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Scheffer's Painting of Christ the Comforter Discovered in a Church in Rural Minnesota
Ary Scheffer (1795 – 1858), Christus Consolator, 1851.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN.- A painting from 1851 of one of the most celebrated and reproduced religious images of the nineteenth century – Christus Consolator – has been rediscovered by Rev. Steven Olson, pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Dassel, Minnesota, and given in memory of Rev. D. J. Nordling to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA). This wonderful oil was painted by the artist Ary Scheffer (1795 – 1858), one of the pre-eminent Romantic painters active in Paris during the first half of the 19th century. Scheffer’s image – the figure of Christ surrounded by the afflicted and oppressed – was iconic in its day, and enjoyed wide circulation in Europe and America through reproductions, including an 1856 lithograph by Currier & Ives.

In August 2007, Olson approached the MIA paintings curator Patrick Noon for advice on how to preserve and authenticate a painting, which had, for some time, languished in a storage area and was in need of serious conservation. Noon’s response was disbelief that a painting by Ary Scheffer had found its way to rural Minnesota and for 70 years was completely unrecognized. He was, however, thrilled upon seeing this marvelous and authentic exercise in the vault area of a Wells Fargo Bank in Dassel. After a year of careful research and deliberation, the church decided to donate the painting to the MIA, which, in turn, has undertaken the conservation and reframing of this significant painting. It will now occupy pride of place in the MIA’s 19th-century paintings galleries.

The Dutch-born but French-trained artist, Ary Scheffer (1795 – 1858), was one of the pre-eminent Romantic painters active in Paris during the first half of the 19th century.

The primary version of Christus Consolator (measuring 6 x 8 ft.) created a sensation when exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1837, where it was purchased by the French monarch’s son, the Duc d’Orléans, as a wedding present for his Lutheran fiancée, the Princess Mecklenburg-Schwerin. It subsequently decorated her Lutheran Chapel at Versailles until it was sold at auction in 1853. That large version ultimately entered the collection of Amsterdam’s Historical Museum. The painting has been on loan to the Van Gogh Museum since 1987 because Vincent van Gogh admired its sentiment. At one time, Van Gogh decorated his apartment with an engraving after the work. “It can be compared to nothing else,” he wrote to his brother Theo.

The MIA’s smaller version of 1851, and several others of identical dimensions were painted by Scheffer in the 1850s in an effort to capitalize on the original painting’s extraordinary popularity throughout Europe. Anti-republican political developments in France, in particular those precipitating the coup d’état that elevated Napoleon III to the throne in 1851, might also have prompted Scheffer to revive this composition in oils. He was profoundly distraught after the abdication in 1848, and the death in 1850 of his patron, the liberal King Louis-Phillipe.

The version of Christus Consolator now in the MIA’s collection would appear to be that first exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum in 1852, together with engravings after the composition, and again in 1856, prior to which it had been acquired by William Story Bullard (1813 – 1897), a principal in the Boston East India merchant firm of Bullard and Lee, and the brother-in-law of famed Harvard art historian, Charles Eliot Norton (1827 – 1908). The catalyst for getting the picture to Boston was undoubtedly Charles Callahan Perkins (1823 – 1886) the wealthy Boston artist, historian and founder of the Museum of Fine Arts who, between 1846 and 1851, studied in Scheffer’s Paris studio and already owned two of the artist’s pictures. Both Bullard and Norton are also recorded as having traveled in Europe in 1851 and would undoubtedly have visited Scheffer’s studio. The two later founded one of the first poorhouses in Boston. Bullard’s son Francis (1862 – 1931) was also a patron of the arts and a distinguished benefactor of the Boston Museum.

How the picture made its way westward is a matter of conjecture. Pastor David J. Nordling (1878 – 1931), the next recorded owner of the painting, was a native of the Midwest, although he was the pastor of a congregation in Bridgeport, Connecticut, from 1913 – 15. If the Bullard family disposed of the picture after Francis’ death in 1913, Nordling might well have acquired it in New York, then the center of the art trade. Nordling subsequently resided in Geneva, Illinois (1915 – 29) and Dassel, Minnesota (1929 – 31). Following his death in 1931, the picture was donated by his widow to the Gethsemane Lutheran Church.

At the center of the composition is the figure of Christ, surrounded by the afflicted and oppressed. Christus Consolator was inspired by Luke 4:18: “I have come to heal those who are brokenhearted and to announce to the prisoners their deliverance; to liberate those who are crushed by their chains.” This text is inscribed on the frame of the primary version in Amsterdam.

The “brokenhearted” are depicted to the left: a woman mourning her dead child, an exile with his walking stick, a castaway with a piece of the wreckage in his hand, and a suicide with a dagger. Placed between these groups is the poet Torquator Tasso, crowned with laurel, as a symbol of unrecognized talent, and figures representing the three ages of woman, each with her own fears and burdens. To the right are the captives and oppressed of both the past and present, among them a Polish independence fighter, a Greek souliote warrior, a medieval serf, and a black slave. With his left hand Christ releases a dying man from his shackles. Mary Magdalene, a repentant “fallen” woman, kneels beside him. It is an encyclopedic version of human history.

In the southern United States, crude engravings after the painting eliminated the figure of the black slave. Harriet Martineau, the champion of abolitionism and feminism in both England and America, described it as “the consolation of eighteen centuries.”

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