In April 1938, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. bought a luminous flower painting by Edouard Manet (1832-1883) from New York gallery M. Knoedler & Co. It had arrived at the gallery from Paris via London, and went on to hang in Abby’s private sitting room in their new triplex at 740 Park Avenue.
Here it remained until 1958, 10 years after Abby’s death, when the redistribution of her furnishings took place. Abby’s youngest son David and his wife Peggy drew lots for two paintings of which they were ‘especially fond’ — a Redon flower painting and a ‘small Manet of lilacs in a glass vase’.
The 13 x 10-inch Manet — two velvety roses amid delicate sprays of lilac — is beautifully rendered and elegant. But, as Christie’s Senior Vice President Jessica Fertig explains, it was more than a demonstration of the painter’s craft. Manet often gave still life paintings of fruit or flowers to friends, and Lilas et roses is one of a series he painted during the final six months of his life. This particular painting was a gift to Ginevra Hureau de Villeneuve, the daughter of his doctor.
On 3 November 1882, Ginevra sent the artist a letter of thanks. ‘I love flowers, and white lilac and roses above all,’ she wrote. ‘In sending me some which will never fade, you have given me the most lively pleasure. I am proud to think that a great artist has taken up his brushes again for me and has gone back to work. I hope he will not stop there and that at the next exhibition we shall see appear some of his highly original and seductive works.’
As Fertig explains, ‘Manet was visited by his friends in his Paris apartment, and would often paint the bouquets they brought. Each one relates to the person who gave it, thus becoming an illustration of their relationship and in some sense immortalises the giver.’
‘It was quite rare for a collector to have a Manet. The fact that the Rockefellers had more than one was highly impressive’
Manet, still only 51, died the following April, but the flowers in Lilas et roses are not seen as a memento mori. On the contrary, they are viewed as life-affirming: ‘an eloquent testimony to the delights of the material world’, as Fertig puts it. For Manet, flowers were an exemplary motif — 13 years earlier he had said, ‘A painter can say everything he wants with fruits or flowers, or even clouds.’ He paid great attention to them, both in his still lifes and the paintings that caused a stir at the Paris Salon.
‘Manet is well known for his portraits and works that reflect changes in society,’ says Fertig, ‘but flowers weave their way through these scenes, too. His depictions of them are very charged. In Olympia (1865), they have an illicit meaning: they announce the arrival, or even perhaps stand in for, the courtesan’s client. And in A Bar at the Folies Bergère (1882), painted around the same time as Lilas et roses, a vase of flowers very similar to the one Manet gave to Ginevra stands front and centre as a symbol of Manet’s artistic performance.’
The painting (left) hanging in Abby Aldrich Rockefeller’s private sitting room in the triplex she and her husband moved to at 740 Park Avenue. Photograph by Samuel H. Gottscho, courtesy of the Rockfeller Archive Center
David and Peggy hung the painting in the front hall of their primary residence at 146 East 65th Street, New York. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018
As an act of love returned, Lilas et roses clearly brought great joy not only to Manet and Ginevra, but also its later owners. As David Rockefeller wrote: ‘I remember very clearly this small Manet flower picture hanging with a number of other flower paintings in Mother’s sitting room. It is certainly a painting that gives ongoing pleasure.’
David and Peggy hung it in the front hall of their primary residence at 146 East 65th Street, where they would see it every day, as Abby had before them. ‘It was very well-loved by Abby,’ confirms Fertig, ‘and that continued for David and Peggy. There is something very beautiful about that, particularly since it was Abby who instilled in David his passion for art.’
The painting also says a lot about the Rockefellers as collectors. ‘Manet is the father of modern art, the one who started it, one of the groundbreaking artists of his day. The Rockefeller collection holds so many of the extraordinary artists who followed — Monet, Seurat, Gauguin, Picasso — and you can follow the evolution of art in the works,’ Fertig notes. ‘It was also quite rare for a collector to have a Manet. The fact that they had more than one was highly impressive.’