Painting by Italian master turns up in Texas

Sunday, November 2, 2008 | 5:52 p.m. CST
Shown is the painting "The Vision of St. Bruno" in Dallas on Oct. 23. The lost painting by Italian master Sebastiano Ricci has turned up in Texas after a 300-year journey that has seen it change hands from a European nobleman playboy to a Missouri fur trader and finally to generations of an American family. Discovered in a Dallas warehouse after the family asked an art expert to take a look at it, Ricci's painting will be offered by Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries.

DALLAS — A painting by Italian master Sebastiano Ricci, long presumed to be lost, has turned up in Texas after a 300-year journey from the hands of a European nobleman playboy, to a fur trader, and finally through generations of one family.

Ricci's "The Vision of St. Bruno" will be offered by Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries on Nov. 20. Heritage officials say the painting has been conservatively estimated to fetch at least $600,000.

The family that owns the work asked Heritage chairman of fine arts Edmund Pillsbury a year ago to take a look at a painting they had stored in a warehouse. They thought it could be a Ricci, but Pillsbury was skeptical.

He was floored when he realized that the 3-by-4-foot painting — depicting a robed St. Bruno looking up at a colorful grouping of angels — did indeed appear to be the work of the famous Venetian painter.

"I was not prepared for something that was as good and beautiful as this," said Pillsbury, former director of the Kimbell Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas.

Pillsbury said Ricci probably painted St. Bruno around 1705.

Ricci, who died at 74 in 1734, worked for all of the major courts of Europe, according to Pillsbury. "His paintings are in all of the great museums," he said.

The last known documentation of the St. Bruno painting was a 1776 catalog of the collection of Count Francesco Algarotti, an 18th-century art connoisseur from Venice who advised royalty on their collections and was also known for his colorful love life.

"He was definitely a playboy, but a well-educated playboy," said Marianne Berardi, senior fine arts expert for Heritage.

The painting had most recently been passed down through the descendants of Charles Rannells, a St. Louis lawyer and legislator who acquired it in the 1840s.

Berardi said Rannells' descendants thought that the painting was a payment of legal fees from a client of Rannells, Joseph Philipson. Berardi's research found the painting was in an 1844 probate list of works owned by Philipson — a fur trader, banker and brewer whose dry goods store outfitted explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

Philipson probably acquired the Ricci around 1814 in Paris.

Laura Taylor of Dallas, a great-great granddaughter of Charles Rannells, remembers the painting hanging in her grandparents' parlor and then in her parents' living room. She said her mother took an interest in the painting and decided it was a Ricci after seeing another work by the artist in a St. Louis art gallery.

"She knew it was an important painting," Taylor said. "She's spent her whole lifetime trying to find out for sure."

Taylor said her family has enjoyed watching some of the mystery of the painting unravel.

"The story's been fascinating. It kind of brings these people to life," she said.

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