A rare Rembrandt work entitled The Great Jewish Bride has been acquired by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) as part of a significant donation by Freda and Irwin Browns, who say it was almost like parting with a child.
Over the 60 years of their marriage, the Brownses amassed what the MMFA describes as one of the most distinguished private art collections in Canada, with a focus on master prints. The couple has been gradually donating the great majority of their hundreds of pieces to more than 20 Canadian museums literally fro m coast to coast in recent years, in addition to the many they previously gave to the MMFA.
But this 1635 Rembrandt print and the seven others in the couple’s latest gift to the MMFA, including a Marc Chagall and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, are particularly precious to them—as they are to the MMFA.
“These were the ones most beloved by Freda and me, the crème de la crème,” Browns said.
Hilliard Goldfarb, senior curator of collections and of Old Masters, was overjoyed by the windfall and especially the Rembrandt, made in appreciation of his work at the MMFA over 23 years upon his retirement in September.
The Great Jewish Bride is a masterpiece and “extremely valuable,” according to Goldfarb. The great Dutch painter was known for this empathy towards Jews, unusual in 17th-century Amsterdam. He lived for some years in the Jewish quarter and is known to have had cordial relations with the community.
The young woman portrayed is likely modeled on Rembrandt’s wife Saskia, Goldfarb thinks, but her elaborate hairstyle and dress are typical of a Jewish wedding outfit of the day. The scrolled paper in her hand is probably a ketubbah.
Rembrandt is thought to have been inspired by the biblical Esther who pleaded for the lives of her people with her new husband, King Ahasuerus of Persia.
This is the fifth and final state, or form, of the print, indicating the care Rembrandt put into it.
The early Chagall engraving Self-Portrait With Decorated Hat of 1928 excited Browns because in the headwear’s detail “you can see the iconic images—the fiddler, the floating cow, the moon—that he would use for the next 50 years,” said Browns, who hung the work beside his desk for 25 years.
The artist also references his wife Bella and daughter Ida, situating the work with the other seven, which all feature women. Early on in their collecting, the Brownses decided to specialize in that gender.
“For me, art is something to be seen, not put away and brought out with the cigars and sherry,” said Browns. “I asked Freda what she could live with, and she said, ‘ladies.’ I refined that to women beloved by the artist.”
They acquired, for example, the complete suite of Picasso’s nine favourite ladies.
The other donated works on paper, which include etchings, drypoints and lithographs, include La Goulue (1894) in which Toulouse-Lautrec captures one of the most scandalous and popular figures of the Paris cabaret scene. “That boozy patron looking on as the couple waltzes is Toulouse-Lautrec,” Browns pointed out. “He numbered the work himself and signed it with his TL monogram, which is rare, one of only 15 in the world.” The print was once owned by Édouard Kleinmann, a renowned collector and patron of Toulouse-Lautrec.
Another famous Parisian 19th-century woman, although more respectable, Misia Natanson, is the centre of Édouard Vuillard’s The Two Sisters-in-Law (1898-1899). She was the wife of Thadée Natanson, scion of a Polish-Jewish banking family, who co-founded La Revue blanche, which Misia edited.
Goldfarb said this colour lithograph is the most important representation of Vuillard at a Canadian institution.
The 1881 Summer Evening by James Tissotimmortalizes his muse, the consumptive Mrs. Newton, in her final months.
Two prints by Odilon Redon, Young Woman (1887) and Perversity (1891), offer contrasting styles–the natural versus the dramatized—to fit each female character.
The most recent is Adolescence (1932) by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst, considered his most celebrated work, said Goldfarb. The girl Dorette would become the artist’s second wife.
The Brownses were recently appointed Chevaliers of the Ordre de Montréal, the city’s highest distinction, for their support of culture and other philanthropic causes over more than a half-century.
“They’re wonderful people,” said Goldfarb. “Their generosity has altered the very profile of our print collection over the years, yet they remain modest.” Today, the MMFA boasts the largest graphic arts collection of its kind in Canada.
Browns recalled that it was Freda who got them into collecting. They bought their first painting for $75 from an artist friend of hers.
Over time, Browns honed what he calls connoisseurship, an eye for the finest prints by the most illustrious names working in the medium.
“I was willing to sit at the feet of anyone. I was fortunate to have had very good mentors,” he said.