Art Detective: Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom

Many people will by now be aware of this painting, ‘Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom’ which was purchased earlier this year by the Art Gallery of Ontario, following its sale by Sotheby’s in New York, where the painting achieved a figure of $68,750, a not insignificant sum. Whilst I wouldn’t normally mention the price achieved for a portrait, it does have some significance in this post, so bear with me.

Since ‘lockdown’ it has not been possible for the public to see the portrait in person, however, curators have been busy behind the scenes ‘virtually’, discussing its significance and many of their interesting discussions can be heard if you follow this highlighted link.

Why is this of interest to me? Whilst I’m not an art expert I have taken quite a bit of interest in black art over the past few years, in particular, as many of you will be aware, the life and the portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle. I have also looked at Black Charley of Norwich and  the painting titled Young Woman with Servant.

Returning to this portrait though, from the style of her dress it appears to have been painted about 1760-1770 and I wonder whether the portrait was possibly commissioned to mark some special event, perhaps a milestone birthday or an upcoming wedding, pure speculation of course as no-one knows anything definitive about this painting as yet.

The artist has beautifully delicately captured the clothes, the exquisite pale blue silk dress and what appears to be very expensive jewellery – earrings, pearl necklace and bracelets. This is clearly the portrait of a young woman of some significance – but who she was remains a mystery at present.

Who was the artist? At present we have very few clues to go on, his/her name was noted by Ontario as being J. Shult, the remainder of the name remains unknown, so perhaps J. Shultz, which implies German/Austrian, or maybe even Dutch.  To date there’s no name that seems to match amongst reasonably well-known artists of that period, but perhaps once the gallery have been able to do more research a name could come into view.

It has been suggested that it may be Johan Christoffel Schultz, a Dutch painter and printmaker who lived from 1749-1812 and below is another portrait attributed to this artist:

The portrait is of Miss Rebecca Steel, New Timber, Sussex, but there does appear to be a couple of problems with this attribution. Miss Steel’s birth was registered at Newtimber, Sussex, in 1722 and she is noted to have married in 1752, becoming Mrs Norton at that time. If the artist wasn’t born until 1749 then he can’t possibly have painted her. The portrait was sold in 2012 by a Boston auction house, Skinners and the reverse of the painting it simply says ‘J. Schultz Pinxit’ along with the sitters name. Given the discrepancy over dates it seems more likely that the painting of our young lady could be Johan’s uncle, Jeremias Schultz.

More importantly though the main reason the portrait ‘Portrait of a Lady Holding an Orange Blossom’ caught my eye was because I have seen, what now, I would suggest could well be a companion piece by the same artist, so here we have a young man, again beautifully dressed in green silk, titled ‘Portrait of a young man wearing a green jacket holding a cane.’

The cane he is holding is really curious, as when you zoom in on the painting, which you can do by viewing it on this link, it appears to have a rounded top with gold braid around it. The use of a cane/stick was often used to signify importance status. So, like our young woman, this man too was someone of importance and like her, is currently unknown.

He looks to be about the same age as the girl which initially made me wonder whether, given that she is holding orange blossom, which, in all likelihood symbolises purity/chastity, that these two portraits were painted just prior to their marriage.

My other thought and possibly more likely, is that when you look more closely at the pair together that they could be siblings or maybe even twins – what do you think?

The portrait of the young man has a fascinating back story. It was sold by Christie’s, New York in 1996 by an anonymous seller, then again by them in 2011 for a mere $750.

Compare that to the price recently paid for the young lady – the portrait of her achieving a price of some additional $68,000. Clearly, when his portrait was sold in 2011, it was clearly regarded as unimportant, especially as again, the artists name, J. Schult (German, 18th Century) was only partially visible.

The 2011 sale was very curious, as the portrait was being sold as part of a larger collection on behalf of a man who had died suddenly in 2006 from a heart attack. The man in question had, as a young man, changed his name from Melvyn Kohn to what he decided would be a more suitable name and with his parents blessing he became William Milliken Vanderbilt Kingsland.

Kingsland/Kohn appears to have led a fascinating if curious life and you can find out more about him if you go to the sources heading below!

From 1986-1991 Kingsland worked at Vito Giallo Antiques, on Madison Avenue and was also known to the singer, Elton John and the artist Andy Warhol, who was said to have befriended him for a time.

Upon his death his massive artwork was found, much of which the FBI took a very keen interest in and some of it was eventually sold on behalf of his family by the New York County Administrator including that of the young man above.

This now makes we wonder if the two paintings we’re now looking at were, at one time, together either in a museum or in a private collection and have over time, become separated.

I’ve been working with Jo Langston of Christie’s who is trying to track down the portrait of the young man since its sale and we’ll keep you posted if we find out where it is as it would lovely to see the pair together for comparison. We’d like to think it’s either still with an art dealer or in a gallery, but we do suspect it’s become part of a private collection.

It will require much more work to confirm whether it could be a pair as right now it’s purely a theory, but an exciting one which I wanted to share with you. I hope you agree.

Sources

Illicit Cultural Property

Sotheby’s auction catalogue

Christie’s Interiors 21-22 June 2011

Skinner, European furniture and decorative arts. Boston 14 July 2012

New York Times 25 Oct 2006

The New York Sun 14 December 2006