After 80 years, a historic painting has been returned to its rightful heirs thanks to the Ackland Art Museum.
On Jan. 16, the museum completed its restitution of “The Studio of Thomas Couture” at a small ceremony, returning the painting to the estate of renowned Jewish art collector Armand Isaac Dorville (1875-1941). The Ackland is the first U.S. art museum to return a work to Dorville’s heirs.
Raphaël Falk, an heir to the estate, traveled to Chapel Hill from France to represent the family in receiving the artwork.
“I feel very proud,” said museum director, Katie Ziglar. “The painting will never leave us entirely. It will always be part of our legacy and that of so many people who are UNC graduates. At the same time, it’s wonderful to know that it is going back to France and will be part of the initiative to bring Dorville’s collection back together again.”
The painting, which depicts a nude male figure modeling for an art class, once belonged to Dorville, a lawyer from Paris. After Dorville’s death in 1941, his collection of over 450 works passed to family members and was subsequently sold at auction in 1942 to raise funds for the family to flee persecution. Due to antisemitic policies introduced by the Germans and the Vichy regime in France, Dorville’s heirs did not receive compensation for the sale, and Dorville’s sister, along with her two daughters and two granddaughters, were deported to Auschwitz and murdered.
Nothing is known of the provenance of “The Studio of Thomas Couture” from its sale in 1942 to its purchase from a French dealer in 1972 by the Ackland, where it stayed for over 50 years.
Dana Cowen, a curator at Ackland, spoke to the impact the piece has had on the Carolina student body over those five decades.
“Since the subject matter [of the painting] has to do with students learning from their teacher, it has been featured in exhibitions with that in mind,” Cowen said. “In that way, it has helped students understand the process of how artists worked in 19th century Paris.”
Alongside Falk at the restitution ceremony was art historian Éléonore Delabre, whose work focuses on researching and returning works of art that were looted from Jewish families during World War II. Cowen and Ziglar say Delabre’s work was instrumental in making sure “The Studio of Thomas Couture” was returned to the right hands.
“This restitution is very special because we actually have an heir here, along with an art historian who did essential research on the provenance of the painting,” Ziglar said. “That’s not always the case, and they could have just requested that we pack up the piece and send it their way. But it’s so special that these two took the time, energy and effort to be with us for this transition.”
And how might Dorville feel knowing that pieces of his stolen collection are finally back with his family?
“I think he would be glad to see us thinking about him,” Falk said. “We’re still trying to do our best to get his whole collection back together. It’s going to be very difficult, but we’re just beginning, and we will pass on this task to our children.”