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Works of art lead interesting lives, too

François Flameng’s Fete Nocturne, or “Night Party,” was a gift to the Albany Museum of Art by Maurice Gortatowsky, who inherited it in 1979 from his uncle, Jake Gortatowsky. The late 1800s painting was once owned and displayed by William Randolph Hearst in his San Simeon, Calif., castle.

François Flameng’s Fete Nocturne, or “Night Party,” was a gift to the Albany Museum of Art by Maurice Gortatowsky, who inherited it in 1979 from his uncle, Jake Gortatowsky. The late 1800s painting was once owned and displayed by William Randolph Hearst in his San Simeon, Calif., castle.

It’s easy to forget that the objects found a museum’s galleries or vaults once had a life. It’s easy to forget because museums do their best to keep their objects frozen in time. Great pains are taken to preserve them, from the white cotton gloves used by curators when handling objects to the environment in which they are kept. Museums try to maintain 70 degrees Fahrenheit with a constant relative humidity of 50 percent. Light levels are also monitored to make sure sensitive objects don’t fade. It often makes me smile to think that the artworks we take such pains to keep in a perfect state once probably sat over a fireplace in someone’s brightly-lit dining room. Needless to say, smoking and eating around a museum’s collection is a big “no-no.”

Sometimes the stories of their past lives can be as interesting as the works of art themselves. The artwork’s “biography” can provide new insight into the artwork and the artist that made it. Sometimes these “biographies” also make for a good story. One work in the Albany Museum’s collection presents such a case. It is a large painting from the late 1800s by a French artist named François Flameng. Born in Paris in 1856, Flameng was popular from France to Russia. Many of his works are held in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. He had a long successful career as an artist and professor and was awarded the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian award. He died in 1923. The painting by Flameng in the AMA’s collection features three women sitting on a balcony overlooking a park in which revelers dance the night away. The park is brightly lit with Japanese lanterns and colored flares. The painting is aptly titled Fete Nocturne or “Night Party.”

According to the painting’s file, it was once owned by William Randolph Hearst, the famous publishing mogul. It hung for many years in the Hearst Castle at San Simeon, Calif. It made its way to Albany, Ga., through Jake Gortatowsky who worked at one of Hearst’s newspapers in New York and eventually became chairman of the board for Hearst Enterprises. Mr. Gortatowsky, who frequently visited Hearst in San Simeon, often commented that one of the women in the painting reminded him of his wife, Sadie. Hearst gave the painting to Mr. Gortatowsky as a gift. It was given to the Albany Museum by his nephew Maurice Gortatowsky in 1979 who inherited it when his uncle passed away.

Several months ago, I was contacted by a gentleman in France, Monsieur Alexander Page, who was researching Flameng for a catalogue of the artist’s work. This catalogue was a requirement for his graduate degree in art history. After corresponding with M. Page over several weeks about Albany, Ga.’s own Flameng, I received an excited email. In his digging he had found our painting in the March 5, 1923, edition of the newspaper “Le Gaulois.” He sent the text, written in French, via e-mail. After a search, I found the newspaper’s online archive. Scanning the headlines I saw, in bold letters, the name François Flameng. The piece was an interview with one of Flameng’s dear friends, French art historian, Louis Gillet, published immediately after the artist’s death. Apparently, Flameng’s passing was big news in France then, similar to the death of a celebrity today. In the interview Gillet reminisced about his visits with Flameng and a particular painting he saw in the artist’s studio. The text translated into English is below:

“I remembered other conversations that I had had with him (Flameng), in particular in front of his picture, then unfinished, a slightly fanciful painting of three ladies on a balcony, under Japanese lanterns, in front of a park illuminated by Bengal lights, during a party at night. The effect was rare, fugitive: all rested on the charm of one moment, and one hour, on the imagined memory of a group of women brought together for a few seconds, impossible to retain as much as reproduce, and released into the night air, their enchantment and their perfume.”

Louis Gillet from an interview published in Le Gaulois, March 5, 1923

“Fete Nocturne” is currently on display in the AMA’s McCormack Gallery located on the Museum’s second floor. You can drop by and see if M. Gillet’s description measures up. The AMA is located at 311 Meadowlark Drive, next to Darton College. The AMA is open 10 a.m.- p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Admission is free.

A few days ago, I received word from M. Page that he passed his degree requirements with flying colors.

Arts & Artists columnist Nick Nelson is executive director of the Albany Museum of Art, 311 Meadowlark Drive. His column is a monthly feature in SouthView.