Art, Catholicism, And Stillman (No Not That One)

If you’ve ever wondered how Whit Stillman so effortlessly conjures up the lives and social mores of the American bourgeoisie in his films, next month you’ll get the chance to see some of the splendid works in his family’s art collection come to auction – along with an unexpected connection to Catholic charity.

Sixteen works from the collection of the late Chauncey Devereaux Stillman (hereinafter “Mr. Stillman”), a cousin of the director’s father, will be auctioned by Christie’s this year. The sale will include paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, John Singer Sargent, and one of Gilbert Stuart’s famous portraits of Washington, among others. A highlight will be a painting by the American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, who was a personal friend of Mr. Stillman’s grandfather; he one of the first major collectors of her work. The paintings will be exhibited together during Classic Art Week in April at Christie’s New York; a first grouping will be sold in New York on April 27th, while the remaining group will be sold at Christie’s in London this Autumn.

Mr. Stillman had excellent taste, as one might expect. He came from one of the preeminent American banking families, which founded what eventually became CitiBank. A work from his collection, which had previously belonged to his father and grandfather, still retains the record for the most expensive Old Master painting ever sold in the United States. In 1989 the collector and philanthropist sold “The Halberdier” (c. 1530) by the Italian Mannerist painter Pontormo (shown below), to the J. Paul Getty Museum for $35.2 million.

The proceeds from the upcoming auctions will be used to benefit the charitable foundation established by Mr. Stillman back in the 1980’s. The foundation not only maintains his former country house in upstate New York, where these paintings are housed, but also works to encourage the preservation from development of agrarian communities. The charity additionally does work, interestingly enough, to encourage greater appreciation of Catholic intellectual life.

As the Wethersfield Institute describes on its website, it seeks “to promote a clear understanding of Catholic teaching and practice, and to explore the cultural and intellectual dimensions of the Catholic faith.  The Institute does so in practical ways that include seminars, colloquies and conferences especially as they pursue our goals on a scientific and scholarly level.” Among those who have presented papers at the Institute are names well-known to at least some of my readers, including Mary Ellen Bork, Deal Hudson, and Russell Kirk. There is even an annual Mass at St. Michael’s in New York every year, to pray for the repose of Mr. Stillman’s soul.

Mr. Stillman’s lovely obituary in Crisis by Father George Rutler, pastor of St. Michael’s, which describes Mr. Stillman and his appreciation of great Catholic art, may be found here. The fact that the late collector had an actual Murillo in his home chapel makes me unbelievably jealous – which I suppose is not the point, but there you are. I particularly appreciated the following remembrance from Fr. Rutler: “The last Mass he heard was in his Madison Avenue apartment, and his whispered request of me was that the sign of peace be omitted ‘because the butler finds it awkward.’”

There is no mention in the auction announcement as to why the paintings are being sold. However, this article about some financial troubles which the foundation suffered a few years ago, after control had been wrested away for a time from members of the Stillman family, may provide a clue. Now that members of the family are back at the reins, one assumes that needs must, in meeting the ongoing needs of the charity.

Hopefully, for the sake of the good work being done by Mr. Stillman’s foundation both in preserving his legacy and promoting Catholic intellectual life, the sale, while no doubt painful, will be a success.

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