Our curatorial team first saw Pan – Youths & Nymphs listed in the anonymous document “Oil Paintings at Montpellier” (circa 1836-44). Next, the team found an 1846 newspaper article that describes the work hanging over a mantel in Dolley Madison’s Lafayette Square house in Washington, D.C. The article called it “a very old painting representing a group of maidens surprised by Pan while playing in a grove.”2
Then the trail went cold. We knew John Payne Todd (Dolley’s son) held a sale of her property nearly two years after her 1849 death. A newspaper account following the sale noted at least one of the “large works” remained unsold. Could Pan – Youths & Nymphs be one of these paintings? If so, where did it go?
To pick up the trail, Dr. Lance Humphries, Montpelier’s early American art collections expert began investigating James C. McGuire, a Washington, D.C. auctioneer and art collector. McGuire handled both Dolley Madison and John Payne Todd’s estate sales. Dolley and “Payne” were probably indebted to McGuire. Dr. Humphries suggested some of McGuire’s descendants might have owned some of the Madison paintings that didn’t sell.
Next, Dr. Humphries traced the painting’s subsequent chain of owners and descendants of the last known purchaser. The painting stayed in the purchaser’s family for two more generations. During that time the family learned the painting was the work of Dutch master Gerrit Van Honthorst (1592-1656).
Ironically, the painting had been in the Charlottesville, Va. area— about 30 miles away from Montpelier— for years! In the 1980s it had even been on loan to the Bayly Art Museum at the University of Virginia. In 2004, the painting was sold through Sotheby’s in Amsterdam – half a world away – and bought by a resident there. The sale happened just before Montpelier caught up to the painting.
Not to be denied, Dr. Humphries found the new owner. The Madison connection fascinated the owner so much that he generously allowed Montpelier to photograph the work to make a reproduction. He also loaned it to Montpelier to exhibit in the Grills Gallery. The following year, the support of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Rob C. Labadie, and other generous private donors allowed Montpelier to purchase the original!