and many well known Art Dealers in New York City discussed their the art with me and allowed me to observe all the works. I have photographed many thousands works of Art of all periods and mediums by the most famous artist and the best. I was strictly a film photographer, constantly checking images for precise focus, and being magnetized by detail and authenticity; relished the experience of blurring and unblurring the image through a lens while digging into the surfaces with bouncing lights. I did not convert to digital photography until after the year 2003 when digital became more like film.

All elements of the physical structure in paintings, sculpture and furnishings intrigued me. My professional interests are wide: collecting photographs, oils, lithographs, sculptures, furniture; all work that spontaneously looks like art to me. Occasionally I sell to collectors like Kenya West. I also love making daily the viewing of art photographs – including the wide range of art at the New York City Flea Market, the best flea in the whole world, which the famous Andy Warhol frequented for twenty years seeking inspiration for his works. For me this Flea and those New York City Antique Shows, despite advice to buy upstate, have been an over thirty five year passion.

You ask me if logic supports my spontaneous response to feel a purchase of mine from the Antique Show is really a landmark art work by Renoir.

Yes, I did find my educated intuition fully supported by all that the in-depth scientific testing of paper, plaque, pastel fabrication components, and signature say. Reasoning and art history logic tell us this appears to be the most important and fully finished of all thirty studies done by Pierre Auguste Renoir for the oil paintings of the Great Bathers series in the Cannes Renoir Museum, France, dated “1884-1903″, and for the Great Bather in Philadelphia Museum, dated “created 1883-1887″; both purchased by these institutions and exhibited in the late 1930’s. Studies for these works were only known to the owners until around 1950 and later when John Rewald wrote the book Renoir’s Drawings, huge institutions such as the Louvre purchased and exhibited those sketches in their galleries around 1950.

Let me start at the beginning and give you some information. I found when I first purchased the pastel Renoir work in 1993, in a frame with pastel dust and stripping caused by the cardboard tapping the glass over years on the inside the glass and outside the glass of the frame a plastic film of something – the picture ignored and undocumented by any expert or art dealer or institution, to my knowledge, in over a hundred years.

The history of the work from my first research takes me back to the late nineteenth century salon of Monsieur Pierre Auguste Renoir. The locations of his paintings were in doubt. Monsieur Renoir complained that a work of art was stolen out of his house and in one instance, according to a book about Renoir, he had left his studio in the care of a neighbor and there were canvases missing when Monsieur Renoir returned from his vacation. It was documented that some were retrieved in a manner that the law was not involved. Over three times Monsieur Renoir complained to his friends that paintings were being stolen. This was documented in books and by Renoir experts. It is known that his neighbor had a key for a short period of time and may have taken the art. In any case, it was documented that paintings continually went missing no matter how angry and concerned Monsieur Renoir became – as an artist his current art projects always took predominance in his life – and it is also known that several of his works are missing from his salon oeuvre. Possibly, Renoir never vigorously pursued the matter since he did not want to get the suspect in trouble.

Renoir "Great Bathers" (1884 -1887, Philadelphia)

My pastel appears to have been drawn in the classical style for the only color study for the Bathers painting then stored, covered, in Renoir’s Studio. Years later, in 1930, right after Renoir’s death, the picture was sold to the Wolf family of art collectors and given an owners identification label around 1930. The Wolf name is on the label on the back of the pastel and the title “Une Etude Pour Les Baigneuse’s Pastel Par Pierre Auguste Renoir” is on the plaque. The Wolf Family – along with the Pastel – a survived the war being owners of a company doing dry cleaning for the French Army.

The “great drawing” (to quote from Monsieur Daulte in a telephone conversation of 1996) was sold at the time of the death of Monsieur Wolf in 1965 as part of his estate as relayed to us in 1994 by a third French party who had spoken over the phone to a very old Mrs. Wolf in Grenoble. The Pastel was transported to the U.S. by an unknown art collector in Florida who had kept it in storage for over 35 years for perhaps because it was originally stolen from Monsieur Renoir’s salon and, without scientific investigation, hard to authenticate. (Why else was it not catalogued by Renoir experts for a hundred years?)The pastel was placed in storage from 1965-1993.

We believe the Florida dealer from whom I bought the pastel at the Antique Show Place on 18th St. in 1993 did not know what it was or the materials of which it consisted. We learned 10 years after I found the pastel, that a 1930’s framer or restorer had removed the antique cardboard from back by scraping and added black to the extreme edges to cover minute storage damages on the edges. Also there is also a clear straight line around the picture which does not appear in any other Renoir study at the exact same location on the paper; this line going through the hands can be seen in other studies by Renoir but never at the same location. What is consistent is that the unbroken line goes through the extremities of the study where some kind of protective board which, probably, pressed the pastel into the gum holding the pastel to the coating and prevented the movement of pastel while the work was in progress and also for the removal and placement of the board. This appears to be a trademark of Monsieur Renoir, as it appears in his other pastel studies to also keep the work totally flat. We may conjecture that the framer’s cover up on the edges, the line in the work, and the coated paper confused people who looked at the Pastel.

But what happened after the work was removed from storage as part of an estate sale, sold in 1993 and wound up on sale in New York City that year? We know the dealer bought the pastel at the estate sale as a print, brought the pastel to New York thinking the pastel was still a print – not even cleaning the glass – to the New York City Antique show with a lot of the usual type of items owned by this dealer which were worth between $120 and $750.

I now come into the picture.

On April 3rd, Saturday, 1993, at noon, I decided to stop my work to go to the Antique Show – although in morning I had no intention of going. There, at the Antique Show, some of my friends had seen the pastel but I was the only one interested in purchasing at the full asking price of $150 and so I became the owner of the small gem.

Only after the third time when I went back to the dealers booth at the show 12p.m. did I, at first glance, think that the Pastel was a high quality lithograph made and signed by Renoir in the printing stone. It was hard to tell, confusing with the plastic residue probably from storage plastic clinging to the glass until it melted to the surface and the pastel dust clinging on the inside of the framing glass from the migrating pastel that had vibrated off in, maybe, rough transport. This made the work of art look like a good large, high quality, stone lithograph signed by Renoir which would look beautiful in my living room.

But first I wanted to see the quality of the printing of the art and when I cleaned the glass around the signature of Renoir, I saw pastel. Upon cleaning the glass, the beauty of a spontaneous work became revealed when the charcoal signature of the artist excited me. I immediately checked the signature and started on my journey into the realms of serious art investigation – the dealer’s assistant only knew it came from an estate.

My first prospects for seeking knowledge on the pastel were New York City institutions. A huge New York Auction House ping ponged the concept of pastel and print, but came to no conclusions. When I asked questions, they gave me the address of the top European Renoir expert, Monsieur Daulte. Monsieur Daulte corresponded with me and spoke to my wife on the phone between 1994 and 1997. At first he questioned the provenance, then at the end of several years he agreed with me that the many spontaneous lines in the Renoir Study were very precise in a manner only Renoir could orchestrate.

Monsieur Daulte planned to come to New York City in 1996, and, all going well, authenticate the Renoir Pastel but tragically his wife’s death left Monsieur Daulte too ill and he passed away never having a chance to visit me in New York City, as originally planned. We never did meet and his condition had allowed others to proclaim him not capable of authenticating any art. Many dealers and auction houses wanted to sell the pastel from the very beginning – I have contracts and letters stating so.

While investigating and coming to positive conclusions with Monsieur Daulte, he had insisted I check the provenance. In 1994, I investigated the family name on the plaque of the pastel. Mrs. Wolf, wife of the deceased original owner, Mr. Wolf, told Jamal, my French associate, that her estate had sold the painting in 1965, when her husband died. Mrs. Wolf passed away a few years after this conversation and there is no relative in Europe with further historical knowledge of the work. We know it was in storage from the condition of the glass on the outside and that the last estate sale before the New York Antique dealer acquired the Pastel was in Florida. But the plaque was not scientifically dated until 2010.

The new authenticators, the Wildensteins, were appointed in Paris in 1999 and I would say that the pastel got a confusing reaction from them. The Wildenstein experts consulted weren’t familiar with an artist using a coated paper for a pastel drawing or the crop line Renoir used through extremities. Consequently, before the scientific proof pointed in a more positive direction and after, Wildenstein misidentified the pastel as an etching of the Orsay Museum drawing from 1947 – but gave no proof of any kind for this conclusion. Thus the Wildensteins would not authenticate or identify the Pastel as a Renoir.

I knew this conclusion was false because the line going through the hands of the pastel did not line up at the same locations of the Orsay drawing or any other drawing, when Renoir, in reality, used this line through the hand as a technique. Because I knew it was an original, spontaneous pastel and Mr. Daulte, who had authenticated all Renoir works for forty years, had agreed it appeared to be an original Renoir, I persevered.

It is also important to understand that the Wildenstein’s had just entered the Renoir authentication arena, which is a wide and deep area of information, and I felt science could clarify the issues confusing them. I have a letter from the Bernheim Gallery stating Renoir pastel for the record and dated, before the Wildensteins discouraged them.  After I met with the Wildensteins they suggested that the pastel be scientifically tested; tests were undertaken and the evidence supported my conclusions. It did not surprise me that Netherlands paper specialists, the INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF PAPER HISTORIANS at the Netherlands Royal Library; about 20 scientist and art material experts found the uncharacteristic nature of the paper was not employed specifically by any other pastel artists at the time of the Renoir pastel drawings and came from the very same roll of machine made nineteenth century French paper,which Rewald tells us was given to Renoir by his brother. Myself or anyone I know has never seen pastel on starch coated paper or any other coating, but this may be the rare exception. Even the Dutch paper experts questioned why pastel was on coated paper. The reason Renoir wanted to use the shiny coated side of the paper is for a shiny pearly effect to the skin of the models with fresco colors. Another reason for the shiny side of the paper is Renoir was a porcelain painter. The thin paper Renoir used was two sided paper, one side is a special grain made starch coated, the other side is felt like and un-coated. Renoir used both sides for his 30 or more Bather studies. This unambiguously clears the confusion surrounding the drawing. No Renoir expert or museum anywhere knew the paper Renoir used called “guillotage” until 1958 and until this testing of Renoir pastel Bathers they did not know the ingredients or complete characteristics of Renoir’s paper. This tells me from the dating of my work, it is a real Renoir evolving from all the reasons Renoir painted pastel and evolving in preparation for the Great Bathers.

The materials of the title plaque were identified by scientific research EMSL Analytical, Inc. in November 2010, as being from the 1930s, the colored pastel pigment was dated by McCrone Institute as 1880’s and the black the framer or restorer added to the extreme edges identified dated 1930 by McCrone Institute. Unfortunately, the Wildenstein conclusion based on the mistaken identification of the paper still prevails and, sadly, it is an uphill struggle to reverse this mistake.

Aside from the mistaken interpretation of Renoir’s work and technique of employing a cropping line, I have never been daunted by these rejections because I never veered from a course to understand the true nature and the authenticity of the work. I was never afraid of any means of investigation to know the truth. I am confident that by continued exposure the drawing will eventually be reconsidered in light of the facts and it will be accepted as significant early pastel drawing by Renoir of great historical and personal importance.

Let’s look at the work composition as seen through the eye of an art enthusiast. One piece of evidence haunting those looking at the work is the actual composition. The Renoir pastel measures exactly 1/4 of size of the final painting and is the most important study for the Bathers that Renoir ever did. There is an extra ghost shoulder and arm on the right in the pastel that is in no other Renoir study, which increases the extreme importance of this study and shows to the entire art world how Renoir worked his painting. That extra shoulder and arm coming out like a cloud, not looking like a copy of the same shoulder and arm in any of the known drawings of any work, and not looking like the shoulder and arm of any of the other drawings in Renoir’s studies, but definitely looking spontaneous and truly by Renoir is another compelling fact.

Mr. Daulte agreed that this was a completely original classical study for the Great Bathers. My drawing isn’t a copy of any of the known drawings, it is completely original, and a pastel; the only one showing the point of transitional study in a great work of art, that has more detail of Renoir’s wife posing in opposite positions, as happy Venuses than any other Renoir study known. The real authenticity is also apparent in the minute details which are as strong as the final Great Bathers work. This is what Renoir was all about. In fact, he studied how frescoes were done using fresco colors and repaired them before he painted the pastel and it was this study of frescoes in Italy in 1881, which gave the idea of the Bathers along with the trip to Algeria to study the white fabric drapery and you can see this all in the pastel.

I am trying to contact the French scientific authorities that authenticated a Van Gogh that was in dispute this year, to confirm my conclusions on the authenticity of the pastel, the plaque and the paper, but, it’s not easy. I am very happy that the Wildensteins asked for the testing, despite them not accepting the test results. I have discovered the paper Renoir used besides the beautiful pastel of Renoir’s wife nude when she was very young.

The dating of the plaque to 1930 demonstrates that the person who titled the plaque knew, in 1930, the exact nature of the study from Renoir and so was able to title the pastel as the study for the bathers on the French plaque.

This is most interesting because Renoir’s themes reoccurred many times through his life and it is known that it is hard to identify the date of a particular piece of Renoir’s work. In 1930, no Renoir study was known with the exception of the owner of the studies. Consequently, no one would have known what to inscribe on a title plaque for the pastel unless they knew Renoir personally. Thus, the logical conclusion is that the person directly or indirectly, in 1930, who had the title plaque made had the knowledge that painting was the Pastel study for the Bathers by Renoir.

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