An elegant hotel restaurant on Fifth Avenue. A beautiful woman, a handsome man. Evening clothes worn with the grace of people who wear such clothing regularly.
He is a powerful, important man. You can see that in his strong profile—the set jaw, the intense gaze—which is echoed in his reflection in the mirror behind them.
It is fascinating, however, that his wife has no reflection at all.
They are Chester and Maud Murray Dale, and they’re dining in the Hotel Brevoort in New York City. It is 1924.
Chester Dale (1883–1962) was an investment banker—one of those self-made men who started as an office boy on the New York Stock Exchange when he was 15 and grew up to have success and enormous wealth: a house in Southampton, penthouses (two of them) in the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue, a mansion on East 79th Street, and later an apartment in the Plaza Hotel.
When I first saw the painting I had some fun imagining Maud Dale (1875–1953) as a ghost (remember that scene of the anniversary dinner in The Sixth Sense?). After that, my speculations about her reflectionlessness were a bit more random: perhaps she was shown without a reflection to indicate some unhappiness in their relationship, or perhaps it’s about her insignificance in a male-dominated world.
But it’s not as simple as that. The Dales commissioned this painting, and they were great patrons of the arts and of the artist who painted the portrait, Guy Pène du Bois. Chester Dale was later one of the founding benefactors of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, loaning the museum 22 paintings when it opened in 1937 and many more over time. Those loans became gifts at the time of his death.
The Chester Dale Collection in the National Gallery includes 240 paintings, as well as books and other works of art. In addition, in his will, Dale gave the gallery a half-million-dollar endowment for scholarships.
And it was Maud Murray Dale who got him interested in art and encouraged him to begin collecting it. She was painter herself and an art critic; she was an energetic and talented organizer of art exhibits.
A New York Times article from 1933, about a new exhibit she had organized, hints at her work and her personality (I say “hints” because the rest of the article is hidden behind the subscribers-only wall):
Maud Dale is so charming a truant that when she reappears one hasn’t the heart to chide her for having, as it were, left art in the lurch. And as a matter of fact, Mrs. Dale never does leave art in the lurch, really, since she is always at work on projects, some of which, impressive in scope or offering peculiar difficulties, require long preparation.
The Dales were friends with Dalí, Picasso, and Matisse. Chester Dale frequently stated that in collecting art, “he had the inquisitiveness and Maud had the knowledge.” They functioned as a team on their buying trips: Maud selecting the paintings and Chester negotiating the prices.
So why doesn’t she have a reflection?
Was there something amiss in their relationship after all? The National Gallery of Art’s brief biography of Maud Dale says that after Chester bought the 79th Street mansion, she continued to live in their Carlyle Hotel penthouse (one of them, that is).
Although Mrs. Dale helped to entertain at the new residence, she never lived there. She gradually became a recluse, leaving the art world, and remained at the Carlyle for the rest of her life, apart from her husband, for some years before her death in a nursing home in Southampton on August 5, 1953.
But Pène du Bois’ portrait was painted in 1924, about a decade before Dale bought the 79th Street mansion, and long before she became a recluse.
In A Real Van Gogh: How the Art World Struggles with the Truth, Henk Tromp wrote, “Many in the art world considered [Chester Dale] vulgar, although other epithets were used as well: shrewd, brilliant, generous with his friends.” In collecting, he could be “quick-tempered, dogmatic, rough-spoken, and always entirely convinced of being in the right.” Late in his life, Dale wrote, “All my life has been a challenge, just as my collecting pictures is a challenge. It’s that terrible desire to win!”
Is there something in Chester Dale’s personality that led Pène du Bois to portray Maud Dale without a reflection? Was he marking some difference between the two of them, even if it wasn’t intended to hint at any difficulty in their relationship per se?
I have found no answer so far (admittedly, so far I haven’t done much research beyond vigorous googling), so I’ll leave you with this as a mystery.
A number of other Pène du Bois paintings I’ve seen online have odd elements, such as “Country Wedding,” in which the bride stands with her groom, stark naked except for her veil, necklace, and shoes. Her nakedness perhaps suggests how the people around her are thinking of her.
So perhaps Maud Murray Dale’s lack of a reflection is meant to suggest how others see her? Do they not see her depth; do they not truly recognize her full capacity? Perhaps, despite the fact that she—not her husband—was the expert in art, Pène du Bois is suggesting that the art world (or high society) did not see her in the same way as they saw her husband?
I don’t know. Right now I find the enigma of the painting so compelling that I’m happy to leave it at that—though if I find an answer, I’ll add it in an update.