William Sutherland, 18th Count of Sutherland by Allan Ramsay
by Olivier Meslay, Curator for British Art, Musée du Louvre.
The catalogue of the painter Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), definitively edited by the English art historian Alastair Smart, was published in 1999. This work, posthumously published after the author's death by John Ingamells, suggested a new identification of the model for this portrait, known until then as David Wemyss, Lord Elcho. In 1992, Smart convincingly identified the model as the 18th count of Sutherland (1735-1766). The latter was the son of Lady Elizabeth Wemyss, wife the 17th count of Sutherland, a fact that probably explains this old confusion.
Ramsay painted the portrait of William Sutherland in Rome, in 1755. One copy is still in Rome and belongs to the descendants of the count of Sutherland; the second is indeed at the Louvre. In 1763 the artist painted a third portrait of William Sutherland, this time full length and in a Scottish costume that belongs to descendants of the model and is now at Dunrobin castle. Ramsay's ties to the family of the counts of Sutherland were very close because, a few years earlier, he had also painted the portrait of the count's future wife.
Allan Ramsay was one of the greatest English portrait painters of the XVIII century. More international than Hogarth, he was the first British painter to overshadow such foreign competitors as Andrea Soldi and Jean Baptiste Van Loo, who still enjoyed great success in London. Of Scottish origin, he received an excellent education and his artistic formation took place in Italy, first of all with Imperiali, then with Solimena. He made a second trip to Italy from 1755 to 1757 and visited France several times. Having perfectly assimilated the lessons of French and Italian painting, Ramsay gave England for the first time the feeling of being able to compete with continental painters. He became King George III's official painter and his success was not eclipsed. The portrait given to the Louvre in 1939 perfectly exemplifies the spirit of elegant simplicity that Ramsay instilled in his models.
A Famous and Discreet Donor: Edith Wharton
These facts and discoveries have led us also to reevaluate the personality of the donor, the American novelist Edith Wharton (New York, 1862 - Saint-Brice-la Forêt , 1937). Her donation which, as we will see, took a rather indirect route, went somewhat unnoticed, so it now seems only fair for us to devote more attention to it. Edith Wharton had willed the painting to her friend Gaillard Lapsley (1871-1949), on condition that he give it to the Louvre at his death. In his first letter to the director of the Louvre in which he proposes the donation, Lapsley gives some interesting details: "[Edith Wharton] willed the painting to me and her wish was that at my death the painting should go to the Louvre. I offer it to you today, since because of its size, it is not compatible with the rooms I occupy in this college [Trinity College, Cambridge]." He specifies that he writes on the advice of his friend Bernard Berenson, another close acquaintance of Edith Wharton. The art historian's intervention makes this donation even more interesting, in that it took place under the combined auspices of a famous writer, a teacher at Cambridge, and the greatest art connoisseur of his time.
Edith Wharton is recognized today as one of the most famous American writers. From an old and rich New York family, Edith Newbold Jones married Teddy Wharton in 1885, and that marriage was a failure. She devoted herself very early to literature. Her novels and short stories such as The House of Mirth, 1905, Ethan Frome, 1911, The Age of Innocence, 1920, rapidly achieved success. She won the Pulitzer in 1921 and was nominated for the Nobel prize in literature. After 1906, she lived mainly in France. Her Parisian residence was rue de Varenne, first number 58, then, 53. Her other French residences were Saint-Claire-le-Chateau in Hyères, in which the garden, with its innumerable terraces, is today one of the most appealing attractions of the multifaceted city, and the Pavillon Colombe in Saint-Brice-la Forêt northwest of Paris. Francophile in her convictions and sensitivity, Edith Wharton was nevertheless a tireless observer of the old East Coast American society. She described with accuracy and humour but also with elegant disillusionment those men and women for whom all life's essentials existed between Newport, Rhode Island; New York City; and the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. Henry James, fascinated by Wharton's blending of sharp and fragile observation, nicknamed her the angel of devastation.
She has a longstanding reputation in France where her work was regularly translated and reviewed. This reputation has grown even more with the numerous films made from her short stories and novels. We must also recall her tireless assistance to the victims of the First World War, which earned her, in March 1916, one of the few and rare Légions d'honneur granted to a foreigner and a civilian.
Architecture, Decoration and Painting
While Edith Wharton's literary reputation today is well established on both sides of the Atlantic, her interests and achievements in the fields of architecture, decoration and art history still remain relatively unknown. Her main contribution to architecture and decoration history is still her Decoration of Houses written with Ogden Codman. This book, published in 1897, besides being one of her first, was immensely successful. The two authors lauded a return to simplicity, a use of light colors, an abandonment of a too-upholstered style. The effect of this advice was immediately felt in the big houses of Newport and New York and among interior decorators such as Elsie de Wolfe. A few years later, Edith Wharton would build The Mount, a house of her own in Lenox, Massachusetts. Of Franco-Italian inspiration, this big house, surrounded by gardens, closely reflected Wharton's theories. Unoccupied for long periods after Wharton's death, it was purchased in 1980 and is now undergoing restoration. The other books she published on these topics were her volume on Italian Villas and their Gardens (1904), illustrated by Maxfield Parrish, and Italian Backgrounds (1905). We must emphasize Wharton's love for painting and in particular Italian painting, and the importance of the visual in her works. In this respect, her work is similar to that of her close friend Henry James. She was linked to numerous art historians, among them the American Berenson whom we have already mentioned, and such prominent figures as the Frenchman Louis Gillet. Her personal collection, which is not yet well studied, consisted of important works including L'allée du Jas de Bouffan de Cézanne, today at the Tate Gallery in London, and works by Odilon Redon. The novels and short stories of Edith Wharton are teeming with descriptions of art collections and, in some works, such as False Dawn in the Old New York quartet, are essential to the plot.
A Painting That was Dear to Her
The painting, as the inscription in blue chalk behind the frame points out, decorated the walls of 53 rue Varenne, the novelist's Parisian residence. She probably acquired it before 1910 from a Washington, D.C., art dealer. (At least this is what Gallard Lapsley reports in his letter to the director of the Louvre.) It is probably no coincidence that Edith Wharton owned a Ramsay portrait which, in all likelihood, represents David Wemyss, Lord Elcho. Indeed, the Wemyss family was dear to Edith Wharton's heart; from the early 1900s, one of her friends was none other than Lady Mary Elcho, the wife of Viscount Elcho, 11th Count of Wemyss. Consequently, she bore the title of Countess of Wemyss. And it was she who had been one of the first to welcome Edith Wharton, not as a woman from American high society but above all as a novelist. Lady Wemyss even gave a dinner in honor of the author in her Stanway castle. Edith Wharton discovered during this 1908 English stay that she did not have to conceal her literary activity, while American high society considered it almost a breech of taste. The two women remained good friends until their respective deaths in 1937. We can therefore imagine that, in this case, Wharton saw not only Ramsay's artistic portrait but also the evocation of a good friend. For visitors to the Louvre, this painting by Ramsay from now on will inevitably be associated with the memory of Edith Wharton.
Translated by Esther Fernandez, University of California at Davis
Thanks to Esther Fernandez for this translation and to Abby Werlock
for making the arrangements and editing the piece.
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