Published: April 26, 2022
The Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) has recently acquired, in a private sale transaction brokered by Sotheby’s, Murillo’s “The Infant Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness” from Meadow Brook Hall. When news of the sale reached our ears, we reached out to two of those involved – William Matt, executive director of Meadow Brook Hall, and Judith Dolkert, deputy director for art, education and programs at the DIA – for a behind-the-scenes peek.
Meadow Brook Hall has recently had the chance to work with the Detroit Institute of Arts. Tell our readers about that and what brought it about.
WM: Absolutely. This remarkable collaboration between Meadow Brook Hall, an auxiliary of Oakland University, and the Detroit Institute of Arts began in 2013. It’s a fascinating story, in which a significant Seventeenth Century painting from the Spanish Golden Age was rediscovered by then-DIA curator, now DIA director, Salvador Salort-Pons.
The partnership with Oakland University and the DIA sprung from that discovery. The DIA agreed to conserve Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s “The Infant Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” after which the DIA displayed it in their premiere European Arts Gallery during a five-year loan period, allowing their hundreds of thousands of visitors the opportunity to see the important painting.
As part of the collaboration, a series of visits was established for Oakland University undergraduate students studying art history and studio art, history, communications and chemistry so they could observe the scientific analysis and conservation work of the DIA specialists. The students had the rare opportunity to see DIA scientists and conservators at work and to have access to information produced only in the world’s top museums.
Since that time, the painting has hung in the prominent European Arts Gallery at the DIA, the loan term was renewed in 2019. Since the painting left for the DIA, a replica has hung in its place with an interpretive panel explaining the partnership with the DIA and the conservation process. The important story of the Wilsons as art collectors has remained forefront at OU, while the painting is properly and more safely displayed within the DIA.
What do you know about where the Wilson’s acquired the painting?
JD: The Wilsons purchased the painting from the John Levy Gallery in New York. Most interestingly, the painting’s provenance can be traced from the Seventeenth Century to the present, when its first owner, the Genoese merchant Giovanni Bielato, commissioned the work, then on to a Capuchin monastery in Genoa to the collections of Earls Grosvenor and the Duke of Westminster to the Wilsons.
WM: Meadow Brook Hall was created as the English manor house dream of Alfred and Matilda Dodge Wilson in 1929. At 88,000 square feet and filled with more than 75,000 historic artifacts, Meadow Brook represents one of the finest examples of Tudor-revival style architecture in America, and is especially renowned for its superb craftsmanship, architectural detailing and grand scale. Today, it is a National Historic Landmark, museum, cultural center and the fourth largest historic home in the nation.
Yet, the historic mansion was first and foremost a home. The Wilsons furnished their home with furniture, decorative and fine arts and a wide assortment of collectibles from world travels, among them a large number of fine paintings.
It entered the Wilson’s collection in 1926, who purchased it for their future home, Meadow Brook Hall. While Meadow Brook Hall was still under construction, the painting was exhibited at the DIA. This Murillo was exhibited in the Royal Academy in London in 1883 and this “Infant Saint John” is one of the original Murillo paintings to arrive in the United States from the first internationally renowned Spanish artist.
How have you been involved in the collaboration? Were there other people involved? In what way?
WM: As I mentioned, this project began about a decade ago. Many members of the Meadow Brook team have been involved in different ways, including our curator Madelyn Rzadkowolski and Meadow Brook’s previous executive director, Geoff Upward. I came on board at Meadow Brook in early 2021, and my role has been to help work with the different organizations – including Oakland University’s leadership and Board of Trustees and the DIA and Sotheby’s – to help facilitate the sale of the painting and its deaccession from our collection.
What opportunities have come from this acquisition?
WM: Proceeds of the sale will be used to support the estate, and are specifically designated for collections care, interpretation of the Meadow Brook story for public touring and scholarly research and other direct support.
We hope to update our Collections Assessment Program to provide us with a roadmap on how we can best leverage the proceeds from the sale and reinvest in collections care over the next five to ten years. We want to be strategic and make informed choices on how we strengthen our collections care efforts.
JD: As mentioned above, students from Oakland University also had the wonderful opportunity to witness firsthand the conservation treatment in the DIA’s Lab. And visitors to the DIA have had chance to see this work – intimate in its scale and subject – alongside other works by Murillo in the DIA’s collection as well as other Baroque works from the period.
What conservation needed to be done?
JD: A yellowed varnish was removed which allowed for greater clarity of the composition and revealed pentimenti or changes that the artist made to the composition when it was first painted – a very exciting discovery.
When was that restoration finished?
JD: The treatment took approximately three months and was completed in February 2014.
What is the significance of that acquisition?
WM: Matilda and Alfred Wilson would be well pleased to know of the effort, resources, education and care that have gone into the preservation of one of their paintings. Not only did this sale ensure the painting will receive the first-class treatment required for a work of its provenance, but it will now be accessible to millions of people. We are proud of our partnership with the DIA to safeguard this important work as a treasured part of our community.
JD: The DIA continues to be excited by the prospect of showing such a tender work by Murillo in its galleries – it presents one of the most celebrated qualities of his paintings, particularly the representation of children which proved influential to generations of painters. And it contrasts interestingly with other large-scale works by the artist in the DIA’s collection. Moreover, this presents a tremendous opportunity to share the discernment of the Wilsons with audiences in southeast Michigan where the painting has long resided.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
May 23, 2023
May 16, 2023
May 9, 2023
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm