The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has been left tens of millions of dollars in the will of one of its major patrons. Following the death of Jayne Wrightsman, who passed away in April 2019, her collection of around 375 works of art will fall into the ownership of the museum. What’s more the board of directors at the Met will receive a cash boost that is valued at $80 million thanks to the contents of Wrightsman’s bequest. The Michigan-born philanthropist was already established as one of the most important patrons over the course of the Met’s entire history. However, few imagined that she had such a large bequeathal in mind.
Wrightsman was born in October 1919 and was an avid collector of some of the finest works of art, most of which were attributed to European painters of the ancien regime. Although she had been a patron of the Met almost since she had started her art collection in the early 1950s, a number of her personal possessions had been split up following a sale at Sotheby’s auction house in 2012. This raised over $15.5 million for the collector. Despite her personal fortune and remaining collection, the bequest to the Met has caused quite a stir among art enthusiasts and professionals all over the globe, let alone the United States.
Before Wrightsman – an oil tycoon’s widow – died at the ripe old age of 99, she had already given the Met a number of important and valuable works of art. Among her collection that had already made it to the museum was the famous Portrait of Madame Henri Francois Riesener by Eugene Delacroix, for example. However, these significant donations were dwarfed following the instruction in her will to pass over hundreds of works to the gallery. This means that over the course of her lifetime, Wrightsman had given away well over 1,200 artworks to the gallery. Many commentators have noted that it is not just the large number of pieces that mark out the collector’s largesse but the fact that so many artworks in her gift were of such high quality. For example, a number of the pieces that have been given as a part of the bequest are by famous names such as Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Canaletto and Anthony van Dyck. Other well-known artworks include those by likes of Francesco Guardi, Théodore Géricault and Georges Seurat, to name but a few.
Max Hollein, who is the current director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said that Wrightsman’s extraordinary bequest constituted a capstone that was the culmination of more than half a century’s worth of philanthropy. Speaking of her acts of generosity, he said that almost every field of the gallery had benefited at some point in time from the devoted patronage of the deceased art lover. “[Her donations]… have enriched the lives of countless visitors to the Met,” he said. Hollein went on to add that the “rare, beautiful and priceless artworks” in the donation will have a significant legacy at the museum. “They will be remembered and celebrated by all for a long time,” he said.
The Met’s president and chief executive echoed the sentiments expressed by Hollein. Daniel H Weiss said that Wrightsman as well as her husband, who died in the mid-1980s, had been model patrons. “[They were]… standard bearers for an entire generation of donors,” he said. Weiss went on to say that the couple’s almost legendary eye for seeking out the highest quality works of art was only outdone by their exceptional generosity and philanthropy. He praised what he called the Wrightsmans “unwavering dedication” to the gallery, its collection, its many different galleries and even to its staff members and curators. In fact, during the latter half of the twentieth century, both of the Wrightsmans had served as trustees at the Met. Mrs Wrightsman had even spent time as the chair of the gallery’s acquisitions committee, as well.
In addition to the paintings that Mrs Wrightsman was so noted for adding to her private collection, her final bequest includes a lot more besides. Sculptures, drawings and sketches are all part of the large donation. Indeed, there are other items such as decorative objets d’art and some very rare books from her personal collection that will be heading to the Met, too. Some of her former belongings have already been sent to the Department of Asian Art and the Watson Library at the Met for further study while others will wend their way to the museum’s Department of Islamic Art. Selected works from the Jayne Wrightsman collection will be displayed as part of a special exhibition from mid-November until mid-February, 2020, all drawn from the bequest. After that, it is expected that her collection will become part of the wider collection of the Met itself.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.