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Adolphe Goupil, Agnès Penot, The Spy, and I

How many scholarly discoveries await the author at her desk? Photo courtesy of the author

Have you ever wondered how we researchers at The Met could possibly still be finding new information about works of art that are centuries old? Sometimes, it's just a matter of linking up with the right people.

I was reminded of this fact recently when conducting research on a relatively unsung work in the Department of European Paintings, Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville's (1835–1885) The Dispatch-Bearer. De Neuville was a successful military painter who exhibited a picture under this title at the official Paris Salon in 1881. The Met's painting, signed and dated 1880, represents a real-life incident from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 in which a French soldier, disguised as a peasant, was caught during an attempt to slip through German military lines surrounding the French city of Metz.

19th-century French painting depicting a group of soldiers gathered around a table out of doors

Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville (French, 1835–1885). The Dispatch-Bearer, 1880. Oil on canvas, 51 1/4 x 84 in. (130.2 x 213.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900 (25.110.26)

While we had known for a long time that de Neuville had made multiple versions of the subject, we thought the question of whether The Met's painting was the version he exhibited at the Paris Salon was closed 50 years ago, when Charles Sterling and Margaretta M. Salinger wrote in a 1966 catalogue that a second version of this picture must have been the one exhibited at the Salon of 1881, citing an early description of the Salon painting as being dated 1881 and having slightly smaller dimensions. (In first reading this statement, I did note that the dimensions of our painting were similar to those in the description and that it might have been a matter of differing manners of measuring.)

Since that time, as well, we have had no definitive provenance information on the painting between 1880, when sources showed it to be in the collection of a General Whittier of Boston, and 1891, by which time sources showed the picture to be in the collection of Collis P. Huntington, who bequeathed it to The Met in 1900. From the period that the painting was in Huntington's collection until now, we had used the title The Spy for our painting.

When Sterling and Salinger wrote their catalogue, though, they did not have access to the wonderful new digital resources for collecting and provenance research being added to on a daily basis today at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. Specifically, they did not have access to the 19th-century stockbooks of the dealers Adolphe Goupil and M. Knoedler that are now available online. Since neither of these dealers appeared in our provenance for the painting, I would not have known to go rooting around for the picture in these dealers' stockbooks but for a recent article in the online journal Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide by Agnès Penot, a former Getty Research Institute Fellow who worked on the Goupil stockbooks.

In "The Perils and Perks of Trading Art Overseas: Goupil's New York Branch," Penot reproduced our painting and stated that "when it was exhibited at the 1881 Salon, Goupil purchased The Spy," footnoting inventory number 15065 from the Goupil stockbook. Penot continued: "the Goupil stockbooks show Knoedler as the buyer in 1881, who then sold it to Charles A. Whittier from Boston in October of that year." On this second point, she cited inventory number 3509 from the Knoedler stockbooks at the Getty.

Page from the Knoedler stockbook noting the sale of de Neuville's Le porteur de dépêches to Charles A. Whittier in October 1881

While it was easy enough for me to find the appropriate stockbook pages online, I still had questions. How was Penot so sure that the painting appeared in the Salon of 1881? While the Knoedler stockbook page clearly showed that Whittier had purchased the painting from Knoedler in October of 1881 and the Goupil stockbook page for inventory number 15065 revealed Knoedler as the buyer of de Neuville's Le porteur de dépêches (The Dispatch-Bearer) and de Neuville himself as Goupil's source for the painting—three tidbits I now could add to our provenance information—and confirmed the title Le porteur de dépêches as the painting's first title, which we now have restored, I still saw no way in which these stockbooks helped us to identify The Met's version as the one that appeared at the Salon. A colleague suggested I reach out to Penot directly.

Page from the Goupil stockbook noting the sale of de Neuville's Le porteur de dépêches to M. Knoedler in June 1881

Within 24 hours I was on the phone with Penot, who patiently explained from California the missing piece of the puzzle. She mentioned that Goupil may have had a contract with de Neuville, but that was unclear. She also noted that dates are often "inconsistent" in the Goupil stockbook, where it states that Goupil bought the work in January and sold it in June ("23.6.81," or that he sold it on June 23, 1881). (The Paris Salon was held in May and June every year.) Then she said, "You see those lowercase letters that are crossed out above de Neuville's name?" I had barely paid any attention to them. She noted from her extended period working with the Goupil stockbooks that she had found that the dealer kept a system of tracking the whereabouts of objects and crossing them out when their status changed to a newer location until he sold them.

There, among the crossed-out locations for our painting, after "c" for "Chaptal," which Penot explained Goupil used to denote the rue Chaptal where his headquarters were located, was "Salon"! We then see another lowercase "c," which shows that the painting returned to Goupil's headquarters from the Salon before going to his buyer Knoedler.

Had I not made that call, I would have remained puzzled by a scholar's statement but moved on. My call with Penot has led us to embark on reexamining our records for all of the many European paintings at The Met that went through Goupil's hands—from works by Eugène Delacroix to Jean-Léon Gérôme—to see if small lowercase letters above the names of the sellers, whether crossed out or not, might reveal new answers to long-open questions. More importantly, for other scholars worldwide, my hope is that this story provokes a thorough examination of the Goupil stockbooks for hidden treasures about paintings residing today in as far-flung places as California, Europe, and Japan.

Related Links

MetPublications: French Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 2, Nineteenth Century by Charles Sterling and Margaretta Salinger (1966)

Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: "The Perils and Perks of Trading Art Overseas: Goupil's New York Branch" by Agnès Penot (2017)

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