Skip to main content

The Raphael From Russia

ISSUE:  Winter 1936

Everyone knows the remark of John Adams that he wouldn’t give five cents for the finest Michelangelo or Raphael; but not everyone knows the comment made on it a half century later, by William Morris Hunt. That admirable painter, to whom Boston owes so much of its strength in the arts, was also a good talker, and his sayings are still repeated in the studios. I am not sure whether this one has got into print before, but even if it has, it applies so aptly to a problem facing us that it will stand printing again.

“You know, about that Raphael business, I think people have always been unjust to President Adams,” said his fellow citizen of Massachusetts. “They let on that his remark expressed his idea of the value of art. Why wasn’t it expressing his idea of the value of five cents?” Let us not get involved in that piece of Yankee subtlety, but ask ourselves, in view of recent circumstances, what the value of a Raphael is for us, and not simply a Raphael but the one which many a lover of the master would call the most perfect of his madonnas—the one which bears the name of the Alba family, from the great line of Spanish dukes who were its possessors before Czar Nicholas I of Russia acquired it in 1836,

August of 1934 brought a statement from the Associated Press that the Soviet authorities had sold it for a million and a half dollars to Mr. Andrew W. Mellon, That collector already had one Raphael, for which he is said to have paid nine hundred thousand dollars; and the report, a couple of years ago, that he had bought several great works from the old Imperial gallery of the Hermitage was so generally accepted that when this latest news of his purchases appeared, Governor Pinchot of Pennsylvania felt called upon to make an adverse comment on the spending of vast sums for art at a time when money is so urgently needed for the relief of people in actual distress. The reprimand brought forth a disclaimer, “from Pittsburgh,” of any notification that the former Secretary of the Treasury had the masterpiece to his credit—or discredit. And in those last words we have our problem, letting the financier of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover days settle it with old John Adams whether the American revolutionaries or the Russian revolutionaries were closer to knowing the right price for a Raphael,—for an income tax investigation last spring revealed the fact that he had indeed paid over a million dollars for the picture.

On the old American basis of “Not one cent for tribute, millions for defence,” Governor Pinchot would be right in condemning the purchase altogether. And as we are told that the present measures of relief for the needy must be carried on in some form into even prosperous periods, the time to buy a Raphael for a million would be just—never. Aside from the depression phase of the matter, however, assuming that money again loses its purchasing power, as it was doing for so long a time before the crash, what about the tribute and defence question from the standpoint of American art? Wouldn’t William Morris Hunt have been making a really solid argument in favor of John Adams if he had said that our forbears of the early American days were wise to get their pictures from Copley and Stuart instead of from Michelangelo and Raphael? Whether President Adams thought the matter out so far or not, the strongest and proudest explanation of his words would make them say that we don’t want to buy ancestors, we want to be ancestors.

That formula (original with myself) sounds so good that it may seem difficult to combat. None the less, I believe it contains a serious fault of logic. We are not buying ancestors when we acquire masterpieces; we are getting nourishment which may well insure us a steady line of descendants.

And those early Americans, fine as they are, are proved by the history of our art (and by that of their English cousins) to be of a stock whose inspiration soon needed renewing from richer sources.

Before dealing further with our side of the Raphael problem, it will be interesting to glance at it from the standpoint of the Russians, who have sold the picture. They alone know how far they have gone in despoiling of their art works the national treasuries which had been enriching themselves for centuries. The old czars were lavish buyers, as is attested by the forty-two Rembrandts in the Hermitage alone. Scarcely behind them were the nobility of Russia, from whose collections came many of the pictures in the imperial gallery, while their own palaces still housed magnificent things, until the Soviets declared them national property.

Some years ago, when an English commission went to Russia to inform itself as to the care of art treasures by the Soviets, the report was completely reassuring to those who feared that the Revolution might not watch closely enough over museums having importance for the whole world. One detail seemed especially eloquent of the country’s attitude. A former millionaire of Moscow, one of the greatest collectors of modern art in Russia, had been made director of the museum composed of works which had been nationalized— those of his own and of other galleries. He said he had only one worry—that of preventing the pictures from being carried off to other cities of the union. In the provinces the new idea of tyranny was that the capital should be allowed to keep the great modern works for itself. And suddenly, in recent months, I came on one of those same modern canvases—a van Gogh of the most prodigious quality—in the house of a New York art-lover.

Not only paintings, but sculptures, enamels, and other works have been sold by the Soviets—so ably sold, as was told me by the dealer chiefly concerned with this part of the dispersal, that his profits were merely nominal. “They know the full history of the sales of such things—that a similar piece brought such and such a sum at an auction in London, that the Louvre paid so and so much for an object inferior to this one. Buying from people like that, how can I sell for higher prices, with the state of the world what it is today? I can’t wait the ten years or so that will make the figures of this depression time seem absurdly low.”

I do not know how the Soviets will defend their trusteeship of the national heritage, but I can give the words of one who spoke of the issue at first hand. When the Metropolitan Museum put on view those two miraculous little pictures by Van Eyck, which it had obtained from the Hermitage, announcement of the event in the morning paper brought such a number of visitors to the museum, that later in the day it was necessary to stand in line for twenty minutes before one came abreast of the works for a brief view of them. For weeks afterward one had to wait one’s turn to see them—their small size and incredible finish, be it said however, prevented more than two persons from enjoying them at a time.

“Have you seen them?” I asked Diego Rivera. He paused for a moment in his painting on the frescoes at the New Worker’s School and then, tranquilly resuming the rhythm of his brush, answered: “Not only have I seen them, but I helped to send them over here. I was in Moscow when the question arose of selling works of art from the public galleries. I was consulted about it, and I spoke strongly in favor of the idea. Here are my reasons. In the first place, from the purely Communist standpoint, it is our duty to share with others. The Russian museum had some six Van Eycks, the American museum had none: I considered that it would have been wrong to prevent a great city that wanted these works from obtaining them.

“Then, if the Revolution succeeds throughout the world, people will be able to travel about so freely that any Russian student who needs to see those Van Eycks will be able to go and consult them in New York, just as Americans will go to Europe for whatever studies they want to make. If the Revolution fails, nothing matters anyhow—and we, for our part, will have done our duty in supplying it with the sums that could be the very ones needed to carry it through a crisis.

“Finally, though you know what pleasure I derive from the works of the Old Masters, I do not think, any more than you do, that the world can live on its past. The Revolution must produce its own art. The world of today is different from the world of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and only modern art can give it the sustenance of which it has such urgent need, a physical need, in the same sense that bread is one; for if bread restores certain bodily tissues that wear out from use, art restores certain tissues of the brain, and in a manner that nothing else can.”

I hope that scientists will furnish verification for that last statement of Rivera’s, which no one, to my knowledge, has ever made before, and which offers one of the best reasons for our faith in the importance of art. No artist needs more than his instinct to tell him of the greatness of his calling, but there is still a notion among the vast majority of people that art is a luxury, an agreeable possession for the rich, but not the fundamental necessity for all human beings which Rivera’s diagnosis affirms it to be—and correctly.

The painter’s logic, which has a persuasive quality habitual in his discussion of things, might be adopted intact by the Russians in their difficult task of justifying the dispersal of the national collections. Let us note in passing that their policy is the reverse of the one followed by peoples far richer in art. The two greatest museums in Europe, the Louvre and the National Gallery, are still buying, sometimes for very high prices, and the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, already possessing the finest group of Dutch pictures in the world, purchased the two Vermeers of the Six Collection some years ago, paying a great sum for them rather than take a chance of their being lost to Holland. Among other examples of solicitude for the art treasures of a country, one might recall Italy’s recent purchase of the Giorgione Madonna from Prince Giovannelli; the refusal by the Greek government of a simply fabulous, unheard of sum for the Hermes of Praxiteles; and the drastic restrictions on foreign excavations imposed by the Egyptian government.

But if posterity decides that Russia’s present need, together with a vision of a communistic world in the future, make it right for the Soviets to sell their paintings, there is still our side of the matter to decide on. What price can we afford to pay for that Raphael? Or can we afford it at any figure? From a business man’s standpoint—considering supply and demand, quality, reputation, and rarity—the price quoted, as enormous as it may seem, is a perfectly fair one. Since we can take care of our unemployed, and since we have confidence in our ability to reach a better state of economic health, there is money to spare even now. Germany, a few years ago, when her finances were at a low ebb, bought a great Greek statue. England today, with problems perhaps graver than our own, has purchased a manuscript for the British Museum and, during this depression time, is paying an absolutely huge sum for it out of public money. The buying of the Alba Madonna is a different matter, for the price of it comes from a private collector whose legal right to dispose of his fortune is unquestioned. No, the one point debatable is that of the desirability of the picture as a thing affecting our art and our thought.

We get back to Michelangelo and Raphael versus Copley and Stuart. Not even the wildest nationalist among us would claim that the two Americans of the early days (and still among our very best painters) are the equals of the two Italians in merit as artists. But since we ask about the

*Sincc this essay was put into type, Mr. Pach writes that, the administration of the Fine Arts Department of Russia having been changed, a reversal of policy has gone into effect, and the government has not only ceased to sell works of art, but is making vigorous efforts to buy back the ones it had let go.—The Editors. value of the Raphael, why not ask about the value of a Copley—that is to say, the value for us, which is the one point at issue. Or, a still more urgent decision to make (once we concede that great sums may be advantageously spent on art) is whether the best use of that million and a half would not have been in buying the work of living American artists. Let us go even further and multiply the price of the Alba Madonna enough times to cover American expenditures for old masters and works by modern Europeans during the last fifty years: the figure reached would be a staggering one. Suppose our millionaires and museums had voted the other way and applied that mighty sum entirely to the purchase of painting and sculpture by our own artists. I will risk the undying wrath of my fellow professionals by saying that they, or let us say American art in general, would be less well off than it is, if that had been done.

It goes without saying that the artist must live. What is hard to imagine is how he is to live until the day when his work has genuine value for purchasers. That is usually so far past the time when his parents can support him that he is forced to go in for some sort of “commercial art”—which is almost necessarily fatal, as things are nowadays. And— also under present conditions—no one could drejam of spending the great art fund we have imagined on a horde of immature aspirants—even if we assume all of them to be of genuine talent.

Perhaps a new world will see a way to let them live and do their work as part of a governmental programme—like that for education. A start has been made in that direction by Mexico and by Russia, and it is heartening for Americans to know that the Roosevelt Administration is awake to the realities of art in our country—both in the matter of accomplishment and of need. The great sums voted for art projects as part of the New Deal are not merely relief measures, but signs of a growing consciousness that good painting and sculpture are so desirable that the community as a whole should support them. It is to the government that many artists now look for physical sustenance. Moral support and aesthetic guidance come from the museum, which is not to be thought of as a soup kitchen for needy artists, even during the years when they most require help.

When we spoke, just before, of American art as more or less well off, when we spoke of commercial work as fatal, we were considering the desire of sincere men to do the thing they believe in. It is they alone who can give the country the expression to which it is entitled, and the deciding factor in every question of policy must be what it involves of help or hindrance in making our native talent fully effective.

Difficult as it is for the young artist to survive physically, few will deny that it is still more difficult for him to survive spiritually. Degas, who had seen plenty of poverty, was not thinking of material questions when he said, “It is not so hard to be a genius when you’re twenty years old—the thing is to be one when you are fifty,” And as to the burning question he raises, Baudelaire’s line that “Genius consists in working every day” can be kept out of the ridiculous only by a careful definition of the term “working.” A third quotation will tell what the poet surely meant. Leonardo, reproached by a priest for lack of diligence in carrying forward “The Last Supper,” answered, “I seem to you idle because I have not the brush in my hand, but often that is the time when I am working hardest—by thinking.”

It is the artist’s thinking, a thousand times more than his finances, that needs assistance in this country—and in other countries. It would be too cruel to list the names of American artists who gave great promise when they were young, who were not faced with insuperable hardships—and whose final results belied the hopes of their youth. The list would assume, also, a most grievous length; but my statement will be verified by anyone who will compare the earliest and the latest works of numbers of our well known men, particularly those who got their training abroad. In their beautiful student days, when the great galleries were frequently consulted, they had ideals such as the masters inspire. Their work showed it. What trace of these ideals is found in the production of their years in America? They blame the country if the work went wrong (supposing they know that it did), and countless well-meaning and generous persons here are puzzled or hurt by such words.

What was meant was not the .attitude of our public, but the turning away from the current of his thought in Europe that the artist has suffered through the lack of art here. Any shop window with a good picture in it in Paris (and the city has many thousand such windows) carried a painter back to his dominating idea. The presence around him of numbers of people actuated by his own purposes acted like a fire, where each coal glows if the ones around it are hot: take one out with the tongs, set it by itself on the hearthstone, and you will see how quickly its heat is gone.

The masterworks we have obtained through that art fund of ours are just so many hot coals that will permit our talents to burn with their full heat instead of cooling down, as we have seen the great majority of them do. Copley and Stuart? They went abroad and stayed there as soon and as long as they could—to be followed by one after another of our best men who, if they did not remain, like Whistler, for all the rest of their lives, returned again and again to the places where they found art living as an important member of the human family, instead of as a strange visitor, to be treated with befitting courtesy, when time permitted (as it usually did not).

And so, since the great Raphael really has been added to our holdings, its arrival is an event of national importance. Mr. Mellon has announced that his possessions will one day be made accessible to the public; but even while the picture remains enclosed in the walls of a private residence, something will emanate from it in fourth-dimensional escape—if only as newspaper talk and allusions, which will send people to the books to refresh their minds about the master, who is now nearer to them. Add to this the fact that it is a tradition here to lend such works to our expositions—like that one which drew some thirty million visitors, during two summers, to Chicago’s great display.

The mention of books will inevitably suggest an alternative to the spending of vast sums for originals. There are today reproductions of such remarkable quality that it sometimes seems to be mere snobbism to want the unique work that has been touched by the master’s hand. The reproductions are excellent to give a preparation for understanding and may be wisely used for that purpose in schools and even museums, but they can never replace originals. “Suppose the manuscript of ‘King Lear’ were suddenly to turn up—I suppose you’d say that was worth a million dollars too,” the argument would run, “whereas a perfectly accurate printing of the work from the text—as legible as fine type and paper could make it—permitting one to run along with all the swiftness of the thought and the imagery of the words, ought to sell for only a dollar or so.” Again a comparison is odious—in its power to mislead. The printing of the Shakespeare play from his own handwritten pages (no example of which has survived) would give us the invaluable certainty of knowing his work exactly as he wished it to be known. The possession of the manuscript would be a matter of pride, of sentiment, of prestige even—matters that are pretty deep-rooted in us, even when our intellect pitilessly shows up their weakness in logic.

But where the printer can follow a manuscript with such absolute exactitude that his work possesses all the authority of the original, that is never true in the case of paintings or even sculptures. Something is always left out, in reality: the procedure is not one of repetition, but of translation. Curiously enough, the very canvas we are considering is connected with a special instance, in my own experience, of the inadequacy of reproductions. An advertisement in the Paris papers stated that “the Alba Madonna” would be sold by auction at the Customs House, it having been confiscated because of an attempt to smuggle it into the country from Russia. The notice did not affirm that it was the great masterpiece from the Hermitage, but was so worded that one might think it that. The whole thing finally turned out to be a trick conceived by the owners of the picture, who did get several times its market price—out of which they very cheerfully paid the customs tax and the fine for not declaring the work at the frontier.

I tried to buy it, however, and should have been glad if I had succeeded, as it was a splendid thing—almost surely contemporary with the original, and quite possibly done under Raphael’s eyes, in the busy workshop from which so many school copies of his pictures went forth. Yet it was a canvas which no competent museum curator would hang on his walls as a work by the master: with all the advantages of a thorough knowledge of the methods that produced the original, with the same materials (which photographic reproductions lack), with the patina of the same centuries to give the tone of age, the work at the Paris Customs House told clearly that it was not the real Alba Madonna that had come from Russia this time.

The difference was one which only experts could see, do you object? I will admit that doubt can exist for a while, exactly as one may be in doubt whether a man one sees lying in a field is alive or a dead body. But once the fact of the matter is ascertained, the difference—either in the case of the man or the picture—is the most fundamental, the most heavily fraught with consequences, of all that can exist.

Now I’m talking metaphysics, you say. I am to be sure, and by definition. We spoke of the price of the picture, and that, like the wages of a man, is a matter of economics. But when one speaks of the life of the man or the art of the picture, the two things (very nearly the same thing) are beyond our ability to explain by reference to physical properties.

The life of men and the life of art-works is never produced by scientific processes, or even by use of the subtlest and truest principles handed on by teachers. It comes into existence by the contact of a generating body with one in a condition to receive a fertilizing communication. A striking proof of this results from three works which have most happily been preserved for us. One of them again is a Raphael, his portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, now in the Louvre. It was sold at auction at Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, and so impressed Rembrandt that he quickly made a drawing of it, which, in turn, furnished the design for one of the greatest of his own etchings. A man so profoundly original that his name has given to all languages a word for certain of the most impressive effects in nature, Rembrandt derived the technical means of his art from earlier masters, just as he took from the life around him the sense of tragedy which characterizes his painting. Both the technical means and the idea are indispensable to painters and sculptors; and it is this fact that people forget when they say that America has everything needed to produce its art. We have the instinct for it, we have the subjects—men and women, a splendid activity, cities and landscape. But such things, unless put to the use which the experience of centuries indicates as the proper use for artists, result in photography or illustration, which are our chief output in the way of pictures.

It was tempting, for a moment, to agree that the money we have spent on foreign works might better be used for our own people; in no country—strange as this will seem— is the problem of existence more difficult for the artist who wants to do sincere work. It was likewise tempting to agree with Rivera about modern art, the possession of which as a living force is indeed incomparably preferable to the possession of a Van Eyck or a Raphael. But both arguments, as much of Tightness as they contain, had to be resisted. It is precisely because we want American art that I put its spiritual needs above its material needs. And it is precisely because modern art alone can express and guide the life of the modern world that I must decline to support a thesis which appears, at least, to ignore the role of the past in the creation of the present and the future; we can accept nothing less than the surest of foundations for our work.

To be concrete: we are in a period when ideas, and therefore art, are once more taking new directions. When people speak of modern art they usually have in mind the forms evolved by men like Matisse and Picasso some twenty years ago. In the hands of those two admirable painters today, the forms are still vital, just as, at the time when they were evolved, the older conceptions, of men like Renoir or Redon, were producing masterpieces in their studios. But the modern time, more than any other that one can discern, illustrates the truth of Blake’s proverb, “Expect poison from standing water.” Renoir and Redon, in their day, as Matisse and Picasso later on, knew that stagnation means decadence.

It still does, and the men of today cannot go on with the formulas, however courageous, brilliant, and fruitful, of the generation before them. Its “shaking its fist at the moon,” to use a phrase that Derain once let drop in conversation, was a necessary challenge to the conventionalism that stood ready to throttle the most daring investigation of the goals of art that Europe had made in centuries.

But the mark which distinguished men of talent before the Great War is no longer the means of recognizing them today. The aspiration of the younger artists has veered to another point of the compass. Not the line and color of the Near East, not the poignant expressiveness of a Greco is their keynote; something more calm and certain seems to be the ideal. It may well be that the circular form and movement of the Alba Madonna, the completeness and poise of Raphael—once more the “divine” artist when freed from his nineteenth-century parasites—tell of the nourishment demanded by our time in order to make its art truly modern.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading