The Disappearing Emperor: A Remarkable Art Discovery In Suburbia

If you’re fairly well-to-do, you may have a decent-sized art collection. If you’re *very* well-to-do however, not only do you have a rather significant art collection, but you tend to give parts of it away – and forget to document that you’ve done so. This appears to be the case with the rediscovery of a significant work of art by (arguably) the most famous of all French sculptors, depicting one of the most famous figures in the history of France, in, of all places, a borough hall in north-central New Jersey.

Work

The Hartley Dodge Memorial Building in Madison has for many years served as the town hall for residents of the Borough of Madison, New Jersey. It was a gift from Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge in honor of her son Hartley who, along with his parents (scions of the Dodge and Rockefeller dynasties), was a resident of the Borough. Hartley was killed in a car accident in France in 1930, shortly after he graduated from Princeton, and appears to have been something like a character out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The tragic irony of his death lies in the fact that his mother had sent him to France on an extended vacation to try to get him away from a new hobby he was pursuing, i.e., learning to fly airplanes, because she felt that this was too dangerous a pastime.

For understandable reasons, Mrs. Dodge wanted this building named for her late son to not only be beautiful – which it certainly is, as you can see in these images of its newly-restored grandeur – but to have only the best of everything. As a result, not only did she create a grand and elegant architectural masterpiece where one would hardly expect to find such a structure, but she also brought in a number of appropriately grand and elegant works of art, in order to decorate the walls and rooms of the building.

Strangely enough, despite their significance, both she and local officials forgot to properly document what exactly it was that she had given them to display, and as time passed, the identification of these objects was forgotten.

It turns out that one such forgotten work donated by Mrs. Dodge was a sculpture by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). The piece, titled “Napoleon Enveloppé Dans Ses Réves” (“Napoleon Wrapped In His Dreams”), is a life-sized marble bust of the diminutive French Emperor. Here we can see an image of Rodin himself, posing with the work in question:

Rodin

In this piece, Rodin shows a somewhat tired and pensive Napoleon, wrapped in his military cloak and indeed his own thoughts. The artist has idealized Napoleon’s features to some extent, particularly the nose, which seems to lack the projecting tip that one normally sees in contemporary representations of Bonaparte. Compare, for example, the Rodin to this copy in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of one of the many busts that the Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822) made of Napoleon during the Emperor’s lifetime.

Interestingly enough, before its move to suburbia this Rodin was, for many years, on display to the public at The Met. Mrs. Dodge acquired the piece from the estate of another Gilded Age oligarch, Thomas Fortune Ryan, who had not only paid Rodin to complete the work, but also lent it to The Met for an extended period of time. It was removed from view following Ryan’s death in 1928, and Mrs. Dodge acquired it a few years later. [N.B. Ryan, incidentally, built my second-favorite church in New York, St. Jean Baptiste, as well as several buildings at my alma mater, Georgetown.]

Baptiste

For over seven decades then, the bust sat on a plinth in the Madison Borough Council Chamber, where few if any visitors suspected that they were looking at a significant work of art by the artist generally regarded as the father of Modern sculpture. Then during Christmas break in 2014-15, Madison hired then-graduate student Mallory Mortillaro to go through the art collection and create a catalogue of the borough’s holdings. She was immediately struck by the piece, noting that the story of how it came into the possession of the borough made her suspect that it was of greater significance than anyone knew at the time. “I mean, this is Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge,” she explained to The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I knew we weren’t dealing with random bits from somebody’s attic.”

Room

Perhaps the pièce de résistance in this story came when Ms. Mortillaro reached out to the Rodin Museum in Paris and, some months later, that museum sent Jérôme Le Blay, a well-known French art expert who is an expert in the authentication of 19th and 20th century French art, particularly that of Rodin. As Janet Foster, a trustee of the Hartley Memorial, recounted, “[Le Blay] walked in and saw the bust and said, ‘Oh! There you are!,’ ” Foster recalled. ” ‘I wondered what happened to you.’ ” It turned out that the Rodin Museum in Paris had a plaster cast of the Napoleon bust in its own collection, but never knew whether Rodin had actually completed the sculpture or, if he had, what had become of it.

Fortunately for art lovers, the newly rediscovered Rodin will not be staying in suburban New Jersey. In fact, it’s now headed to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it will be displayed on extended long-term loan alongside other Rodin sculptures in that Museum’s collection, just in time to mark the centenary of the artist’s death on November 17, 1917. One can imagine that, this time at least, no one is going to lose track of it.

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