The painting’s history between 1873 and the early 1900s remains unknown. However, we now know that around 1919 the painting was taken from Paris to Norway by the Norwegian art dealer Walther Halvorsen.
Halvorsen had studied at the Académie Matisse in Paris, but quickly laid painting aside to embark upon a career as a dealer. For many years he lived in the French capital and established numerous contacts within French art circles through his marriage and friendships. He organised a crucial exhibition of French art in Oslo during World War I, followed by further exhibitions of French art in Norway, Sweden and Denmark between 1916 and 1938. By introducing the work of French impressionists, post-impressionists and cubists to Scandinavia, Halvorsen was responsible for stimulating a new interest in modern French art in his homeland, playing a seminal role in the establishment of key private collections, including those of Norway’s richest shipowners.
During and after World War I, the economies of neutral Norway, Sweden and Denmark grew stronger. Large private fortunes were created in the shipping trade. This economic upswing also benefited the arts. However, in the early 1920s the boom was followed by high inflation, currency depreciation and an overheated economy; numerous fortunes were quickly lost. Some of the private art collections were even more fleeting than the fortunes that had created them. Businessmen began to sell off their collections, and many of their works are found in major American and European art museums today.
The young shipping magnate Tryggve Sagen was an avid collector and supporter of the newly established Norwegian Association of French Art and the Friends’ Association of Nasjonalgalleriet. Through these societies, he helped to acquire works by Courbet, Degas, Gauguin and Cézanne for public collections.
Alongside his philanthropic activities, Sagen acquired the Courbet painting from Halvorsen for himself, around 1920, then quickly sold it following his bankruptcy. The painting was included in a travelling exhibition organised by the Association of French Art in February 1923. Sagen’s name appears below the reproduction of the painting in the exhibition catalogue. But before the exhibition opened, a label was glued over this credit line, stating ‘Private owner, Kristinia’ (Oslo), as he had most likely sold the picture in the interim, possibly back to Halvorsen.
By 1928 the painting was in the collection of another Norwegian shipowner, Carl Matthiessen – the name we started the investigation with – and was illustrated in a Swedish article on the magnate’s collection.
Matthiessen lived most of his life in Sweden and married an American cabaret dancer in 1925. The Courbet was exhibited in Stockholm in 1946, and again in 1958, recorded in the latter catalogue as from the collection of Matthiessen’s widow. There is no further trace of the painting again, until it reappeared at auction in 1997.
Huge gaps in the life of this painting have now been filled thanks to Nils Messel’s unexpected email from Norway, which initiated further research. Establishing seamless provenance for an old master painting, from the artist’s easel to a gallery’s wall, remains a largely impossible task, however, there is hope that in the future more details will emerge.
For more about the Gallery and provenance: artgallery.nsw.gov.au/provenance
This is an edited extract from an article by Anne Gerard-Austin, assistant curator of international art, which first appeared in Look - the Gallery's members magazine.