Delius Buys a Gauguin
Delius, Jelka (1868-1935), Nevermore, Object 1, painting,(n.d),Grainger Museum Collection, University of Melbourne.
Here at the Grainger Museum we have a copy of Paul Gauguin’s Nevermore currently on show painted by Jelka Delius (nee Rosen), the wife of composer Frederick Delius. Following my curiosity at the provenance of this painting, I conducted a quick Google search and discovered an article that opened the horizon for just how peculiar this painting is. In his article, “Delius Buys A Gauguin” Stephen J. Bury, Chief Librarian at the Frick Collection in New York, succinctly outlines the narrative of a succession of paintings that reproduce Gauguin’s Nevermore and their place in the social life of Frederick and Jelka Delius. In doing so, Bury asks two questions that I was happy to realise that the Grainger Museum’s collection can help to resolve. After emailing Bury and providing him with some more details—although still partially incomplete—I decided to write some additional comments here.
In the portion of the article below, Bury gives the account of his inquiry into a painting closely related to Nevermore; a late-impressionist portrait of Frederick Delius believed to be painted by Jelka Delius. The portrait that Bury recalled from memory pictures Nevermore (or a copy) as a part of its domestic mise-en-scene—it frames Delius’ right shoulder, creating an oblique harmony of perspectives that gives the slight impression that Nevermore could be a window to a distant room; it aligns Pahura—Gauguin’s vahiné (Tahitian wife) as languidly resting within the nape of Delius’ neck (in an ease possibly in contest with the moody tension of Gauguin’s original). As discovered by Bury, the painting that he recalled was not in-fact the original presumed to be painted by Jelka, but a reproduction now held in the public collection of the United Kingdom. In his words:
“So it’s 1948 copy after Jelka Rosen, by Alexander Akerbladh (1886–1958). Jelka Rosen studied art from 1892 at the Académie Colarossi. I looked her up in the Library’s Paris Salons catalogues, where she appears in the 1894 and 1895 volume: in 1894 she is described as a pupil of Gustave Courtois, with a contact address at Rue Campagne-Premiere, 9 and exhibiting (at?what?) Au bord de l’eau; in 1895 she has the address, Avenue du Maine, 23 and she exhibited De grand matin and En plein été. Both addresses were in Montparnasse, a fertile meeting ground of artists and musicians. Delius and Rosen met at a dinner party on January 16, 1896, and a few years later they moved to Grez-sur-Loing, and married in September 1903.”
My next question was whether in the background of the Delius portrait it was an actual Gauguin or a copy — perhaps, by Jelka. The painting is easily identifiable as Nevermore (1897), which is in the Courtauld Collection in London. The online catalogue reveals that, indeed, Delius was the first owner. I could also have found this out using the Frick Art Reference Library Photoarchive provenance information that sits alongside the photographs of the painting, or the 1954 printed Courtauld Collection catalogue by Douglas Cooper. The printed catalogue gives more details than the online one on how Delius might have become interested in Gauguin’s work. Delius knew the composer William Molard, who had lived in the same house as Gauguin, Rue Vercingéterix, 4, 1893–94 and Gauguin had painted a portrait of Molard (it’s on the back of a self-portrait in the Musée d’Orsay, dated 1893–94). And Gauguin was involved with Molard’s adolescent stepdaughter, Judith Gérard/Molard, the daughter of Ida Ericson, the Swedish sculptress. So Delius would have definitely have met Gauguin.
Nevermore was bought by Delius for 500 Francs (another 50 was spent on a frame) from Gauguin’s friend, correspondent and dealer, the painter Daniel de Monfreid (1856–1929) in 1898. In a letter dated 12 January 1899 from Papeete, Gauguin wrote to de Monfreid that he had done well to sell the painting to Delius: “Do you recall that you reproached me for giving this painting a title: don’t you believe that this title Nevermore was the reason for the purchase…Maybe!…I’m delighted Delius is the owner, meaning that it’s a purchase not for speculation and resale, but for pleasure…” [my translation from Lettres de Gauguin a Daniel Monfreid (Paris, 1950)]
It hung in Delius’ music room in Grez-sur-Loing, where we see it in the Rosen/Akerbladh portrait. The subsequent history is uncertain: the catalogue to the 1906 Gauguin section of the Salon d’Automne has Delius as the lender. This was the show that both Picasso and Matisse saw. It was probably sold during financial problems that plagued Delius in the 1910s. It went through the hands of three dealers – Alfred Wolff (Munich), Alex Reid (Glasgow) and Agnew (London and Manchester) before entering Herbert Coleman’s collection in Manchester. It was in Samuel Courtauld’s Collection by 1926, becoming part of the Courtauld Gift in 1932.
What effect Nevermore, with its overtones of Edgar Allan Poe, had on the work of Delius during the period he owned it is a tantalizing subject to explore. Meanwhile I need to track down where the original Jelka Rosen portrait is.
To respond to Bury’s Questions: firstly, here at the Grainger museum we have the original portrait Frederick Delius (1925) that was subsequently reproduced by Akerbladh, and as mentioned, we also have the copy of Gauguin’s Nevermore (Nevermore, no date) painted by Jelka Delius. Knowing that Jelka did indeed paint her reproduction of Nevermore, we can propose that the Nevermore pictured in the background of the Delius portrait may well be the copy that Bury guessed to be painted by Jelka, making it dubious to whether the portrait can be considered stable evidence the Delius’ ownership of Nevermore at the time of the portrait. To speculate on the effect of Nevermore on Delius—and therefore its continued presence in these paintings—we might look to Grainger’s account:
“Delius had sold the original painting [Nevermore] in 1898… We should remember how many of Delius’s greatest creations were inspired by thoughts of primitive nature:… It was this urge to express in art the mood of virgin nature, the spirit of wild races, that drew Delius and me so closely together.”
Such remarks are indicative of Grainger’s tone and style—an autodidact abundant with candour. They denote his ideal for an art comparative with nature (a Romantic Modernism, sketchily reminiscent of Rousseau), coexistent with a flimsy theory of racial identity not uncommon in certain intellectual circles at the time. One presumes that the appearance of Pahura in all of these paintings serve an iconographic purpose, expressing the quasi-Romantic ideals shared by these two composers. Whether or not we argue that Gauguin’s relationship to Tahitian culture was authentic, the reception of the painting by Grainger and Delius is indicative of the type of fetishism du jour for Western modernists (and very much in accord with Grainger’s broader interests). Without going into the deeper analysis needed for this theme, I might add that engaging with these subjects is very much a part of the complexities faced when engaging Grainger’s collection today. Some may have the reservation that this is in contest with Grainger’s aims for the museum, yet one duty of the collection is to be interpreted and to help bring history into dialogue with the present. This is the challenge that anachronism presents to the relevance of any museum.
By looking to Percy Grainger’s aims for his museum[2, it is certain that there is a desire to build an educational institution for students of music and composition expressly on his own terms. In the service of this cause, he collected items in aid of rewriting and revaluing the history of the Western tradition in an idiosyncratic and frankly personal manner; paintings such as Nevermore and the portrait of Delius, clothing, correspondence, instruments, photographs, and all nature of ephemera illustrate and support Grainger’s ideas about history. More interestingly, in an example rare for any museum, Grainger originally wrote, composed, and built all of the information panels by hand. The institutional acknowledgement of mentors and friends provide much of the contour for Grainger’s narration of history, and it is within these crafted accounts that Grainger wished to canonise Frederick Delius. Adjacent to this, we might observe that part of the cadence of autobiography is bias such as this, and although the ethics of Grainger’s history is by no means sound by most standards, the earnestness of his example provides a clear image of how museums institute value on historical narratives, social relations, and certain effects of private property. As a most basic fact, these paintings give shape to the outward appearance of an amicable relationship between the Delius and Grainger families, now public, historical, institutionalised and in the broadest sense of the term, preserved. But they have more to say than biography, and this is where we must depart on our own interpretations.
 Bury S. Delius Buys A Gauguin. Chief Librarian’s Blog, The Frick Collection. Retrieved from http://www.frick.org/blogs/chief_librarian/delius_buys_gauguin
 For instance, in these aims Grainger explicitly references the privileging of his social circle:
“I have tried in this Museum to trace as best I can the aesthetic indebtedness of composers to each other (the borrowing of musical themes or novel compositional techniques) and to the culturizing influence of parents, relatives, wives, husbands and friends (for instance, Cyril Scott’s inspiring encouragement of several British composers of his generation; Jelka Delius’s contributions to her husband’s artistic life; Balfour Gardiner’s championship of 20th century British music).”
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