John J. Klejman, New York
Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York, acquired from the above in 1961
The Museum of Primitive Art, New York (accession nos. '61.24' and '61.25')
Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, May 4, 1967, lot 25
Acquired at the above auction
The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, Traditional Art of the African Nations in the Museum of Primitive Art, May 17 - September 10, 1961
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, The Traditional Sculpture of Africa, October 12 - November 12, 1961 (cats. 52 and 53)
Colby College, Waterville, Maine, New Discoveries in West African Art, March 4 - March 30, 1962
The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, February 20 - May 5, 1963 (cats. 55a and 55b)
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, July 12 - August 11, 1963 (cats. 55a and 55b)
Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, September 17 - October 27, 1963 (cats. 55a and 55b)
The Rockefeller Institute, New York, West African Art, October - December, 1964
Arnot Art Gallery, Elmira, New York, The Art of Black Africa: Past and Present, January 19 - February 4, 1965
First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar, Senegal, Traditional African Art, April 1 - April 24, 1966 (cat. 372)
Grand Palais, Paris,Traditional African Art, June 1 - August 20, 1966
Mary Washington College, University of Virginia, Fredericksburg, Virginia, The Sculpture of Primitive Peoples, October 23 - December 11, 1966 (cat. 14, female figure)
The Hudson River Museum, Yonkers, New York, African Art in Westchester from Private Collections, April 24 – June 6, 1971 (cats. 47 and 48)
C. W. Post Art Gallery, Greenvale, New York, African Sculpture: The Shape of Surprise, February 17 – March 30, 1980 (cat. 19)
National Museum of African Art - Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., African Art in the Cycle of Life (inaugural exhibition), September 15, 1987 - March 20, 1988 (cat. 2)
Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York, Africa: The Art of a Continent, June 7 - September 29, 1996
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, A Family Album: Brooklyn Collects, March 2 - July 1, 2001
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture, November 19, 2002 - April 13, 2003 (cat. 4)
The Museum of Primitive Art (ed.), Traditional Art of the African Nations in the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1961, nos. 42 and 43
Robert Goldwater, Senufo Sculpture from West Africa, New York, 1964, ill. 93 and 93a
The First World Festival of Negro Arts (ed.), Traditional African Art, Dakar, Senegal, 1966, cat. 372 (male figure)
The Hudson River Museum (ed.), African Art in Westchester from Private Collections, Yonkers, 1971, cats. 47 (illustrated) and 48 (unillustrated)
Susan M. Vogel, African Sculpture: The Shape of Surprise, New York, 1980, p. 43, cat. 19 (unillustrated)
Roy Sieber and Roslyn A. Walker, African Art in the Cycle of Life, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 33, cat. 2
Alisa LaGamma, Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture, 2002, p. 31, cat. 4
The Rosenthal Primordial Couple, a masterpiece in two parts created by an unknown Senufo artist from Ivory Coast in the late 19th or early 20th century, was among the most iconic works in the collection of The Museum of Primitive Art in New York in the mid 20th century. The museum was a private initiative of Senator, later Vice President, Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller, established in 1954 and financed primarily by the senator himself. The museum was closed in 1976 and the collection subsequently transferred to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it forms the core of the Department for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, housed in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing.
Whilst in Rockefeller's collection in the 1960s the Rosenthal Couple was featured in 11 museum exhibitions. On May 4, 1967 Parke-Bernet Galleries conducted a sale to raise money for The Museum of Primitive Art, with the Couple the star lot. Frieda and Milton Rosenthal acquired the Couple at that auction. Over the next 40 years, the figures were widely published and exhibited, and today count among the most widely recognized works of African art in the world.
In her discussion of the Rosenthal Primordial Couple at the occasion of the exhibition Genesis: Ideas of Origin in African Sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, LaGamma (2002: 30 et seq.) notes: "According to the Senufo account of genesis, Kolotyolo, the creator, gave life to the first man and woman, who became the first human couple. The woman conceived and gave birth to twins, a girl and a boy. In Senufo society twins are thus thought to have supernatural power that they may exert to positive or negative effect. In order for them to fulfill their potential to be a force for the good, twins must be male and female, the ideal gender balance of the creation myth. Senufo large-scale sculptural pairs commemorate the primordial couple of the myth and celebrate their enduring beauty and idealized complementariness. [...]
"The ideal of human male-female duality represented in [The Rosenthal Primordial Couple] also informs Senufo conceptions of the divine, especially the bipartite deity that is central to Senufo religious belief. Kolotyolo, the male aspect of divinity responsible for creation and 'bringing us forth,' is a benevolent but relatively remote presence who is balanced by a more accessible female dimension known as Katyeleeo, or Ancient Mother. She is a divine protectress responsive to the needs of the community. Within Senufo society, an optimal relationship with this divinity and the ancestors is assured through Poro, an initiation-based organization whose teachings also prepare members for responsible and enlightened leadership. Participation in Poro is universal among Senufo males, who safeguard their community's social and political welfare by making frequent sacrifices to the ancestors - conceived as past children of Ancient Mother - so that they may intercede on behalf of her current, living children.
"A Senufo village is composed of a series of residential settlements known as katiolo. In a large village, each has its own Poro society, set of initiates, and sacred sanctuary, or sinzanga, situated in a dense grove of trees beside the village. [...] Although Poro is essentially a male institution, the most important ancestor invoked is the woman who was the head of the sinzanga's founding matrilineage. Anita Glaze suggests that this emphasis on female ancestral origins is reflected in Poro-sculptural couples, the majority of which interpret the female as the dominant of the two figures. Such 'ancestral couples' are the primary sculptural form used by Poro and are displayed on the occasion of a distinguished member's funeral. Both figures in this example hold attributes of Poro in their right hands: the male grasps a flywhisk, the female raises a rattle.
"A preoccupation with ancestral origins is articulated visually in [The Rosenthal Primordial Couple] through the treatment of the navels. The male figure has a protruding, herniated navel that evokes the remnant of the umbilical cord. Glaze notes that this feature serves as a reminder of the matrilineage that reaches back to Ancient Mother. A variation on this idea is expressed through the highly abstract motif that accents the female figure's navel. It consists of four sets of three or four parallel lines that radiate horizontally and vertically out from the navel at its center. Known as kunoodyaadye, which translates as 'navel of mother' or 'mother of twins,' this design is used to ornament the body of Senufo women at puberty. Kunoodyaadye synthesizes references to the Senufo creation myth and to the role of women as the matrices of life and the guarantors of social continuity."
The Art Historical Importance of the Rosenthal Couple
Although Senufo ancestor figures were always created as male and female pairs, only a few have survived with both the male and female still intact - and only a handful of these remain in the same collection. See a male and female figure previously in The Rockefeller Collection, today in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (accession nos. '60.163' and '60.164', published in Goldwater 1964: ill. 113 and 114); a couple, from the same workshop as the aforementioned, collected in 1954 by Emil Storrer and subsequently in the collection of Peter and Veena Schnell (Sotheby's, Paris, June 15, 2004, lot 35); a male figure in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (accession no. '1978.412.315') and a female figure in the Museum Rietberg, Zurich (accession no. 'RAF 301'), both published in Goldwater (1964: ill. 94 and 95; for the female figure see also Phillips 1995: 459, fig. 5.126); a female figure published in Kerchache (1988: 374, fig. 318) and a male figure previously in the collection of René Rasmussen, Paris (Sotheby's, Paris, June 8, 2008, lot 111); and a couple previously in the collection of Mr. R. Durand, published in Goldwater (1964: ill. 91 and 91a).
Stylistically, the Rosenthal Primordial Couple most closely relates to a torso of a male figure in the Collection of Drs. Marian and Daniel Malcolm, New Jersey (previously in the Carlo Monzino Collection, published in Vogel 1986: 18-19, cat. 12). With its alteration of swelling and constricted forms, smooth and rough textures, convex and concave shapes, and play of mass against negative space, the Rosenthal Primordial Couple embodies the essence of the Senufo style, one of the most iconic expressions of African art.
In its superb quality, its completeness as a couple, its excellent state of preservation, and its influential history, the Couple counts among the most important African creations to be offered at auction in recent memory.
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