NEW YORK, NY.-
As a viewer, we often look at the subject of a painting to engage us. Maybe we look at the technique in which the paint is applied by the artist, the use of color or brush strokes. Sometimes the life of the artist becomes a particularly intriguing point, but occasionally one comes across a picture in which the life of the painting itself exceeds that of the artist, subject or style. This is one of those paintings.
James Northcote was known as a painter of portraits and in particular excelled at childrens portraits. He also painted historical, genre and animal scenes. In 1771 he came to London from Plymouth and entered the Royal Academy Schools. He worked as an assistant to Joshua Reynolds from 1771 1775. From 1777 1780 he was in Rome studying where he formed a deep appreciation for Correggio, the Italian Mannerists and the Roman Baroque. By 1781 he had permanently settled in London and had become a Royal Academician by 1787, painting and signing our picture in 1796.
Its unknown when this charming painting entitled Portrait of Master Semon with a Spaniel entered the stock of one of the most significant, well-known art dealers in the world, Arnold Seligmann. Arnold Seligmann & Cie was a Parisian art and antiquities dealership located in the Place Vendôme. The gallery was established in 1932 after a falling out with his brother Jacques, who had established the original gallery in 1880. By the mid 1930s, both establishments were among the most prominent dealers in the world, but unfortunately things would not stay so blissful.
By June 1940, the Nazis had fully occupied Paris and were on an active shopping spree to fill the Führers planned museum in Linz and Hermann Görings private collection, giving orders to loot any art or objects they deemed fit. Given that Seligmann was a very renowned art dealer, naturally he was a perfect target for this sweeping pillaging that was taking place. In July 1940, the German Ambassador to France oversaw a series of seizures including at the Seligmann Gallery. Everything was taken, and the family later burned all the records to ensure the Nazis had no information.
After being in the hands of the German Ambassador, who had great plans of his own for the art he had stolen (including the Northcote), the booty was then confiscated by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). The creation of the ERR was a direct result of the professed ideological objective of the Reich leadership to study Jewish life and, in particular, Jewish culture. The original proposal was to collect archives and books to create an institution devoted to anti-Jewish studies. However, by October 1940, at the insistence of Hermann Göring, the ERR quickly morphed into a greed machine for Nazi plunder of any and all works of artnot only paintings and works on paper, but also antique furniture, carpets, tapestries, objects dart, and antiquities.
Our Northcote painting, along with hundreds of other works, which were at the German Embassy, were moved first to several rooms in the Louvre, but space there was too limited. By the end of October, the ERR set up shop for processing at the Jeu de Paume. Here items were inventoried, photographed, and assigned unique ERR alphanumeric codes reflecting the collection owners name. The Northcote was coded Sel. 5 which is still visible today on its stretcher and reverse of the frame.
During the next four years, until early August 1944, the ERR seized over 200 private Jewish collections in France and Belgium, with other Nazi organizations looting art in other parts of Europe, and dispatched many of the contents to special ERR art repositories in Bavaria and Austria. Most of the earliest art shipments from Paris went to the main ERR art repository in the legendary Bavarian castle of Neuschwanstein, but some of the most valuable art first sent to Neuschwanstein was transferred to the salt mines above Altaussee in near-by Austria, where the ERR was allotted a special storage area. At some point the Northcote was transported from the Jeu de Paume to its next recorded location in the mines above Altaussee.
As the Nazis were beginning to accept their fate, they went into full destruction mode. Hitler gave the so-called Nero Decree- instructing the Germans to destroy all infrastructure- a scorched earth plan to ensure the Allies were left with nothing. Taking those orders to heart, Nazi Gauleiter August Eigruber had plans to blow up the mines at Altaussee, transporting eight 500 kg bombs into the tunnels disguised as crated marble sculptures. His plans, however, were thwarted by a combination of local miners wanting to save their livelihood and Nazi officials who considered Eigrubers plan idiocy, according to books by Robert Edsel and Lynn Nicholas. On the night of May 3-4, 1945, it was possible to remove the embedded bombs from the mine. To bluff Gauleiter Eigruber and to prevent further access to the treasures, the major entrances into the mine were blown up. After the occupation of Altaussee on May 8, 1945 by an American infantry unit, the art depot was seized by the U.S. Army (Monuments Men). The entrances were opened again and the rescue work began. Our Portrait of Master Semon with a Spaniel was saved, along with 1000s of other works including Hubert and Jan van Eycks Ghent Altarpiece, Michelangelos Bruges Madonna as well as Vermeers The Art of Painting and The Astronomer.
In early June of that year, the artworks were slowly brought to the Central Art Collecting Point in Munich and by June 20, 1945, the Northcotes history and details had been catalogued on a Property Card Art and given the Munich number 216/1. The painting remained at the Collecting Point until July 11, 1946, when it was sent back to France and ultimately restituted to the Seligmann family. Arnold Seligmann had returned from exile in New York to Paris in the summer of 1945, but sadly died a few weeks later. The Northcote is next recorded as being sold at auction in Paris in January 1951. It eventually became part of a private collection in Louisville, Kentucky, and then was given to a non-profit institution in Louisville from which it was deaccessioned in 2020, its past unknown.
So, now this charming 18th century portrait of a boy and his dog is looking for its new home. Having travelled through some of the darkest days in our history, its nothing short of miraculous that it, with some many other pieces of culture emerged unscathed. Helping to tell a story of loss and redemption, this painting has lived what feels like a thousand lives, and clearly has more to tell. Art can move us in so many ways, but to look in this little boys eyes and think about what he has seen, that is definitely one of the many reasons that art is history and history is art.
To read a more detailed account of the life of this painting, click here