Friday, 18 April 2014

Wertmüller in America

Wertmüller self-portrait
Nationalmuseum Stockholm
What was a world there must have seemed between the Court of Versailles and the streets of 18th-century Philadelphia!  Having worked for a while in Bordeaux, Adolf Ulrik Wertmüller fled the Revolution and in May 1794 arrived in the United States, complete with his paintings, among them his mythological masterpiece, Danaë and the Shower of Gold - beautiful, very nude and not at all to Quaker taste.  In following year Wertmüller unveiled to mixed reviews his portrait of George Washington, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In 1802 he married Elisabeth Henderson, grandaughter of Gustaf Hesselius, the foremost painter of the Swedish colony in Delaware, but his portrait-painting business never entirely flourished and the couple finally bought a farm a few miles downriver from Philadelphia where they spent the last years of their life. A year after his death, the contents of his studio were sold in Philadelphia on May 18, 1812, the earliest recorded catalogued public sale of works of art in America. 

Wertmüller's trials and tribulations at the hands of American customsmen and art connoisseurs are nicely brought to life in an article published after his death by his younger somewhat self-regarding colleague Rembrandt Peale:  


Dissatisfied with the unsettled state of Europe, Wertmuller came to Philadelphia, in the year 1795. He had been painter to the King of Sweden, and had gained some celebrity by Pictures of Poetical and Mythological subjects, his most recent one being a Danae.

Danaë and the Shower of Gold, now in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
Our custom-house then made no distinction in favor of the Arts, and Mr. Wertmuller found himself embarrassed by the excessive charges of duty on his Paintings. In this dilemma, he was advised to apply to my father and me, and we succeeded in getting him through, by the payment of duty on a low estimate, as I contended that his pictures, though highly valued by him, would not bring at auction more than five hundred dollars. Thus relieved, he procured lodgings, and commenced as a portrait painter. His large paintings, though highly finished, were not much admired, and he was chiefly employed in small portraits, for which he was better calculated, being near sighted; and in these his high finishing was better appreciated.

His Danae was admired by the few persons in Philadelphia that talked about painting; but nobody thought of purchasing it, partly repelled by the subject, which was abhorrent to their Quaker sentiments, and by the high price put upon it, as his masterpiece — having, with unmeasured time, lavished on it all the resources of his art. It was certainly a beautiful and brilliant painting.

Portrait of Washington, 1795
Metropolitan Museum
Ambitious of drawing himself into notice, he obtained the consent of Washington to sit for his portrait. It was, as usual, a highly elaborated painting, but dark in the coloring, and had a German aspect. It was but little admired, and soon ceased to be spoken of, or noticed in his room, where it hung between two open windows. When it disappeared there, I never heard where it had gone. It appears probable, however, that Washington took it and presented it to Mr. Oazenove of Geneva. It is, therefore, to be presumed that a portrait in the possession of Mr. Bogart, of Jamaica, Long Island (as I have heard), must be a copy of this portrait, which is now in the possession of Mr. O. A. Davis, a good engraving of which is prefixed to Irving's Life of Washington, where it can be seen, by those who are competent to judge, that there is some merit in the upper part of the face, but none of the character in the lower portion.
For several years Mr. Wertmuller made himself contented with little encouragement, being of simple and inexpensive habits ; but it was mortifying to see so good a painter employed as he was by William Hamilton of the Woodlands, in cleaning and repairing his collection of old paintings. It is not true that he copied the family portraits.

Being obliged to move, Mr. Wertmuller found it difficult to suit himself with a painting room, the custom here not being, as it is in Europe, to affix written notices of " Rooms to let." He, therefore, in the part of the city where he wished to locate himself, went from house to house to make inquiries. A large house in Cherry Street attracted his attention, as having a good exposure. It belonged to a widow lady of some wealth, who had no idea of letting lodgings ; but the interesting appearance of Mr. Wertmuller induced her to acquiesce, and he actually was received as a lodger and boarder in the widow's mansion, and a few years after, became her affectionate and grateful husband.

Self portrait and portrait of his wife,
Sold at Sotherby's New York 2007
Disgusted with the little taste for the Arts, as shown in the city, the mild and amiable artist retired with his wife to a farm which she owned near Chester, and devoted himself to agricultural pursuits; but the fame of his Danae arose, and pursued him in his retirement, and hundreds of persons who neglected the opportunity of seeing his picture in the city, flocked to the farm-house, much to the annoyance of the painter, but to the profit of a neighboring hotel, where the company put up their carriages and dined — thus paying dearly for a sight which they disregarded when it could be had for nothing — the perverseness of fashion !

One Saturday evening, I was surprised by a visit from Mr. Wertmuller, who called to say, that since the public were now determined to see his picture, he had brought it to town, placed it in Cherry Street, the house being unoccupied, and he had advertised it should be open on Monday morning. I went with him to see how it was arranged, and found the picture, in a whitewashed room, with five windows, all open, placed on two carpenter's trusses, in the centre, and kept erect by ropes across the room !  I proposed to Mr. W., that if he would send a carpenter and some green baize, I would make a better disposition of it. I found the carpenter ready and a roll of baize at my command. The picture was placed against the wall, near an end window, half open, all the other windows closed. Baize over the wall and on the floor, and a curtain so that the picture, first seen in a large mirror (which I borrowed) in the corner opposite, could only be approached in the proper direction, and seen at a proper distance, regulated by a bar. At ten o'clock, it was already, and the first visitor was Mr. Wertmuller himself, who was astonished and delighted. Taking my hand between both of his, he expressed his earnest thanks, saying, " My dear sir, I 'never saw my picture before!" It looked, indeed, beautiful, and attracted much company, which I promoted by writing some paragraphs for the papers. • » .
After the death of Mr. Wertmuller in 1812 the Danae increased in reputation, and bustling connoisseurs declared that no American painter could ever equal the beauty of its coloring. ; 'The imputation, being chiefly directed against me, stirred up my pride, and I painted a picture, the size 'of life, to compete with it, which 1 thought I had a right to do, as it could not injure the deceased artist. My painting'was the "Dream of Love" founded on a slight French engraving, but varied, and finished from Nature. At the sale of Westmullerr's effects, I bought most of his brushes and colors, a large collection of tracings and historical engravings, and bid for the Danae as high as fifteen hundred dollars ; but; :it was knocked down at fifty dollars more." I afterwards learned that the highest real bid was for William Hamilton, the artist's pseudo patron ; and that Mr. Dorsey, the auctioneer, seeing me so openly desirous of having it, was my competitor. A few days after he offered me the picture for 5,000. He was ignorant of my motive and plan. They were to exhibit my own painting and it together. Dorsey prepared to exhibit his picture to great advantage, and I hastened to display my "Dream of Love" in my own gallery. Our advertisements were together. Visitors came from his room to mine, and went from my room to his and I was satisfied with the result…

My picture gave me some reputation, and sufficient profit ; but, being sold a few' years after, it was destroyed by fire, from the carelessness of the exhibitor, in Broad Way. Wertmuller's Danae was bought by a company of five gentlemen at fifteen  dollars. Mr. James M'Murtrie, of Philadelphia, was one of them, in whose possession I last saw the picture, a few years ago. 


Rembrandt Peale, Reminiscences: Adolph Ulric Wertmuller, The Crayon, New York Vol. 2, No. 14, 3rd October 1855

Sotherby's auction catalogue for the portrait of Wertmüller and his wife, sold 8th June 2007.

"A 1795 sensation Is back In town".  Article on an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1987 for which the Danaë was borrowed from Stockholm (contains further details of Wertmüller's showing in Cherry Street)

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