They dominate the room! “Who are those people?” That’s what visitors on my tours say immediately upon entering the third gallery of the French Moderns show currently at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. They are drawn to a pair of huge portraits, one of a man and one of a woman facing each other on the gallery’s walls.
The man is William S. Davenport. He was an American dental surgeon living and working in France in 1925 when his portrait was painted. The tiny red mark on his suit lapel represents the French Legion of Honor he was awarded for his work in the American Ambulance Core during World War I as the assistant chief of the facial and jaw reconstructive surgery division. He served as a dentist to the Belgian royal family and was one of the first dentists to have his testimony in court accepted for using dental records to identify human remains. According to his obituary Mr. Davenport was also an artist himself and good friends with the American painter James Whistler.
The artist who painted Mr. Davenport was Kees Van Dongen. He was born in Rotterdam where he worked in the family brewery, studying art in the evenings. He moved to Paris in 1897 and remained there for most of his life. He was part of the Fauve art movement whose artists were known for the use of bright color hence the bright red and blue markings on Mr. Davenport’s face. Kees Van Dongen was really more famous for painting portraits of women than men and when he was in his eighties painted an iconic one of French actress Brigitte Bardot.
The woman is Florence Meyer Blumenthal. Florence was also an American living in Paris. She and her husband had one home in Paris, and another in the South of France but still maintained a home in New York as well. Florence Blumenthal was also awarded the French Legion of Honor in her case for donating money to a Paris Children’s Hospital and establishing the Prix Blumenthal a grant awarded each year to a young French artist to aid them financially and to draw the United States and France closer together through the arts. Florence was a sister to the publisher of the Washington Post Eugene Meyer and an aunt to his daughter Kay Graham(think the movie The Post) who eventually became the paper’s publisher. Florence and her husband George donated millions of dollars to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as well as to New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital in memory of their son George Jr. who died as a young boy.
The portrait of Florence Blumenthal was painted by Giovanni Boldini an Italian artist who moved to Paris in 1872 and was good friends with impressionist painter Edgar Degas. Interestingly like Mr. Davenport, the dentist, Boldini was also good friends with the American artist James Whistler and Boldini’ s portrait of Whistler is a part of the Brooklyn Museum collection as are the portraits of Davenport and Blumenthal. In almost all his portraits of women Boldini has them pose in evening gowns. According to an article in The Daily Art Magazine Boldini used swirling loose brushstrokes to have those gowns take on a life of their own. His nickname was The Master of Swish.
If you haven’t already been to see the French Moderns exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery you need to come. These portraits are only two of the many intriguing artworks on display.