MONTPELIER STATION — A 17th-century Dutch painting portraying the Greek god of shepherds is back in the presidential drawing room where it was displayed more than 150 years ago.
James Madison’s Montpelier unveiled a brightly-colored “Pan, Youths & Nymphs” in its original spot — just beyond the front door to the right of the fireplace — during the celebration March 16 of the 260th anniversary of the fourth president’s birth.
“There’s such a big difference between the print and original painting,” said Montpelier guide Bryan Hagen, the 7-foot-by-4-foot artwork rising behind him. “The colors are much more subtle. It’s just a richer painting all the way around. It’s nice to have it back here.”
The story of its return is almost as interesting as the creation itself.
The Montpelier curatorial team first saw the object listed in a 1830s document, “Oil Paintings at Montpelier,” naming the possessions of James Madison (1751-1836). A family member or an executor of the estate would have made the list soon after the president died, according to Grant Quertermous, assistant curator at Montpelier.
Next was found an 1846 newspaper article that described the work as “a very old painting representing a group of maidens surprised by Pan while playing in a grove.” The article said it hung over a mantel in First Lady Dolley Madison’s home in Lafayette Square in Washington, where she lived after her husband’s death.
A further investigation led to James McGuire, a Washington auctioneer and art collector who handled the estate sales of Dolley Madison (1768-1849) and her son, John Payne Todd (1792-1852). The Montpelier curatorial team contended mother and son were probably indebted to McGuire and that his descendants “inherited” Madison paintings that didn’t sell.
And in fact, the painting was listed in the 1888 auction catalog of McGuire’s own collection as “Pan and Figures” by an unidentified artist. Its dimensions matched the space in the Madison drawing room. Mention of “Pan” and his fair maidens was picked up next through in the archives of Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington and finally to a private collection in Charlottesville — just 30 miles from its original American home at Montpelier.
In November 2004, Sotheby’s in Amsterdam sold the painting — listed in the auction catalog as “Pan Presenting Grapes to a Party of Young Men and Women” — to a collector in Amsterdam for 31,200 Euros, about $44,000 by today’s exchange rate. Sotheby’s attributed the painting to Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) and studio.
Hot on its trail, the Montpelier curatorial team tracked the painting to Holland soon after it sold at auction. They located the new owner and the following year, Montpelier purchased “Pan,” returning it to the Virginia Piedmont.
“It was a great discovery,” Quertermous said. “It’s been even more exciting to hang it back in that space and to know that if James and Dolley walked into that drawing room today they would say, ‘Oh, there’s Pan, Youths, and Nymphs hanging to the right of the chimney.’”
John Payne Todd likely acquired the painting during one his trips to Europe, said Quertermous, as James and Dolley never traveled to the Old Country.
Van Honthorst was one of the most renowned 17th-century Dutch Caravaggist painters — that is, a follower of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610), said Anne Lenders, curator trainee at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Dutch Caravaggist painters were particularly active in Utrecht, van Honthorst’s native city, Lenders said.
“In the 1620s-1650s, Gerrit van Honthorst was one of the great Utrecht masters. His paintings are sought after and collected throughout the world,” she said in an email to the Culpeper Star-Exponent. “Many of his paintings now hang in museums all over the world,” including The Louvre in Paris and The National Gallery in London.
Van Honthorst is also known for his portraits of the Dutch Royal Family, Lenders said, naming “The merry violinist with wineglass” from 1623 as the most beautiful of his paintings on display at the Rijksmuseum. It is currently one of 400 artworks on show as part of the museum’s master pieces presentation.
As for “Pan, Youths & Nymphs,” Lenders said, “It is impossible to state with any certainty that Gerrit van Honthorst painted this picture.”
Originally attributed to the Dutch master in the late 1950s, “Pan” was cleaned and restored in the late 1980s and then “thoroughly examined by (the late) Professor Leonard Slatkes, who confirmed this opinion and dated the work to the late 1630s,” according to the Sotheby’s catalogue note for the painting.
Richard Judson, who wrote a book about the author, however, later opined “the paint surface … now bears no resemblance to Honthorst’s manner of painting,” while at the same time acknowledging “a connection with other compositions by the artist,” the Sotheby’s catalogue says. Further, “Van Honthorst’s work was much in demand and in the 1630s it was usual for him to delegate much of his output to his large workshop or studio. It may therefore be argued that the present work originates from the artist, but is finished for a large part by his studio,” the auction catalogue says.
When Montpelier acquired “Pan” about six years ago, it was in very good condition, said Quertermous, especially considering its age. It is the only original painting — so far — that belonged to the Madisons now hanging in the president’s home in Orange County.
Its subject demonstrates James Madison’s appreciation of classical themes, Quertermous said, noting other paintings that hung in the drawing room included a depiction of the Last Supper and portraits of fellow Virginians Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Mrs. Madison.
An 1846 description of the painting, found among the Madison papers, says this: “A maiden surprised by Pan while playing in a grove. Pan it seems has fallen in love with the handsomest one while the rest are quite merry at the idea of such a creature as he being susceptible to the tender passion.”
Art work served a varied purpose in Madison’s day, noted Peggy Seiter Vaughn, vice president of communications at Montpelier.
“People hung things on the wall for conversation pieces,” she said. “In Madison’s time, they didn’t have TV and radio. They put paintings around to spark conversation.”
“Pan,” it appears is continuing to do so.
Champion reports for the Star-Exponent in Culpeper.