Gazing at an art object can be a form of time travel.
It can make the long-ago and faraway seem strangely immediate and tangible. Even when the details of a piece’s history aren’t entirely known, they can spark the imagination.
Below you’ll find the stories behind three objects in the permanent collection of the Seattle Art Museum. Each opens a portal to the past.
A mysterious backstory
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“Pomponne II de Bellièvre” by Anthony van Dyck
His eyes look at you from across four centuries as if he’s about to speak. His posture is a curious mixture of relaxed and alert. His garb is mostly somber, except for a bright red sash at his waist. With his head canted slightly to his right, it feels as if he’s just caught sight of the viewer standing in front of him.
Both the model, French ambassador to England Pomponne II de Bellièvre, and the artist, Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), would be very surprised at where this canvas has ended up: in a city on a stretch of coast that, in the early 17th century, appeared on no maps.
The history of the painting is obscure for its first 250 years. It surfaces in the collection of Sir George Donaldson, a prestigious Edinburgh-born fine-art dealer who spent time in Paris in the late 1860s, where he may have acquired the portrait. Donaldson sold it in 1893, and after 1902 it passed through private collections in the U.S. before coming on the market in 1994.
The twist: Until 1994 it was thought to be by Dutch painter Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613-1670). Only after it was restored was it deemed to be a Van Dyck, and its sitter identified.
How could a restoration lead to its being attributed to Van Dyck?
“It has all the hallmarks of his painting method,” says Chiyo Ishikawa, SAM’s deputy director for art. “His assistants would sketch out the figure and leave a ‘reserve’ around the head for Van Dyck to paint the likeness. This is visible in our canvas and is the kind of detail that would be obscured by a darkened varnish.”
The portrait was likely painted in London, during de Bellièvre’s tenure there as ambassador from 1637 to 1640.
What was the man like?
One French memoirist praised Bellièvre’s “astute use of both moderation and firmness which he deployed with much art and finesse.” Those qualities seem visible in the painting.
Something of his character also comes through in a letter he wrote during his second appointment as ambassador to Britain in 1645-1647, when his focus was on averting civil war in the British Isles: “To accomplish this, I try to awaken in them all that concerns their honor — with some mention of money.”
SAM acquired Van Dyck’s masterpiece in 1998 and it now anchors SAM’s European collection.
A link to the god of wine
“Kantharos with Satyr and Satyress Heads”
(Roman England, ca. 1st century)
There’s no knowing who the first owners of this playful, two-faced goblet were. But take one look at it and you can’t help thinking, “Someone used to hold this and drink from it.”
Its history can only be traced back to 1947, when museum founder Dr. Richard E. Fuller purchased it from New York antiquities dealer Warren E. Cox. The records say it was found in London, although even that detail can’t be confirmed, and its identification as Roman-British is based on a “stylistic analysis” of the vessel rather than any hard information.
One side shows a bearded satyr with pointed ears. On the other is his female counterpart, a maenad. Both folkloric creatures are traditionally the attendants of Dionysus or Bacchus, god of wine.
The quality of the vessel indicates it belonged to a well-to-do household and perhaps was reserved for special occasions. Cox, who sold it to SAM, was a ceramics expert who published a 1,158-page study, “The Book of Pottery and Porcelain,” in 1944.
You might think someone capable of writing that much about ceramics would be a deadly serious pedant, but that’s not the case. The introduction to his vast tome is hilarious:
“There are some terribly dry parts of this book, not at all worth reading,” he declares. “I don’t have to tell you to skip them for you will anyhow, but let me tell you that I have saved you, the reader, an awful lot that is dryer yet.”
He can also wax poetic. In a passage musing on what he calls “the useful beautiful,” he writes: “There is a human appeal in objects which show the hand of man in their manufacture or use. … Something of the character of those who have owned them has entered into them through the years.”
That sums up the allure of this kantharos beautifully, and also reveals Cox as the ideal, appreciative custodian for this piece until it made its way to SAM.
Art as a form of protest
Kwakwaka’wakw house posts carved by Arthur Shaughnessy (Hemasilakw)
The four mighty house posts that anchor SAM’s Hauberg Gallery for Native Art of the Americas have a completely documented history — and it’s fascinating.
They were commissioned by Chief John Scow for his “potlatch house” on the central coast of British Columbia. One pair of posts depicts “One Who Announces Names of the Guests,” a title bestowed on the inheritor of the right to call out the ceremonial names of potlatch guests. Below him is a woodland giantess, Dzunuk’wa, known for carrying wandering children off into the woods.
The second pair of posts show thunderbirds at the top (two heads sharing a pair of wings), perched above a grizzly bear with its paws upraised.
The posts were carved during the time of Canada’s “potlatch laws” (1885-1951), which forbade First Nations people from engaging in potlatch traditions and related activities, including carving.
“A lot of the Kwakwaka’wakw people defied the potlatch ban, even though a number of them were arrested,” explains Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s curator of Native American art. “They were allowed to have Christmas feasts and things like that that followed a Christian calendar, and a lot of times they did their own traditional business under the rubric of that.”
Arthur Shaughnessy (1884-1945) was not exempt from those laws. In 1922, he was arrested and jailed for accepting a commission from New York’s American Museum of Natural History to build four house posts. He eventually completed them in 1923, and they’ve been on display in New York ever since.
The older Scow house posts spurred controversy when Chief William Scow, John Scow’s son, sold them, in the words of the Victoria Daily Times, to a “wealthy Seattle logger.”
That “logger” was arts patron John H. Hauberg, who co-founded Pilchuck Glass School with Dale Chihuly. There was strong opposition to these historic monuments leaving the province, but Hauberg’s account of his purchase casts an ironic light on B.C. institutions’ protest.
“The poles and beams,” he writes, “had been exposed to the weather to comply with a British Columbia government decree ordering all ceremonial houses to be de-roofed.” The aim of the decree: to crush potlatch activities. A photo taken in 1954 shows an imposing ruin exposed to the skies.
Bill Scow’s efforts to sell the house posts to Canadian institutions had gone nowhere, so he was unapologetic for selling the house to Hauberg.
“He said it was a masterpiece,” Scow told the Victoria Daily Times, “and he would reconstruct and preserve it.”
The four posts, once restored, were incorporated into a replica of a potlatch house at the Pacific Science Center. When SAM opened its downtown facility in 1991, the posts were installed there.
Alfred Scow, the grandson of John Scow and the first aboriginal judge ever appointed to the B.C. Provincial Court, was on-hand when the house posts were relocated in SAM, after the museum’s expansion in 2006. His memories of spending time in the house as a boy overwhelmed him, Brotherton recalls.
“Somebody on our collections-care staff said, ‘Is he going to touch the house posts?’ And I said, ‘Well, probably — they belong to him.’ And he did. He walked over and he just hugged the house posts.”
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com