14 June 2018

"Portrait of Mary Robinson," by Joshua Reynolds

by Angelina Giovani
edited by Marc Masurovsky

Mary Robinson was one of the most famous actresses of the 18th century, who left behind a large number of portraits. The culmination of Mary’s fame came after her performance as Perdita, in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, which captured the heart of George, Prince of Wales, who fell madly in love with her. Hence, the name Perdita became permanently linked to her own and she came to be known as Mary ‘Perdita” Robinson. Among the many artists who painted her portrait, the most notable is without a doubt Sir Joshua Reynolds. As his diary indicates, the artist made fourteen appointments for the actress to sit for him, resulting in at least five versions of the painting, all very similar to each other in both style and composition, the two main versions mirroring each other and seeming to differ only in the position of the hands or the feathers. The earliest version of the painting, which was purchased by Baroness Edmond de Rothschild, is the one now in the Waddesdon Collection.

A well-established Paris-based French art dealer and collector, René Gimpel, acquired one of Reynolds’ versions of “Portrait of Mary Robinson” and appears to have placed the work in a storage unit at Garde-Meubles Robinot Frères, 86, boulevard Garibaldi, in Paris. During the German occupation of France, after Gimpel had fled to the south of France before being denounced, arrested and deported to Sachsenhausen, the entire content of his “garde-meubles” was confiscated by agents of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), operating under the aegis of the Mobel-Aktion [M-Aktion] agency, responsible for emptying out Jewish-owned apartments and storage units in German-occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The second volume of the Algernon Graves and W. V. Cronin catalogue raisonné of the works of Joshua Reynolds lists five versions of the “Portrait of Mary Robinson” or Mrs. “Perdita” Robinson. Catalogue entry (nr. 832) might be Gimpel’s painting, since the other remaining versions produced by Reynolds can be traced to British and American collections with no noticeable provenance gaps.

Entry Nr. 832 reads:

“ROBINSON, Mrs. Mary; Half length, panel 29 1/2 x 24 1/2 in.; Nearly full faced; large black hat, white feather; dark dress; white lace scarf; red curtain background. Exhibited: Royal Academy, 1883, No. 274, by Colonel W. L. Grant.” The catalogue for the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1883 does not list the full name of Colonel Grant, the 1883 owner, hence it still remains unknown how he acquired it and when he sold it.

The above catalogue description mirrors the one published in the first edition of the Graves and Cronin catalogue raisonné in 1899. At some point between 1970 and 1973, the art historian Ellis Waterhouse, while serving as acting director of the “Paul Mellon Centre for British Studies” in London, edited the Graves & Cronin catalogue with extensive annotations. Waterhouse made comments and corrections to all of the versions of the Portrait of Mrs. Robinson.

Waterhouse noted that the panel “Portrait of Mrs. Robinson” was in the Collection of Pierre Bordeaux-Groult. In the revised edition of the catalogue raisonné which appeared in the late 1980s, entry (nr. 1530) has been corrected as follows:

“Robinson, Mary (1758-1800)
On Wood(EKW/G&C)
Provenance: Pierre Bordeaux-Groult, Paris, 1967 (PMC: Waterhouse files); untraced since.”

A review of the Waterhouse files reveals that one of the copies of Mrs. Robinson, attributed to the Studio of Reynolds, was in the collection of E. C. Bacon, Thonak, in 1941. Below that, a note in pencil reads: “The original in Jean Groult Coll. Paris” and it is followed by a year. The file makes no reference to Pierre Bordeaux-Groult. Since the year has been transcribed to be 1967, we might assume that the authors believed it more likely for the work to be with Pierre Bordeaux-Groult, since Jean had passed away in 1951. But a closer examination of the numbers actually suggests that the date could very well be 1917, which makes better sense in relation to the Waterhouse original file.

How and when the painting, if it is the same one, went from Groult to Rene Gimpel is unknown. Meanwhile, Gimpel’s “Portrait of Mary Robinson” has never been found and his heirs still have not recovered it as a WWII Holocaust-related loss.