Sir Alfred James Munnings: Portraits of American Society

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In 1924, Sir Alfred James Munnings left England for his only trip to the United States, a whirlwind six-month itinerary he remembered as “gloriously mad days” full of painting and parties of the American elite (Sir Alfred Munnings, The Second Burst, London, 1951 p. 160). Munnings first visited New York, Washington and Pittsburgh, and later joined Frederick Prince and his family on their estate at Pride’s Crossing, Massachusetts, where he expanded his portrait commissions to their fellow members of South Hamilton’s Myopia Hunt Club – the first being Mr. and Mrs. Bayard Tuckerman. After painting his “New England friends,” Munnings visited Long Island, New York painting members of the Phipps, Whitney and Brady families, the latter of which commissioned this vibrant and elegant Portrait of Miss Ruth Brady on Bugle Call. This May, Sotheby’s European Art sale will offer several of Munnings’s prized portraits – click ahead to discover which and learn the stories behind these esteemed families. –Mark Buck

European Art
24 May | New York

Sir Alfred James Munnings: Portraits of American Society

  • Mr. and Mrs. Tuckerman
    Since their engagement in 1916, Bayard and Phyllis Sears Tuckerman were considered one of the most striking couples of New England. As one society columnist noted, they “afford an unfailing centre of interest, and I never saw a more attractive couple…. [she] is so winsome, so good to look upon and so happy, and Mr. Tuckerman…so manly and so athletic, that it is a joy to watch them” (“Recently Engaged Girls Noted Among Society Throngs at the Opera, Boston Sunday Post, April 9, 1916, p. 53).  

  • Sir Alfred James Munnings, Portrait of Mrs. Bayard Tuckerman. Estimate $300,000–500,000.
    Beyond her beauty, Mrs. Tuckerman was recognised as a “leader in society’s ‘athletic set” a “noted horse-woman” with “riding… one of her favorite pastimes” ("Boston’s Richest Girl is to Marry," Boston Post, April 3, 1916, p. 1). Her energy and elegance entranced Munnings on their first meeting: his finished portrait perfectly illustrating his remembrance of her as: “one of the best-looking women I have ever painted – fair haired, with a beautiful complexion, good features, the best-cut nose in the world and a lovely chin. Wearing a silk hat and well-cut habit, she was perfection, and was as nice as she looked” (Munnings, p. 165-6).

  • Mrs. Tuckerman on Desert Queen.
    Munnings acknowledged the challenge and pressure of faithfully capturing his sitters’ likenesses, explaining “the mere righting of a nose in the picture and I am cheered” (Munnings, p. 211). As such, he likely painted Mrs. Tuckerman first in studio and in separate sessions from her chestnut mare, Desert Queen.

  • Sir Alfred James Munnings, Portrait of Mr. Bayard Tuckerman. Estimate $300,000–500,000.
    Munnings painted Mrs. Tuckerman first, and the result so impressed her husband that he requested his portrait as gentleman whip of the Hunt on a grey, his beloved Powder Puff. Mr. Tuckerman is captured in a calm and almost contemplative moment as he rides alongside his hounds at work, and the long, straight lines of his coat and detailed profile are both finely realised, proving the artist could describe the character of his human subject with as much success as the equine.

  • Cartoon published in the Boston Globe, October 22, 1924.
    Much attention was showered on the Tuckermans when they hosted the Prince of Wales in 1924, then the future king Edward VII. The prince participated in a foxhunt a the local Myopia Hunt Club where Bayard was then a Gentleman of the Whip and rode Phyllis’ beloved Desert Queen.

  • Sir Alfred James Munnings, Portrait of Miss Ruth Brady on Bugle Call. Estimate $1,400,000–1,800,000.
    Munnings may have met Ruth Brady on Long Island or her father’s estate in Somerset Hills, New Jersey. She was an accomplished equestrienne, and as a young teenager, her name frequently appeared in local newspaper reports for winning racing cups and earning show points with Tip Top and Sweet Lady, among other horses of the Brady stables. She would later become a frequent hunter with the Essex Foxhounds.

  • Photograph of Ruth Brady in her Wedding Dress, as published in Brooklyn Life, January 5, 1929.
    The Brady family’s appreciation of Munnings’s talent is reflected in their choice to reproduce The Portrait of Miss Ruth Brady on Bugle Call in the notice of her engagement to Michael Simon Scott, the son of Viscount Encombe and his wife, the daughter of the 15th Baron Lovat. With the guests travelling to New Jersey on a special train chartered for the occasion, the relaxed elegance of Ruth riding in a lush summer landscape was the ideal announcement preceding her fashionable wedding on New Year’s Eve 1928.

  • Sir Alfred James Munnings, Mrs. Helen Cutting and Misses Brady, 1935, Private Collection.
    Upon returning home to England, Munnings continued to paint Americans and their horses (many of whom traveled to him for the opportunity) not only for financial reward but also for inspiration. Years after completing Portrait of Miss Ruth Brady on Bugle Call, Munnings captured her sisters Genevieve and Victoria in one of his favourite paintings, Mrs. Helen Cutting and Misses Brady, the compositional idea reworked in his Why Weren’t You out Yesterday, which featured his wife and her friends.

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