The story of Mrs G. W. Fleming, the visionary New York socialite who made one of the earliest purchases of a work by Modigliani in America — and the secret stamp discovered beneath its frame decades later
‘I never knew Doris,’ admits Tim Belknap, referring to his great aunt, Mrs G.W. Fleming, the art collector and New York socialite who made one of the earliest purchases of a Modigliani in the US, when she bought the artist’s Caryatide for just $70 in 1922 (the equivalent today of just under $1,000).
Born in 1949 — the year after Fleming’s death, Tim became captivated by the life of his aunt, which he glimpsed through letters, diary entries, and public records. ‘I learned a lot about her personality from this research, and built up a picture of the kind of woman she was,’ he says.
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The story Tim discovered was one of an intelligent, adventurous, if occasionally troubled woman: ‘She grew up in very privileged circumstances — becoming more privileged still when she married a multimillionaire coal baron in 1905.’
The couple moved into a penthouse apartment in the heart of New York’s cultural district, where their neighbours included successful writers, artists, and trustees of the Metropolitan museum.
George and Doris Fleming. They had no children. He was the son of an ex-governor of West Virginia and, through nepotism, became a coal baron with offices on Wall Street. George did not encourage Doris’s art collecting or her own art endeavours, according to her statements in her Reno divorce file
Their marriage, however, grew increasingly unhappy: ‘Her husband, it seems, became gradually more detached,’ says Belknap. In 1930, the couple would divorce. An intermittent nervous disorder would plague Doris throughout her life and, though surrounded by a loving family, at the time, the condition was poorly understood.
Travel — and particularly art — became happy forms of escape: ‘She loved art, and had a very good eye for it,’ explains Belknap. ‘From her home in Park Avenue, she could walk to New York’s galleries. Even if she shows up in a lot of society items from the time, that wasn’t where her heart was — it was with the world of art.’
The interest was one first begun in childhood: ‘Doris grew up going to art galleries, Broadway shows and the opera. It was a very cultured family. My grandmother had terrific taste, and Doris’s other sister, Gertrude, was one of the earliest curators at The Cleveland Museum of Art.’
‘She particularly loved bold, graphic pieces, and started buying works by the Impressionists’
Journeys to Europe informed this love: ‘She regularly went to Europe, as did her sisters, not just for a week or two, but for a whole season,’ Belknap explains. Increasingly, travel became the antidote to each new instance of anxiety: ‘She’d always had escapist tendencies, and typically, after one of these episodes, she’d jump on an a liner and go away to the continent.’
Artistically, the influence of these journeys was profound, shaping Doris’s knowledge of European schools, and introducing her to artists whose work was yet to make it to New York. ‘She particularly loved bold, graphic pieces, and started buying works by the Impressionists,’ Belknap explains, fondly remembering an early purchase of an etching by Mary Cassatt — ‘ a beautiful, very graphic piece that showed two girls doing their nightly homework.’
Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Caryatide. Gouache, watercolour and blue wax crayon on paper, with the inscription ‘Modigliani’ (lower left). This work was offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Works on Paper Day Sale on 3 February 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £206,500
The art world she discovered upon returning to New York looked decidedly different: ‘Modern art didn’t really come to the city until the 1913 Armory Show — its dirty little secret being that, despite the publicity that surrounded the event, sales weren’t all that terrific,’ says Belknap.
In 1920, however, the first wave of galleries dedicated to modern art began to open, with Doris — whose apartment was a convenient stone’s throw away — quickly becoming a regular among the avant-garde crowds they attracted.
Described by press of the period as ‘a rallying place for free thinkers,’ The New Gallery was among the first to celebrate this new European style of artistic production. Founded by James Rosenberg — one of the most successful bankruptcy lawyers in the US — the space sought to quash the ‘mystique’ around modern art, or as Belknap puts it: ‘He wanted to break all the boundaries.’
Doris became a member of The New Gallery’s founding committee — paying the standard membership fee of $100, which would count towards — and often cover — an initial purchase. Though avant-garde in attitude, the crowd here was inclusive: ‘Membership went all the way from industrialists to socialists and labour leaders,’ Belknap explains. ‘When it came to collectors, the concentration was much more on ideas and less on social status.’
But it was the nearby Brummer Gallery that was perhaps to have the most profound influence on Doris’s collection. Opened in 1914, the gallery was founded by Joseph Brummer — an experienced dealer, who moved to the city from Paris to escape the First World War.
Though he also represented American artists, Brummer shared Doris’s decidedly European outlook. In Paris, he had spent several years living near artist Amedeo Modigliani — befriending his dealer, Paul Guillaume, who famously bought and sold works by some of the most cutting-edge artists of the time — from Henri Matisse, to Constantin Brâncusi, Pablo Picasso and Giorgio de Chirico.
A review of the exhibit at which Doris purchased the Modigliani
The gallerist’s impact on the New York art scene was historic. His 1922 exhibition, Works by Artist of Modern French School, introduced a number of European artists to the US for the first time — including, notably, Modigliani, represented by four works, alongside pieces by Dérain, Utrillo, Pascin and Laurencin. Among them was Caryatide — a study of the standing female figures used as structural supports in classical architecture. The motif was one that utterly preoccupied Modigliani, his studies of the figures being among the most formally adventurous of his career.
Doris, it seemed, instantly recognised the significance of the work. Records, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reveal it was purchased just six days after the exhibition opened by one Mrs. G. W. Fleming for just $70 — one of the first works by Modigliani ever to be purchased in the US. The piece became central to a growing collection, which included works by Matisse and Maurice de Vlaminck.
‘My father loved it. At cocktail parties he would stand in front of it — a drink in one hand as his other traced its sweeping curves’
When Belknap began his research into his great aunt’s life, the story of the Modigliani’s origin had faded into obscurity. Indeed, it was a rather different story that first encouraged the former journalist to begin his research: a successful brewery owner, Belknap’s grandfather leased the family business to a gangster during prohibition — the beer transported to trucks through a network of hoses hidden in the sewers. ‘Eventually, the whole thing was discovered, and was a huge family scandal,’ he explains.
Each time Belknap dived into his family history, however, the Modigliani loomed back into view. ‘When I looked at Doris’s will it was front and centre; it was clear that she treasured it.’ Though his parents spoke little of its origin, Belknap recalls the work’s privileged place in his family home: ‘My father loved it, and I have an enduring memory of him at cocktail parties, standing in front of it — a drink in one hand as his other traced its sweeping curves.’
The work’s prominence suggested it was too important to ignore. Belknap began to carry out archival sweeps of New York’s oldest arts institutions, eventually stumbling upon a variant of Doris’s name, misspelled on an index card from The Brummer Gallery. The discovery led Belknap to the historic 1922 exhibition — the 14th work in the show listed as a Caryatide by Modigliani, in gouache, watercolour and blue wax crayon.
Art dealer David Nash. Having unframed the caryatid, he is uncovering a taped backing that would reveal the stamp as belonging to Modigliani’s dealer, Paul Guillaume, and the number, 14, that was assigned the work in the Brummer Galleries catalogue
A stamp — hidden for almost a century — confirmed the work’s provenance beyond doubt. ‘I consulted gallerist David Nash, who carefully disassembled the frame, taking out a knife to carefully scrape the backing away,’ recalls Belknap. ‘There, as if it had been done yesterday — on a perfectly white square of paper that had spent years hidden from sunlight — was Paul Guillaume’s stamp, and the number 14. When we found that, it was a Eureka moment — I felt pretty proud of myself.’
Additional consultation with Dr. Kenneth Wayne, one of America’s leading Modigliani experts, confirmed the significance of the piece in the artist’s oeuvre. ‘When we took the Modigliani to him, he loved it — in fact everyone, just like my father, has liked it a lot,’ adds Belknap, who says, though the time has come to pass the Modigliani on, he has enjoyed educating himself on it.
Main image at top, left: Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), Caryatide. Gouache, watercolour and blue wax crayon on paper, with the inscription ‘Modigliani’ (lower left). This work was offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Works on Paper Day Sale on 3 February 2016 at Christie’s in London and sold for £206,500. Top right: Doris Underhill Fleming (1876-1948)
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