MetCollects from The Metropolitan Museum of Art - episode 03 / 2018

Every month, MetCollects introduces one work of art recently acquired by the Met.
We invite you to have a first look with us.

Click below to go directly to this month's episode.

The Old Actress<br />
by Max Beckmann, 1926

Beckmann was proud of this portrait, describing it as "great" and counting it among his "major works," but he never identified the sitter. He referred to her only as "an old actress," or "the old lady." He must have known her well, however, because he usually chose the subjects of his portraits from his circle of friends and family. When representing elder sitters, such as his mother and especially his mother-in-law, he showed his affection and the toll of age on a refined old face. He must have been attracted to the innately expressive features of this particular woman, whose strong nose, sharp mouth, and thick black eyebrows convey toughness, resilience, and resignation. She probably was never beautiful and would therefore have played character roles. Her severe black dress with white trim and lace insert evokes clerical garb. Only the gold pin and earrings and the ginger cat nestled in her lap counter the starkness projected by this hardened survivor.

The renowned German art historian Julius Meier-Graefe considered the portrait to be outstanding and acquired it in 1926. The painting was presented in Beckmann's first solo exhibition in the United States, at J. B. Neumann's New Art Circle in New York, in April 1927. Singling out this picture, the reviewer for The New York Times described the subject as sitting "...purposely, waiting for nothing....You can see in her face, lined with the creases of many roles, that she has a past..."

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, a cofounder of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1929, must have agreed with Meier-Graefe's assessment of The Old Actress, because she bought the painting from Neumann in New York in 1930. It was the second work by Beckmann to enter a private collection in the United States. The painting remained with the descendants of Mrs. Rockefeller until it was given to The Met in 2017.

Sabine Rewald
Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator of Modern Art
Modern and Contemporary Art



Download The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in App StoreDownload The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine in Google play