Published: March 6, 2012
Ending a 30-year mystery, the Rosenbach Museum & Library has located and acquired a portrait of an early member of the Gratz family, prominent Jewish early Americans who made their home here.
Through a shot-in-the-dark blog query, a little luck and a donor with a romantic streak, the presumed-lost portrait of Maria Cecil Gist Gratz has made its way from Georgia to the Rosenbach, joining an assembly of other Gratz family portraits (including a painting of philanthropist, social activist and Jewish leader Rebecca Gratz, created in 1831 by Thomas Sully). Serendipitously, the Maria Gratz portrait has also been reunited with its other half: a portrait of Maria’s husband, Benjamin Gratz. Sully completed these two portraits as a matching set, but they had been separated for decades.
The Maria and Benjamin portraits were created while the Gratz couple were visiting family in Philadelphia in 1831. It was not until 1970 that Benjamin’s granddaughter bequeathed the Benjamin portrait to the Rosenbach, yet there was no sign of its companion piece, the painting of Benjamin’s first wife. In recent years, museum curator Judith Guston began to wonder what happened to Maria.
In June 2011, Guston asked Susan Sklaroff of the blog Rebecca Gratz & 19th Century America to write a post about the missing painting, asking readers to check their attics, friends’ homes and local museums for traces of Maria. Three weeks later, Guston got a call from Maria Gratz Roberts, a great-great-great-granddaughter of Benjamin and Maria, who had the original Sully portrait in her Atlanta home parlor.
Although Roberts had lived with the painting throughout her life, she believed Benjamin and Maria’s portraits should be reunited. Roberts donated to the Rosenbach the Sully portrait of Maria, a pastel copy (which she also owned) and a chair that Benjamin had brought from Pennsylvania.
“We are thrilled to reunite this painting of Maria Cecil Gist Gratz with four other Gratz family paintings, including a companion portrait of her husband, that were already in the Rosenbach’s collection,” Guston says. “The opportunity to bring together five family portraits created during the same time and in the same place is rare and special, and one we’re so pleased to be able to share with our visitors. We are also grateful that another branch of the Gratz family has shown its support by donating to the Rosenbach’s ever-increasing collection of Gratz materials.”
This acquisition holds special significance to the Rosenbach Museum & Library. The Rosenbach was founded by book dealer A.S.W. Rosenbach and his brother and business partner Philip, whose ancestry connects to the Gratz family, dating back to the Eighteenth Century. The Rosenbach brothers collected Gratz family items throughout their lifetimes, and the Rosenbach Museum has followed suit over the past several decades, now maintaining extremely important collections of Gratz family portraiture, silver, furniture, ceramics, books and manuscripts related to the family. Almost all of these objects have come to the Rosenbach from direct descendants of the Gratz family to be cared for by the museum and enjoyed by the public.
Just as Rebecca Gratz was having her portrait painted by Thomas Sully in December 1830, her brother and sister-in-law Benjamin and Maria Gratz arrived from their home in Lexington, Ky., for a long visit in Philadelphia. While they were in town, the family commissioned Sully to paint portraits of Benjamin and Maria, as well. In April 1831, he produced them and, at Maria’s request, then painted another portrait of Rebecca to go back to Kentucky.
Three of these four paintings already resided at the Rosenbach Museum & Library, all given by or acquired from Gratz descendants. But no one knew what had become of Sully’s portrait of Maria until descendant Maria Gratz Roberts was connected to the Rosenbach through Susan Sklaroff’s blog Rebecca Gratz & 19th Century America.
The Rosenbach Museum & Library is at 2008-2010 Delancey Place. For information, www.rosenbach.org or 215-732-1600.
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm