Arts & Entertainment

'So This is Where You've Been Hiding': Summit Middle School Teacher Mallory Mortillaro Identifies 'Lost' Rodin Sculpture

Left, Mortillaro and LeBlay with the Rodin sculpture; Right, with bust of Napoleon in his studio. Credits: Hartley Dodge Foundation

MADISON, NJ - A sculpture by the acclaimed French artist, Auguste Rodin, that had been “lost” to the arts community for years has been rediscovered in Madison by Mallory Mortillaro, now a Language Arts teacher at Summit's Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School.

The piece is a marble bust of Napoleon Bonaparte entitled Napoléon Enveloppé Dans Son Rêve -- Napoleon Wrapped in his Dream -- and the public has a chance to view it at the Hartley Dodge Memorial, in Madison before it goes on exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  

Mortillaro, at the time of her hire to do catalogue / research works in late 2014 , was a young graduate student studying art history at Drew University. She identified the piece while inventorying the Foundation’s art collection.

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Mortillaro answered an ad posted by the Foundation looking for an archivist. She wanted to earn some extra money for school, and to learn more about the building that is the centerpiece of Madison. She was hired, and began her work inquiring into the large, marble bust of a man, garbed as a Roman, that sat on a pedestal in a corner of the Council Room.  The piece is so heavy, in fact, that during the recent, extensive renovation of the Hartley Dodge Memorial building, the contractors simply built a plywood box around it and left it in the middle of the Council Chamber rather than try to move it out of the building. For two years it was surrounded by jack-hammers and building debris, protected only by the plywood box.

While there were some suspicions over the years that the bust might have come from the Rodin studio, there were no records and no follow up to establish its authenticity. The Trustees of the Hartley Dodge Foundation were gathered for one of their regular quarterly meetings and on the agenda was an update from Mortillaro. What she had to say that morning brought the meeting to a standstill: “So what are you going to do with the Rodin?”

It seemed a little far-fetched than it would be an original Rodin. There was no paperwork that had been passed down within the Board on any of the artwork in the building.

The detective work began.

Mortillaro looked through every book on Rodin she could get her hands on, and yet there was never a mention of Rodin’s bust of Napoleon. There were online searches, visits to the Rockefeller archives, phone calls to museums, and contacts in the art world.

Mortillaro knew that in order to be taken seriously she would have to get the piece authenticated. Finally, Mortillaro got in touch with the world’s leading Rodin expert, Jérôme Le Blay, formerly of the Rodin Museum in Paris and author of the Catalogue Critique de l’Oeuvre Sculpté d’Auguste Rodin, soon to be released by the Comité Auguste Rodin. After sending him a photo of the piece, and he immediately wrote back to her in a flurry of excitement saying he would have to fly from Paris to see the piece. Yes, he knew of this piece, but the art world had lost track of it decades ago. Le Blay explained that it was once owned by industrialist Thomas Fortune Ryan.  

This lead allowed Mortillaro a bit more information to work from. Eventually three pages from a 1933 Parke Bernet auction catalog were sent to her by Libby Debevoise, a descendant of Thomas Fortune Ryan. The catalog confirmed not only the name of the piece, but also that it had been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1915 to 1929. There it was, literally in black and white, Napoléon Enveloppé Dans Son Rêve, along with the description.

According to Mortillaro, ‘When Monsieur Le Blay walked into the chambers, he turned and said, “Hello my friend, so is this where you have been hiding?” The Trustees were ecstatic’

The older story, the history of the bust, begins over a century ago. The work was conceived and begun in 1904 at the behest of New York collector, John W. Simpson.  It is not known why the commission was not completed, but in 1908 Thomas Fortune Ryan saw the unfinished piece in Rodin’s studio and acquired it.  Work resumed and it was completed in 1910.  From there it was shipped to New York, to Thomas Fortune Ryan’s home, until he loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1915. After Ryan’s death, the estate took back the loan from the Metropolitan. A few years later, Mrs. Dodge purchased the sculpture at the Parke Bernet auction.

The Hartley Dodge Memorial building was dedicated on May 30, 1935.  The artwork ornamenting the Council Chambers was brought in several years later in 1942, all donated from Mrs. Dodge’s own collection.  The Rodin sculpture is part of the collection of artwork of Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge (1883-1973), daughter of William Rockefeller and an heiress to the Standard Oil fortune. It was Dodge who donated the Hartley Dodge Memorial building to the Borough of Madison. It was dedicated in 1935, in memory of her son Marcellus Hartley Dodge, Jr., who was killed in a car accident in France in 1930.  The beautiful granite and marble building serves as the public offices for the Borough of Madison, New Jersey.

It is hard to determine if the people who have worked in or visited the building over the years ever took more than a moment to steal a glance over at the back corner of the room to look at the marble bust sitting on a large bronze base.  After all, it has been there for over 80 years.

The newly discovered bust will now be enjoying time in the spotlight.  The sculpture will be leaving Madison to go on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art where it will be a part of the large celebration centering around Rodin’s art on November 17, the centennial of his death.   

The Hartley Dodge Foundation is inviting the public to see the piece before it leaves for Philadelphia. The building will be open for all to view and learn about the sculpture on the following schedule:

Saturday, October 21, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.

Sunday, October 22, 11 a.m. - 3 p.m.

The Hartley Dodge Memorial is located at 50 Kings Road in Madison.

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