DescriptionHenrietta Rae (British, 1859-1928)
Psyche before the throne of Venus, 1894
Oil on canvas
76-1/2 x 120 inches (194.3 x 304.8 cm)
Signed lower left: H. Rae
PROPERTY OF A TEXAS MUSEUM
George McCulloch (1848-1907), London, purchased in 1894 from the artist before it was exhibited at the Royal Academy;
His sale, Christie, Manson, Wood, London, May 23, 1913, lot 86, cat. p. 29 (auction stencil verso);
[with] Knoedler Gallery, New York, purchased outright or on behalf of the following from the above;
William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), purchased June 2, 1913 from the above who may have acted as his agent at the McCulloch sale;
Sale: "Art Objects & Furnishings from the William Randolph Hearst Collection," presented by Saks Fifth Avenue in cooperation with Gimbel Brothers, under the direction of Hammer Galleries, New York, 1941, no. 50-187;
Amon G. Carter (1879-1955), Fort Worth, Texas, purchased from the above through Gimbel's, March 31, 1941;
Fort Worth Club, Fort Worth, Texas, gift from the above;
Edward Maddox, Fort Worth, Texas, purchased from the above;
Gift from the above to the present owner, May 1969.
Royal Academy Exhibition, London, 1894, no. 564;
Doré Gallery, Liverpool, England, in "Exhibition of works by Mr. and Mrs. Normand," 1895;
"McCulloch Collection of Modern Art," in Royal Academy Winter Exhibition, London, 1909, no. 156 (numbered in chalk on reverse of stretcher).
Royal Academy Pictures 1894, London, p. v (Notes), p. 13 illustrated;
A. Fish, Henrietta Rae (Mrs. Ernest Normand), London, 1905, pp. 73-85, p. 75 illustrated;
Art Objects & Furnishings from the William Randolph Hearst Collection. Catalogue raisonné comprising illustrations of representative works together with comprehensive descriptions... Presented by Saks Fifth Avenue in cooperation with Gimbel Brothers, under the direction of Hammer Galleries, New York, 1941, (under English Paintings) p. 279, no. 50-187;
M. Clarke, Critical Voices. Women and Art Criticism in Britain 1880-1905, Ashgate, p. 98-9, p. 99 illustrated.
Psyche before the throne of Venus (1894) is the most ambitious mythological painting produced by Henrietta Rae (Mrs. Ernest Normand), one of the foremost women painters of late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The present auction is the first time in 76 years that the painting has been available for public sale.
Featuring fourteen full-length figures, and an exquisitely expansive landscape filled both with architectural and natural elements, Psyche before the throne of Venus took two years to complete. Rae began the work in 1892, and was both encouraged and criticized by her neighbor, painter Frederic, Lord Leighton, as well as by William Blake Richmond, who generously lent her his studio in which to paint it since hers was not large enough. While the painting was underway, Rae and her painter-husband Ernest Normand moved to a more spacious studio at Norwood in south London (perhaps also to get some distance from the neighbors), and there constructed a "glass house" specifically to accommodate Psyche's 10 foot by 6 foot dimensions. In the "glass house," a recent innovation that flooded the studio with light and enabled the artist to achieve high-keyed effects similar to French Impressionist plein-air painting, Rae finished Psyche. Such a commitment to this painting was a clear indication of its importance to Henrietta Rae, who in 1894 was at the height of her powers as the most prominent woman artist in the classical revival that dominated Britain at the end of the 19th century, and as the most important female painter of the nude in the pre-modern period. Rae's biographer Arthur Fish, writing in 1905 during the artist's lifetime and with her cooperation, noted that in many regards Psyche "was the most important work of Mrs. Normand's life."
Psyche before the throne of Venus represents a passage in William Morris's version of the nymph's story ("The Earthly Paradise: Story of Cupid and Psyche") that necessitated a cast of more than a dozen figures which Rae seems to have relished painting in a rich variety of elegant nude and semi-draped poses. As Fish wrote (pp. 80-1): "Mrs. Normand chose the prettiest of the myths for treatment. The story of Cupid and Psyche-with its beauty, pathos, and drama-is always fascinating...Psyche with many sufferings has searched in vain for her love, and had come by evil chance upon the Court of Venus. Hidden by the trees she watches the maidens of the Court at their sports when---
"from her lips unwitting came a moan,
She felt strong arms about her body thrown
And, blind with fear, was haled along till she
Saw floating by her faint eyes dizzily
That vision of the pearls and roses fresh,
The golden carpet and the rosy flesh.
Then, as in vain she strove to make some sound,
A sweet voice seemed to piece the air around
With bitter words; her doom rang in her ears,
She felt the misery that lacketh tears.
'Come hither, damsels, and the pearl behold
That hath no price. See now the thrice-tried gold
That all men worshipped, that a god would have
To be his bride! How like a wretched slave
She cowers down, and lacketh even voice
To plead her cause!'"
At its inaugural exhibition-London's Royal Academy exhibition of 1894-Psyche was awarded a "center" [displayed on the coveted centerline rather than high on the wall beyond eye-level] and was one of the featured works of the exhibition. Appreciations of Rae's triumph quickly appeared in the press. H.H. Spielman, writing for the Magazine of Art, effused, but not without sprinkling little daubs of chauvinism here and there, as was typical of the period, in spite of his admiration for her achievement: "Miss Henrietta Rae [she painted under her maiden name] contributes a large canvas of 'Psyche before the Throne of Venus' which is very remarkable in its conception and execution. This elaborate composition, full without being crowded, graceful in the drawing of its figures, dainty in its appreciation of feminine beauty, delicate in its tones and tints, is a work we hardly expected from a woman. But we instinctively feel that the painter has never quite grasped the greatness of this scene of classic mythology-the figures, with all their charm, are not inhabitants of Olympos, but denizens of an ungodly earth."
Indeed, although as a second-generation Victorian woman artist, Rae enjoyed, unlike her predecessors, access to Royal Academy Schools, and through her ambition was able to secure a solid reputation as a contemporary artist capable of making a living selling her work, she routinely had to contend with critical carping stemming from the fact she was a woman painter. Just before the Academy's 1894 exhibit opened, in fact, Rae's ebullient spirits about her monumental Psyche had been dampened by none other than Lord Leighton, Rae's former neighbor who was then President of the Royal Academy. Having lost sight of Psyche following its removal from his neighborhood before it was finished, Leighton, who worked in a vein very similar to Rae, had an unusually keen interest in examining it before the Academy show opened. Rae confided to her biographer Arthur Fish that despite Leighton's many praises of Psyche, his ultimate criticism was "that it had a tendency to prettiness of which he could not approve." Of course, this was an instance of "the pot calling the kettle black," since Leighton's own work could be said to suffer from the same affliction.
Fortunately for Rae, within moments of this critical flattening by Leighton, one of the most significant collectors of contemporary British painting, Scottish mining engineer George McCulloch, appeared in front of Psyche. He had seen it once before, in progress, and had practically purchased it then. Now, seeing it in its completed state, he was enraptured, and asked the artist what the President of the Royal Academy had just said about her picture. Still reeling from disappointment, Rae recounted Leighton's comments. McCulloch immediately purchased the painting for the impressive sum of £1,000 plus £200 for the copyright. He also engaged the firm of Arthur Tooth & Sons to publish a large photogravure of the painting, which served to make it more widely known.
Rae's Psyche before the throne of Venus has had six owners during its 123-year history, and the first three could easily be classified as "celebrity collectors." The aforementioned George McCulloch was a voracious collector of top examples of British painting, which he had been able to afford through his lucrative mining interests in Australia. Following his death, in 1913, his collection was sold through Christie's in London, where it attracted worldwide attention owing to its quality. An even more rapacious collector--the American newspaperman and master of "yellow journalism" William Randolph Hearst--bought it from McCulloch's sale and shipped it back to the United States. He owned it for 28 years, until he was forced to sell it together a large portion of his collection to pay off creditors in 1941. When Hearst sold Psyche with the assistance of Hammer Galleries in New York in 1941, it was through retail settings at Gimbel Brothers and Saks Fifth Avenue department stores rather than auction. Amon G. Carter of Fort Worth, Texas purchased Psyche from Gimbel's on March 31, 1941. Whether this noted collector of American art ever kept the work in his own collection--particularly given his avoidance of nudes in art in his eponymous museum--is unknown. However, he donated the work to the Fort Worth Club, where it was displayed into the 1960s.
As scholar Margaret Clarke has recently noted, Rae was an established artist who was nonetheless navigating a culture that was still fraught with profound challenges from entrenched chauvinism. She notes that Rae's choice to feature the female nude was an artistic power strategy, since the female nude was the non plus ultra of academic painting. Rae herself recorded an episode that provides a perfect summary of the trials of her time as well as her own resilience:
"The men who used to come in [to my studio] used to make me feel as though I could not do anything. There was one in particular who used to find very great fault and upon one occasion he surpassed himself by walking up to one of my pictures just finished and saying that the background was not dark enough to show up the flesh tints. "You should have cobalt blue close against it," said he, and with that he dipped his large thumb into the cobalt blue and drew a great line with it all round the edge of my beautiful figure that I had to clear out again the next day." When asked if she was furious she replied, "Oh! I should think I was, but could not say anything, because he was a great man or thought he was and was being so kind, or pretending to be, but I will tell you what I did. I put his new hat in the stove, by accident of course."
A preparatory oil sketch for Psyche before the throne of Venus was sold through Sotheby's London, July 15, 2015.
We are grateful to Mary L. Levkoff, Museum Director of the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, and to Victoria Kastner, official historian of Hearst Castle, for their kind assistance in sorting out the Hearst provenance for Henrietta Rae's painting. Hearst's inventory records show that Knoedler Gallery purchased the painting from the McCulloch sale in London on May 30, 1913, and then Hearst purchased the painting from Knoedler on June 2, 1913. The short turnaround between the date of the McCulloch auction and Hearst's purchase suggests that Knoedler was either bidding on Hearst's behalf or that Knoedler bought the painting outright at the auction and then resold it to Hearst immediately afterwards. They also confirm that Hearst never shipped the painting to California.
Lined canvas. Bears Christie's stencil 617CD on upper stretcher bar. Stretcher bars are original. The lined canvas exhibits minor craquelure, commensurate with age, in the central composition. The paint layer of the central composition is stable and intact. Along the edges of the large canvas, there is more significant craquelure, resulting in some scattered lifting and paint loss, doubtless resulting from gravity's exertion on the large expanse of canvas over time. (Chips/losses along edges include: 1" x .75" chip on upper-left edge; small chip along top edge, left of center; 1" x .5" chip along right central edge, surrounded by several tiny chips; four small chips in lower-right corner; several small paint chips along bottom edge, left of center.) In addition, there is a small chip in gown of the second woman from left; emerging from this chip is a 24" linear vertical abrasion, running along her gown to her foot. Under UV light, there is intermittent in-painting along the edges, most notably in the upper-left corner and along this edge, likely to address frame abrasion. There are scattered minor areas of in-paint within the figures on the left (1.75" x 1" area on right shoulder of fourth woman from left (leaning on Venus's chair); 1" x .5" area on torso of Venus, and a spot on her right leg; 1" x 1" area on torso of Sphinx; on the figure seated on the stairs, scattered in-painting in her gown near her foot and on the adjacent lavender drapery. On Psyche, there is a reverse U-shaped line of in-painting, roughly 40" x 10", running from the step beneath her, through her hip, and around to her left foot. Minor in-painting is visible on the fourth figure from the right, above her tambourine. The painting, whose varnish has yellowed slightly, could benefit from light cleaning.
*Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.
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