This drawing, by the French master Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), was purchased in 1931 by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller as one of two anonymous-sitter portraits from a dealer in New York. ‘Even though she didn’t collect widely in this field, Abby knew refinement when she saw it,’ explains Old Master drawings specialist Furio Rinaldi. ‘She also had a passion for modern art, and recognised how influential the work of Ingres was on a later generation of artists.’
Abby had by this time spent two years developing her idea for a new museum in New York dedicated to showing works of modern art — what we now know as MoMA. On trips around the city and to Europe, she began purchasing works by Erich Heckel, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among others. She hoped they would one day fill the gallery that she would eventually demolish her own home in order to build.
‘Abby understood the importance that both Matisse and Picasso placed on the work of Ingres,’ continues Rinaldi. ‘Both artists appreciated and were deeply influenced by Ingres’ linear style and his graphic, highly sophisticated manner. Picasso visited Ingres’ Paris retrospective in 1905 and it had an immediate and visible effect on his work. Matisse, for his part, said that Ingres was the first artist to use pure colours. Abby recognised these modernist qualities in his work, too.’
Subsequent research revealed the sitters to be the family of Johann Gotthard Reinhold, the Dutch ambassador to Rome in 1815. This drawing is of his wife’s sister, Fräulein Louise Sophia Henrietta Catharina Ritter. The drawing’s pendant, of Fraulein Reinhold and her daughters, is now in the Morgan Library, New York.
‘Drawings are usually preliminary or preparatory studies for paintings’, Rinaldi explains, ‘but Ingres signed and dated this sheet, to indicate that it was complete, a finished portrait.’
The quality of the Old Master drawings they collected highlights the family’s love of beauty, their appreciation of artistic skill, and their nuanced understanding of art history
After Abby’s death, the two Ingres drawings were divided between the family. ‘In the distribution of works from Mother’s sitting room [at Kykuit, the family estate in upstate New York] in 1960, my brother Winthrop drew the portrait of Fräulein Ritter and we drew [Frau Reinhold and Her Daughters ],’ David would recall in his 2002 memoirs. ‘After Winthrop’s death, we bought [Fräulein Ritter ] from his estate. We have them at present in the small hallway between the library and the living room on the second floor of the house on 65th Street.’
Ingres signed and dated this portrait of the sister-in-law of the Dutch Ambassador to Rome — a sign that he intended this drawing as a finished work of art
Although the Rockefellers owned only a relatively small number of Old Master drawings, the quality of the works they did collect highlights the family’s love of beauty, their appreciation of artistic skill, and their nuanced understanding of art history. ‘Visiting David’s townhouse to view this work not long after he passed away was a moving experience,’ Rinaldi recalls. It hung on the wall of his first-floor studio, protected from natural light, in what Rinaldi describes as an ‘intellectual yet intimate setting’.
‘The work is sublime, executed in Ingres’ signature technique of pairing a finely etched face with a sketched half torso,’ adds the specialist. ‘It reflects not only Abby’s love of innovative artists, but also David’s devotion to his family’s history.’