Gabriel von Max

Lost Gabriel von Max's Painting at TEFAF

One of the few Czech works offered at this year’s TEFAF trade fair in Maastricht was a painting of St. Ludmila by Gabriel von Max. The painting, long considered to be lost, was one of Max’s early masterpieces and its history is an interesting case study in the history of the art market.

Gabriel von Max:  St. Ludmila / 1864 / oil  on canvas / 90,4 x 100,1 cm cena: 300 000 eur / Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, New York
Gabriel von Max:
St. Ludmila / 1864 / oil
on canvas / 90,4 x 100,1 cm
cena: 300 000 eur / Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, New York


Gabriel von Max (1840–1915) came from a family of Prague sculptors; however, he spent most of his life in Munich, where he arrived when he was twenty-three. In one of his letters from the mid-1870s, he wrote: “With the help of my bad reputation, Professor Piloty accepted me into his school, which was decisive for my future, as under his guidance and [under the influence of] my friendship with Hans Makart and many other dear colleagues I sailed into a favourable current. I painted more paintings, among them the strangled duchess Ludmila (in Boston), a female martyr on the cross (in Vienna), and a praying girl stricken by misfortune (in Moscow).”

When Max was writing this letter, he was thirty-five years old and was among the most successful artists of his era. He enjoyed the same renown as Hans Makart, his former classmate with whom he had shared an atelier at the Munich Academy and who settled in Vienna, or the few-years-older Munich painter/count Franz von Lenbach. Max’s path to success began with the painting of St. Julia, which he mentions in the aforementioned letter as a “martyr on the cross” and which is today in the collection of the National Gallery in Prague. His first exhibition in 1865 in Munich was a sensation for the city’s high society and the painting encountered similar success in the following years when it was exhibited in other European towns.

Max painted St. Ludmila a year before the martyr on the cross and Max used it to present himself at exhibitions in Boston, Dresden and Prague in 1865. It was offered for sale for a price of 450 guldens at the Krasoumná jednota exhibition. When Max exhibited St. Julia four years later in Prague, he asked ten times as much for it. The fact that the series of Max’s paintings of dead women, which made him famous, begins with St. Ludmila is no coincidence. His uncle and guardian Emanuel, who had brought him up after the death of his father Josef, was, among other things, the sculptor of St. Ludmila in Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral, and Gabriel Max later christened his daughter in honour of the Prague saint.

Gabriel von Max: St. Julia / 1865 oil on canvas / 180 x 135 cm price: 1 000 000 Kč (private sale 1995) / Prague National Gallery
Gabriel von Max: St. Julia / 1865
oil on canvas / 180 x 135 cm
price: 1 000 000 Kč (private sale 1995) / Prague National Gallery


Max exhibited both of the aforementioned paintings of the saints at the World Exposition in Paris in 1867. The French critic Bathild Bouniol preferred St. Ludmila, about which he wrote: “She seems of higher quality to me with her pleasant, true colours and elegant composition. I consider her exceptionally charming.” The painting, , was purchased probably directly from the exhibition through his buyer by the American collector William P. Wilstach, who had become rich by producing horse harnesses, saddles and wagons. When he died three years later, the American critic Earl Shinn characterised his collection as “the best of the French salons”. Mrs. Wilstach curated and enlarged the collection for more than twenty years and bequeathed it in her testament to a museum in Philadelphia.

It was this generous bequest of the Wilstach Collection in 1892 that transformed the Philadelphia museum from a museum of applied arts to a museum of art. Max’s St. Ludmila was lauded as one of Philadelphia’s attractions in English, French and German guidebooks from 1899 to 1909. World War I resulted in lessened interest in German culture by the American public, and this intensified with World War II. As a result, many institutions removed German art from their collections in the 1950s. The Philadelphia Museum of Art offered more than 200 paintings from the Wilstach Collection for sale in 1954, including St. Ludmila. The painting was purchased by the Philadelphia-based painter Walter Stuempfig, and his family owned the work until last year.

Last June, the painting was sold for almost 12,000 US dollars (CZK 230,000) at an auction organised by the auction house Freeman Fine Arts in Philadelphia. It was acquired by the New York art gallery Lawrence Steigrad Fine Arts, which displayed it in Maastricht this March as one of the highlights of its exhibition. The art gallery traced the painting’s history (this text is based on the case study in its catalogue) and increased its price: the painting was offered for 300,000 euros (CZK 8.2 million) at TEFAF. The artist’s six-year-old auction record on the world market stands at CZK 1.2 million. The most expensive Max painting sold at local auction, one of his monkey portraits, went for CZK 370,000 four years ago at Galerie Kodl.

Max’s works have sold for more privately in the past, but still nowhere near the price being asked for St. Ludmila. The National Gallery in Vienna purchased the painting of St. Julia in 1995 for 1 million korunas. Two years ago, the Gallery of West Bohemia purchased the painting Kiss from 1892 in Munich and paid CZK 750,000 for it. The representatives of Czech auction houses consider the price for St. Ludmila a little excessive. Roman Musil, director of the Gallery of West Bohemia and co-organiser of the Max exhibition which took place in Pilsen three years ago, however, is more conciliatory: “Just think about how much a Jakub Schikaneder goes for.” In Schikaneder’s case, prices above CZK 6 million are almost automatic and his auction record stands at CZK 9.7 million. Let us point out that Schikaneder was Max’s pupil at the Munich Academy in the 1870s.

The second painting reproduced here, a portrait study of the artist’s second wife, Ernestine, will be auctioned off next month by Galerie Kodl. It is a younger variation (by a few years) of the painting At the Palm Reader from 1887, in which Ernestine’s palm is being read. The auction will start at CZK 85,000 (not including auctioneer commission). The asking price corresponds to the previous sales of Max’s works, but one can expect that under the current circumstances it will not be the final price.


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