Dec. 2, 2003 – One of the items that art and antiques collector Wayne James acquired in his travels about a year ago is a 19th century oil portrait that he unveiled at Government House in Christiansted on Wednesday.
The painting, by Austrian-born artist Franz Xaver Kosler, is titled "La beauté africaine en blanc" ("The African Beauty in White").
James describes La beauté as "one of the greatest finds of my career as a collector."
That's high praise from the man who has collected enough Danish West Indian furniture and world art to fill the Whim Museum greathouse for the current exhibition, "Press to Des', Pillar to Post: the Art and Antiques of a Worldly Bachelor," which will be in place until next May. (See "Passion and patrimony meet in museum show".)
The figure in the portrait "calms the soul," James said in an earlier statement. "Some people cry when they see her. Just about everyone gets goose bumps."
She "represents the proverbial Everywoman. Her head draped in white fabric and the gentle manner in which she caresses her waist is reminiscent of the 'Madonna at the Annunciation.' Her downward glance into the depths of some profound thought is as intriguing as the smile of da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa.' And her ultrafeminine gesture, where she slightly places her hand on its corresponding shoulder, recalls the sensuousness of Ingres' 'Odalisque.'"
There are few portraits of black people from that era, James noted. "But for the fact that this one had been privately held, occupying the same wall in the same castle in Sweden for over 100 years, it would undoubtedly be regarded amongst the finest portraits of the 19th century," he said.
James said that negotiations with its former owner stretched over more than a year, and it was finally agreed that he acquire the painting.
The French art market information Web site artprice.com shows that an oil on canvas by Franz Xaver Kosler with that title, 80 by 62 inches, dated 1884, was sold at auction on Dec. 8, 2002. No price was mentioned.
The subject of the portrait is unknown but apparently was Egyptian. Kosler arrived in Egypt in 1892 at the age of 28, according to James, and completed "La beauté africaine" two years later (which would date it from a decade later than the artprice Web site listing). Between 1892 and 1905 the artist painted the portraits of a number of the world's prominent personalities, from Austria's Archduke Ferdinand Karl to Egypt's Prince Said Pascha, and died soon thereafter in his early '40s.
James credits Kosler with masterfully capturing the nuances of African skin, "the rich mahogany complexion with its undertones of claret; the subtle shading on the knuckles and just under the lips; the highlights on the forehead and cheeks."
"I am glad to be able to share her with the people of the Virgin Islands for the duration of my furniture exhibition," he said of "La beauté africaine." The portrait "speaks to the entire black race and the rest of humanity in the process. She addresses the question of race in Egypt, the condition of the continental African over a century ago, the unbiased view of black beauty."
He said the work "is too significant to be privately held," and that he is in discussions "with several museums of international significance" regarding its purchase.
James said at the unveiling Wednesday that he hopes to sell the painting to one or more corporate interests, which would then lend it to major museums, like the Louvre, the Prado and the National Gallery. He said that he plans to use the proceeds from its sale "to construct a world-class museum to the decorative arts of the Virgin Islands" on St. Croix by 2008.
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