Ackland Returns Painting to Rightful Owners

The Studio of Thomas Couture, 19th century. Earlier this year, the Ackland Art Museum returned the painting to the heirs of its original owner. (Photo: UNC/Johnny Andrews ’97)

UNC’s Ackland Art Museum made headlines nationwide this year when it returned a 19th-century oil painting that was taken from a prominent Jewish art collector during World War II. The painting, The Studio of Thomas Couture, had been part of Ackland’s collection since 1972, when the museum acquired it from a Parisian art dealer.

The family of Armand Isaac Dorville, a prominent art dealer whose collection was seized during the Nazi occupation of France, contacted Ackland about the painting last year, and staff began working to verify its history and prepare for its possible restitution. “We believe in doing the right thing,” explained Katie Ziglar ’79, Ackland’s director. “If we don’t rightfully own it, we want to send it back to where it does belong.”

A descendant of Dorville flew from Paris to North Carolina to collect the painting, praising Ackland’s decision and pledging to continue the search for other works of art looted from the Dorville collection. A few weeks after a public ceremony to return The Studio of Thomas Couture, Ziglar and Ackland curator Dana Cowen sat down with the Review to discuss the painting, the decision to return it and how the history of artwork shapes the way we view it today.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me about the painting. What made it special?

Cowen: Thomas Couture was a 19th-century French painter and a very well-known teacher. This painting was by a member of his studio, and it depicts a session within Thomas Couture’s studio. A nude male figure is standing, and students surrounding that figure, painting or drawing on easels. Throughout the picture, leaning in different areas of the studio, are paintings by Thomas Couture that are clearly identifiable. That is why it’s so art-historically significant, especially by scholars of Édouard Manet, who was a student of Thomas Couture’s for six years.

Did most prominent artists come up through a studio like Couture’s? Were these the art schools of their day?

Cowen: What’s interesting about Thomas Couture is that during this period in France, the art world was pretty regimented. There was an academic system that most artists went through, and they were learning classical art in a very traditional way. It was very hard to get into the salon, a juried exhibition that happened every year, and you really had to be part of the academy to participate.

Couture was very much against this, and I think he attracted students who wanted to act outside the academic system. That’s another reason why this painting is important, because of Manet’s connection to Couture, and how Manet becomes this giant figure in modern art.

How prominent was this painting within UNC’s collection?

Ziglar: It was in six different exhibitions between the time we acquired it in 1972 and 2008, the last time it was displayed. And it was used frequently for classes. We bring out art for teaching almost daily during the semester, and it was used for that kind of classwork a lot. We teach about 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students each year from hundreds of different disciplines.

How might different disciplines draw on Ackland’s art as a teaching tool?

Ziglar: If we walk into the Study Gallery right now, you’ll see several different subjects being taught. There’s one on law and human rights, one on race and medicine and using art to prepare future physicians. We’re always reaching out to professors and talking to them about how they can bring different points across in whatever subject they’re trying to teach using art. We have one of the strongest programs doing this anywhere in the nation.

Our motto is look close, think far. We like to emphasize that what you’re seeing can take your mind way out from what you’re actually standing in front of. For example, a lot of works have strong implications about the state of the economy at the time they were painted, about trade in different parts of the world, and those are things we don’t always immediately consider when we’re looking at a still life or a portrait.

What insights do you get from a close look at The Studio of Thomas Couture?

Cowen: Certainly, discovering the paintings within the painting is one of the most rewarding aspects of it. And because of the viewpoint, you’re able to put yourself in the place of a 19th-century student who’s looking at this male figure, being amongst other students, trying to perfect their own art. It’s a very educational painting in that way.

 Do we know how the painting came to be in Ackland’s collection?

Cowen: We have very little information about its origin. We know it was purchased from a French dealer in 1972, and we have the shipping manifest from when it arrived. But that’s really all we have about it. I don’t know if they approached us, if someone on the Ackland staff saw it in Paris, or how it came to our attention. But I think because the director at the time, Joseph Somme, was a scholar of 19th-century French art, it would have appealed to him.

Today, we require a lot more provenance information, especially for red-flag items that would have been in Europe during the war years. You’re looking for detailed ownership history, if there are people within that history who have red flags for being collaborators or dealers working with people in the Nazi regime, anything like that. You just have to dig deeper, contacting agencies like the Art Loss Registry, going through all of the databases of Nazi-looted items or things that have claims on them. There are more avenues of research today.

Cowen, right, speaks to the audience at a restitution event held at the Ackland in January while Alain Creissen ’08, left, serves as interpreter.
(Photo: UNC/Johnny Andrews ’97)

Was it a difficult decision to return it, once the troubled history of the painting came to light?

Ziglar: Not at all. It’s really important for people to know we believe in doing the right thing. If we don’t rightfully own it, we want to send it back to where it does belong.

In this case, an art historian working for the family, someone who specializes in Nazi-related provenance research, got in touch with us. We got a letter from an attorney in Paris letting us know with lots of detail — including pictures from an auction catalog, which is rare — that this object we had in our collection likely belonged to the Dorville family.

Something like this happens every once in a blue moon. It has only happened one other time since I was here, and in that case it was an Indian sculpture that had been stolen from a temple, and of course we gave it back to the government of India.

When we become convinced we’re holding something with no right to have it here, we return it. In this case, we were righting a clear historical wrong, and I’m proud we were able to do that.

There are intense debates now about what’s appropriate for a museum to own and display — whether art from other cultures and other eras can be fairly exhibited. What do you think about those arguments?

Cowen: I think it comes down to treating artwork with respect. Art lives several lives; the meaning of an object when it was done is much different than how we see it now. It’s always important to understand the context, where and how it was made, compared to the kind of viewpoint we might put on that object today. That’s the beauty of art. It’s so multifaceted, and there are so many angles with which to interpret it, that it can mean something very different to us today than when it was made.

Ziglar: In terms of what’s appropriate to have and display, it’s very fluid. Things are changing, and we have to be aware of those discussions. But if everything went back to its place of origin, think what a boring world we would live in! One of the great things about sharing culture is the ability to learn. Far from stealing one’s culture, it’s a real mark of respect and interest that artwork is kept in museums and studied so people can learn and enjoy. American art is all over the world, and they say a lot about who we are or were, what our preoccupations have been. So many aspects of the American story come out through these works that are viewed by others, and the same happens when we look at art from other parts of the world. We think of those works as ambassadors for culture.


— Eric Johnson ’08

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